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The Statesman coverage of Barton Springs pollution is a peculiar version indeed.

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Many years ago, at the height of the battle for the Save Our Springs Ordinance, the Chronicle published a joke cover that read, "If You Don't Read This, We'll Poison Barton Springs." Sunday's Statesman front page -- "Toxic chemicals taint Barton waters" -- had something of the same ring, but the Statesman editors were serious. In a turnabout that reverses years of insisting the dangers of pollution to Barton Springs Pool have been exaggerated and overblown, the Statesman now declares that the pollution danger to swimmers and perhaps to nearby residents is real and imminent -- and that the city has been ignoring it for years.


In the first place, we want to thank the Statesman's team of reporters and scientific consultants for calling particular attention, beginning last fall, to what appears to be a real environmental hazard on the hillside west of Barton Springs and above Barton Creek, and for urging the city to clean up that site as soon as possible. The newspaper speculates that the source of that pollution is an old, underground coal-gasification dumpsite; the city says it has as yet found only surface contamination and no evidence of an underground source. But whatever the source, remediation should begin as soon as possible, to protect the residents above Barton Creek, hikers, and the creek itself. However, contamination in Barton Creek doesn't necessarily directly pollute Barton Springs, since the creek is normally routed around the pool. When the creek floods, it does flow into the springs, bringing with it contamination -- like fecal coliform bacteria -- from upstream sources. The Statesman has never taken this problem seriously, but the city has, which is why Barton Springs Pool is periodically closed -- giving the lie to Statesman charges that the city doesn't care about human health. Indeed, city dye studies have indicated that the springs themselves are more quickly affected by pollutants from Slaughter and Williamson creeks. Maybe that can somehow be blamed on long-dormant coal-gasification plants, too.

That's where we part company with the Statesman, Editor Rich Oppel, and the anonymous writers of Sunday's editorial ("EPA help needed"). They make the convoluted and frankly preposterous argument that the city has ignored nearby pollution hazards because city staffers "were concentrating on the salamander, not on people; focusing on environmental resource protection, not public health." The editorial goes on to declare -- offering no evidence whatsoever -- that, "It is a cruel irony that the fragile salamander is little harmed by the chemical agents that put people at increased risk of cancer."

One bedrock principle of endangered species protection is that more fragile species (especially amphibians) provide significant early warning of potential dangers to human health. Moreover, if the Statesman editors can acknowledge historical sources of urban and industrial pollution that have left a deadly legacy to current generations, how can the city possibly be wrong to attempt to prevent current sources of pollution from transmitting a similar legacy to our children and grandchildren?

The Statesman's operating presumption seems to be: We'll clean up our grandfathers' messes; let our grandchildren clean up ours.

I called Rich Oppel to discuss these apparent contradictions in his paper's approach to the myriad environmental threats to the watershed. He declined to talk about the paper's report in detail, but said "we worked exhaustively on this project," and repeated several times, "We stand by what we reported in the story." Did he think the city's action in temporarily closing the springs is the correct response? "No comment." There were several more "no comments," and then I asked if he thought the city should be equally concerned about preventing future environmental hazards as well as cleaning up old ones. Oppel replied, "The city should be attentive to every potential environmental problem."

Asked for a response to the Statesman's charge that the city has protected endangered species at the expense of public health, City Manager Toby Futrell referred to "the canary in the coal mine," and Mayor Gus Garcia said quietly, "Every action we have taken to protect the [Barton Springs] watershed has also protected water quality for the citizens of Austin."

"In Austin," Oppel wrote Sunday, "science is a continuation of politics." That is certainly true of Oppel's own spin of the Statesman reporters' exhaustive work on one -- and exclusively one -- potential source of Barton Springs pollution. The paper, led by Oppel, is so intent on exonerating intensive development in the watershed of any significant role in environmental degradation that it has twisted and sensationalized its own reporters' findings, in order to blame the city and "environmentalists" for creating a problem the daily has either ignored or dismissed for much of the last 10 years.

The Statesman has consistently objected to every nickel spent in Austin on environmental protection, and editorialized against every moment of city time spent on environmental regulation. Now it wishes to pose as the public's lonely defender against pollution supposedly ignored by city staff and environmentalists. The masquerade, to put it bluntly, is ludicrous. end story

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Save Our Springs, Austin American-Statesman, Barton Springs, Barton Creek, Rich Oppel, salamander, Gus Garcia

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