It's in the Water
Environmentalists now say the "check here if you won't endanger the Barton Springs Salamander" approach to pollution prevention will no longer cut it.
Emphasizing that storm-water runoff is one of the greatest dangers to the survival of the salamander, the Save Our Springs Alliance and UT biologist Mark Kirkpatrick filed a lawsuit last week against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that the agencies do little to prevent construction pollution from harming the endangered species. The Save Barton Creek Association joined the lawsuit Monday night.
All landowners are required to get a permit from the EPA if they plan to develop five acres or more in the 354-square-mile Barton Springs Zone that covers portions of Travis, Hays, and Blanco counties. SOS attorneys say the permit application makes it easy for the developers to simply check off a box that says their project will not impact endangered species.
"Instead of using any scientific information, [the EPA] essentially delegated to the landowners a decision on whether they impact the species," says Amy Johnson, an attorney heading the lawsuit for SOS. "If a developer says 'No,' no further action is taken."
Johnson says the lawsuit also targets the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) because the agency should take the lead in formal permit reviews. However, she acknowledges that the local branch of the service has made ongoing requests to the EPA for a more stringent process, without receiving a satisfactory response. Bill Seawell, assistant field supervisor for FWS in Austin, says a "tighter process" is needed to review construction permits, but that currently, the service only responds to complaints of pollution affecting endangered species.
The EPA would not comment on the lawsuit until it was officially served. Taylor Sharpe, the Region 6 EPA enforcement officer in Dallas, says developers are supposed to include the methods they used to assess impacts to endangered species in a mandatory stormwater plan. However, he notes that the permit process does not require developers to file their Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans with the EPA, so no one would ever know if they were in compliance unless a complaint were made and an inspection done.
Environmentalists say they had hoped the EPA would tighten up its permit reviews on its own, but now realize that a lawsuit is the only option for getting the process changed. "Unfortunately, the EPA is failing to protect Austin's jewel -- Barton Springs -- from pollution from construction," says SOS chair Mary Arnold.
UT biologist Kirkpatrick says that alarming levels of harmful petroleum hydrocarbons, arsenic, copper, and cadmium have been found recently in the sediment at Barton Springs Pool, as well as increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus responsible for algae blooms. "The scientific evidence tells us that the salamander's survival is directly threatened by pollution," he says.
Environmentalists also maintain that the EPA should use the "best available science," as required by the Endangered Species Act, to determine whether developers will impact the salamander. Currently, no science at all is required. Sharpe says that ideally, developers in the Barton Springs Zone would consult with FWS to determine if planned construction will have an impact on the species. But no requirements on how to assess impacts have been mandated, he says.