Dove Springs Whitewash?

Georgetown mayor defends the sewage plant.

Dove Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant before painting ? and after
Dove Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant before painting ? and after (Photo By Jana Birchum)

March 21 was a beautiful day out at Georgetown's Dove Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant, site of Georgetown Mayor MaryEllen Kersch's press conference regarding the condition of the plant. The plant has been the subject of ongoing controversy, and its potential structural problems were used as political ammunition by council critics in the weeks leading up to the city's Feb. 2 recall election, which resulted in Kersch's ouster (she leaves office May 4). The tank currently boasts a uniform coat of "Desert Sand" (off-white) paint, which city officials said was applied at least 16 months ago. But earlier photos (obtained by the Chronicle) of the concrete tank feature numerous long brown cracks complete with -- as the city's utility director put it -- an unidentified "exterior growth" on the exposed areas, and visible epoxy injected in an attempt to mend the cracks. And, although it is not apparent from monochrome photos, the paint does little to hide the brown epoxy-injected cracks, which remain visible just under the new paint job.

Nevertheless, Kersch's press conference was intended to reassure reporters (thank you very much) that the plant is just fine, as she recapped the city's March 12 council meeting (held on Primary Tuesday, and woefully underattended by local reporters). The mayor's message was clear: Pictures of the plant from 1997-99, showing ugly scarring on the tank's side, are not examples of the concrete cracking and leaking "sludge." She and Jim Briggs, Georgetown's city utilities director, insisted the ugly brownish marks are simply areas where city workers ground down the coating on the plant and injected epoxy to fill cracks that had appeared over the years. And, Briggs said, the cracks did not cause the plant to malfunction.

Yet, during the March 12 meeting, Joe Luke, the Austin engineer asked to inspect the plant in 1998 and 1999, told the council that he stands by his two reports, in which he concluded that the tanks were not originally engineered with enough structural steel, and that was what was causing continual cracking in the tanks. "In fact," he said, "the epoxy injections didn't stop the cracks." But the original engineer, Perry Steger, and his father Charles Steger of Steger & Bizzell engineering, told the council that they, too, stand by their original engineering. Perry Steger said that in calculating the needed steel, Luke was using outdated standards.

Utilities director Briggs says the Dove Springs plant has been given a verbal clean bill of environmental health by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, after investigators responded to a complaint filed by Mike Sheffield of the Citizens for Georgetown political action committee. But TNRCC spokeswoman Jean Pieper Voshell tells a slightly different story: "The investigators went out but did not think there was enough to file any charges at this time," she said. "But they did find some things that they want to look into. So the case is not closed."

Kersch reiterated her position that complaints about the plant have little to do with structural problems and more about concerted efforts to attack her reputation. Of course, this doesn't answer the question -- raised by more than one reporter at the Thursday press conference, and the source of a heated exchange between Kersch and KVUE reporter Shelton Green -- why, if the plant is A-OK, it took nearly two years for reporters to be invited out to see it? "I recused myself [from the entire plant issue] because I believed it was important for me to remove myself from an issue that is highly volatile," Kersch said -- and repeated several different ways, all of which seemed to avoid answering Green's direct question. So, does Kersch think there is a problem at the plant? "I'm not an engineer," she said. "I don't know. We've had two different engineers say two different things."

So, the saga of the plant goes back to square one, or -- if Kersch has her way -- off the radar altogether. Well, maybe not quite. It seems Kersch isn't quite through with the whole issue, as she indicated during the March 12 meeting. "This has caused me incredible pain," she said, "and a lot of people owe me an apology, and one way or another I'm going to require that apology, so stay tuned."

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