Visualize Whirled Tank Farms

An update on the continuing controversy over the future of the tank farms

Visualize Whirled Tank Farms

Last week's inaugural planning workshop on the former East Austin tank farm had barely started before the audience hit city staffers with hard questions about the site, located in East Austin between two city-defined neighborhood planning areas. "When do they plan on cleaning it up?" one man asked, referring to the group of oil companies -- Exxon, Citgo, Texaco et al. -- that once stored fuel on the 61-acre site. "Are we going to plan for us, or for the owners?" chimed in a Hispanic business owner, whose marked accent carried an equally strong tone of mistrust. "Good question," a woman nearby whispered softly.

Held in the Johnston High School Library, the two-hour workshop was intended to give residents of the East MLK and Govalle/Johnston Terrace planning areas a chance to discuss their "vision" for the site and determine whether its current zoning is appropriate and adequate. Many of the 40 or so residents and business owners in attendance made it clear they were highly skeptical of the city's process. Several attendees complained that they were being asked to plan a site that, for the most part, the oil companies still own, and that continues to represent major environmental concerns. "The system has failed so much in the past, and it's going to continue to fail if they continue putting the cart before the horse," said one resident. "You can't visualize beauty if you're looking at garbage."

The proposed visions varied widely: Several workshop attendants vigorously opposed housing, others wanted it. Several thought a shopping mall or a "convention center" surrounded by hotels and restaurants would represent the best use, while others advocated a greener, less impervious mixture of parks, trails, housing, and small businesses. Conflicts aside, the workshop went better than city staff had expected, said Steven Rossiter of the city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Dept., the planner working on Govalle/Johnston Terrace. He admits that NPZD doesn't wield much influence over the oil companies, but said a neighborhood plan would provide a framework for what could and couldn't take place on the site.

However, he added, "I think it's difficult to get past the idea of what we want to see in the future, because until it's cleaned up, we don't know what's going to be allowed to happen." The oil companies remain liable for the contamination they caused for years, but Chevron, Exxon, and Texaco already have sold their tank farm tracts to buyers uninvolved in oil. The companies say they plan to deed-restrict the properties for commercial use only and prohibit the use of groundwater. The area also features a number of unused pipelines with existing easements that must remain clear of structures and other obstacles, potentially affecting redevelopment.

Although three-fourths of the former tank farm is located in East MLK, Rossiter says, the site represents a bigger issue for Govalle residents -- in part because contamination has migrated southeast of the site, towards Boggy Creek and into Govalle Park. Redevelopment represents a potential catch-22 for the area -- a "core neighborhood" populated mostly by Hispanic residents and located only a five-minute drive from the center of town. Govalle/ Johnston Terrace residents have expressed concerns about the industrial and unused land in their area, but they also fear gentrification, Rossiter said. Yet the area's problems also present opportunities: In a different economic climate, the tank farm site -- a rare chunk of underdeveloped inner-city land -- could be viewed as a baby Mueller Airport.

"It's probably one of the areas where we have the most scope to affect some positive change," Rossiter said. But the longer planning takes, the more likely it is that individual owners will buy parts of it, which could complicate efforts to implement a comprehensive plan. Some of the new property owners, including a church, are currently in court over land use issues.

Overall, turnout at neighborhood planning meetings has been considerable and diverse, said Rossiter, with participants ranging from 40-year residents to members of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), the citizens group that led the fight to close the tank farm. PODER director Susana Almanza presented results of a 1996 study the group distributed to neighbors, inquiring about their preferred uses for the site. Most of the concerns raised by respondents six years ago -- from contamination to the site's ownership -- remain current. Almanza regards the planning process as a way to tighten up the site's "vague" GR-MU-CO (community commercial-mixed-use-conditional overlay) zoning.

"I think people are thinking we have to own the land to rezone it," she said, "but you don't." Nevertheless, PODER would like the city to purchase the site to help prevent unwanted uses, and has encouraged city officials to pressure the oil companies to donate the land to the city to help resolve continuing legal action. "They said they'd look at it, but most of the action is in executive session, so we don't even know if they've made that suggestion [to the companies]."

Discussions regarding site cleanup continue between the city, the companies, and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The oil company properties operated for decades until the early 1990s, after analysis showed off-site migration of MTBE, benzene, lead, and other contaminants. The state ordered an assessment and cleanup, and fuel storage ended in 1993. Five years later, the City Council rezoned the properties from light industrial (LI) to its current designation. An assessment report that covers both off-site and on-site properties -- more comprehensive than one rejected in March 2001 -- is due at the TNRCC by June 30. Though unfinished, the report already is "enormous," said Chuck Lesniak of the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, whose team is working directly with the oil companies.

Once the report is approved, a comprehensive remediation plan will be pursued. The TNRCC says it will require a residential cleanup standard for the non-oil company properties that should allow any use, but it's still unclear whether groundwater use will remain restricted. Most of the oil companies formed a consortium to address cleanup; several companies have already begun the process and are nearly finished, particularly Citgo (which does not belong to the consortium). However, off-site remediation hasn't yet begun, and overall the process could take years.

Empathizing with the frustrated workshop attendees, Lesniak said he's worked on the tank farm issue "longer than I wanted to" -- possibly providing the only point on which the entire room could agree.

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tank farm, East Austin, East MLK planning area, Govalle / Johnston Terrace planning area, Steven Rossiter, Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Boggy Creek, Govalle Park, PODER, Susana Almanza

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