City vs. Statesman: Futrell Comes Out Swinging at the Springs

City and state experts contest the Statesman's hair-raising allegations of toxic pollution at Barton Springs.

A shimmering Barton Springs Pool created an incongruous backdrop to a somber press conference Sunday, where City Manager Toby Futrell had summoned a squad of city and state environmental experts to refute a hair-raising report published in that morning's edition of the Austin American-Statesman: that cancer-causing pollutants had rendered the pool unsafe for swimmers. In response, Futrell declared the pool safe but announced she was padlocking it for 90 days to avoid a public debate "over whether or not to close the pool." The city manager and the experts then laid out a line of defense against the newspaper's assertion that harmful contaminants had turned an Austin jewel into damaged goods, while the city all but ignored the problem.

The Statesman enlisted outside experts to review test results documenting the available data and to render an opinion. They recommended closing the spring-fed pool and posting signs warning of the dangers of swimming or fishing in Barton Creek. The newspaper also suggested that city officials would have been aware of the human risks had they not concentrated their testing solely on the endangered Barton Springs salamander. But if not for the salamander and the federal mandates in place to ensure its protection, "none of this data would even be available," Nancy McClintock, director of the city's Environmental Resources Management Division, observed after the press conference.

Among other things, the Statesman noted that the pool's level of PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, exceeded levels found at some of the country's worst toxic-waste sites. PAHs are made up of more than 100 different chemicals and are derived from a wide range of sources, such as charbroiled foods, vehicle exhaust, wood-burning stoves, coal tar, and waste incinerators. City officials say they have detected PAHs in sediment at the bottom of the pool but not in the pool's water. They say that these tests, conducted periodically over several years, show no more of a risk to human health than are in some of the stuff we might eat on a daily basis or the air that we would breathe standing on a corner of a busy intersection.

The most pressing site of concern, everyone seems to agree, is on a hillside upstream from the pool, where soil tests have turned up high levels of dangerous PAH contaminants, including benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogen. At the top of the hillside above the pool sit the Barton Hills Park Place Apartments -- the battleground for one of Austin's earliest development wars. Two conflicting theories have emerged regarding the source of the pollutants. The Statesman holds that the pollution is likely a byproduct of waste from the city's old coal-gasification plants; the waste may have been dumped where a gravel pit once operated on the spot now occupied by the apartment complex.

City officials, on the other hand, say their most likely suspect is coal-tar pavement sealant used to repair cracks in parking lots and driveways all over town. The parking lot at the apartment complex is no exception, and, city officials believe, particles of sealant are washed downhill each time it rains. "We have evidence that is pretty compelling," McClintock said, adding that further test results could turn up the city's strongest evidence yet.

Tim Jones, a member of the city's Environmental Board, is part of an ad hoc committee studying the sealant issue and other PAH sources. In one respect, he said, the Statesman's report was helpful in that "it will open up an inquiry on PAHs. ... But we also should be looking at a panoply of things. The Statesman says we have been disproportionately focused on development outside the city, but that's not true. We've also been focused strongly on retrofitting opportunities in the city, but the problem is that it's so expensive."

The Save Our Springs Alliance applauded the Statesman's work. "[We're] encouraged that the Statesman has investigated and brought attention to the failure of city, state, and federal regulators to protect Barton Springs," SOS spokesman Colin Clark said. "We hope the city and others will be able to determine shortly if Barton Springs is safe for all swimmers -- humans and amphibians." Old pollution must be cleaned up, he added, "and new pollution from urban development must be prevented if Barton Springs is to survive."

John Villanacci, director of the Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology division of the Texas Dept. of Health, said every potential PAH source -- from pavement sealants, to coal-gasification waste, to car oil leaking onto the parking lot -- should be explored. He said his main concern with the Statesman's coverage of the issue is the manner in which it juxtaposed its findings -- suggesting that dangerous contaminants were detected in the water of the pool -- thus creating an unnecessary "fear factor" in the public's mind. "The fact that there are contaminants in the sediment ... does not necessarily mean there's a health risk," he said. Later, noting that several of the Statesman's sources were from outside of Austin, Villanacci wondered whether they had actually visited the sites where the test samples were obtained. "The visual is very important," he said. "We always visit a site when evaluating risks."

Asked if he believed the PAH findings warrant closing Barton Springs Pool, Villanacci responded, "No. But that's not my call."

On Tuesday, Mayor Gus Garcia announced he was naming Council Member Daryl Slusher to lead the council as it seeks "to develop and guide the process for community dialogue over the next 90 days, monitor the investigation, and recommend council policy on environmental issues relating to Barton Creek, Barton Springs, and other waterways."

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