Naked City

Springs Still Not Poisoned

The level of polluted contaminants in runoff from Austin parking lots isn't as toxic as the U.S. Geological Survey initially reported in late April. The USGS revisited its test data and corrected its calculation errors in an announcement last week. The agency's findings, nevertheless, continue to reinforce city scientists' theory that coal tar sealants used on parking lots are the probable source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, that have been detected in sediment in and around Austin's waterways, including Barton Springs Pool.

The exhaustive local, state, and federal environmental studies are a response to the alarming news-and-opinion package the Austin American-Statesman published more than a year ago, in which the daily sought to discredit the city's sealant theory and tie the PAH data to a long-buried coal gasification plant up the hill from the pool – despite having no evidence that such a plant actually exists. To summarize: The newspaper warned readers that the pool area was worse than EPA Superfund sites and should be barricaded and posted with "danger" signs. In a chest-thumping opinion piece, editor Rich Oppel chided city staff's ineptness, writing, "The parking lot theory conforms to convictions of Austin activists that hard-ground surfaces, especially over the Edwards Aquifer, should be restricted to protect the environment." An editorial took an additional stab: "City Council members, bowing to intense pressure from environmentalists, kept attention on the development at the city's edges. The Watershed Protection Department was focused on the periphery to mitigate any possible degradation of Barton Springs. Time and energy devoted to those projects left the pool in peril and the public at risk."

Now, we learn, city scientists were actually well ahead of the curve in pursuing what could turn out to be groundbreaking evidence showing a direct link between coal tar sealants used on "hard-ground surfaces" and PAHs found in sediments. City and federal studies continue.

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Barton Springs, Statesman, coal tar sealant, Barton Springs Pool, PAHs, polycyclic hydrocarbons, Rich Oppel, Watershed Protection Department, U.S. Geological Survey

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