Stratus Busted for Runoff Pollution at Future AMD Site

Activists say early problems foretell future of construction over aquifer

Members of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton 
Creek Association allege that this runoff at the future AMD 
site is just a harbinger of pollution to come.
Members of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association allege that this runoff at the future AMD site is just a harbinger of pollution to come. (Photo By Stefan Wray)

Pollution of the Barton Springs watershed has already occurred due to development on the Lantana Tract, even before Advanced Micro Devices has broken ground on its controversial proposed 860,000-square-foot office, according to the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association. The city of Austin's Watershed Protection Division spokeswoman Lynne Lightsey said Environmental Inspection staff issued a Notice of Non-Compliance/Ordinance Violation to Stratus Properties for inadequate erosion and sedimentation controls on the Rialto Boulevard extension project – located off Southwest Parkway, leading directly into Lantana – based on complaints filed last Sunday by activist Stefan Wray. "AMD hasn't even started construction and already there is damage," Wray said in a letter to the city. SOS' Colin Clark said, "AMD should walk away from these polluters and find a site outside the Barton Springs watershed."

On Saturday, a tour organized by SOS and former Austin environmental board Chair Tim Jones focused on heavy sediment deposits beginning in a drainage culvert down the hill from the Rialto Boulevard project. The sediment extended about 150 yards into the now-dry bed of Sycamore Creek, on land owned by Stratus, within the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone. The creek flows toward the aquifer's recharge zone and Barton Creek. Jones explained that added impervious cover, like the road, "increases the velocity of runoff transported into the Aquifer," not only carrying silt and mud, contributing to the increasing number of clouding episodes at Barton Springs, but also scouring grease and pesticides along the way.

"Stratus' position is that the erosion and sedimentation controls have been absolutely properly designed and maintained," and that this situation is "being used to indicate a problem that is at best misleading," said Stratus spokesman Steve Drenner. "If you look up and down Southwest Parkway, you'll find culverts that are in the same condition." He added that the sediment cited by SOS is from other places, had accumulated over time, and has nothing to do with construction activities.

Watershed Protection Environmental Compliance Specialist Eric Kaufman said the sediment in other culverts along Southwest Parkway was "not exactly the same situation" as what he saw at Rialto, where on Friday he witnessed silt fences with brown stains extending over their tops, indicating they had been breached, as well as a fine brown/orange sediment not present elsewhere. Kaufman said he and other inspectors had come to a general agreement with Stratus that water containing mud went over the top of the silt fencing, even though it's hard to determine the source of all the sediment.

But does the occurrence of an erosion control breach serious enough to warrant a city code violation and an ongoing investigation – regardless of its source and especially if similar conditions are present all along Southwest Parkway – indicate that increased development in the area is a slippery slope? City Senior Environmental Scientist David Johns said the construction phase of any project is when the likelihood of sedimentation being released is the greatest. "Accidental spills can always be prevented. But do accidents happen? Yes." In preventing pollution events similar to the one near Rialto, he said, "the best technology we have to date is the SOS Ordinance." But thanks to 1999's SB 1704 legislation, the Lantana tract is exempt from the landmark ordinance. "Erosion and sedimentation from construction is extremely hard to control," said Nancy McClintock, assistant director of the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review department. "We worry about it for projects everywhere and in particular anywhere in the Barton Springs Zone, which is particularly susceptible." She said workers are removing the sedimentation where it is thickest and that barriers such as silt fences and berms are being installed in Sycamore Creek so that additional runoff material can be collected later. Kaufman said the city's environmental board will review the results of the site investigation's at its next meeting.

The 10 or so onlookers at Lantana Saturday were wondering aloud whether the preconstruction runoff violation was what AMD spokesman Travis Bullard had in mind when he said the project would set "a new standard for sustainable development." In a phone interview, Bullard said this is "definitely a Stratus thing," reminding that AMD hasn't officially started construction. As for the effects of anticipated piggyback development in the area, Bullard said the way AMD plans to build will act as a model for development, especially on Southwest Parkway, because of its sensitivity.

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