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The Environmental Protection Agency has found elevated levels of asbestos near the old Big Tex Grain Co.
“What a relief.” That was the way the King William Association responded in the July edition of its monthly newsletter to the City’s announcement that asbestos was not detected on the planned Eagleland Hike-and-Bike trail along the San Antonio River.

That relief was short-lived.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that it found elevated levels of asbestos in the soil near the site of the old Big Tex Grain Co. The most disturbing levels of asbestos (4.251 percent, or nearly 15 times the accepted “protective-concentration levels”) were found between buildings near Big Tex. But the most urgent concern for residents was the high level of asbestos found along the northern part of the trail, and it renewed fears that construction work on the trail could stir up contaminated dust.

The differing results arrived at in the city and EPA studies beg the question: How did the City fail to detect asbestos when they were specifically looking for evidence of it along the hike-and-bike trail?

Jon Rinehart, site-assessment manager for the EPA, refrains from criticizing the City’s efforts, and explains that the EPA was able to test more comprehensively. “They took fewer samples than we did,” Rinehart says. “I think they did about four, and we did 20. Also, we used some different techniques, and they tested deeper in the soil. With asbestos, because it’s a light fiber, it’ll usually be close to the surface.”

The EPA’s findings have only intensified the anxiety of neighbors who oppose developer James Lifshutz’s plan to transform the Big Tex site into a mixed-use residential and retail complex. These residents have based their opposition on the fact that the W.R. Grace Co. processed more than 100,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite on the site from 1963 to 1992. `See “Doing asbestos they can,” June 7, 2006, and “Big Tex lives to fight another day,” February 15, 2006.` The City zoning commission responded to these environmental concerns by unanimously rejecting Lifshutz’s re-zone request in May 2005, but ultimately approved his plan in January of this year.

In light of the EPA’s recent findings, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality sent Lifshutz a letter on August 9, updating him on the evidence of contamination on his property.

“In July 2006, we discussed with you that asbestos was detected by the W.R. Grace building and along the trail,” the letter states, adding that “public access should be restricted and signs posted” around the W.R. Grace hopper and silo to protect the safety of the public.

On Wednesday, August 23, at 7 p.m., TCEQ and EPA will host a public meeting at Brackenridge High School to explain their future sampling plans (they’ll be conducting tests for metals and organic chemicals, as well as asbestos). The following week, TCEQ will split samples with the City of San Antonio taken from the hike-and-bike trail, as part of the ongoing effort to provide answers about the severity of the contamination threat along the trail.

Meanwhile, construction continues along the hike-and-bike, with workers soaking down the soil to limit the release of contaminated dirt. But Rinehart would like the City to stop work while questions remain about the public-health threat. “Our position at the EPA is, ‘Why not wait until we’ve finished evaluating everything before continuing construction?’” he says.

District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle expresses particular alarm about the astonishingly high asbestos levels taken from samples between buildings on the Big Tex site, even though that area is not included in either Lifshutz’s or the City’s construction plans. “That gives me a lot of concern,” she says. “The amount is so significantly high, it should be cleaned up with a lot of care, and with a lot of oversight supervision.”

David Newman, environmental services manager for San Antonio, says, “It’s too early to tell how `the remediation effort` will be handled,” but he has indicated that the City will only take responsibility for the contaminated area along the hike-and-bike trail, leaving Lifshutz to sort out what will likely be the most demanding part of the cleanup.

“The developer owns the property there and he has to be responsible for that,” Rinehart says. “Mr. Lifshutz has to present the state with a work plan for that, and we don’t know where things stand with that.”

Lifshutz did not respond to an interview request from the Current.

Radle points out that Lifshutz bought the property without knowing the environmental burden he was assuming, and pins much of the responsibility on the EPA.

“The EPA should have taken care of this a long time ago,” she says. “For whatever reason, it just fell through the cracks. They had been denied access to the site, but they just made judgments based on what little they knew at the time. So, unlike other W.R. Grace sites, it didn’t end up on the EPA’s list, even though its problems were worse than some of the places on the list.

“Right now, my biggest concern is that the City goes through proper procedures and does the things that the EPA asks. It’s very important for the people who live there.” l

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