News : Developing environmental oversight

Radle says Big Tex fight reveals the need for a better process

For residents who live in the neighborhood adjacent to Brackenridge High School, an April 19 meeting with developer James Lifshutz, City representatives including District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, was long overdue.

At issue was the potential contamination of seven acres of property alongside the San Antonio River that for several decades was used to process vermiculite that contained life-threatening asbestos particles. Residents fear those particles may have been buried in trash pits or absorbed into the ground and will be released into the air again when the ground is dug up for Lifshutz’s planned mixed-use development.

W.R. Grace operated the Big Tex plant from the 1960s to the 1980s, processing more than 100,000 tons of vermiculite ore that was shipped to San Antonio from a mine in Libby, Montana. Lifshutz, who owns the Blue Star Arts Complex and has developed other properties in town, purchased the site in 2001 `see “Big Tex lives to fight another day,” February 15-21, 2006; “Big Runaround,” February 8-14, 2006; and “Big questions,” January 25-31, 2006`.

Neighbors have opposed Lifshutz’s plans because the TCEQ and the EPA have not followed through with site testing to ensure that asbestos contamination would not be released from the soil and into their homes during the construction phase.

“We want a definitive clarification,” Radle said at the beginning of the April 19 meeting. “Is it safe? I’m here to listen tonight.”

Radle says her office began calling the EPA more than a year ago to get answers from TCEQ and EPA about whether it was safe to develop the site. As the council member who has jurisdiction over the neighborhood, it is up to her to recommend to the remaining council members whether to allow the project to proceed.

“Who really is in charge of this at EPA?” she said recently. “It shouldn’t have taken so long. It was unsatisfactory to me that we had no procedure. There wasn’t anybody at EPA that had a real advocacy position. This is what I have to get straight from the city, and there have been other situations where a developer has been looking at a piece of land that is contaminated. Our office wants the process made very clear.”

Deputy City Manager Jelynne Burley told the angry residents at the meeting that the City has no jurisdiction over privately owned properties. “We can’t go beyond our authority, and I don’t think you want us to. Our response is to work with a regulatory agency; we have our boundaries.”

“It’s an issue of who brings it forward,” Radle explained. “The process of how we get to this point has to be smoother and clearer. We’ve learned something from this process.”

Radle said City staff is looking into ways to smooth out the assessment process, but the typical method is to have a city call in the TCEQ, which decides whether the EPA should get involved. “It didn’t seem like we could get a whole lot of momentum going a long time ago. Why did this particular site fall off the stove of things that needed to be looked at?” Radle asked.

EPA Site Assessment Manager Jon Rinehart attempted to calm the crowd, and explained his office would develop a testing plan over the next 30 to 45 days and present it to the residents before it is implemented.

He added that the Big Tex site fell through the cracks after former owner Richard Galloway refused to allow EPA access to the site in 2000. Hurricane Katrina also figures into the mix-up because EPA investigators have been busy in New Orleans and other storm-damaged areas on the Gulf Coast. And because few employee records exist for the Big Tex site, EPA has had a difficult time locating former workers who might know the whereabouts of refuse pits and other disposal areas. The EPA plans to run advertisements in local media outlets to locate the employees.

“We want to find out how long they worked there, and what kind of exposure they had,” Rinehart says.

Bob Payne of the Corpus Christi planning department said that that city’s government doesn’t handle land-contamination issues either, but follows the same process as San Antonio. But, he addds that Corpus Christi doesn’t have many issues with contaminated properties. “There aren’t many cases like that; it’s pretty unusual.”

If Corpus did have a contamination issue with a property, he says, one way to handle it would be through a special-use permit during a re-zoning process. “We could say we think you’re OK, and we can tie conditions to the zoning.”

But the City of Austin has a more formal process for assessing contaminated properties that are slated for development. Chuck Lesniak, environmental-program coordinator for Austin’s watershed-protection department, says if a site has known or suspected contamination problems, there is no review process during the zoning phase, but those cases are referred to him “to make sure the site is in compliance with applicable state or federal regulations.”

However, Austin does not share San Antonio’s industrial history. Bexar County has seven former industrial properties listed on TCEQ’s index of Superfund sites, including Aztec Ceramics at 4735 Emil Road; First Quality Cylinders at 931 W. Laurel; Harris Sand Pits at 23340 Hwy. 16 in Von Ormy; J.C. Pennco Waste Oil Services at 4927 Higdon; Phipps Plating at 301-305 E. Grayson; Pioneer Oil Refining Co. at 20280 S. Payne Rd in Somerset; and R&H Oil Co. at 403 Somerset Rd.

Still, Lesniak, who has worked with the city’s pollution and clean up program for the past 15 years, says there is a lot of expectation in Austin that issues such as Big Tex are resolved before the bulldozers go to work.

“We have a lot of support from our city council and city management and the public at large,” he says. “There’s the expectation that staff review these issues and be a proactive watchdog for the community.”

Radle says that Burley is working on developing an improved protocol for communication between the City, TCEQ, and the EPA. (Burley did not return calls for comment before press time.) “It’s a matter of tracking communication, and if there is a jurisdiction issue, it may have to come to City Council. Maybe we need a change in policy or in our routine of communication; there are loopholes in the process.”

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