SAHA’s coal-ash residue

Is a toxic contaminant still toxic if tests say its presence is below state regulatory protection levels? The San Antonio Housing Authority and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say no. But Pendleton Street residents on the city’s near West Side still worry as they continue to spar with SAHA about whether dust from the low-income housing construction project on San Marcos Street is making them sick.

TCEQ Project Manager Rick Ciampi said Monday that he’s about to submit a certificate of completion packet to management, which if approved would release future owners from any liability at the site. But newly discovered information in TCEQ’s files suggest a problem that could linger for years.

Ciampi, who currently works a second job with UPS to make ends meet (his TCEQ job earns him just over $41,000), says he remains confident of TCEQ’s stance on the site since the agency has spent so many years examining it. Environmental advocates do not share Ciampi’s confidence in the agency’s rules and methodologies.

“The more you dig into TCEQ, the more it becomes a bottomless pit. They do not go by the rules, and change as needed, and they do not follow the law, either,” said Neil Carman, clean air director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

At issue are the levels of toxins in the coal ash that was buried at the site by the former Swift meat-packing plant. SAHA partner Franklin Development dug it up for removal this fall on orders from TCEQ, but neighbors say Franklin took little care to prevent it from blowing through the neighborhood. Franklin and environmental consultant Geo-Marine claimed the soil wasn’t actually toxic since tests showed “constituents of concern” to be below TCEQ protection levels. Coal ash is known to contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, selenium, and chromium.

All four of these elements tested above state protection levels in October before Geo-Marine’s Mark Norman ordered a Synthetic Precipitation Leachate Procedure, a controversial test that produced results below those protection levels. The Sierra Club’s Carman called that method “a phony test” that was “pretty much guaranteed to find no problem.”

The benchmark levels themselves are also at issue. Austin-based environmental attorney Rick Lowerre says state protection levels where changed in 1999 when the old Risk Reduction Rules were revised into the new Texas Risk Reduction Program under the governorship of George W. Bush.

“They pretty much took a meat axe to the process and ended up saving millions of dollars in cleanup and assessment,” said Lowerre. “But the agency doesn’t go back and review this because the people dealing with the agency are always the polluters.”

Lowerre says one of the major changes TCEQ made (when it was still known as TNRCC) was a revision of the health-risk basis, whereby acceptable protection levels from contaminants went from a standard of one death in a million to one in 100,000. TCEQ’s Ciampi says the Texas Risk Reduction Program, which went into effect in 2003, simply allows for adjusted protection levels based on site-specific information, rather than just using a worst-case scenario in all calculations.

“The title is a joke, as it should be called the ‘Texas Risk Increase Rules’ program,” said the Sierra Club’s Carman. “These rules basically are set as industrial standards applied in residential areas.”

SAHA and partner Franklin Development are still moving forward with their project on San Marcos Street, despite a variety of reported health problems, from a slew of rashes to general nausea, difficulty breathing, and one lung infection.

A Current slog through TCEQ’s 4,800 pages of site-related files last week produced a May 23, 2007, memo from Geo-Marine to TCEQ revealing that four soil samples contained benzo(a)pyrene at concentrations exceeding TCEQ protection levels. According to the EPA’s website, benzo(a)pyrene is a common contaminant since it is “formed as a result of incomplete combustion of organic materials.” The EPA maximum contaminant level for benzo(a)pyrene is two parts per billion in drinking water, suggesting it can be extremely toxic even at low exposure levels.

TCEQ’s Ciampi acknowledged that these soil samples came from the dirt that Franklin dug up last fall. He says some kind of mitigation should have taken place, such as covering the excavated soil with plastic. But Franklin COO Ryan Wilson admitted in a December 30 meeting that the only precautions the company took while excavating and removing the soil was watering to try to keep the dust down. The 2007 memo indicates that Ciampi and SAHA Asset Manager Calvin Deese were made aware of the issue, but the Current hasn’t determined yet whether the information was ever passed on to Franklin.

Conrad Dan Volz, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, says that benzo(a)pyrene is “a very potent carcinogenic substance” that can cause cancer if consumed via inhalation or ingestion. He says it’s unlikely to affect people in a matter of weeks, but that chronic long-term exposure can lead to health problems as many as 20 to 30 years later.

On a related note, the issue of medical testing for neighborhood residents has become contentious.

 “In further response to the concerns of the citizens, SAHA has offered to set up appointments at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) to have them evaluated for any medical conditions that allegedly resulted from the dust. As of this date, the offer has not been taken advantage of,” said SAHA Interim President and CEO Major General Alfred Valenzuela in a recent email.

Fred Perry, who was leasing a warehouse on the north side of the site until he became too ill to work there, says neighborhood residents fear that their medical histories will be used against them. Perry collected 22 signatures from residents who want testing, but not at the expense of having to surrender their full medical history and doctor-patient privilege.

“If you look at the records for `one particular resident`, they’d probably say he was a smoker, he’s got lung problems because of that,” said Perry.

 “As this is an assessment of the individual's present condition and whether that condition was caused by something in the person's environment, the person's medical history is necessary for the results of the assessment to be accurate,” said SAHA VP of Corporate and Employee Relations Melanie Villalobos. She later added that SAHA would defer all medical assessments directly to UTHSCS medical professionals. “At no point during this assessment, will SAHA have access to this information.”

But Volz says SAHA’s medical history requirements are “a bunch of nonsense; they’re skirting around something. Why not just administer a questionnaire … I don’t understand why they don’t just bring people in and do a test.”

Volz says a simple pulmonary-function test could determine whether asthma or other respiratory conditions have been exacerbated, and a blood test wouldn’t even be necessary to test for heavy metals because such particulates would show up in a simple urine test. He added that metals such as arsenic would also show up in toe-nail clippings and would remain detectable for a number of months.

Perry sent a letter to SAHA this week voicing the concerns of area residents and requesting that TCEQ not sign off on a certificate of completion for the site’s remediation until the results of such tests have been evaluated. 

Meanwhile, the first report of a construction worker quitting the project has come in. Thirty-six-year-old Salvador Flores says he quit in September because the dust was making him ill. But he failed to follow proper procedure for reporting such an issue to sub-contractor Guajardo Construction before leaving the site and was summarily dismissed two days later. VP Ricardo Guajardo Jr. says the company has longtime employees who haven’t cited any illnesses in relation to the dust, although he failed to respond to a query about how many other workers have quit or been fired during the project.

District 5 Councilwoman Lourdes Galvan convened a meeting with SAHA after she was contacted by Pendleton Street resident Dayna DeHoyos, a 29-year-old artist. DeHoyos left unsatisfied, saying her hopes for the meeting were dashed when Galvan exchanged hugs and kisses at the beginning with Valenzuela and other SAHA personnel. Galvan has scheduled a town-hall meeting for residents to ask questions and express their concerns, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 12, at the Development and Business Services Center, 1901 S. Alamo. SAHA representatives will be present, although they stressed that this is a public meeting hosted by the Councilwoman, not a SAHA event.