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News Nixing Big Tex 

Zoning commission denys Lifshutz plan over asbestos concerns

Citing concerns over possible asbestos contamination, the San Antonio Zoning Commission last week denied developer James Lifshutz' request for a rezone for his Big Tex development, 354 Blue Star Street.

Lifshutz is proposing a mixed-use residential and retail development on seven acres on the San Antonio River near the Blue Star Arts Complex, which he also owns. The site was formerly W.R. Grace Company and Texas Vermiculite, which processed asbestos into construction material and insulation. It was later Big Tex Grain Co., which manufactured livestock feed.

Helen Dutmer, who represents District 3, said the Zoning Commission wanted Lifshutz to test for asbestos and clean up any contamination before proceeding with the plan. "The developer wasn't amenable to it for some reason," she said.

Through a spokesperson, Lifshutz said he had no comment about the decision. The vote was 10-0 to deny the request. The site lies within District 5, but that seat is vacant pending Council approval of a nominee.

From 1963 to 1992, W.R. Grace, a mine company based in Libby, Montana, shipped more than 103,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite to the site, which closed in 1989.

"I am not against development, but clean it up
and remove the poison first, then build."

- King William resident Santiago Escobedo

According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C., the vermiculite shipped to Texas was contaminated with tremolite asbestos, a long, thin, spear-shaped mineral fiber that penetrates deep into the lungs. It can lead to mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

The Environmental Working Group reports that from 1979 to 2002, 93 San Antonians died of mesothelioma and 43 from asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue.

W.R. Grace and seven of its executives were indicted by a federal grand jury in February for allegedly knowing the Libby mine was releasing asbestos into the air and trying to hide the danger from workers and residents. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, hundreds of miners, their families, and Libby residents have died and at least 1,200 have been sickened from asbestos exposure. The mine has been designated a Superfund site.

It remains unknown if the Big Tex site is contaminated, and if so, to what extent, because the former owner, G. Richard Galloway, refused to allow Environmental Protection Agency investigators access to the property during a February 24, 2000 visit. According to EPA documents, Galloway wanted a lawyer onsite during the inspection, but one was not available that day. "Mr. Galloway indicated that silos may remain on site and some material may remain on site. He was very concerned with the liability his company may incur as they were considering selling the property."

Galloway sold the property to Lifshutz. Galloway did not return phone calls seeking comment.

EPA documents state that a consultant for W.R. Grace reported "that he recently sampled the site and the results showed no asbestos." In a list of 19 samplings conducted March 21, 2000 by W.R. Grace consultants URS Greiner Woodward Clyde, vermiculite was visible at 11, including several warehouses and an unloading pit. Chrysotile, a type of asbestos also known to cause cancer, was found in small amounts. However, the EPA has also stated that Grace underrepresented asbestos levels at its Libby mining site. In bold type, the EPA wrote in its report, "This is a residential area."

The City exempts industrial or manufacturing facilities with limited access from an asbestos survey. State and federal buildings, private residences, apartment buildings with four or less units, and any building determined to be structurally unsound are also exempt.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson Adria Dawidczik said in an e-mail that the TCEQ's authority over asbestos is limited to landfill disposal. Dawidczik said Department of State Health Services show there is no current exposure at Big Tex.

Several King William residents attended the meeting to oppose the project, including Mission Street resident Santiago Escobedo, who argued "the dust from construction will be carried by coastal winds across the river and into our homes. I am not against development, but clean it up and remove the poison first, then build."

See related story "Company town" in this issue of the Current.

By Lisa Sorg

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