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Raw sewage and a federal mandate put the brakes on the toll road

Two unrelated, but coincidental, incidents this week boosted the case of local groups suing the Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation over the U.S. 281 toll-road project.

On January 12, the Express-News reported that San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was contracted by TxDOT to build frontage roads along U.S. 281, had sheared a sewer main with a bulldozer in mid-December. However, Zachry misreported it to the San Antonio Water System as a water main, even though, as the Current later learned, a large, white sign with black letters in the area read: “Sanitary sewer force main.”

What part of “sanitary sewer” don’t they understand? A Zachry worker sheared a 2-inch sewer-valve pipe, but the company reported it to SAWS as a water-main break.

Due to miscommunications between Zachry and SAWS — the utility, believing the problem was with a water main, thought it was in Bexar Met’s jurisdiction — raw sewage seeped periodically into the ground over the Recharge Zone until January 10. On that day, SAWS learned it was a break in the sewer main and sent its crews to fix the leak in the 2-inch sewer-valve pipe. SAWS spokesperson Ann Hayden said crews repaired it within hours.

Hayden said SAWS is trying to determine the amount of sewage that seeped into the ground. Force-pressure sewer lines are fed by a lift-station pump that cycles on and off, meaning the leak wasn’t continuous, Hayden said.

SAWS and the Edwards Aquifer Authority are examining their databases to determine if any private wells could have been contaminated. Hayden said SAWS knows of no wells within a one-mile radius of the affected area; a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson said there are no public water-supply wells nearby. The EAA hadn’t finished its analysis at press time.

In addition, the toll project took another hit on January 11, when the Federal Highway Administration ordered TxDOT to stop construction on the project and withdrew its environmental clearances, which had allowed construction to proceed.

This study, an Environmental Assessment, is at the core of a lawsuit filed in district court last month by Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation `See related story, “Road rage,” January 4-10, 2006`. The groups also requested an injunction, alleging the highway administration and TxDOT violated federal environmental law by failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, which is required for federally funded projects in ecologically sensitive areas.

A portion of the proposed toll road would cross the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, Bexar County’s primary source of drinking water. The highway also borders the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered species.

While an Environmental Assessment is often less rigorous than an Impact Statement, the new study will include public hearings and consider alternatives to the project, which are AGUA and PET’s main concerns.

AGUA vice president Annalisa Peace says a January 27 court hearing on the motion to stop toll-road construction has been cancelled in light of the highway administration’s order. Nonetheless, Peace says, the public should remain vigilant about activities over the Recharge Zone. “We have to watch what’s going on out there.”

By Lisa Sorg

Additional reporting by Michael Cary

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