SAHA's Partners Admit to Digging Up Toxic Soil and Letting it Sit Around Uncovered

The controversy surrounding the San Antonio Housing Authority's low-income housing project on San Marcos Street continues to grow, with SAHA's partners now admitting that they dug up some other contaminated soil,in addition to the coal ash they excavated, and let that highly toxic soil sit around uncovered for several days before they carted it off.

District 5 Councilperson Lourdes Galvan had convened the town hall meeting last night for her constituents to have the opportunity to question reps from SAHA, construction partner Franklin Development, environmental testing consultant Geo-Marine and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The various reps from all of those partners actually outnumbered the quantity of District 5 residents on hand, giving the meeting something of a slanted feel.

SAHA keeps speaking about being a good neighbor, with Board Chairman Ramiro Cavazos giving an extended elocution about how SAHA just wants to help the city by creating these 252 units of low-income housing.

“We are a poor communityâ?¦ the inner city deserves to have new development that's safe,” said Cavazos. “Let's not let fear or innuendo guide our decision making as a city.”

No one objects to the concept of new low-income housing on the near West side in theory though, but rather to SAHA's questionable execution of the project.

Franklin COO Ryan Wilson then stepped up to say “We enjoy the scrutiny,” suggesting his company's top concern is the public health. Wilson then claimed that “Not one thing has been found to be above applicable `state protection` levels.”

Franklin and environmental consultant Geo-Marine have steadfastly maintained that the excavated coal ash wasn't actually toxic since their tests showed “constituents of concern” to be below TCEQ protection levels. Ongoing controversy had been generated by the 8,500 cubic yards of coal ash that Franklin dug up at the site this fall and let sit around uncovered for about three weeks, giving that dust a chance to blow around, with neighbors near the site suffering the blowback and reporting a variety of health problems.

When questioned about what Franklin did to prevent the coal ash from blowing into the air, Wilson basically said that those constituents of concern were at low enough levels for Franklin not to care. But it was admitted that Franklin only covered the coal ash when it was time to remove it from the site.

A new question was raised last night about a May 23, 2007, memo from Geo-Marine to TCEQ and Franklin reporting four soil samples contaminated with benzo(a)pyrene â?? above TCEQ protection levels â?? that was also dug up. Benzo(a)pyrene is a highly toxic substance that the EPA rates at a maximum contaminant level of two parts per billion in drinking water.

Franklin and Geo-Marine admitted that 1.8 cubic yards worth of the soil contaminated with benzo(a)pyrene was dug up at the end of September, and then allowed to sit around uncovered for “less than four days,” with watering being the only mitigation measure taken to try and prevent it from blowing about, just as with the coal ash. Geo-Marine's Mark Norman attempted to minimize concern by comparing the amount to roughly a pick-up truck's load. None of the reps on hand seemed to think this was much of an issue.

I don't know about you San Antonio, but if someone told me there was some toxic soil that needed to be removed from my backyard, I would think that it would be important to have it immediately deposited in a closable container and contain it!

Another issue raised was the controversial Synthetic Precipitation Leachate Procedure that Geo-Marine's Norman used to clear the coal ash of concerns over four heavy metal contaminants that coal ash is generally known to contain â?? arsenic, lead, chromium and selenium. All four tested above TCEQ protection levels in October before Norman ordered the SPLP test that brought them back below those levels, allowing Franklin to claim that nothing in the coal ash is above a state protection level and enabling SAHA to say that its “within the letter of the law” on the project.

But Neil Carman, Clean Air Director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, has said the SPLP is “a phony test” that is “pretty much guaranteed to find no problem.” That view is supported by a January 2006 article in the Environmental Engineering Science journal, which reported a study that found the SPLP would “underestimate possible risk in most cases.” The article was co-authored by an EPA employee.

When questioned about these dissenting views on the SPLP, SAHA Director of Real Estate Services Brad McMurray suggested that SAHA's collection of experts from Geo-Marine and TCEQ outweigh the opinions of “one guy” and “one journal article.”

Moving along, one of the District 5 residents appealed for a medical trailer to be brought to the Pendleton Street neighborhood adjacent to the site in order to enable health screenings to take place. He suggested that few of the residents in the neighborhood had the time and resources to journey on their own to the University of Texas Health Science Center, where SAHA has been offering screenings and expressing surprise at why no one has taken them up on it (they've also been requiring a full medical history and surrender of doctor/patient privilege.)

SAHA Interim President and CEO Major General Alfred Valenzuela responded that he thought this was an “awesome” idea. But this begs the question of why it hasn't already happened then, if the General really thinks it's such an awesome idea.

Another resident than spoke out about what he said was another contaminated construction project in the city, although he didn't care to identify it for some reason. “I'm tired of all these cover-ups,” he said.

Former Zoning Commissioner and current District 5 council candidate Eiginio Rodriguez spoke up next, saying the preceding man was trying to show a pattern in regards to TCEQ's standards. Rodriguez asked that the EPA be informed of the situation regarding the SAHA site, and Valenzuela gave an affirmative response.

“Obviously, there's still a few questions that need to be answered,” said Councilwoman Lourdes Galvan at the conclusion of the meeting, underscoring the way in which the residents of the neighborhood remain unsatisfied with current state of the situation. Galvan did confirm support for a medical screening trailer to be brought to the Pendleton Street neighborhood, with personnel that speak both English and Spanish.

Scroll to read more The QueQue articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.