Toxic chemicals taint Barton waters
Pool, other city creeks may pose health risk; decades-old fuel waste
cited as possible source
By Kevin Carmody
and Mike Ward
Sunday, January 19, 2003
Levels of toxic chemicals in Barton Springs Pool and just upstream on
a hillside overlooking the pool have exceeded those found in a dozen
of the worst hazardous waste sites in the country, an Austin
American-Statesman investigation has found.
At points along three other Austin bodies of water - East Bouldin
Creek, Waller Creek and the Central Market ponds at Lamar Boulevard
and West 45th Street - levels of chemicals that increase the risk of
cancer after prolonged exposure also have exceeded those found at
toxic waste sites that federal authorities have declared public health
hazards or Superfund sites.
Scientists who reviewed test results documenting the contamination say
the data suggest that the pollution found in the pool and along the
hillside is from hazardous waste dumped nearby. The most likely
culprit, they say, is waste from coal gasification plants that
produced fuel for city lighting from the 1870s to 1928.
Two toxicologists said the elevated levels of the neurotoxic metal
arsenic and seven benzene-based compounds found in sediments at Barton
Springs warrant temporarily closing Austin's environmental treasure,
the spring-fed pool whose iconic value has driven more than a decade
of anti-development campaigning and reshaped city politics. They
recommend closing the pool until questions about public safety are
resolved. The pool attracts an average of about 1,000 paid visitors a
Scientists also recommend that warning signs be posted to alert
swimmers and fishermen to risks and that site assessments be done at
the worst areas to document the extent and source of the
Though the city found the chemicals in the springs area as early as
1994, its focus in its testing program was on the endangered Barton
Springs salamander and not on human health, city officials
The newspaper's findings go beyond its report in August, which showed
that the presence of one benzene-based chemical, benzo(a)pyrene,
sometimes exceeded state safety guidelines at the pool and on the
hillside. Atop that hillside sit the Barton Springs Park Place
apartments, at 1200 Barton Hills Drive in the Barton Hills
City officials said then that the carcinogen was not detected often
enough to close the pool or pose any health concern for people.
The city maintained its position until Jan. 10, when nine city
officials and their consultants met with editors and reporters of the
American-Statesman. Because of the seriousness of the findings, the
newspaper wanted to give the city a briefing and another opportunity
for response before publication.
After the Jan. 10 meeting, City Manager Toby Futrell ordered her staff
to take samples of sediment in the pool and Barton Creek on Jan. 11.
On Tuesday, the top public health authority in Austin and Travis
County said that he and city officials now realize the hillside may
pose a risk and needs a full assessment but that they don't have
enough information about the level of exposure in the pool to know
whether it poses a risk to swimmers.
"I think we all agree that we have a problem on the hillside," Dr. Ed
Sherwood said. "I don't think there's any question about that."
City officials said they think seal coat treatments on streets and
parking lots are the cause of the hillside contamination.
The newspaper's new findings suggest that swimmers in the pool and
Barton Creek have been exposed not just to one contaminant but to a
toxic stew of tainted sediment at least periodically for seven years,
probably longer. The findings detail problems with arsenic and
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a family of more than 100 chemicals
known as PAHs.
Seven of those benzene-based chemicals - one of them benzo(a)pyrene -
are the most dangerous of the PAH family, federal health officials
say. The newspaper's findings are based on city tests of sediment and
soil from 1991 to 2002 and a review of 11,000 pages of city documents
obtained under the Texas open records law.
All six experts who provided a detailed assessment of the test results
said the extraordinarily high levels and the number of contaminants
found upstream in Barton Creek and on the hillside, including
neurotoxins such as mercury and the pesticide heptachlor, indicate
there may be previously unknown hazardous waste sites nearby.
It is possible, the newspaper's experts said, that the pollution came
from coal gasification plants whose wastes might have been dumped on
the ground or in an old gravel pit that was filled in before the
Barton Hills neighborhood developed.
An e-mail obtained from the city under the Texas open records law
shows that the serious nature of the contamination at the pool, creek
and hillside had independent confirmation in early 2002 by scientists
with the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal government's sciences
research arm. A federal scientist reported to city officials that she
was shocked by the "astronomical" levels of benzene compounds recorded
in USGS tests.
Pete Van Metre, another USGS scientist who advises the city on water
quality issues, told the newspaper he cautioned city staff that the
levels upstream, particularly on the hillside creek bed, were higher
than his agency had ever detected anywhere in the country in routine
surveys of waterways. Those levels would be expected "at a
contaminated industrial site," Van Metre said he told them in May
The newspaper also found elevated levels of the benzene compounds. In
December, sediment from shallow areas along the northwest side of the
pool was collected by two reporters and sent to a state-certified lab
in Round Rock, DHL Analytical Inc., for analysis. The tests showed
levels of benzene compounds higher than the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency has deemed safe for regular human contact.
Assessing the risks
The hillside contains a tree-lined dry creek bed as deep as 6 feet in
some places with its upper portions strewn with rock, concrete and
chunks of asphalt. When rain falls, the water flows to Barton Creek
The hillside has repeatedly recorded the seven benzene compounds above
the minimum level of 1,000 parts per billion that can make a
residential or recreational area eligible for the federal Superfund
list of the nation's most dangerous toxic sites needing cleanup. In
one test, the compounds were found at 355 times that minimum.
The seven benzene compounds are listed by federal and international
health agencies as either probable or possible human carcinogens.
Arsenic is considered a known human carcinogen.
The EPA assumes that a safe level of the seven benzene compounds in
the soil or sediment is 90 ppb or below. In the pool, the peak levels
have been up to nearly 100 times higher, and nearly nine times the
minimum that can qualify a site in a recreational or residential
setting for a federal Superfund cleanup.
Scientists think the other locations with elevated levels of the
benzene compounds - East Bouldin Creek, Waller Creek and the Central
Market ponds - could have become contaminated by a variety of sources,
including coal gas waste and leaking underground petroleum storage
In four other areas, along Shoal, Blunn and Harper's Branch creeks and
Taylor Slough, the city's tests have recorded contaminant levels that
exceed some state or federal safety guidelines. However, according to
the EPA, the levels of chemicals and apparently low frequency of human
exposure at most of those sites might not be great enough for action
under the federal Superfund law.
Around the country, about 600 sites contaminated with the benzene
compounds have qualified for Superfund cleanups. Documents and
interviews with EPA Superfund staff identified a dozen sites where the
benzene compounds were among the primary pollution concerns and were
found at levels comparable to or lower than some of the Austin sites.
In New Hampshire, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry, a branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, declared a public health hazard and banned swimming in the
Winnipesaukee River near the former Messer Street Manufactured Gas
Plant. Contamination of shallow sediment in the river in comparable
samples had peak levels lower than the peak found in Barton Springs
In suburban Houston, Patrick Bayou joined the Superfund priority list
on Sept. 5. It also had peak readings of the benzene compounds at
lower levels than the peak detected in the pool and at about half the
level the City of Austin detected in November 2000.
Near Conroe, the United Creosote site made the list with levels of
soil contamination significantly lower in comparable samples than what
has been recorded on the Barton Creek hillside.
The city knew about the high levels of the benzene compounds in the
pool as early as 1995. City officials had mentioned the chemicals in
several reports to the City Council and other government agencies. The
reports were available but not widely distributed to the public. They
typically suggested the chemicals might pose a threat to the
endangered salamander but did not address whether they might be
harmful to people.
Although the American-Statesman's August article prominently stated
that a state toxicologist said there was no immediate health risk at
the pool, city officials denounced the article as unnecessarily scary
City officials hired toxicologists to assess the health effects
information on Jan. 10, and they started working immediately.
At the meeting at the American-Statesman, the city officials were
asked how they could have failed to seek a human health assessment
between 1995, when the pool recorded its first high measurement of the
benzene compounds, and 2002, when salamanders started dying
"We didn't look at it from a human health perspective," said Nancy
McClintock, manager of the Environmental Resource Management Division.
She said the city tested three months later and could find nothing.
City officials did emphasize they had expanded the waterways testing
program in 1997. They began looking upstream for the source of the
pool's benzene compounds they thought might be threatening the
By early 1998 those tests identified the hillside and another area on
the opposite bank as the likely sources. The city put a project
designed to stop erosion on the hillside into its capital improvement
program in 1999, but design work did not start until after the
Statesman's story in August.
In Austin, no official data exist about health problems that might
stem from the pollution. It is known that a city biologist and three
swimmers have experienced rashes or skin problems after being in the
pool or Barton Creek. Last year, city scientists discovered endangered
salamanders dying from a mysterious disease that produced blisterlike
gas bubbles under their skin.
The benzene compounds can increase one's risk of developing various
cancers after long-term exposure. At relatively low exposures, those
contaminants and arsenic can cause subtle neurological problems,
including memory loss and behavioral changes if swallowed or absorbed
through skin, according to medical literature and the newspaper's
The level of risk is always difficult to assess at contaminated sites,
even at Superfund sites extensively investigated, the toxicologists
Risk depends on the frequency and level of exposure and a person's
unique genetic makeup. Children typically ingest more soil or sediment
than adults and may be more sensitive to certain contaminants. They
could face a greater risk than adults do - particularly if they play
in and along Barton Creek above the pool, the toxicologists said.
The toxicologists and several other experts urged caution for all
swimmers. The crude nature of the city's tests in the pool, combined
with the city's four detections of relatively high levels, offer more
questions than answers - questions begging for a thorough site
assessment, they said.
"When you think there may be harm, even though you are not sure, it's
best to use prudent avoidance," said David Palmerton, a certified
hazardous materials manager and owner of an Upstate New York-based
company that coordinates the cleanup of contaminated sites for Fortune
One expert who advises closing Barton Springs Pool is Marvin Legator,
longtime director of an environmental toxicology program at the
University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and a former chief of
genetic toxicology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"No matter how we look at it, the data really present to us a highly
contaminated area," he said, referring to the Barton Springs area and
the other three most contaminated sites. "If we confirm the
measurements as they are, I would certainly think of just closing it
(the pool) down till it's cleaned up. . . . If we have an individual
who swims just once a month, I don't think that's really a threatening
thing. However, if we have somebody who swims five days out of the
week, that would be a real concern."
The pool has daily swimmers year-round.
The concern for swimmers' health was echoed by Patricia Williams, who
teaches toxicology at the Louisiana State University School of
Medicine in Shreveport and studied the health effects at the Lincoln
Creosote Superfund site near Shreveport. She was surprised by the high
levels of the benzene compounds in Barton Springs Pool and upstream.
"I know of nothing in a natural setting, with this level of human
exposure, that has a contamination level like that," she said.
Other than Legator, the other five primary experts said they didn't
have the medical expertise to assess the extent of health risks in the
pool. But three - Palmerton, Allen Hatheway, a retired University of
Missouri professor of geology and past president of the Association of
Engineering Geologists, and Michael Stenstrom, associate dean and
professor, UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science - urged
The city should issue advisories or post warning signs at the pool and
other sites alerting swimmers and fishermen to the contamination if
experienced toxicologists suspected a possible human health threat,
they said. Along with Williams and Legator, they said a detailed
assessment of the most contaminated sites was warranted.
As for the hillside 80 yards upstream from Barton Springs and on the
left for a person walking west: In the opinion of the newspaper's
experts and environmental officials, it poses a far more serious
problem than the pool.
"Based on the levels I'm hearing, in a residential setting next to
apartments, a cleanup is certainly warranted," said John Meyer, an EPA
manager for Superfund cleanups in the five-state region that includes
Texas and the one who managed the cleanup at the Lincoln Creosote site
in Louisiana. "A lot of times that falls under what we call
time-critical removal, rather than the normal remediation process that
can take many years to complete. Based on the immediacy of the risk,
you take immediate action."
Some ground-level concrete patios at the Barton Hills Park Place
apartments on top of the hill are as few as 15 feet from the dry creek
bed, where levels of benzene compounds in the city's two initial tests
were seven and nine times higher than in residential surface soils at
the Lincoln Superfund site in Louisiana.
The pollution at Lincoln Creosote has, in a study by LSU Medical
School staff, been associated with increased levels of cancer and
other diseases. At Lincoln, the benzene compounds migrated into
adjoining neighborhoods and drainage ditches where children played.
At the sites around Austin, the levels of the various contaminants
vary widely site to site, suggesting there would likely be different
levels of risk, the experts said.
Waller Creek, north of 24th Street near the University of Texas
campus, recorded the highest level of the benzene compounds of any
location in the city. That site has not been retested since the August
The level of toxic lead reported in that 2000 test was nearly three
times the level that can prompt a Superfund cleanup when found in soil
and nearly 15 times the level in soils that medical researchers have
found to cause reduced brain function in children playing in
(EPA's soil guidelines can be used to assess contaminated sediments
where there is regular human exposure in residential or recreational
settings, an EPA Superfund manager and an EPA toxicologist said.)
Earl Janssen, head of the University of Texas environmental safety
office, said he was shocked by the high level of lead recorded. His
staff will investigate possible sources of the lead and the
benzene-based compounds. Drainage from around the engineering school
and the university power plant enters Waller Creek near 24th Street,
There is no information available on whether or how often children
might play in or near the most contaminated spot. Children do play and
fish in Waller Creek in areas several blocks downstream, where
contamination appears lower.
Experts who study benzene compounds say it is possible that the source
of contamination at Waller Creek is something other than coal
gasification, perhaps a leaking petroleum storage tank.
The three Central Market ponds were designed by the city to help
capture sediment flowing through a tributary of Shoal Creek. The city
officials said they expected these ponds to capture pollutants.
But the levels of the benzene compounds and metals are high enough to
pose a health risk for anyone who may wade in the ponds and possibly
for those who regularly play at the edge; at the very least, signs
should be posted as a warning about potential risks, according to the
Coal gasification was a method used during the 1800s and early 1900s
to extract gas from coal for use in street and home lighting. The
resulting wastes contained high levels of the benzene compounds,
mercury, arsenic and ammonia.
Austin had at least three manufactured gas plants downtown after the
early 1870s. Two were coal gasification plants. The third used wood
products in its gas-making process.
"The gas makers would take to, as they say in Texas, 'getting shut' of
the wastes by dumping them in other nearby depressions in the ground,"
said Hatheway, the retired University of Missouri geology professor
who is considered the nation's top expert on coal gasification sites.
Seeking the source
The tainted soils above Barton Springs are near what in the late 1800s
was a primary road from Austin to points west, including Bee Cave. The
stone bridge that crossed Barton Creek on that early-day trade road
washed out in 1900.
The city also had several ice plants in the mid-1800s - one of which
was operating downstream from Barton Springs Pool at a grist mill by
about 1875. Ice plants sometimes used small coal gasification units to
provide energy and produce ammonia as a refrigerant. It is unknown
whether the ice plant at Barton Springs had such a unit.
A successful cleanup of the upstream site could halt the flow of most
benzene compounds and metals into the pool and Barton Creek. But it
could be costly and difficult, depending on the amount of waste and
whether it is below a small or large section of the Barton Hills
neighborhood, the experts said.
The limestone aquifer system in Austin makes remediation "very
difficult . . . if (contamination) has entered the ground water or is
transported as particles though bedrock fractures," said Palmerton,
the hazardous materials manager. "Typical gas plant sites . . . can
cost tens of millions of dollars to investigate and remediate."
It is unknown whether ground water in or near the Barton Creek sites
is contaminated with the benzene compounds.
City officials theorize that the benzene compounds from the hillside
enter the pool only when floods spill over the dam at the upstream end
of the pool. The levels of the benzene compounds found upstream and in
the pool, and recent Geological Survey tests of the suspended sediment
entering the pool from the springs, appear to support the city's
explanation of how the tainted sediment typically enters the pool.
The city has said there is no human health concern because some floods
leave little sediment in the pool and the shallow areas often contain
little sediment. That view, however, doesn't hold up to a
"I don't quite see the city's argument on this," said Legator, the
University of Texas toxicologist. "If we're getting those measurements
. . . and this is where everybody is swimming, they're exposed."
The city also argues that because the tests showed 19 nondetections of
contaminants over 11 years, the problem is intermittent and therefore
not risky. The experts don't see it that way.
"That's not appropriate," said Paul Templet, former head of
Louisiana's environmental agency. "If just one analysis exceeds a
standard, you want to look a lot more closely, . . . and somebody
ought to take a closer look at this situation."
Until a few weeks ago, city scientists never attempted to test the
shallow end of the pool, where hundreds of children frolic in a few
inches to a few feet of water on many summer days. After initially
rebuffing suggestions to test the shallow end and other shallow areas
in which adults might walk and be exposed to tainted sediment, the
city tried to collect sediment samples in the shallow end on Nov. 14.
"There wasn't enough to get a valid sample," said Ed Peacock, a member
of the city's watershed protection staff.
Within a month, members of the American-Statesman staff, using the
city's sample collection protocols, collected a sediment sample from
the shallow end that was deemed adequate by a state-certified lab.
Last weekend the city staff tested at sites around Barton Creek and
three locations in the pool, including the shallow end. The results
showed lower levels of the seven benzene compounds in soil than in
previous tests at the hillside. The shallow end of the pool recorded
levels of two benzene compounds at 8 ppb in the sediment -
significantly lower than the EPA's health-effects threshold of 90 ppb.
However, arsenic levels in the sediment were 3,640 ppb, far above the
400 ppb screening level the EPA has deemed safe in most locations. A
sample of sediment in a deeper part of the pool showed a level of 880
ppb of the seven benzene compounds, below the 1,000 ppb that can lead
to EPA action under the Superfund program. Arsenic levels were 5,540
Arsenic also a mystery
On Thursday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas
equivalent of the EPA, began testing throughout the Barton Springs
City literature describes the pool as "one of the crown jewels of
Austin." It attracts 350,000 paid visits a year and as many as 500,000
visitors, including free after-hours visits.
It is not unusual for the city to close the pool during and after
heavy rains, but not because of benzene compounds. It happens when
water testing finds elevated levels of bacteria that can cause
More problematic than benzene compounds for the pool's future may be
the arsenic that federal scientists recently found flowing directly
from the spring itself, attached to sediment at levels that Legator
and other toxicologists consider too high for regular human exposure.
The source of the arsenic is not known, although some soils have
naturally elevated arsenic levels. Tainted runoff into creeks miles
from the pool could be contaminating the aquifer that feeds the
springs, city officials said.
The EPA recently reevaluated the risk of arsenic in drinking water,
based on new studies showing the metal is more toxic and carcinogenic
than previously thought. Despite resistance from the Bush White House,
the EPA lowered the acceptable level in drinking water from 50 to 10
parts per billion.
On one occasion, in November 1995, the city detected arsenic in the
pool water at 46 parts per billion. The typical readings at the pool
are 1 or 2 parts per billion.
The levels of arsenic in suspended sediment entering the pool range
from 17,800 to 22,300 parts per billion, according to city records of
Geological Survey tests from 1999 to 2002. In the sediment on the
bottom of the pool, the levels have been measured as high as 13,600
parts per billion, by the city in May 2001.
"With PAHs together with metals such as arsenic, you'll want to look
at whether there is an increase in birth defects," Williams said.
"Arsenic is a particularly bad actor, and for exposed individuals,
there may be a wide range of cancer and noncancer effects occurring."
Arsenic is a cumulative poison, Williams said, so it will build up in
the body a little bit more each time someone is exposed, particularly
accumulating in the testes and affecting sperm.
"You have the question of what's going to happen to the next
generation," she said.
>Toxic chemicals taint Barton waters
>Pool, other city creeks may pose health risk; decades-old fuel waste
>cited as possible source
Now we have an explanation for why most Austinites are liberal.
They're MAD AS HATTERS! Having been exposed to a few parts per
billion of a supposed "dangerous" chemical has obviously caused this
long term effect.
I think the solution is to close South Austin and move it to East
"Neal Atkins" <nat...@austin.rr.com> wrote in message
Meanwhile the city is still claiming it's safe to swim in the pool:
Stop thinking and the pain will go away.
>> >Toxic chemicals taint Barton waters
>> >Pool, other city creeks may pose health risk; decades-old fuel waste
>> >cited as possible source
>> Now we have an explanation for why most Austinites are liberal.
>> They're MAD AS HATTERS! Having been exposed to a few parts per
>> billion of a supposed "dangerous" chemical has obviously caused this
>> long term effect.
>> I think the solution is to close South Austin and move it to East
>Stop thinking and the pain will go away.
Nah, if YOU go away, that would help. BTW, did you hear Kllinton was
coming to town? Better exercise your knees. It won't hurt so much
when you blow him.
They knew as far back as 1994, apparently.
Everyone who swam there should SUE the City of Austin and "Save our Springs"
and everyone else who covered up this medical and public health disaster.
It is a very popular swimming hole in Austin, not to mention that most
Austinites probably considered it safe and relatively clean.
> Galveston waters are the same way. Not to
> mention, that the pollution coming out of Galveston is killing off marine
Galveston is a whole different story. Galveston has run-off from Texas
City, the Ship Channel, and the Mississippi River (thus the silty
water) to deal with. Plus it's a large port. Quite a different story
than Barton Springs...
Are you saying that the Mississippi River runs through Galveston?
Actually, yes. Due to the gulf currents, Texas gets all the silt from the Mississippi. Its not until you get
down to the Corpus Christi area that the water turns green. Contrast this by going east of the Mississippi...
green water all the way to Florida.
I was wondering about that too, but I figured "Oh, well...".
Tell us something new! crap, and toxins been Barton's for years!
you people just now waking up?????
> It is a very popular swimming hole in Austin, not to mention that most
> Austinites probably considered it safe and relatively clean.
Puts a whole new light on the name Vulcan Gas Co.
Lars Eighner -finger for geek code- eig...@io.com http://www.io.com/~eighner/
War on Terrorism: Okay, Unleash OUR Extreme Fundamentalists
"... all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in
their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" --Jerry Falwell
All of the silt that is dumped out by the Mississippi is carried quite a way
from the mouth of the river.
> Robert Allison
> Georgetown, TX
Jeezus H Christ, it's the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers that
dump chemical waste into Galveston Bay(and numerous petro
plants on many bayous), NOT the Mississippi. Hell, the Gulf
current flows EAST along the coast, its FLORIDA that gets any
crap the mighty Missisip spews forth.
We weren't referring to chemical waste with the Mississippi, but to silt.
And strictly speaking, there's no prevailing current at that point in
the Gulf, just eddies spun off of the current down by Florida.
There *is* a prevailing wind, which does cause the silt and other
nasties to precipitate a little bitty bit more to the west of the delta
than to the east. Which kinda winds up being straight out, as the
delta sort of swings east at the mouth of the Miss.
The silty water in Galveston Bay isn't from the mighty Miss, though, but
from the shallow shelf extending into the Gulf from there, and the
All Chat no Cattle
I had just either heard or read that at least some of it was from the
Anyway, I don't care about the specifics. I just wish we could have beaches
in Texas that were as nice as the Florida panhandle. Now the easiest thing
to do to get to a really nice beach is just hop on a plane for a short ride
to Cancun or Playa. That would really be nice right now... I'm freezing my
butt off. I think this is the coldest it's been in Houston since I moved
here. In Boston we were used to it, but here...
> All Chat no Cattle
Do you think that the apartment complex, (where very high levels of
contaminants were documented), will have to be torn down?
Ya gotta love the political blame game that is ensuing...
JT (Residing in Austin, Texas)
Just Tooling Down The Internet Superhighway With my G4.......
>Those levels would be expected "at a
>> contaminated industrial site," Van Metre said he told them in May
Knowing the little secret problem with drugs in Austin, I wonder what `industry'
was responsible for the contamination of the site? Hopefully a microbiological
survey of the microbes found there can reveal many new pathological species.
>Do you think that the apartment complex, (where very high levels of
>contaminants were documented), will have to be torn down?
Residents can probably accomplish that if left alone a couple of more years.
>Ya gotta love the political blame game that is ensuing...
Why, they are continuously underway in Austin.
Recent tests indicate that the pool is safe:
Sorry, but you'll have to try harder to find a "love canal"
"Vindicator" <no...@nonesuch.orgasm> wrote in message news:<QsWW9.75370$Pb.30...@twister.austin.rr.com>...
"Robert M. Bratcher Jr" <brat...@pdq.net> wrote in message