Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bottled water anyone?

Sewer leak over aquifer

01/12/2006 12:00

Amy Dorsett, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Bureaucratic bungling let raw sewage intermittently seep into Edwards Aquifer recharge zone land for almost a month, environmental activists said Wednesday.

The leak finally was treated Tuesday.

But what hasn't been determined is how reports of a problem as far back as Dec. 14 weren't addressed until this week.

The mishap apparently was caused by contract workers for the Texas Department of Transportation clearing brush to make way for a toll road on U.S. 281 just north of Evans Road.

One of the workers, from the Zachry Construction Corp., reported to San Antonio Water System that a water main was believed to have been hit.

However, SAWS determined that area on the far North Side has water service from the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, and apparently assumed that agency was dealing with the issue.

After getting no response, a Zachry worker again called SAWS to report the problem Jan. 6, and asked a SAWS employee to go to the site for an inspection.

By the time a SAWS worker arrived at the site, construction workers had left for the day and the water agency employee checked out where he thought the problem was and found nothing, SAWS spokeswoman Anne Hayden said.

Finally on Tuesday, TxDOT representatives asked someone from SAWS to meet them at the site. When they discovered raw sewage, they treated the area with a type of chlorine-based disinfectant in an effort to treat the spill.

SAWS is responsible for sewage even where BexarMet handles water mains.

"It's pretty creepy," said Annalisa Peace, vice president for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas. "I think SAWS is really negligent. It is absolutely disgusting."

While Hayden admitted the problem took a long time to correct, she noted SAWS workers worked to remedy the situation as soon as they discovered it.

She said the ground was saturated with sewage, but because the problem had existed for so long, she couldn't guess how much of the effluent had flowed through the pipe since Dec. 14.

"I can't even estimate it," she said.

Robert Potts, general manager for the Edwards Aquifer Authority, said his agency also learned of the issue this week.

"It's enough of a concern that we're going to be checking some wells to see if we can detect the effects from the sewage," he said. "It's not the type of thing we'd like to have happen over the recharge zone, and it needs to be dealt with quickly."

Hayden said SAWS workers determined there wasn't enough sewage on top of the ground to be pumped out and instead decided chemical and water treatment was most appropriate.

She also explained that in that area of town, sewage is collected in an underground wet well. When it reaches a certain level, it pumps waste into a forced sewer main.

While the problem came from a 6-inch pipe, it was two 2-inch valves on the pipe that were sheared off by the Zachry crew — not the pipe itself.

"It doesn't flow continuously," she said. "It would only be obvious when it was flowing."

Crews began clearing trees and putting up fences to catch silt in late November to prepare for construction of three miles of frontage roads and toll lanes — 16 lanes at the widest points — on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone just north of Loop 1604.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation Inc. sued Dec. 2 in federal court to demand that a thorough impact study be done. A hearing on the group's request for an injunction is set for Jan. 27.

TxDOT officials said they're sending an environmental specialist to the area to check out the situation.

Peace said she hopes the incident will result in more education for workers in the area.

"Apparently (TxDOT) hasn't instructed contractors on how to work on this environmentally sensitive land," she said.
Staff Writer Patrick Driscoll contributed to this report.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: