City staff wrapped up two days of detailed briefings on the recent relocation of Convention center dirt with a Wednesday afternoon session before City Council that followed a Tuesday presentation to the SAWS board of trustees. City staff also provided timeline details on yet another independent test of the Convention Center dirt moved to City-owned property on Hwy 151 that will be completed in April.
District 9 City Councilmember Joe Krier said the latest test being conducted by Weston Solutions is bound to be redundant but also welcomed as affirmation of a comprehensive study undertaken by Raba Kistner (see study map above) and indirectly supported by a study by the Southwest Research Institute of neighboring San Antonio Food Bank soil which showed the vegetable gardens unaffected by their proximity to City-owned property where the Convention Center soil was moved.
Much of the two days of briefings restated the data and narrative set forth in a Rivard Report story published Sunday, Feb. 28:
City Manager Sheryl Sculley opened the Wednesday briefing, saying the data contained in three different studies of the soil all show that "the soil was safe enough to use in our backyards, on ball fields and gardens." Sculley said that City staff was refining communication plans and policies for any future incidents where projects require soil testing for possible contamination and remediation.
"The problem appears to be more of a communications than environmental one," Mayor Ivy Taylor said during the briefing.
"In fairness to those (on staff) involved, because the readings were not at elevated levels, they weren't concerned," Sculley said. "Nevertheless, we are changing our communication processes."
Sculley and several staffers acknowledged the staff could have been more proactive in briefing council members, "community partners, the media and the public." But Sculley and several City Council members also spoke bluntly of "misinformation" disseminated to the public that created a false sense of crisis. While the Express-News was not mentioned by name, several Council members repeated her criticisms of "misinformation" and praised Sculley for an op-ed she wrote that was published in the Express-News Opinion section on Feb. 20.
"(P)oor communication does not make an environmental catastrophe," Sculley wrote at the end of her op-ed. "Sensational reporting, on the other hand, can certainly create the perception of one." Click here to read the Sculley op-ed. It does not appear on www.mysa.com, the newspaper's free website and the newspaper no longer makes its Opinion section available to users of the paid tablet app.
It was clear that City officials believe a confusing report by Geo Strata Environmental performed for the Convention Center's design-build consortium Hunt-Zachry firm led to sensationalized Express-News stories that left readers believing contaminated soil that posed a potential health hazard was excavated and moved without public disclosure. The chemical analysis contained in the Geo Strata report showed all the excavated and relocated soil met state standards for safe residential use, but the narrative portion of the same report contained errors that left a different impression. Even now, neither Geo Strata nor the newspaper have publicly corrected those errors.
"Sheryl, I thought your letter to the editor laid it out perfectly," said Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10). "I think a whole lot of people feel a whole lot better about this now than they did before."
A more in-depth study that the City retained Raba Kistner to conduct showed the soil was "clean and safe."
At the heart of the confusion with the original Geo Strata report is that there is indeed soil on the Convention Center project site that contains levels of heavy metals considered dangerous for residential use, said Richard Klar, vice president of Raba Kistner, to the SAWS board on Tuesday – but those samples came from Area One. The soil in question was from Area Three. (See map below.)
"Very little of that (soil from Area One) has to be removed as part of what's planned for the project," he said. "But the city is aware that for any soils that need to be removed (from Area One), special handling will need to be undertaken. ... It could be reusing it as part of the project in some beneficial way, perhaps, or worst-case-scenario taking it to a landfill."
For whatever reason, Geo Strata erroneously recommended a $6 million trip to the landfill for Area Three dirt instead of just that which is contaminated in Area One.
Further testing of soil in Areas One and Two will be conducted as the project progresses, said Mike Frisbee, director of the City's Transportation and Capital Improvements Department.
Two subsequent studies testing soil at the San Antonio Food Bank, which has large vegetable garden plots located across Old Hwy 90 from the city-owned property where the soil was relocated, showed the soil there also is clean and safe.
Raba Kistner engineers participated in the Wednesday briefing at City Council. Geo Strata engineers were invited but did not appear.
"We can all agree that if we had it to do over again, we would have communicated it differently," Krier said. "I don't know Geo. I don't know Weston Solutions (conducting the current test due April 17). But I do know Raba Kistner and I have known them for decades. This is a national firm with a national reputation. You do not jeopardize that national reputation with a report that states anything other than what you think."
The last word was reserved for Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6), whose district includes both the City-owned property where the Convention Center soil was deposited and the nearby San Antonio Food Bank.
"There is no question in my mind or certainly anybody else's about the integrity of the data we are getting," Lopez said. "We can turn the page and move on."
The city-owned parcel of land across from the Food Bank was slated to be part of a land swap between SAWS and the City, but that deal fell apart in November. City and SAWS staff confirmed after this week's board meeting that SAWS is simply no longer interested in the land – for reasons beyond the dirt.
"While the separate environmental reports were a consideration to SAWS, marketability of the property, soil compaction and the site conditions were also part of the discussion," stated Anne Hayden, SAWS communication manager, in an email. "Given that SAWS did not have a specific need for this type of property, our preference for adequate compensation in exchange for our 12 acres was always a cash transaction to be used to help fund our service center project."
The City still wants to purchase a 12-acre property at Potranco Road and Texas 151 from SAWS for construction of a recreation center in District 6. Consideration of a cash purchase of the land will be on the SAWS board agenda for April.
*Featured/top image: Raba Kistner's soil boring map.