> news features
News Big runaround
The City produces Big Tex asbestos docs, but they just raise more questions
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in San Antonio, and the athletic fields at Brackenridge High School in Southtown are filled with students at play and practice. Across the river, the Blue Star Art Silos, also known as the Big Tex site, sit largely vacant and quiet. On February 9, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a Zoning Committee recommendation to change Big Tex’s classification from industrial to multi-family and commercial so that developer James Lifshutz can proceed with plans to build a residential and retail project similar to the adjacent Blue Star Arts Complex, which Lifshutz also owns. Neighborhood residents object to the project because they fear the site is contaminated with asbestos from a W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing plant that operated on the site from 1961 to 1989 [see “Big questions,” and “Show us the data,” January 25-31, 2006].
Last week, in response to an open-records request from the Current, the City released reports by private consultants that Lifshutz says show the property is safe for redevelopment. Michael D. Campbell, an independent geoscientist and consultant who has testified in asbestos cases, reviewed the test results for the Current and found “no indications of significant tremolite or chrysotile asbestos present in soil or air samples.”
But residents and Councilwoman Patti Radle of District 5, which encompasses the Big Tex site, say they are dissatisfied with those studies because one testing company worked for W.R. Grace and the other was hired by Lifshutz. “These studies that have been done, they don’t have our community confidence,” said Radle. In 2000, the site’s previous owner refused to allow the Environmental Protection Agency access to evaluate the facility.
The Big Tex site was one of more than 200 facilities nationwide that processed vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana, that contained high levels of an amphibole type of asbestos. According to the EPA, the microscopic particles of amphibole-type asbestos pose an even greater health risk than long-fiber asbestos such as chrysotile.
Since 1999, when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article first brought asbestos-related health problems at the Libby mine to public attention, the EPA has declared Libby a Superfund site and identified 28 Grace processing plants as Phase I clean-up and evaluation sites. Big Tex was not on that initial list, but according to Keller Thormaelin, a senior toxicologist and industrial hygienist with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Blue Star site was “nearly in that group.” Like many of the Phase I sites, San Antonio was an “expansion” or “exfoliation” facility where vermiculite ore was heated to expand it, according to the 2000 report by Grace subsidiary Remedium.
Libby asbestos has caused the EPA to reevaluate its standards. A 2004 agency memo notes that the 1 percent threshold — material containing less than 1 percent asbestos is virtually unregulated — was based on the scientific methods available in the ’70s, which doesn’t accurately measure asbestos in low concentrations. “Using the counting or air-sampling techniques that have historically been used is not going to be very effective with [Libby’s asbestos],” agrees Thormaelin.
Nor is the EPA’s 1 percent threshold adequate to evaluate the risk from asbestos in the soil, says the 2004 memo, and “may not be protective of human health in all instances of site cleanups ... Therefore we recommend
“These studies that
have been done,
they don’t have our community confidence.”
– Patti Radle
“Disturbing soil often liberates even more fine-grained asbestos to the air,” acknowledges Campbell. “Many times the most effective solution is to cover the contaminated area.” But he adds that “health impacts all happen because of ignorance of the repercussions from working in a dusty environment over many years.”
Following the closing of the San Antonio facility, W.R. Grace removed manufacturing and storage equipment from its warehouse at 354 Blue Star. An exterior storage silo and bucket elevator were left in place. As recently as January, Henry Karnai of the loca EPA office reported seeing “very limited” amounts of vermiculite at the Big Tex site. “It looks like glitter on the ground,” he said, adding that he thought it would be easy to remove.
The 2000 Remedium investigation reported vermiculite visible or within a foot of the surface at several locations around the main warehouse building and in a nearby debris mound, but it reported that air sampling revealed no significant asbestos fibers, even when the newer, more-sophisticated Transmission Electron Microscopy method was used. But critics are not convinced. “Everything that comes to us was not overseen by someone who does not have a bias toward the developer or the owner,” says Thormaelin. A 2005 study also used the older Polarized Light Microscopy method, which according to the EPA cannot reliably detect asbestos in concentrations less than 1 percent.
Neighborhood activists have worked hard to convince Radle that Lifshutz’s plans should be put on hold until government-supervised tests are completed, but Radle says the Council has no jurisdiction to reject the zoning application because of environmental concerns. “Legally I can’t hold up a case and say we’re not gonna pass this zoning unless you do this environmental study,” Radle told the Current. “Once he turns in a plan, that’s when things can get kicked in.”
Until the developer begins to apply for City permits, it is up to the state to enforce health and environmental regulations at the site, says Radle. Terry Clawson of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said that the EPA currently is reviewing the case. “This is really in the EPA’s hands right now, so it will really depend what they come back with,” said Clawson. The EPA did not return calls for comment before press deadline.
State Representative Mike Villarreal, who lives in the neighborhood bordering Big Tex, said that Lifshutz has “given me his word,” that he will perform Phase I testing, which includes gathering historical data on asbestos-manufacturing at the site, and Phase II testing, including gathering and testing samples.
“What I think is important is that the environmental concerns have risen to the top and folks in the City and at the State are working with the developer to ensure that adequate testing is done,” said Villarreal. “How do we as public officials pay proper attention to health concerns but as much as possible follow a very methodical process to get to the end goal, which is to reuse this land?” •
By Elaine Wolff