Troubled Water?

Last January the Austin American-Statesman warned that Barton Springs, one of the state's prized natural swimming holes, was dangerously polluted. Here's what you need to know before you dip your toe back in.

 

Exactly what did the Statesman find in Barton Springs?
Hazardous chemicals—most notably, benzoapyrene, a carcinogenic product of burning coal, gas, or oil. According to the paper’s independent testing, the chemical was found in both the sediment at the bottom of the pool and the bed of Barton Creek (the waterway above the springs) at levels exceeding those of a dozen of the most toxic waste sites in the United States.

What prompted the Statesman to conduct its tests to begin with?
An article in the paper last August noted that the city’s own testing had revealed the presence of benzoapyrene on the pool’s bottom and suggested that the finding represented a health risk to humans. Subsequent editorials questioned whether the city was concentrating too much on potential risks to the Barton Springs salamander, a federally protected endangered species, while possibly overlooking clear and present threats to swimmers. The Statesman’s tests were designed to investigate the latter and determine whether the city was being negligent.

Should we believe the Statesman’s findings?
“The articles and editorials stand by themselves,” editor Richard Oppel told me in an e-mail. The Statesman, however, has long contested the city’s management of the Barton Creek watershed, and critics see the newspaper’s report as an attempt to discredit the city’s anti-development stance. The Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly, responded to the report with a parody of the Statesman’s alarmist front page, and its editor, Louis Black, accused the daily of “tabloid exploitation.” In fact, the Statesman’s headline—”Toxic Chemicals Taint Barton Waters”—was somewhat misleading. The toxins were found in the pool’s and the waterway’s sediment, not the water. Health experts say that unless a swimmer has a penchant for eating gallons of mud at the bottom of the pool, the health risks are negligible.

How is the city fighting the flak?
City manager Toby Hammett Futrell immediately closed the pool, but she insists that it was to calm fears generated by the news coverage, not because the presence of toxic chemicals was a real threat to human safety. To back up her contention that the Statesman reporters misinterpreted data, she brought in scientists from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the

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