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 Environmental Protection Agency, and three other state and federal bodies to look at the data. "That's who we are relying on, not some guy from Missouri who's never seen this site," Futrell said, taking a shot at one of the scientists the newspaper had consulted. Her experts' preliminary conclusion? Toxins are occasionally found in the sediment, but the water in Barton Springs is safe.

Where's the toxic stuff coming from?
Depends on whom you ask. The Statesman used fifties-era aerial photos to identify a forgotten coal dump from the early twentieth century upstream from the pool, and its reporters posited that this was the source. City officials pointed a finger at runoff from a coal-tar-based sealant used on parking lots. Subsequent testing found equally high levels of benzoapyrene in other urban creeks and in soil beside parking lots—including the Statesman's. Once the source of the contaminants is pinpointed, Futrell says, cleanup will begin.

So Barton Springs is polluted, but it's safe to swim?
The fact that carcinogens were found all over the Barton Creek watershed shows that the treasured springs are clearly not in as pristine a condition as Austin's residents imagined them to be. But as for the safety threat, experts, including John Villanacci, of the Texas Department of Health, say that even swimmers who spend three hours a day in Barton Springs over the next seventy years will not expose themselves to a higher cancer risk than they will by, say, eating a daily bowl of cereal (all cooked foods have minute levels of carcinogens). So when the pool is reopened, feel free to join the city manager when she dives in.

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