Developer James Lifshutz withdrew the proposed zoning change for his Big Tex site from the City Council agenda February 9. The Zoning Commission had recommended that Council approve the application for the Southtown property, which would allow Lifshutz to build multi-family housing and retail outlets on the site of a former W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing facility. Some neighborhood residents oppose the change because of fears that the site may be contaminated with tremolite asbestos from the Libby, Montana, mine that was the source of the vermiculite. `See "Big questions," January 25-31, 2006, and "Big runaround," February 1-7, 2006.` Lifshutz told the Current that he plans to bring the zoning request back to Council in "about a month," but declined to comment further. He must request that it be placed on the agenda within six months or he will have to start over with the Zoning Commission.
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John Martin, federal on-scene coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6, said that the EPA has received a citizen's petition from resident Margarita Maldonado asking the agency to evaluate the Big Tex site. Although the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told the Current that it is up to EPA to take action, Martin says that the state has not made a formal request. "If `the state` wants EPA's involvement, you need to request our involvement," said Martin, adding that "the right people in Austin," are now aware of the public concern over Big Tex and that he needs to "sit down" with TCEQ so the agencies can decide how to proceed.
On January 7, TCEQ sent a letter to attorney and neighborhood activist Anita Anderson, stating that the agency sent Lifshutz a letter dated January 11 that noted a 2000 report by a W.R. Grace consultant found asbestos-containing vermiculite on the site. "Before any demolition/construction activities are performed at this site, it is recommended that you evaluate the site for the presence of asbestos and/or other reasonably expected contaminants," reads the letter to Lifshutz. "Other state, federal, and local government agencies may also have jurisdiction over activities at the site and should be consulted before demolition, construction, or remediation activities commence."
Lifshutz hired environmental-consulting firm Clean Environments in 2005 to inspect Big Tex. The company reported no significant levels of asbestos at the site, but critics, including District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle and Texas Department of State Health Services senior toxicologist and industrial hygienist Keller Thormahlen, have suggested that an evaluation needs to be overseen by an agency or company independent of the developer. The Clean Environments study also used a measurement tool that cannot accurately detect the smallest asbestos particles or asbestos in concentrations less than one percent.
Lifshutz would not confirm or deny State Representative Mike Villarreal's assertion that Lifshutz has promised to perform Phase I and Phase II testing if necessary. A Phase I study would require core samples and a review of the site's operational history under W.R. Grace, including the disposal of manufacturing waste. "I don't know how they're gonna get that information without a big stick from the EPA," says Anderson.
Anderson and Maldonado say they are frustrated that the EPA, the TDSHS, and the TCEQ are still struggling with jurisdiction over the site. "OK, whose problem is it?" asks Maldonado. Echoing TDSHS's Thormahlen, she says, "the best thing would be a Phase I with core samples from a neutral agency with oversight by TCEQ or EPA ... To get it done correctly once and for all." •
By Elaine Wolff