How clean is clean?
That's the question facing Houston as officials consider easing strict standards for cleaning up contaminated groundwater. The plan, up for council vote Wednesday, is intended to help spur redevelopment of so-called "brownfields," former industrial properties with low levels of pollution.
A Superfund site in Westchase could be one of the first properties to redevelop if the city adopts the program. The now-defunct Crystal Chemical Company once manufactured herbicides on the 25-acre tract, just east of the Royal Oaks Country Club.
The current owner, Union Pacific Railroad, has treated much of the soil and groundwater for arsenic contamination. But the groundwater still has too much arsenic to qualify as drinking water, according to state and federal environmental regulators
Drinking-water quality — the cleanup standard under state law — can take years to attain. A city official estimated it would take hundreds of years of treatment for the water underneath the Crystal site to be potable, or clean enough to drink.
"Because of the expense, many developers back away from these brownfield-type properties," said Mike Frew, a technical water specialist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
To promote redevelopment of these idle sites, the Texas Legislature created an alternative in 2003. Owners can apply for a "municipal setting designation," or MSD, from the state, with city approval. The MSD allows redevelopment as long as the contaminated groundwater never will be used for drinking.
Sounds like a suburbanite's dream, doesn't it? I bet they name the development "Blue Stream", or even better, "Crystal Water", after the company that laced the soil with arsenic.
In cities like Houston and Dallas, most properties use city-supplied drinking water instead of wells. It just does not make sense to require property owners to reach the potable standard, the city's environmental attorney, Ceil Price, said.
"This is groundwater that no one is using," Price said. "In some cases, the groundwater has been treated for 20 years and they just aren't able to get to drinking water standards. And there just isn't technology to get them to the standard."
If Houston joins the MSD program, hundreds of properties potentially could qualify for redevelopment, Price said. But the properties would have to pass a number of environmental hurdles, and owners would remain liable for cleaning up other pollution, such as contaminated soil or surface water.
Price emphasized that contaminated groundwater that possibly could hurt people in ways besides drinking, such as leaking to the surface or releasing hazardous vapors, still would have to be treated under the MSD program.
Oh, that's good to know, Mr. Price. I was afraid for a moment there you were helping make the case for development.
Local environmentalists do not oppose the MSD program outright, but view it with caution.
"Sometimes (contaminated groundwater) travels and gets into our streams and reduces the quality," said Brandt Mannchen of the Sierra Club's Houston Regional Group.
Nice to know that those environmental whackos aren't up in arms over this.
One concern is the presence of nearby drinking water wells. Seventy percent of the city's water supply comes from Lakes Livingston, Conroe and Houston, but the rest comes from wells. There are three public drinking water wells within a one-mile radius of the Crystal Chemical property.
Regulators say that those wells are protected from the arsenic-contaminated groundwater by a containment wall, a pump system and monitoring equipment. If the site wins MSD status, a deed restriction would prohibit drinking water wells from being dug on the actual site in the future.
The TCEQ has given MSD status to 34 properties statewide, accounting for roughly 577 acres. Most of the sites are in Dallas and Fort Worth.
Gotta keep up with the Metroplex, ya know. Bidness is bidness.
In Fort Worth, the MSD program allowed developers to build a Target, Marshall's and other stores on the downtown site of an old Montgomery Ward warehouse, Frew said. The water underground there still has traces of trichloroethene, a toxic cleaning solvent.
If Houston adopts the program, it should examine each applicant carefully, said James Kelly, president of the Bayou Preservation Association. The city also should be clear with the public that the relaxed standard will provide relief only for a narrowly defined group of eligible brownfields. The city should also create its own name for the MSD program, Kelly said, since "municipal setting designation" does not mean anything to most people.
How about "greenfield enhancement zone"? Or just "Green Zone"?
"Let's just make sure that in relaxing this requirement we don't undermine the incentives of landowners who are keeping their property clean and who are cleaning up pollution when it occurs," Kelly said.
Thanks to Mr. Kelly for thinking a little ahead on this one.
Really and truly, anyone foolish enough to buy a suburban property with arsenic-laced water as a feature is just the kind of fool who will vote to keep in office the Republicans in the Texas Lege who relaxed the rules enough for the developers to offer it for sale.
At a bargain price.