Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Contaminated Groundwater in Richardson

This agenda item for the Richardson City Council caught my eye:
City staff will review the process for consideration of a Municipal Settings Designation [MSD] for a commercial property near Coit Road and Arapaho Road. A Municipal Settings Designation is an official state designation within a municipality that certifies that designated groundwater at the property is not used as potable water and is prohibited from future use as potable water.
Why wouldn't you want to use groundwater as potable water?

Because it's contaminated is one simple reason. In this case, the contamination is perchloroethylene, a solvent used by a dry cleaners. Long-term exposure to perchloroethylene can cause cancer.

Why seek an MSD certification instead of cleaning up the contamination? The answer is not so simple. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ):
The purpose of the MSD law is to provide a less expensive and faster alternative to the existing state environmental regulations governing the investigation and cleanup of contaminated groundwater. The statute substitutes a municipal ordinance or restrictive covenant in lieu of TCEQ regulations to protect the public against exposure to the contaminated groundwater.
Source: TCEQ.
I suspect "less expensive" and "faster" are the operative words there.

On Facebook, Bill McCalpin helpfully pointed out a similar MSD from 2012. In that case the property in question was in the City of Dallas at the northwest corner of Coit and Campbell. Because of its proximity to Richardson, the City of Richardson's support for the MSD certification was needed. Two lines from a presentation for the Richardson city council in 2012 caught my eye: "Soil and groundwater is remediated to protective concentration limits (PCLs). If compliance to PCL standards is not feasible then an MSD designation is sought for the property." In other words, if you can't fix it, slap a warning sign on it and carry on.

That sounded to me a little like the punchline to the old joke:
Patient: "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this."
Doctor: "Don't do that."

Elsewhere on Facebook, Andrew Laska shrugged (if I can read body language on a Facebook post), "Bad groundwater you say? Well yeah. We are in a built up place and that happens."

In the same thread, Randy Loftis expresses my concern exactly, MSD is "not a water protection program; just the opposite -- it's the state allowing the pollution to remain, saving owners or developers the cleanup expense, which can be large. In effect, it transfers responsibility for dealing with the pollution from the polluter (or the land's possibly innocent owner) to the public. It's also a future economic boon for owners, telling potential buyers, lenders, and investors that the property doesn't come with a cleanup bill."

When this agenda item was covered during Monday's meeting, the only council member who had even a single question was Janet DePuy, who asked what the impetus was for requests like this. The answer is that banks, before refinancing a property, want to be assured they aren't getting involved in a Superfund site. At least that's the answer given by a city staff member. The staff mutant quickly reassured everyone that this case is nothing like that. And everyone accepted that assurance without any more questions. The request was approved unanimously in the consent agenda.

I'm not done with my own questions about the MSD program.

What's the value of the "economic boon for owners" that Loftis alludes to? Is this just a big giveaway by the City to banks and developers? Because it's the City awarding that boon, and because it's the public who are taking on the liability, should the property owner pay the City something for this?

If cleanup of contaminated groundwater is just too damned expensive to expect, say, a dry cleaning business to be able to afford it, should we require business owners dealing with toxic chemicals to insure themselves against the possibility of environmental contamination? That's the way other catastrophic risks are managed, by pooling the risk among many such owners. Tornadoes are insured against. Why not toxic groundwater?

Inquiring minds want to know.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

In a private communication, Andrew Laska assures me he wasn't shrugging. I apologize for imagining the body language.