UT pipe mix-up dumps sewage in Waller Creek for 2 years

Waller Creek at University of Texas at Austin (KXAN Photo/Todd Bynum)
Waller Creek at University of Texas at Austin (KXAN Photo/Todd Bynum)

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- With every flush of the toilets in two University of Texas engineering school bathrooms, raw sewage poured into Waller Creek, and the dumping extended for more than two years, a KXAN investigation has found.

UT officials say a subcontractor, Hidalgo Industrial Services Inc., accidentally tied the sewage line of two ground-level bathrooms and a janitor’s closet in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering to a storm drain. The crew misidentified the storm drain as a wastewater line, UT said.

The storm drain pours straight into Waller Creek about a block south of Dean Keeton Street. UT officials do not know how many thousands of gallons of raw sewage poured into Waller Creek, which ultimately empties into Lady Bird Lake, a recreation hub, less than two miles downstream.

“There’s no excuse for it. I wish it hadn’t happened, and we’re going to see it doesn’t happen again,” said Robert Rawski, director of the Austin region of UT’s Office of Facilities Planning and Construction. “Absolutely embarrassing.”

No one caught a whiff of the issue until construction crews accidentally crushed the storm drain, sewage backed up and workers discovered the problem. It was reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Oct. 4.

An Austin Watershed Department report says contractor Hensel Phelps crushed the storm drain, which led to the discovery of the problem.

Sewage leak discovered at UT building. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)
Subcontractor, Hidalgo Industrial Services Inc., accidentally tied the sewage line of two ground-level bathrooms and a janitor’s closet in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering to a storm drain, causing a sewage leak. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

Upon discovering the problem, UT officials immediately closed the bathroom, stopped the flow of sewage and notified environmental authorities. Workers pumped nearly 900 gallons of sewage from the storm drain, and it has been repaired and sanitized, Rawski and a UT System spokesperson said.

According to emails obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act, UT officials with the Environmental Health and Safety Office, the engineering school and University Police immediately began emailing about the incident, after the cross-connection was found. In an email message, the dean of the engineering school, Sharon L. Wood, notified UT Austin President Gregory Fenves of the incident on Oct. 5.

Contractor Hensel Phelps, which was in charge of the 2014 construction, is repairing the sewer line at its own expense, Rawski said. In a contractor list obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, Hidalgo Industrial is listed as a subcontractor on the job.

UT provided a root-cause analysis of the incident that illuminates the failures leading to the mistakenly placed sewer line. Hensel Phelps did not provide adequate oversight of its subcontractor Hidalgo, and Hensel Phelps did not reconfirm the existence of additional record drawings of the building. In addition, the design team did not challenge the proposed construction procedure, and dye testing was not performed, the analysis states.

"Prior to commencing work, it appears Hidalgo did not confirm with any type of pre-testing plan or apparatus that the existing connection point was, in fact, a sanitary sewer line," according to UT's analysis.

KXAN has obtained court and state records showing this is not the first construction-related problem Hidalgo has faced in the past six years. Neither Hensel Phelps nor Hidalgo responded to repeated requests for an interview and comment for the story.

KXAN caught up with Hidalgo superintendent, Jens Hasse, at the Austin office of Facility Response Group, which is associated with Hidalgo, according to Secretary of State records.

Hasse deferred all questions about the job and issue back to UT and Rawski, saying contractually he could not speak about matters involving UT.

“Quality assurance is a continuing process in all of our work. No cross connections have ever been discovered, exclusive of UT, which I cannot speak about,” Hasse said.

Hasse would not comment on Hidalgo’s previous legal issues, including numerous lawsuits filed against the company.

Past troubles

A statewide search of court records shows Hidalgo, a Fort Worth-based company, has been sued over 20 times in the past six years. Most of the lawsuits concern outstanding debts.

In August, All-Tex Pipe & Supply Inc. sued Hidalgo, alleging the company owed $156,000 for construction materials for a job at the UT Dell Medical Center, which is still under construction, according to court records. As of Oct. 25, the case was pending in Tarrant County District Court.

Jim Wood Company Inc. sued Hidalgo in 2009 for an alleged issue with a heating and air conditioning installation job at a Dallas Hilton Garden Inn that caused what appeared to be mold to seep into the ballroom, and the installation did not meet city code requirements. Both sides agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, with prejudice, in 2010, according to court records.

In a 2012 case, the U.S. Dept. of Labor sued Hidalgo in federal court for discrimination. An employee said the company discriminated against him, after he notified federal officials in Maryland that a pipe joint was incorrectly installed and posed a danger, according to the suit. In a consent judgment, Hidalgo did not admit to violating any provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Hidalgo paid the plaintiff $10,000, expunged all references of termination from his personnel file and agreed to give the plaintiff a neutral job reference in the future.

Test reveals high fecal coliform

KXAN took samples of the water coming out of the storm drain at its outflow point into Waller Creek on Nov. 3 and took them to an EPA accredited lab for fecal coliform analysis. One of the samples contained 3,900 cfu/100ml (colony forming units per 100ml) and the other contained 4,500 cfu/100ml. The EPA standard for water coming from treatment plants is less than 200 cfu/100ml. The standard for recreational, non-drinking water is less than 2000 cfu/100ml.  

UT spokesperson Jenny Caputo said the university could not comment on KXAN's water testing results because it did not participate in the testing and could not know if the results are "representative or not." Caputo said the university has been participating in the "Improve Austin Stream's" project to better local creek water quality. You can read about that effort here.

It does not appear Hidalgo, Hensel Phelps or UT will face enforcement measures following the UT incident, according to records obtained by KXAN.

In the past five years, Hidalgo and Hensel Phelps have not had any TCEQ violations resulting in enforcement action.

In its spill report given to TCEQ, an environmental official at UT reported zero gallons were spilled into the creek. That is despite the sewage line being cross-connected for two years. At the time the issue was discovered, the flow was stopped and no sewage could be seen in the creek, according to a TCEQ report.

“According to UT officials, no sewage has been observed discharging into or adjacent to waters in the state from this event and was reported to the TCEQ out of an abundance of caution, since no actual discharge was observed/documented,” TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said in an email.

Morrow said the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department planned to investigate the matter.

“The Watershed Protection Department’s goal is to bring folks into compliance,” said Watershed spokesperson Lynn Lightsey in an email to KXAN. “Our investigation staff indicate the creek appears clear with no signs of sewage and no apparent impact to aquatic life.”

It is unclear how the creek was impacted during the time sewage flowed into it, or if human health has been affected.

According to Ken Kramer, retired director of the Sierra Club Lonestar Chapter, the problem goes well beyond foul smells. High bacteria levels from raw sewage can cause health problems, he said.

“Anytime you have raw sewage going into the creek, that's a concern,” Kramer said. “I don't know that you have a lot of people swimming in Waller Creek, and it probably would be to their detriment if they were, but there are still standards and there may be people that might get exposed to the water and that is a concern.”

The seriousness of the sewage situation was not lost on UT student Sarah Seraj. The sewage flowed out from the building where she is studying for a Ph.D. in environmental engineering.

Seraj said the problem is alarming, given the length of time that the sewage flowed into the creek. Her studies focus, in part, on learning how not to make a mistake that would send sewage into a city creek.

“That’s the thing about engineering: one mistake can affect a lot of people,’ Seraj said. “We’re studying what we’re studying…so we can make sure, in the future, we don’t do anything like this."

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