Paradise Lost

Milby's cleanup cost Houston $10 million. Now HCC says the site is still contaminated.

Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that in high inhalation doses can cause liver damage, blood changes and a plethora of nasty cancers, was detected in high levels in a well about 100 feet east of the site. The data was unclear about the groundwater tested from other wells on the property and near it.

The problem, says Zupan, is that testing instruments apparently could not detect levels of vinyl chloride below .005 milligrams per liter. That is two and a half times above the EPA standard of .002, so the tests could not show if there was a problem.

So why didn't the city insist on more-sensitive testing? Zupan says officials might have been made overly confident by some lab reports that left out detection limits for vinyl chloride and just listed "n.d." for "not detected."

The Milby field: Is it safe or not?
Phillippe Diederich
The Milby field: Is it safe or not?

"As a human being you could be a little over-reassured when you hear, 'We didn't even detect vinyl chloride,' " says Zupan. "Well, [ask] at what level did you not detect it?"

Zupan believes that future buildings on the site might trap the gas, which could migrate up through the soil, causing inhabitants to breathe toxic air. In his report he estimates a possible cancer risk 72 times greater than the EPA standard. Zupan suggested that HCC perform soil vapor tests to determine locations of elevated gases. And if HCC officials still wanted to build on Milby, Zupan says, they should construct their buildings with special barriers or ventilation systems to keep toxic vapors at bay.

Zupan's arsenic findings do not overly concern him. "I wouldn't want to park my child there to start eating dirt," he says. "That's about the only way that [the arsenic] would be bad."

Zupan emphasizes that his report was meant to be cautious to advise HCC on all possible hazards. He admits that he may have been working with incomplete data and that the city and TNRCC might have drawn different conclusions because they had access to more information.

"[Having] actual site data is more ideal," says Zupan. "But being conservative means making health-protective assumptions."

HCC hired three law firms to analyze Zupan's report and assess the risks. The Houston Press obtained copies of their confidential opinions calling the Milby development plan a bad idea. While none of the attorneys advised HCC to flat-out reject the proposal, they cited the costs for testing, constructing vapor protections and potential lawsuits by workers and students. The attorneys also worried that the TNRCC might revoke its certification to the city if it found out about the HCC review.

The attorneys' repeated use of words such as "lawsuit" apparently resonated with the HCC board.

"That stuff is probably still cooking," trustee Bill Russell said at the July 22 meeting. "I for one don't need to get into that kind of a mess of a liability -- [putting] students in there who are going to get sick from contamination."

City Councilman Felix Fraga pleaded to the trustees at the session. "I beg you not to reach a conclusion or release any findings until you meet with our environmental people at the city." But it was too late -- the board voted 5-2 to find another site for the technology center.

"Anytime you crunch numbers, you can maneuver it to your advantage," Davila says about the Zephyr report. "I have faith in the City of Houston -- I would hope that after $10 million the site would be cleaned up."

And the city insists that's just what happened. Dr. Pamela Berger, the mayor's director of environmental policy, defends the earlier findings. But she also indicates a willingness to perhaps conduct soil vapor testing in light of HCC's investigation.

Byron Ellington, the Milby project manager for TNRCC, agrees with the idea of soil testing, but he says the agency stands behind its certification of the site as safe.

He and the manager of the project point out that the only elevated vinyl chloride reading came from a well that was not on the site.

Stan Hitt, a regional EPA coordinator, says it is common for labs with old equipment to have vinyl chloride detection limits higher than EPA levels. The Milby site's groundwater would not be used for drinking, so testing at the higher levels would be adequate, he says.

"That's really grasping there," Hitt says of Zephyr's toxic-vapor warning. "It's hard for me to see that there would be an emissions problem."

Leah Flanagan, a city building services project manager, also discounted vinyl chloride worries in a July 23 memo. She reported that the TNRCC has significantly increased the allowable amounts of arsenic since Zephyr's February assessment, so the site is well within the limits for residential areas.

Despite their widely different perspectives, city and HCC environmental representatives never met to iron out the contradictory findings.

So the first solid Milby proposal to come along in years was dealt a virtual death blow, but Berger says someone else is considering developing the site.

Joe Fenninger, HCC's chief financial officer, says the trustees took the only realistic course of action in killing the plan. "Would you like to attend school there? What if you were pregnant? Who knows if there's a liability issue, but why expose the college?"

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