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The Source: Did The City Dump Dirt Dangerously?

Earlier this month the San Antonio Express-News reported the dirt being excavated from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center expansion project was initially recommended to be disposed of in a qualified landfill because it  was flagged as potentially harmful do to containing levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, barium, and selenium that "exceeded regulatory levels."

A study commissioned by the construction company Hunt-Zachry, and performed by environmental consultants Geo Strata, stated that some borings exceeded health regulatory levels for workers. They recommended that the dirt not be transported off-site and used as clean fill material, which the City did on City-owned site near U.S. highway 90 and Texas 151. 

Before it started transporting dirt, the City, looking at a $6 million addition to the project bill, commissioned another environmental consultant, to test the soil again. 

Raba Kistner's findings were similar to Geo Strata in finding heavy metals in some places that exceeded some regulatory levels. Kistner bored more holes and tested more samples in the area of most concern and their findings led them to believe the soil was safe to reuse. They did not, make a recommendation to dispose of the soil or recommend the city consider the soil contaminated as Geo Strata did. Kistner, in fact, recommended it be used on the City-owned site where the 150,000 cubic yards now resides. 

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, in a letter to Mayor Ivy Taylor, reiterated her belief that the dirt is safe. She pointed out that both studies rated the soil as residential development grade. She elaborated in a recent op-ed that this meant it could be used in ball fields, neighborhoods and backyards.

Reportedly, the Geo Strata study was not disclosed to City Council or, according to the city manager. This lack of transparency may have cost the City regarding a potential land swap with the San Antonio Water System, who when they found out about the dirt and the Geo Strata report backed out of the deal. 

So is the dirt safe? And is it standard operating procedure to not brief the Council on competing recommendations?


  • Brian Chasnoff, Columnist for the San Antonio Express-News
  • Mike Frisbie, Director of the Capital Improvements Services Department at the City of San Antonio
  • Rick Klar, associate with Raba Kistner
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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive