TxDOT has not even begun its SH 45 SW/Mopac toll loop plan, but already it is violating promises to protect the Edwards Aquifer and endangered species.

In the pdf Shudde Fath et al, v. TxDOT and CTRMA lawsuit (1.66 MB) over the proposed SH 45 SW/Mopac toll loop, TxDOT told the court in June that there would be no construction on the SH 45 SW Phase I piece of the loop before October and no construction on the misnamed “Mopac Intersections” piece before December.

But in a pdf Status Report (38 KB) filed with the court July 28, TxDOT disclosed that it had allowed AT&T crews to undertake trenching and tunneling along Mopac north of Slaughter Lane in order to move cable lines out of the way of the planned construction. TxDOT reported that as AT&T was boring a tunnel under the existing Mopac lanes “when the bore reamer passed through gravel, the bore hole collapsed, and AT&T excavated a pit to recover the bore reamer.”

When AT& T informed TxDOT of the problem, TxDOT tells the court that it “directed AT&T to stop the work and fill in any excavations it made.” It goes on to tell the court that it “regrets the miscommunications within TxDOT’s own offices which lead to the activities.”

The problem here is that TCEQ’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Rules require that when a void is encountered during construction over the Edwards recharge zone, that construction stop, a geologist survey the void, and an appropriate “void mitigation” plan is followed in order to minimize the flow of sediment and other pollution into the aquifer. Similarly, US Fish & Wildlife Service protocol require that when voids are encountered qualified biologists inspect the site to evaluate potential habitat for endangered species. Telling AT&T to “fill in” the excavation site violated the TCEQ rules and USFWS protocols.

Filling in the void and the surrounding construction site also violated TxDOT promises in its “Mopac Intersections” Environmental Assessment that when voids in the Edwards rock are encountered “Construction will cease and coordination with USFWS will occur.”

pdf This excerpt (141 KB) from the Mopac Intersections Final EA is highlighted to show what TxDOT said it was going to do. SOS Alliance staff confirmed that TxDOT never informed USFWS officials or City of Austin watershed protection staff of the incident. Most likely, TCEQ was never informed as well.

The literal cover up of the site makes it impossible to assess what actually happened, the size or extent of the void that the tunneling bore fell into, whether lubricants or fuel was spilled, how much sediment was flushed into the aquifer, whether endangered species were present, and whether further collapse is likely. TxDOT’s report is extremely vague about the details. This drone video shows the site in the Mopac median (and the trenching along the sides of Mopac), but with it covered up you can’t tell much.

The “Mopac Intersections” project is misnamed because it is far more than just improving the Slaughter and LaCrosse intersections. It will add six new lanes to a 2.1 mile length of South Mopac (making that stretch of Mopac a total of 10 lanes). It will require trenching down into the cave-forming Edwards limestone 23 to 25 feet so that the new Mopac lanes will pass under new Slaughter and LaCrosse overpasses. It is also the middle-link in TxDOT’s three-part extension and expansion of South Mopac. The AT&T trenching and tunneling is a tiny fraction of the excavation that is planned for approximately 14-miles of construction over the recharge zone.

By coincidence, TxDOT is now trying to convince USFWS scientists to agree with its conclusion that building the Mopac Intersections piece of the 45SW/Mopac toll loop is “not likely to adversely affect” endangered species. USFWS has made it clear on several occasions that it does not agree with TxDOT. So TxDOT is now trying to keep USFWS silent by delaying the required endangered species review while speeding ahead with construction plans.

The Austin blind salamander was listed endangered in significant part because of the threats of pollution from TxDOT’s planned extension and expansion of South Mopac. It’s simply not possible to build such massive roadways without causing “significant impacts” to both aquifer-dwelling salamander habitat and human habitat.

If TxDOT can’t keep a large tunnel boring tool from falling into Edwards caves, its hard to imagine how TxDOT is going to keep construction sediment and debris and microscopic and liquid car and truck droppings out of the aquifer. It’s easy to promise; common sense tells us it can’t be delivered.

But hey, just cover it up. Miscommunications happen.

The Fath v. TxDOT lawsuit provide the best opportunity to keep TxDOT from building an alternate I-35 through Austin and over the Barton Springs recharge zone. If successful, the suit will force TxDOT and its toll partner, CTRMA, to prepare a comprehensive, science-based analysis of the entire 45SW/Mopac toll loop project. It will also force consideration of alternatives that can move north-south traffic through Austin without converting Mopac into a second Interstate 35. With your help, we can keep Mopac a local commuter highway, save our springs, and protect our parks, schools and neighborhoods up and down the Mopac corridor. Please do your part with a tax-deductible donation to SOS today.