City tracks down owners of oil tank that spilled in January

January spill led to 4,200 gallons of fuel oil in Waller Creek; discovery could help with liability. The City of Austin announced Tuesday that it has cracked the case of the ownership of the downtown underground storage tank that burbled up oil in January, sullying Waller Creek.

After a lot of digging through archives, city employees found records from a Dec. 8, 1910, City Council meeting in which the city gave permission to George W. Littlefield to place a fuel-oil storage tank “under the ground in the alley at the rear of his building.”

The fingering of the Littlefield Building could have implications for payment and liability associated with the spill.

Oil in the 15,000-gallon tank, which is about 31 feet long, was used to power a small generator that created electricity for the Littlefield Building, said Stan Tindel, an environmental compliance specialist with the city.

The classical beaux-arts, nine-story office building actually opened in 1912, and a ledger belonging to Littlefield at the University of Texas showed that between 1915 and 1918, the building received an average of 8,000 gallons of fuel-oil on the 10th of every month, according to Tindel. The tank was rendered obsolete in 1957, when the building was hooked up to the city’s electric grid.

It had sat forgotten until Jan. 10, when a broken waterline forced water into the tank, which sits beneath an alley just north of Sixth Street between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street. The alley is between the Littlefield Building and the Driskill Hotel.

The subsequent containment and cleanup included the removal of 4,000 gallons of sludge from the fuel-oil tank and 4,200 gallons of fuel oil from Waller Creek. The oil had flowed into the creek through a city storm drain system.

The cost for the cleanup stands at about $220,000, according to Lynne Lightsey, a spokeswoman for the city’s watershed protection department.

“We have not decided how to give the bill to the Littlefield, but we know they’ll be responsible for some of it,” said Thomas Bashara, a senior environmental compliance specialist with the city.

The building’s owner, a partnership called HVP, Austin Littlefield LP issued the following statement:

“The Littlefield Building will continue to investigate the oil spill incident and how best to address the cleanup and remediation of the spill. We are in communication with both the City of Austin and the Driskill Hotel, and until a definitive conclusion can be reached regarding the source and ownership of the oil spill, we do not feel it is appropriate to comment further.”

The tank is covered, for now, with sand and plastic tarp, and the alleyway just north of Sixth Street is closed to vehicle traffic. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is figuring out what to do with the old tank, which remains underground, Bashara said.

A spokeswoman for the commission said it has not yet determined who is responsible for the tank.

Bashara said research has uncovered records of at least 500 tanks being placed underground, most of them much smaller, but the city is unsure how many remain underground.

“What’s in the ground may be a very small number,” he said.

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