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City of Dallas polluted Cedar Creek via Dallas Zoo

January 31, 2012

City of Dallas ran afoul of EPA in 2004 for

dumping animal waste into creek.

Michael Ainsworth/Staff Photographer
Construction crews are working on a retaining wall alongside Cedar Creek, near the Dallas Zoo in an effort to keep animal wastes out of the creek.



Environmental Writer

Published: 30 January 2012 11:05 PM

Industrial-scale discharges of animal waste into Dallas’ Cedar Creek haven’t been a problem just for Columbia Packing Co., the slaughterhouse that environmental agents searched last week while investigating the possible dumping of pigs’ blood and chemicals.

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency launched legal action against another big dumper of animal leftovers into Cedar Creek: the city of Dallas.

Water from rain and from the cleaning of enclosures at the city-owned Dallas Zoo routinely flushed animal waste and other contaminants into the creek, which runs through the zoo upstream from Columbia Packing.

That was one of many pollution problems the EPA identified around the city.

A 2006 federal court settlement between the city and the EPA promised solutions. Dallas would boost inspections and staffing for water quality citywide and regularly file reports. The city would also be required to build an artificial wetland at the zoo to filter the runoff.

Wetland plants would absorb pollution before water reached Cedar Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River.

Six years later, the city has put the procedures in place and is up to date on the required paperwork, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan said. Dallas also paid an $800,000 fine.

The zoo, which has been run by the nonprofit Dallas Zoological Society since 2009, has made changes to limit and clean up water leaving its property. So far, however, there is no artificial wetland.

Jordan said the switch in zoo management put the Cedar Creek wetland on hold.

Plans are in hand for that project and another promised, but not built, water-cleaning wetland near the city’s Pavaho pump station on the Trinity, also part of the settlement with the EPA.

The EPA is aware of the delays in the wetland projects but still considers the city to be in compliance with terms of the 2006 settlement, agency spokesman David Bary said.

The pollution of Cedar Creek, and ultimately the Trinity, with organic animal wastes that can cause fish kills and carry pathogens has been under new scrutiny since Jan.19, when local, state and federal agents went to Columbia Packing with a search warrant.

They were responding to a tip from a man who saw what looked like blood in the creek in photographs he took with a camera-equipped remote-controlled plane on Dec. 9.

Dallas County investigator John Spencer cited evidence he gathered from aerial photos and a month of observation indicating that Columbia Packing had been releasing pigs’ blood and chemicals through a pipe from its slaughterhouse and packing plant directly into Cedar Creek.

At times, Spencer wrote in an affidavit, the creek’s water “turned blood red.”

Agents executed the search warrant as part of a criminal investigation, but they have not charged the plant or its executives.

On Tuesday, Dallas officials cited Columbia Packing for 18 alleged city code violations related to the plant’s wastewater discharges. “Hair and fleshings, whole blood, plastic gloves, and other materials” were in the discharges, the city said in a letter to the company.

In a statement released Thursday, the company said the discharges were accidental results of a clogged sewer line that routed wastewater to an overflow pipe leading to the creek.

“If we had known about it, we would have taken immediate remedial action,” the company said. “Since then the clog has been removed, and the lines are flowing cleanly into the city’s sewer line in compliance with city code.”

A Google Earth satellite image from March 2011 shows a dark material entering the Trinity River a few yards downstream from Columbia Packing. Investigators have not said when they think discharges to Cedar Creek began.

In the most recent routine city inspection, in 2008, the drain pipe to Cedar Creek wasn’t noted, said Jordan, the assistant city manager.

The zoo’s pollution case was clearly different: Nobody was slaughtering animals or draining their blood into Cedar Creek.

However, flushing large amounts of animal feces and urine into public waters has proven to be a big threat to the environment. Dairies, feed lots, chicken and pig farms and other agricultural operations where many animals are kept in close quarters are major sources of water pollution, the EPA says.

In addition, pollution of the Trinity contrasts with the city’s efforts to reconnect people with the river.

The new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, plans for parks in the river’s floodplain near downtown, the new Santa Fe Trail and the Standing Wave whitewater feature all seek to draw people back to a previously neglected and abandoned waterway.

A lawsuit that the federal government filed in 2006 alleged that Dallas routinely violated the Clean Water Act.

The EPA said the city was not inspecting enough pollution sources, employing enough staff or controlling pollutants in its own discharges. Regardless of where runoff pollution originates, the city is responsible when the contaminants reach the river or its tributaries through storm drains or from city sewage treatment plants.

The federal suit mirrored a civil enforcement order that the EPA issued in 2004.

In settling the case two years later, the city did not admit liability but agreed to make several changes to improve water quality. One of those was to build the Cedar Creek wetland at the zoo at an estimated cost of at least $525,000.

The other wetland, at the Pavaho pump station, was expected to cost at least $675,000.

Jordan said the city has done everything else the settlement required, including hiring more people to inspect and oversee discharges to the Trinity.

The most recent annual city report to the EPA required under the settlement, submitted June 1, 2011, outlines scores of actions the city has taken to clean up the water reaching the Trinity, including thousands of industrial inspections.

At the zoo, a list of water-quality improvements includes several meant to keep animal waste from reaching Cedar Creek.

The first half-inch of rain runoff from animal areas is routed to the sanitary sewer system, which goes to a city treatment plant rather than directly to the creek, zoo managers said.

Runoff from the children’s zoo also goes to the sanitary sewers. Booms and silt fences block solid material, including animal feces, from reaching storm drains. Manure collection trailers have tops now to keep rain out.

Two full-time zoo staff members perform daily, weekly and monthly drain inspections, and 25 others do daily pollution-prevention checks.

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