FORT WORTH - A FOX 4 Investigation has uncovered 100 years of pollution buried under the Fort Worth Auto Pound, right on the banks of the Trinity River.
The toxic problem has cost taxpayers more than $2 million over the past 25 years, but the city has yet to implement a permanent solution.
FOX 4 started investigating what’s known as the “Brennan site” near Brennan Avenue and Northside Drive after a viewer showed us a Google Maps satellite image showing a red stain leading into the Trinity River.
The trough is supposed to channel rainwater through the industrial site and into the Trinity River, but FOX 4 uncovered much more than just rainwater in the ground.
The City of Fort Worth owns several adjacent parcels of land in that area. The city stores impounded vehicles and industrial products on the site.
Brandon Bennett, director of Code Compliance for the city, said the red coloring on that trough could be any number of things.
"It could be red algae,” Bennett said. “It could be oxidation, you know, from rust, from metals that are in the ground. Any number of things could lead to that rust color that is out there."
But, it’s what you can’t see that’s a bigger concern.
The city's own map indicates groundwater contamination and underground flow moving toward the Trinity River.
"As you know, there's a lot of stuff in the ground at the Brennan site,” Bennett said. “Just a lot of things that have contributed to the ground contamination that we have there today."
That “stuff in the ground” includes arsenic, benzene and various petroleum products identified by the city through groundwater testing.
How did those hazardous chemicals get there?
FOX 4 reviewed hundreds of public documents and uncovered a problem dating back to the early 1900s.
Historical photos show large industrial tanks filled with petroleum products.
In 1969, the site became a landfill, marked on the map in red.
Around that time, the city opened the Brennan Service Center and installed more tanks underground.
But, by 1990, the city started finding petroleum in the ground, and Texas environmental regulators enrolled the site in its Leaking Petroleum Tank Remediation Program.
The city spent more than $87,000 to remove nine tanks and shut down the landfill two years later.
Fast forward to 2005, the year Sal Espino was elected to represent District 2 on the Fort Worth City Council.
The Brennan Service Center is in his district.
“It’s a challenge,” Espino told FOX 4 about the ongoing problem. “As a council member, as a citizen, I take very seriously environmental issues.”
In 2005, 2,000 gallons of fuel from an above ground tank spilled into the soil.
Council Member Espino was on the council that approved more than $200,000 for that cleanup and tank repair alone.
In 2009, the city moved the auto pound to this site.
But, later that year, the city discovered even more contaminated soil, forcing the council to approve another half-million dollars for cleanup.
In 2010, even more oil pollution forced the city to spend $1.1 million to clean the site and pump out contaminated surface water.
All of those efforts combined cost more than $2 million over 25 years.
"I'm encouraged that they've been dealing with the problem,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an advocacy group based out of Austin. “They've acknowledged that there is a problem. They've attempted to solve the problem. However, it's very frustrating that after 20 years, they still haven't gotten to the bottom of it."
Environment Texas has ranked the Trinity in the top third of most-polluted waterways in the state.
“The last thing the Trinity River needs is more pollution from the City of Fort Worth,” Metzger said.
A 2013 soil test yet again found contamination and the city discovered high levels of toxic chemicals in the ground.
According to the city, from August 2013 to December 2015, "Benzene and arsenic were detected above either the residential screening level or the commercial industrial screening level...on a consistent basis."
Arsenic and benzene showed up in more than half of the city’s 21 groundwater monitoring wells on the site.
One sample showed arsenic at 15 times the highest acceptable level set by the state.
Another sample detected benzene at more than 600 times the acceptable level.
City officials insisted the chemicals aren’t getting into drinking water or the air right now. They also said if the chemicals in the ground aren’t disturbed, workers and visitors are safe.
The state agrees.
In 26 years of remediation, state regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have never ordered any corrective actions or fines.
Metzger with Environment Texas said the lack of enforcement is troubling.
Metzger said it is “outrageous” that the state “hasn't forced any corrective action hasn't penalized the city [and] hasn't come in and provided the assistance to finally get to the bottom of this and stop the pollution."
City officials say they’re ready to fix this problem once and for all.
"Right now, there's a [Request for Proposals] out to look at testing and coming out with a remediation plan for benzene and arsenic,” said Council Member Espino. “That's concerning, so we’ve got to come up with a game plan to fully address the issue."
City council will vote Tuesday on whether to spend $589,500 to hire a consultant to evaluate contamination at the Brennan site, as well as five other polluted sites owned by Fort Worth.
If hired, the consultant would study and begin designing an underground filter at the Brennan site.
"Think of it as a Brita water container,” Bennett said. “We can't stop the ground water from coming up and coming through this material. What we can do is we can collect it and run it through filters, so that what little bit of it does end up into the Trinity River is even cleaner than what's getting to the river now."
Bennett said the filter concept is the best option, because digging out more dirt could disturb the contamination and potentially expose more chemicals.
The city claims it has money in the bank for this ambitious project, but was not clear about how much the project will cost in the long run.
What is clear is that the city is motivated by the Trinity River Vision project.
The massive future development nicknamed “the Riverwalk of Fort Worth” is all dependent on a clean, usable and safe waterway.
"As a green city, as a city that values the environment, we have to make significant investments in remediating environmental concerns, and this is certainly a top priority,” said Espino. “It will be part of our capital plan, and I think we're going to do whatever it takes to get it clean"
In the meantime, the city does still maintain four above ground petroleum storage tanks on the site, with no reported leaks, meaning contemporary Fort Worth taxpayers are the ones footing the bill for 100 years of historical contamination.