According to Karnes County Road and Bridge Administrator Jeff Wiatrek, the plan to place the materials around the support structures of the bridge, was his and his alone.
Wiatrek said he talked TEC Construction, the contractor hired for the hospital demolition project, and he and the contractor reached an agreement to have the contractor deliver materials to sites along County Road 326 near the bridge for later use by county workers.
“The first few loads that were hauled out there looked good,” Wiatrek said. “And then all of a sudden – I wasn’t paying attention and all of a sudden, when we started getting into the river, we saw all this black paper and everything... a little roofing here, and a little insulation here and there, and some boards, here and there.”
Wiatrek said officials with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) told him that the materials could not be placed under the bridge unless all the unacceptable materials were first removed.
In a press release sent to local media, SARA explained that on May 7, it learned of a large amount of debris in the floodplain and on the San Antonio River underneath County Road 326.
“SARA’s environmental investigator met with Karnes County officials after it was reported that material from a demolished hospital building was being used to stabilize the banks of the river to prevent erosion at the foot of the bridge,” the statement read. “The material consists of rebar, lumber, roofing tar paper, pipes, electrical wire, insulation, vinyl baseboard and other materials. (This could have become a flooding hazard and water quality hazard.)”
“SARA is working with Karnes County and the Texas Commissioner on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to ensure the material will be removed and disposed of properly.”
According to Steven Schauer, SARA manager of external communications, SARA is asking for all of the debris to be removed that was placed into floodplain of the river as well as the piles of material staged in the area for the purpose of bridge stabilization.
“As well-intentioned as it was, it probably wasn’t the best solution to that problem,” Schauer said. “We want to make sure the debris is removed and then provide any further direction or guidance or assistance that the river authority may be able to offer Karnes County to help make sure that a proper solution is identified.”
According to Andrew Pokorny, one of the partners and owners of TEC Construction, Wiatrek left a note on the security gate at the hospital demolition site expressing an interest in using some of the materials from the site. Pokorny called Wiatrek and after Wiatrek looked at the materials, they agreed to deliver them to locations on County Road 326 about 60 yards away from the bridge.
Some of the materials were moved from that location, down under the bridge by county workers, Pokorny said, adding that Wiatrek and other county workers knew what kind of quality of material they were dealing with because it had been inspected before it was loaded and also inspected as the loads were delivered and then later moved under the bridge.
Pokorny would not comment on whether or not TEC would assist with moving the materials to a landfill, or contribute financially to the cost of moving the materials.
The county’s road and bridge administrator, Jeff Wiatrek, said the hospital, which had been vacant and abandoned for many years, had been at least partially cleaned out years ago. Lead paint and asbestos were removed in preparation for a plan to use the building as a facility to house mentally ill children, although the plan never moved forward.
Wiatrek said the idea of moving the materials to the bridge was part of his plan to use the materials to cover the support structures under the bridge.
“TxDOT tells us that if we don’t get it fixed, something could happen to the bridge and the bridge could collapse,” Wiatrek said.
Water flowing in the river is not supposed to be in contact with the “legs” or support structures under the bridge, Wiatrek said.
“They (the legs) are supposed to have dirt around them,” Wiatrek said. “Years ago, they had dirt around them,” Wiatrek said, explaining that gradual erosion over many years has exposed the legs to the streamflow.
Wiatrek said his plan involved using the materials from the demolition site to build up around the legs and then cover all of it with rock, and then dirt and grass on top. He said he consulted with others who indicated this would be a good plan to help extend the life of the bridge.
Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Spokesman Rickey Dailey said that TxDOT routinely inspects all bridges in Karnes County every two years to make sure all bridges are safe for public use. TxDOT is federally mandated to carry out this task for the sake of public safety.
According to Dailey, the inspection reports are sent to the county whenever they are completed.
These reports are not public records, however, since 9-11, as they are now considered an infrastructure security concern.
“The bridge is safe,” Dailey said, adding that if there was a concern, one of the first steps would be to post a load weight limit sign on the bridge. There was a recommendation to stabilize the pilings under the bridge in at least one of the reports sent to the county, Dailey said.
Robert Busselman, who lives in the area and uses the river for recreation, noticed the demolition materials piled along the road and near the bridge and brought it to the attention of officials with the San Antonio River Authority.
Busselman said the materials he saw were not acceptable, but instead were a mix of concrete, steel, wood, roofing materials, insulation materials and a lot of other stuff he said are not fit for any use with any project along the San Antonio River.
“We are trying to make it right,” Wiatrek said. “We are not hiding anything because there is nothing to hide.”
Wiatrek said he did not review the plan with any of the members of Commissioners Court before making the agreement with TEC Construction and moving forward.
After the materials were dumped by TEC workers in massive piles along the edge of County Road 326 leading up to the bridge, county workers moved about 45 cubic yards of the materials down into the riverbanks near the support structures of the bridge before being asked to stop by SARA officials.
Although Wiatrek said none of the materials were pushed into the river itself, an investigator for SARA said an amount estimated at less than a cubic yard had been pushed underwater.
As far as SARA is concerned, having any of these materials within the river’s floodplain is unacceptable as a major rain event would cause the river to rise and potentially wash large volumes of contaminated materials downstream.
“I think the best thing to do is to just haul it all off,” Wiatrek explained noting that the materials would have to be moved to a landfill in either the Seguin or San Antonio areas.
“It will be the contractor, and I told the contractor that I will help them – whatever it takes, to get it loaded back on the trucks and disposed of in a proper place,” Wiatrek said.
Wiatrek wasn’t sure of the total volume of materials moved to County Road 326 from the hospital demolition site, but he thought some of the materials could be suitable for the county’s use after all the contaminants had been sorted out and removed.
The contractor said that 25 trailer loads had been moved from the site to locations along County Road 326, with each load carrying about 18 cubic yards of demolition materials – the sum of the loads totaling 450 cubic yards with an estimated total weight of 720 tons.
“This was kind of a total screw-up,” Wiatrek said, placing part of the blame on the contractor for not thoroughly sorting and cleaning the materials before moving them to the site, but also part of the blame on himself for not monitoring and supervising the delivery of the materials closely enough.
The item was up for discussion during the May 13 meeting of Commissioners Court.
County Commissioner Pete Jauer asked Wiatrek if he had any written agreement with TEC regarding moving materials to the site near the bridge.
“No sir,” Wiatrek said.
“Just a verbal agreement?” Jauer asked.
“Yes,” Wiatrek said.
County Judge Barbara Shaw said that the county had not been cited by SARA or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
Wiatrek told the court that the effort was put forward as a way to save money – an opportunity to get fill material without the expense of purchasing it or transporting it to the county for these kinds of projects.
Robert Busselman expressed concerns about Wiatrek’s decision to place the materials under the bridge and along the side of County Road 326 at the meeting.
“We are downstream from all this material,” Busselman said. “My father in law doesn’t want it on his place. We swim in the river, we fish in the river.”
Busselman said that on two occasions he asked Wiatrek to stop putting the materials into the river and was told by Wiatrek that the materials would be placed at the site until the project was done.
“I don’t want this insulation, copper wiring and all this other crap in the river and on the river bottom,” Busselman said.
Eric Curry, owner of TEC Construction apologized for the situation, and offered to work with the county to get it cleaned up.
“It is going to cost a fortune to haul it out of there,” Curry said. “We just want to help get it taken care of.”
Karnes City Resident Dr. Scott Kimble asked the court what was its definition of “clean” fill to be used for these types of projects.
“I saw the material when it was hauled, and it was not what I consider ‘clean’ at all,” Kimble said.
Karnes City Resident Cheryl Moy expressed disbelief about the situation with all the materials dumped along County Road 326 and into the river bottom.
“Who can decide that it is okay to dump a hospital into a river?” Moy asked. “We don’t have a lot for our kids, anyway, but the river is a thing that I know that young boys love to explore... my concern is what are we leaving for our children? What are we doing?”
Although Wiatrek indicated his willingness to work with TEC Construction to move the materials to a landfill, there were others that expressed concerns with that approach.
Brenda Jalufka, who also spoke at the meeting asked Curry if his company would pay the bill for the clean-up. Curry said that he would not.
“That means the taxpayers are going to have to pay the bill for the clean-up,” Jalufka said, adding that a third party should be hired to clean up the site, instead of either of the two parties that caused the problem to begin with. She also said the contractor should pay the bill for the cleanup because they should have known better to dump such materials at the site.
Commissioner James Rosales said that he agreed that a third party should be hired to clean up the site.
Scott Hall, a county resident in the audience at the meeting, questioned Wiatrek’s qualifications to plan and carry out this type of project.
“Is he qualified to do that?” Hall asked. “Or is the county liable if he does it wrong and the bridge collapses? Under the statute, you are supposed to hire a road engineer. You have all been warned about that and you have failed to do it.”
“I don’t have anything to say about this,” said County Commissioner Tracey Schendel, the commissioner in whose precinct the site is located.
Commissioners Court met again on May 17 and County Judge Barbara Shaw said she requested and received a bid from Liska Construction for the first step in the clean-up – moving the materials from the banks of the river to a location farther away from the river on County Road 326.
The amount of the bid from Liska Construction totals $35,830 estimating 10 working days needed to move the materials out and away from the river banks.
County officials approved a resolution declaring the situation a “public calamity” which allows the county to legally award the bid without going through the normal bidding process, due to the urgency of the situation and “grave public necessity.” In the same action the court also approved hiring Liska Construction to carry out the first phase of the cleanup.
The Karnes Countywide reached out for comment from County Commissioner Tracey Schendel, but phone messages left with the commissioner have not yet been returned.
County Judge Barbara Shaw, however, was available for comment on Monday, May 20, and said that she was not aware of Wiatrek’s plan to move the materials from the demolition site to the bridge until it was brought to her attention by Robert Busselman about two weeks ago, at the same time Busselman notified SARA about the issue.
“It is just wrong,” Shaw said, regarding the placement of the materials in the river bottom. “There was so much boards and rubble... it was trash.”
“What SARA and TCEQ says you can use is inert material,” Shaw said. “Inert material would be clean concrete and some bricks.”
Shaw said it was hard to know what the total cost will be to move the materials to a landfill, but she hopes that the county will not be fined on top of the costs of the cleanup.
When asked about who might be held accountable for what had happened, Shaw said a meeting of Commissioners Court is set for May 21 and on the agenda is a closed session item to consider the employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of the county road and bridge administrator.
At that time Shaw said she expects that she and the commissioners will talk to Wiatrek about what happened and why it happened, but whether or not the court will take action in regard to the road and bridge administrator’s employment is not known at this time.
Controversy such as this is not new to Wiatrek in his role as road and bridge administrator.
In September of 2011 a large group of residents who live along County Road 127 in the Choate area spoke out in Commissioners Court to complain about Wiatrek’s decision to plow up the county road which had been a paved road. At the time Wiatrek made that decision without first consulting with local residents or Commissioners Court.
In July of 2012, Commissioners Court approved advertising for a new road and bridge engineer or administrator. In discussion about the item, Commissioner Pete Jauer cited numerous complaints about the county’s road and bridge department.
County Judge Barbara Shaw said she wasn’t sure why the issue of finding a new road and bridge engineer or administrator went away after that, but said it may have been due to the fact that since advertising, no one has applied for the position.