Brushy Creek families sue over sewage
Austin, utility district accused of mishandling incident in which water was contaminated

By Christian Davenport
American-Statesman Staff

Published: Dec. 30, 1998

Three families infected with a potentially fatal parasite after 170,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Brushy Creek are suing the City of Austin and the Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District, claiming they failed to protect residents' drinking water.

The families -- Eric and Natalie Anderson, Sean and Nina Mannix, and Mike and Melinda Hutton -- say they are among the estimated 1,300 residents of the district sickened by Cryptosporidium, which is found in feces and can kill small children, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems.

On July 14, lightning struck a City of Austin pumping station. The station lost power, and sewage backed up and gushed out of a manhole just yards away from the creek's bank.

In their suit, filed Tuesday in Williamson County Court, the families claimed that the City of Austin failed to properly monitor its pumping station. Further, they allege that the Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District did not promptly notify residents of the spill, and instead provided them with contaminated water, which it said was safe to drink.

The suit also charges that Eco Resources Inc., which operates the lift station and is named as a third defendant, "conspired with local officials to withhold information about the sewage spill from affected persons."

Gary Spoonts, Eco's director of client relations, said Tuesday he had not seen the suit and therefore could not comment on it. Officials from the Brushy Creek MUD referred all comments to the district's attorney, Mark Dietz, who was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Nancy Matchus, an assistant attorney for the City of Austin, said the city "acted correctly and took the appropriate measures to protect the public. In terms of responding to the spill, we were doing everything right."

In addition to punitive damages, the families are seeking compensation for lost income, medical costs and mental anguish.

The district, a neighborhood of about 10,000 residents, did not shut its wells down until a week after the spill. It was during that week that state officials believe Cryptosporidium infiltrated the public drinking water.

The wells remain closed, and the MUD is getting water from the City of Round Rock.

In September, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its state counterpart, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, ordered the City of Austin to devise a plan to prevent future sewage spills. Dan Arguijo, spokesman for Austin's Water and Wastewater Utility, said the city has complied with both of those requests.

But Mike Hutton said that comes too late for his family.

"My wife was bedridden for five days," he said. "No one deserves to have that kind of (sewage) in their drinking water."

He said the spill ruined his wife's day-care business, which she ran out of their home.

"Everyone heard of what happened in Brushy Creek, and they didn't want to bring their children by," he said.

Eric Anderson, whose 3-year-old son was hospitalized with a Cryptosporidium infection for about two days, said he wants the "City of Austin and the MUD to make good on their promises to take care of the people out here."

Eli Bell, an Austin attorney who represents about 130 district residents, said he plans to file a class-action suit on their behalf sometime next month.

"It sounds like 1999 is going to be the year of the Brushy Creek uprising," he said.