A Case of Limestone Poisoning ?

Sometime in 1973 we were doing a project for the new I-35 expansion in downtown Austin. It was a crazy, difficult project with old pipes running underground every which way.

We had one place that we were excavating about 40 deep and then bored underneath I-35 for about 250 feet to run a new wastewater line. In those days the road bores were done where water was mixed with the limestone rock cuttings that were being excavated. It was called Wet Bore Method as opposed to now most all road bores are done using the Dry Bore Method. Wet Boring in limestone would leave a white mud that was about the consistency of thin pancake batter. This particular hole was just north of 12th street, right behind the old Brackenridge Nursing School Dorms.

We had permission from the city to pump and lift the white mud out of the hole and store it on a lot behind the dorms. We had built a dyke out of dirt about 4 feet tall around an area, about half a city block.

Storing the muck there for a while, we were hopeful that the limestone would settle out with the water left on the top, and could be pumped off, leaving the mud to dry, eventually. Or that was the plan. Late one afternoon, the area was almost full and the boring crew would be working through the night. With a lot of water standing on top, I decided to drain a little off by breeching the dyke. Being in a hurry to drain it down I think I went overboard on the breeching. Within seconds there was a torrent of water and then white pancake batter like mud flowing down the frontage road of I-35. Cars were driving in it, sliding around, tracking trails of it for blocks, in every direction.

The police show up, along with the fire department. Cars were re-routed but not before much of central Austin was covered in white.

One little Bantam Rooster of a Cop came up to me and wanted to know who was in charge. Reluctantly I told him I was. “Did I have any idea what an environmental nightmare I had caused”? I said no, I didn’t, but I’d welcome him explaining it to me. Needless to say, I was pretty cocky back in those days.

“Did I know that I was endangering the lives of The Citizens of Austin“? I ask him if he had a count on how many people had ever died of Limestone Poisoning.

Needless to say we didn’t end up on very good terms. He wrote me a citation for dumping a poisonous substance in the storm sewer system. There was a newly enacted law about dumping oil and other substances in curb inlets, so he thought that was about the best fit for the circumstance at hand.

The Fire Department with fire hoses, assisted by my guys with shovels and brooms made everything in the area disappear into the storm drain. That night a near flood happened that washed away all the rest of the whitewash from the city streets.

By the time the investigator went the next morning to start building his case, everything looked normal.

I went before the judge to explained that I had inadvertently let a small amount of mostly clean water run down the curb and perhaps a little of the white mud had trickled down too. I had a sample in a jar to show him what the material looked like that was at issue.

I also was able to explain to him how many ways limestone is used everyday in cattle feed, to cosmetics to just about anything imaginable. I had knowledge about that sort of thing from my days hanging around Pure Stone in Marble Falls as a kid. At least I faked my way through it.

I gave him my apologies for not being more careful but I was working diligently to get the job done so everyone in Austin could travel on better highways.

He dismissed the case and I walked out feeling like I was Perry Mason.

I sure was glad I hadn’t wasted my money hiring a lawyer. I guess if a 21 year kid show up to court, not even knowing I really should have brought a lawyer along, he figured more power to me.

That area has changed so much, but it has been almost 50 years.

2 thoughts on “A Case of Limestone Poisoning ?

  1. Great story Ronnie but you sure wouldn’t want to try that in Austin today….They would send you to the penitentiary. I came to Austin in 1967 and I can’t believe what we have today. Harold D

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