Waste Pits Create Controversy and Concern Along San Jacinto River

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By Kyle Beam, GHPB

Water, arguably the most important substance on the planet, is necessary for all living beings. It is what separates Earth from the rest of the planets in our solar system. But what happens when water could possibly kill you? A small community on the east side of Houston is facing the answers to this question because of an indescript site along Interstate 10 at the San Jacinto River.

The history of the site goes back to the 1960s when the Champion Paper mill, needing to store wastes, dug pits in land owned by McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation along the San Jacinto River and dumped the unprotected wastes in the pits. When the pits were filled the land was abandoned by a vote of the McGinnis board of directors. Unbeknownst to the public until recently is what was lying inside those pits.

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Years of erosion and subsiding (sinking of the land due to groundwater pumping) have exposed the pits to the waters of the San Jacinto. The pits did not contain organic paper waste though. Lying inside the pits is a dangerous mix of toxic chemicals containing the highly toxic dioxin – 2,3,7,8-TCDD - which has been known to increase cancer, liver disease and birth defects and the World Health Organization has called a human carcinogen.

The toxicity of the site was not discovered until 2005, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) began evaluating the area. The exposure to the water over many years has caused the dioxins to spread and contaminate the water around the sites. The dioxins have also contaminated the soil and much of the marine life in the area. Due to the dangers of the site the state of Texas has posted advisories and signs on the roadways along the river warning pregnant women, women thinking about becoming pregnant and children not to eat any crabs or fish pulled from the water.

Finally, in 2008, after almost 40 years of being abandoned, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added the site to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites. Designating the site to the National Priorities List, more commonly referred to as a Superfund site, meant the EPA would be responsible for managing the clean-up process.

After sitting dormant for several years, the site once accessible to the public, as a popular fishing location for locals, and covered with trees and vegetation was fenced off and work was begun to clear the land. By July 2011, all of the land had been cleared and the EPA had directed the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) – International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation, now a subsidary of Waste Management, to install a temporary armored cap.

With the cap installed the site was left to sit again until further studies and planning could be completed on the best practice of removing the waste. This perceived lack of inaction began to draw the ire of the community of Highlands where many in the community say they have been affected by the sites.

Members of the community formed the San Jacinto River Coalition to promote community involvement in learning about the dangers of the chemicals in the site, the processes of cleaning the site and legislative action for the site. The Coalition was featured in an April 2015 Texas Monthly article detailing the volume of medical problems it says are related to the sites, from increased cancer rates to various kidney and eye ailments in newborns.

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All of these issues led to Harris County suing the PRPs in 2011 for $3.5 billion. The case was finally heard in 2014, but not without a lot of controversy. One of the PRPs was found not guilty and the others settled the case out of court for $29.2 million, a far cry from the $3.5 billion asked for. The Coalition and Harris County argue key evidence was withheld from the jury in the trial and the case is now in appeal. The amount of the settlement was spilt between the county and the state and has been put back into the Highlands area for environmental improvements.

But with the civil case ongoing, the argument turns to how best to contain or remove the chemicals in the sites. The PRPs are arguing for the much cheaper capping of the site, which the Coalition argues will leave the chemicals to contaminate the water for over 500 more years. The Coalition and many members of the community want to see the chemicals removed, which has an estimated cost at $636 million.

A renewed push has been made to remove the chemicals entirely from the site after the armored cap began leaking in December 2015. The EPA responded to the leak by requiring the PRPs to add several cameras on the site for 24/7 surveillance and warning buoys. The PRPs also added protective geotextile androck to the damaged area. They have also sped up their timeline for making a decision on removing the chemicals from the site. Originally, a decision was supposed to come by December 2016 but after the leak and pressure from the community a final decision will be announced in July.

If the decision has any affects on the barge activity in the area the Port Bureau News will provide more details when they become available.

Judith Schultz also contributed to this report.

  • Date June 13, 2016
  • Tags June 2016