Competing Opinions stir up Waste Pits

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Dallas office released an anticipated study last week of the Alternatives to deal with the Toxic Waste Pits in the San Jacinto River.

The study report is a 237 page volume, authored by Army Corps of Engineers from their Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, MS. The work method outlined in the report sets out to resolve 19 “tasks” which deal with methods of remediating the Waste Pit toxins. The study investigates the previously delineated Alternatives, known as 1N through 6N, covering no further action, or various cap-in-place solutions, or partial or total removal from the site. It also adds a 6N*, an enhanced removal plan.

The advocacy group known as San Jacinto Citizens Against Pollution, with a website KEEPITCAPPED.ORG, claim that the the report justifies their position to leave the wastes where they are in the river, without removal. Their attorney, Thomas Knickerboker, categorically cites various sections of the report that say capping the site is the safest and most effective option. They also say the report points out that “Dig-and-Haul” poses risks, and that toxic chemicals could leak or be dispersed in the removal process. In the 19 tasks presented in the report, these statements are made. But the complete removal is also recommended as an alternative, if done correctly as outlined in the description.

Therefore by discussing pros and cons of all seven Alternatives, it gives each contesting party opinions and facts to support their position.

Jackie Young, director of the San Jacinto River Coalition, and THEA, two advocacy groups that favor complete removal, said “the report does not go into the problems to date with the current cap. In the five years that (the cap) has been in place, it’s experienced a wealth of problems and caused EPA to do a multitude of repairs. We know that just one big storm, one barge strike, could be devastating for Galveston Bay.”

The escalating controversy comes at a time when the EPA is preparing to announce their draft decision on how to remediate the waste pits. This is due in the next few weeks, then the public will have a 30 day comment period, and the EPA will make the final determination by the end of December, according to EPA representative Donn Walters.

In the meantime, it seems that everyone now has an opinion, and has voiced it. Congressmen Gene Green and Brian Babin have publicly called for complete removal as the only safe solution, and this was joined this week by Congressman Pete Olson. Green took to the floor of the House of Representatives last month, to urge the federal government to use the Superfund laws to hasten the removal.

The Houston Chronicle is only one of a number of publications that have called for the removal of the waste pits, but it has also been printing OP-ED pieces on both sides of the issue. In July the paper ran an opinion piece by Scott Sherman, stating that the Federal Superfund program has been ineffective, and not appropriate for the problems in the San Jacinto River. Sherman was listed as an environmental consultant, having worked for the EPA, the state TCEQ, and now at the University of Houston Law Center.

This piece was followed recently by an OP-ED piece by Jackie Young, who has been the leader in the resistance effort to allowing the waste pits to stay in place, with or without an improved cap. Young is deeply involved because her family once lived in Highlands, and suffered multiple health problems that they blame on polluted ground water, possibly from the waste pits.

The issue of polluted well water, and the health problems related to that, was recently brought to the public’s attention because the Harris County Polution Control department sampled 100 wells in Highlands, Lynchburg, and Channelview, and due to alarming results sent letters to 28 homeowners advising them not to drink their water, or to bathe or cook in it. After a retest, however, it was determined that contaminates such as dioxin and other contaminants were below the acceptable levels and the water was safe. No link was established between the wells and the waste pits in the river, it was noted, too.

Among the government voices having an educated opinion on the subject of removal, was Mike Talbott, the retiring head of the Harris County Flood Control District. Talbott’s remarks included “the highly toxic waste at the site, in this major river’s floodway, and subject to extreme force of flood flow, tides and storm suge, should not be allowed to remain there.” These remarks, calling for complete removal of the toxic wastes, follows closely the position that advocate Young has taken.

In summary, the Corps of Engineers report seems to favor leaving the waste pits in place, but rebuilding them with an improved cap, and pilings to fend off barge strikes. They also would need a number of “Institutional Controls” to assure future compliance. Their detailed mathematical analysis indicates that complete removal would release much more of the toxins into the soil, the ground, and the water. However, the report optimistically indicates that removal could be safely accomplished, if the contractor followed Best Management Practices, proceeding with techniques that would minimize releases.