GARY BAUMGARTEN, EPA project manager
GARY BAUMGARTEN, EPA project manager

Almost a hundred area residents braved a heavy rainstorm and sharp lightening, to attend a meeting with EPA officials from Dallas regarding the Waste Pits in the San Jacinto River. The meeting took place last Tuesday, May 7 at the Highlands Community Center.

Gary Baumgarten, the new project manager in charge of the Superfund site clean-up, showed a series of slides that outlined activities that were taking place in the present time.

A consent order was signed by the PRP (Potentially Responsible Parties) in April 2018, and Remedial Design has been underway since that time. This phase of the work may take as much as 2-1/2 years, he said.

Baumgarten said that the next steps in the Remedial Design were investigations of data, study of the treatability of the on-site materials, and construction plans.

He displayed a slide that showed recent borings, and a depth scale that indicated some had acceptable material, and some had toxic material.

Baumgarten discussed some of the problems with the maintenance of the site. In July 2018 and November 2018 repairs to the Cap were required. He said that the red marker buoys had also moved, and studies were underway to relocate them at the edge of the cap.

Janetta Coats of EPA talked about her work with the community, through the CIP or Community Involvement Plan. She said that the group had determined that the main community concerns were Health, Clean-up, Community Involvement, Wildlife, and Watershed.

Health concerns included impacts of remaining material, and recreation, after the cleanup.

Cleanup concerns included how floods and hurricanes might affect the sediments.

Community Involvement included receiving information on status.

Wildlife concerns centered on affect to fish and other wildlife.

Watershed concerns included downstream wildlife affect, and water supply contamination.

An extended Question and Answer period followed the formal presentation. Everyone in the audience was given a chance to ask a question or give a fact or opinion.

Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation spoke of the efforts to post signs warning of fish advisories. He also said that more borings were needed in the Sand Separation area if a permit to dig that area for barges is granted. He thought pilings or something more substantial than the red buoys were needed to keep ships away from the cap.

Sean Matula, a life-long resident of Highlands and someone who grew up close to the waste pits, told a personal story of his family’s health problems from the toxins, leading to birth defects that had rendered him disabled and unable to work, and his point was that the waste pits are having a real effect on the lives of nearby residents. He and others raised the question of how the toxic waste could be classified as Non-hazardous for the purposes of disposing of it in a landfill, but toxic and hazardous in the river.

Baumgarten was questioned about how the waste was “characterized” for disposal purposes. He said that samples were tested, and though federal guidelines did not test for Dioxin, the state of Texas does test for this. However, depending upon levels, the waste could still be called “non-hazardous.”

Bobby Stone of Channelview told how the site used to be much higher than the river, and wondered where the material had disappeared to.

Anna Holt, a Channelview native, hold about how she swam, boated, and skied in the river growing up, and ate the fish and crabs. Much like Matula’s story, she said infertility was a major problem for many, including her family. She urged the EPA to understand that the waste pits were a serious, life-changing environmental problem.

Christine Singleton of THEA said they were concerned about the safety of workers who are on the waste pits cap, and will be working to remove it in the future. She urged the PRP to provide Data Safety Sheets to all workers so that they can protect themselves.

Lisa Gossett, an Environmental professional teacher, raised the question about how much information was in the official repository in Highlands, whether it was indexed and all accounted for, and whether new material when added was so noted. She also pointed out that federal hazard testing looked for 40 chemicals, but not Dioxin. She noted that Texas did test for this. She said that 50% of the original toxic material has washed away downstream.

Jackie Young of THEA reminded the audience that the area around the pits tests for a higher rate of 14 types of cancer than state average. She called on the EPA to correctly classify the hazardous waste and to send it to the proper disposal site. She said this characterization affects all other decisions in the Superfund cleanup process.

Other questions in the session centered on who is responsible for controlling barge traffic in the river, and has oversight on the dredging of boat slips near the waste pits. Gary Baumgarten said that this is the Army Corps of Engineers, and that EPA carefully reviews all permit applications they receive.

A member of the audience questioned whether there was some other way of disposing of the toxic waste at the site, other than removing it by truck or barge. She suggested chemical treatment or burning as two possibilities. EPA’s John Meyer pointed out that a large quantity of hazardous waste is disposed of every day in Harris County, and the methods for doing this are safe and well known. He said that the material from the San Jacinto River site would be tested, characterized, and properly disposed of.