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Waste Pits delayed another 270 days

Jackie Medcalf, THEA president, protests at the Waste Management offices in downtown Houston on April 15.

Remediation work may not start until 2024

NO TIME TO WASTE: A Call for Inclusivity and Transparency in the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Process.

HOUSTON – Jackie Young Medcalf, president of the Texas Health & Environment Alliance (THEA) recently learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authorized a 270-day extension to the design phase of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund process at the request of the responsible parties (International Paper and Waste Management subsidiary, McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation). This extension is on the heels of a 160-day extension authorized by the EPA in September of 2020.

Medcalf feels that the EPA needs to be more transparent and inclusive in these types of decisions. She feels the first extension allowed time for more testing and sampling, but thinks the new extension will just be an unnecessary delay and have the potential problem of moving remediation work back several years and conflict with a new I-10 bridge that TxDOT plans to build over the San Jacinto River.

The Waste Pits Superfund Site is the result of paper mill waste disposed of along the San Jacinto River in the 1960s. The Waste Pits presented such a threat to the environment and to public health that they were listed for clean-up under the EPA Federal Superfund program in 2008. Currently, remediation of the Waste Pits is in the design phase which was initiated in April of 2018 by a settlement between the EPA and the Waste Pits’ responsible parties.

When the 160-day extension was authorized in 2020, THEA did not object to this allowance for further sampling and water treatability studies. Unfortunately, the EPA did not effectively utilize this time and require the responsible parties move swiftly on sampling. This misuse of time is unacceptable to local community members and it is critical that the EPA stop allowing time to be wasted and require expedient and thorough work be completed. Delays or poorly executed work may pose public health and environmental consequences in surrounding communities for generations to come.

The EPA has ultimate authority and oversight to see that the Waste Pits are removed in a reasonable timeframe and with best management practices to ensure a safe and efficient clean-up. The local community has been left in the dark while time has been wasted.

Problems are best solved with open and transparent communication – which we are lacking for this Superfund Site. It is our impression that the EPA has allowed the focus to be on a singular concept created by the responsible parties. These are the same parties who made their agenda clear for this site – they wanted to leave the Waste Pits in the San Jacinto River and were forced by federal order to cooperate in this process and to fully remove the Pits.

The EPA must hold polluters accountable and must provide transparent communication to the community. The tension is mounting for local residents and with every hurricane season that approaches, fears heighten of the Pits being further disrupted by Mother Nature. Considering the 270- day extension and procurement time for remedial equipment, this pushes the estimated clean-up start to 2024. The Waste Pits are nestled to the immediate north and south of Interstate 10, which Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) plans to replace starting in the Spring of 2025. Unfortunately, it was announced in 2020 that the remedial timeline adjusted from 2 years to 7 years. Local residents are extremely concerned about how these two major projects will impact one another, and how barge traffic on the River will impact the safety of these efforts. We need to see interagency coordination on these sensitive efforts taking place in the same timeframe, adjacent to one another on the navigable waterway.

The community and our elected officials need to hear from the EPA. We need to be informed and included in the process taking place that not only affects the future of Interstate 10, but the health and safety of the community and Galveston Bay.

DIOXIN AND THE ENVIRONMENT

We know that dioxin is extremely toxic and that it can hold its toxicity for hundreds of years. We know it is present in extremely large quantities in the Waste Pits and that the most recent testing of the river surface water showed high levels of dioxin in the water column. And we know that rates of cancer in children are elevated in the communities surrounding the Waste Pits. We must stop wasting time. Our children have rates of rare eye cancer over 16x the state average. Our seafood is contaminated. Another hurricane season is quickly approaching. As long as the Pits are in the river, far too much is at stake.

The Texas Health and Environment Alliance’s mission is to protect the environment and public health from the harmful effects of toxic waste. We endeavor to establish an informed and engaged public movement to restore and protect environmental resources from historical contamination.

ABOUT THE SAN JACINTO WASTE PITS/COALITION

For many years, the Waste Pits along the San Jacinto River were a hidden crisis posing great danger to nearby communities. The abandoned, dioxin-filled pits threatened local seafood and the river for decades. In 2015 the Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed elevated rates of cancer in children and people of all ages living near the Pits. THEA’s San Jacinto River Coalition, which is a community led group working to educate the public about the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site, was successful at urging the EPA to fully remediate the site.

On October 11, 2017, the EPA signed a Record of Decision for remediation of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. In addition to installing energizing controls like a cofferdam, the plan includes directives for the removal of dioxin-contaminated material down to a recreational standard of 30 parts per trillion.