At a press conference last week, on the banks of the San Jacinto River, Activist Jackie Medcalf calls for no delays requested by the Responsible parties. (THEA photo)
At a press conference last week, on the banks of the San Jacinto River, Activist Jackie Medcalf calls for no delays requested by the Responsible parties. (THEA photo)

Consultant deems Remediation Plan “unworkable”

By Gilbert Hoffman

EAST HARRIS COUNTY – The Responsible Parties who are supposed to be working on the plan to remove toxic dioxin from the Waste Pits in the San Jacinto River, have instead sent a letter to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) asking for a delay in the schedule, because they state that the current removal methods they had agreed to are unworkable, or “not implementable.”

Citing new information they are asking for a revised ROD (Record of Decision) which tells them how to clean up the site.

At a press conference last week, on the banks of the San Jacinto River near the Waste Pits, activist Jackie Medcalf called for no delay, saying the process has taken too long, and the objections now are simply “smoke and mirrors” in an attempt by the Responsible Parities to avoid or minimize the remediation work.

A current map of the Waste Pits shows the conflict between the I-10 right-of-way for a new bridge, and the need for access for Waste Pits remediation.

In their letter of March 24, the Responsible Parties state that their engineering consultants have determined that there is more material to be removed than originally known, by a 50% increase, and that the excavation depth will need to be deeper, by a 62% increase to as much as 28 feet in some places. Other factors they say make the work too complex and unsafe are the proposed construction of a new I-10 bridge, and the possible “hydraulic heave” that would make the excavation unstable and fill with water. This would occur because the excavations were so deep.

Although TXDOT has not announced exact plans for the I-10 replacement bridge, the consultants, GHD engineers, claim that part of the structure would be built in the only remainig Right-Of-Way, and make access to the site impossible or at least difficult. The engineers state that at least 162,000 cubic yards of material must be removed, taking 20,000 truckloads to haul away. They state that the bridge construction might start as early as 2025 or 2026, impacting the movement of trucks and equipment at the Waste Pits site.

For these reasons, the Respondents have asked for a pause in the schedule, to “reconsider and alter the response action.” This includes changing the criteria for how waste material is tested to determine how much must be removed. They recommend a test called SWAC (SurfaceWeighted Average Concentration) but this is not approved in the ROD. It would allow a reduction in toxicity of material to be removed from 30ng/kg to about half the amount.

The Responsible Parties are International Paper Company, and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. They signed an agreement with the EPA several years ago, to remove the toxic dioxin materials at their expense, in an approved manner. Now they seem to want to reexamine this agreement.

Jackie Young Medcalf has led the movement against the Responsible Parties, and to make them fully remove the material and restore it to its natural condition prior to the waste pits. In her press conference last week, she stated:

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site is one of the most vulnerable and notorious Superfund sites in the nation. Consultants working for the parties responsible for these toxic pits, recently submitted a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), claiming they cannot clean up the Site as previously ordered by the EPA. However, this is not the responsible party’s first attempt to convince the EPA, and others, that the waste should remain in the river. In fact, internal corporate emails from 2011 show they had a plan to create a global consensus to “sell” leaving the waste in the river as the final remedy. The catch? Hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line for the parties responsible but the future of Galveston Bay and the health of our communities hinge on this waste being removed in a controlled and engineered environment and not in the next hurricane.

The Pits, straddling Interstate 10 in the San Jacinto River, were filled with dioxin-contaminated waste in the 1960s and have been in a heated battle between community members and those responsible for the cleanup. The EPA named International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation (MIMC, a Waste Management of Texas and Waste Management Inc subsidiary) the parties responsible for the cleanup under a federal administrative order

The San Jacinto River Coalition, a local community group led by Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA), began advocating for the full removal of the Waste Pits over a decade ago. The Coalition, with over 55,000 supporters, has worked with scientific experts and policy advisers to understand what is truly the best remedy for this Superfund Site. In 2017, the EPA signed the Record of Decision (ROD) for the complete removal of the Northern Pit down to a level of dioxin that is safe for a youth recreational fisherman – exactly what the local communities asked for.

In a recently released letter, the responsible parties dispute the ability to remove the waste as described in the ROD and ask the EPA to consider altering their selected cleanup plan. Jackie Medcalf, a former resident and the founder of THEA, states that “this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors – removal is possible, it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is feasible.” The reality of the situation is the waste will remain toxic for upwards of 750 more years if left in the river. How many hurricanes will strike our coast during that time and how many more generations have to live with this burden?

In reply to the letter from the Responsible parties, the EPA’s Region 6 Regional Administrator Earthea Nance, sent a letter in response, stating that EPA would not grant a schedule extension, and that 90% Remedial Designs were still due on June 26. However, she did say that after submission, the parties could work on any modifications that might be required.