News about Hurricane Harvey keeps getting worse. Recently, news broke of damages to the protective structure responsible for isolating the dangerous San Jacinto River waste pits. It seems that recent floodwaters in the area have caused a new leak, jeopardizing all forms of life downstream.
Toxic waste pits are located on the west bank of the San Jacinto River, on the east side of the Houston area. Spanning across 14 acres, the hazardous land is just upstream of the I-10 bridge in Channelview, Harris County, and are identified by professionals dealing with the situation as the “Northern Impoundments.” An additional 20-acre pit, known as the “Southern Impoundment” is located on the other side of I-10 on an upland site now underwater from the ever-changing river.
The mid-1960s was a time when less was understood about the environment, and regulations were lenient. Lands located within the Northern Impoundment were used as a waste dump by the former Champion Paper mill, located in Pasadena, Texas. The company was making paper, and part of the process produced dioxins, a dangerous chemical. McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. was hired to dispose of the waste, and they settled on a location right off the river starting as late as 1965. Using clay impoundments to retain the sludge, McGinnes callously dumped the industrial byproduct until the site was full. Three years after they started dumping, board members met to discuss how to handle the now-full toxic pit. They eventually decided to change the value of the land from $50,000 to just $1 to avoid paying taxes on ownership of the unsalvageable land.
Authorities didn’t discover the toxic site until 2005, when a routine inspection was performed by regulators to approve sand dredging from the river bottom. Three more years of bureaucracy, and the ruined land was finally designated a Superfund site, indicating hazardous materials contaminating the area represented a health risk to humans and the environment. Listed on the National Priorities List, Superfund sites are also designated for cleaning and restoration by the parties responsible.
Filing a suit against the companies liable for the damages, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office settled with McGinnes and Waste Management of Texas. The two companies were held financially accountable and agreed to pay $29 million in civil penalties to help clean up their mess. A third company, International Paper (formerly known as Champion Paper, mentioned above) took the settlement to court where a hung jury allowed them to escape justice without any penalties. The EPA also ordered all three companies to cover the northern site with an armored cap to prevent contamination from spreading. The Southern Impounds were already underwater and authorities are not sure how to address that situation.
Decades later, and very little has been done to solve this environmental crisis. The entire area has sunk due to groundwater pumping, also known as subsiding, and the pits are now partially submerged in the living river. Regularly inundated with high river flows and high tides, the poisonous dioxins are free to go wherever they go. EPA officials indicate that dioxin levels of 30 ng/kg in an area requires immediate attention and should be cleaned up. Testing at the San Jacinto River pits showed levels of 70,000 ng/kg, over 2000 times the minimal level.
In 2011, a system was put in place to cover the lands, but it has largely failed. The protective structure has needed repairs at least six times since it was installed. A 20-foot hole was discovered in 2015, allowing an untold amount of deadly goop to slosh downstream and pollute the environment even more. The latest damages were identified late last month when EPA authorities confirmed another leak had appeared as the result of torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey, producing heavy floodwaters that ripped up the river and damaged the cap.
Dioxins are chemicals that are produced as a byproduct of paper manufacturing and are considered extremely toxic to human health. Known to increase the likelihood of cancers, dioxins also cause liver damage and birth defects. The chemical does not dissolve well in water and eventually binds to soil sediment where plants absorb it into their systems. Through a process known as “bioaccumulation”, the poisoned plants are consumed by smaller herbivores, which are then consumed by other organisms, and the chemical, dioxin, begins to accumulate in the food chain. Fish, shellfish, and crabs are easily susceptible to concentrated levels of dioxins, and the chemical is passed through to any unsuspecting human enjoying seafood. The problem is very real, and the state health department was issued a seafood consumption advisory for Galveston Bay and its tidal tributaries, including the San Jacinto River.
Exposure does not only include eating contaminated foods. Before the temporary caps were put into place, coastal denizens playing in the area, fishing, crabbing, or just standing in the poisoned sediments were coming into direct contact with the dangerous dioxins. Absorbing the chemical through their bare skin, anyone affected this way would be completely unaware until medical complications started to emerge. The only endearing quality about dioxins is that due to its resistant nature of dissolving in water, the groundwater supply is not expected to be contaminated, and the poison can not become airborne.
In 2011, the Galveston Bay Foundation received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work with scientists from the Houston Advanced Research Center. These professionals are tasked with providing independent technical advice and reviewing official progress reports of the site’s cleanup process. Communicating their findings with the public, their expert input is invaluable to ensure the restoration efforts are effective and properly managed at the San Jacinto River waste pits.
Environmentalists and local activists are demanding the government escalate its response to deal with the rising impact to the bay area. Lawyers are pushing for the EPA to remove the waste all together, but with Hurricane Harvey destroying so much of the Gulf Coast, the toxic pits on the San Jacinto River will likely be pushed down on the official priority list. With more than 202,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil at two different sites, the problem is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.