Heavy flooding from Hurricane Harvey has taken an environmental threat to a new level. Going from bad to worse was a common occurrence during the hurricane, but nearly five weeks later, the trend continues. Now known as the San Jacinto River waste pits, the 14-acre and 20-acre sites represent a dangerous area that should be avoided by humans and other living things.
Discovered in 2005, toxic sludge surrounding the I-10 bridge has recently started leaking again. Experts believe the floodwaters damaged an armored covering, installed in 2008 to protect deadly poisons from seeping downstream and killing more of the environment. Unfortunately, the companies responsible for the impermanent solution have taken the term “temporary” quite literally. The protective covering has been repaired at least six times since it was installed, and the most recent repairs were in 2015 when regulators discovered a 20-foot hole in the installment. How long the hole was present, allowing more industrial waste to flow into the Galveston Bay, nobody knows.
The paper manufacturing process creates a byproduct known as dioxins. Dioxins are powerful carcinogens and are heavily regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But five years before the EPA was established, a company by the name Champion Paper hired McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to haul off their industrial waste. Taking the recognizably toxic material from Pasadena, Texas, McGinnes transported the waste to one of their plots of land and dumped it. Covering their tracks, the company claimed the land was worthless after three years of constantly polluting it with dioxins and hid it in their books.
A lawsuit filed by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office eventually held two of the three companies responsible, and they were held liable for $29 million in civil penalties. The third company managed to escape justice by taking the claim to court, and a hung jury resulted in an acquittal. All three companies are responsible for managing the current attempt to seclude the deadly waste from destroying more of the environment, but their efforts have been weak at best.
Dioxins are especially dangerous because they concentrate in the environment. Insoluble in water and still very reactive, the dioxins usually settle in the sediment of the river. Regulators discovered the contaminated areas during routine inspections for a company looking to dredge sand from the river bottom. Appropriate levels are below 30 ng/kg, but authorities were shocked to discover soil samples containing 70,000 ng/kg of dioxins. Plants inevitably absorb these toxins and pass them off to other organisms when they get digested. For decades, swimmers, fishermen, and crabbers in the area unknowingly absorbed this chemical through their skin. The side effects not only include a much greater risk of cancer but also liver failure and birth defects. The state health department has even issued a seafood consumption advisory for Galveston Bay and its tidal tributaries, warning locals to avoid ingesting food caught along the coast.
In a desperate attempt to isolate the hazardous waste, EPA officials are now considering removing over 220,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Officials have no idea how they would store the material, or where it would go, and no plan has been technically announced. Environmentalists, locals, and their lawyers are pushing the federal agency to do something before it is too late.