Environmentalists Rally Around Lawsuit to Scrub San Jacinto Waste Pits

Environmental activist Jackie Young of Texans Together gathers protesters in front of the Waste Management headquarters. Pending an actual "solution for pollution," the county attorney will push on with his suit to collect billions in fines.
Environmental activist Jackie Young of Texans Together gathers protesters in front of the Waste Management headquarters. Pending an actual "solution for pollution," the county attorney will push on with his suit to collect billions in fines.
Photo by Susan Du

As Houston corporate lobbyists fight a county lawsuit seeking to penalize companies for carcinogens plaguing the San Jacinto River, environmental groups have pledged to keep hounding their headquarters with angry rhymes.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued Waste Management, International Paper, and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation for $2 billion in penalties for the cancer-causing dioxin that's leached out of the San Jacinto Waste Pits for nearly half a century. But Waste Management and International Paper say they only inherited the property after it had been polluted, so they're not liable to pay for full remediation.

Champion Paper and its contractor McGinnes Industrial Maintenance created the Waste Pits in the 1960s, when barges carrying with sludge from a paper mill in Pasadena dumped their contents in pits on the river's west bank. Over time, erosion, rising water and the companies' total abandonment caused part of the Waste Pits to submerge underwater, contaminating the San Jacinto River within a half-mile radius. The pits are currently covered by a temporary cap, which Waste Management and International Paper support leaving in place as a much cheaper alternative to a thorough scrubbing.

The pollution is so extensive that the EPA named the Waste Pits a Superfund site -- part of the federal government's program to repair the nation's concentrations of uncontrolled hazardous waste.

The companies under fire delayed the lawsuit for years, challenging the county attorney's right to hire outside counsel. An appeals court ruling last summer in favor of Harris County allowed the case to march on.

Earlier this year, Waste Management lawyers asked lawmakers for their help in passing legislation that would cap the types of damages Harris County hoping to win with its lawsuit, according to the Chron. "As a practicing lawyer who advises companies as to what liabilities they may face, like becoming involved with a contaminated property, I have to advise them - based on some of the recent cases - that there is a possibility, as remote as it might be ... that you could be penalized for coming on to that site and seeking redevelopment because it is not precluded by the laws as they exist now," said John Riley, Waste Management's Houston-based lawyer.

Meanwhile, the EPA has found hazardous levels of the cancer-causing chemical dioxin in area wildlife. The agency placed a consumption advisory on fish and blue crab, erecting warning signs to deter fishermen. Nevertheless, the agency found that residents are still eating toxic seafood.

Grassroots environmental organizations the San Jacinto River Coalition, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and Texans Together camped in front of Waste Management's headquarters at Fannin and Lamar Streets for about half an hour Thursday, chanting their discontent. The case is set to go to trial at the end of this month.

It's a demonstration they repeat every month, or whenever there's an update in the lawsuit, just to remind the corporations that the river's not going to clean itself.


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