EPA Opts to Remove (Most) of Dioxin From the San Jacinto Waste Pits

An aerial view of the San Jacinto Waste Pits cap.
An aerial view of the San Jacinto Waste Pits cap.
Photo from the EPA

With a toxic enchilada called the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund Site on its hands and a range of choices about how to deal with it, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has opted to just get rid of the mess.

After years of studies, reviews and lots of pushing from different factions with their own ideas about how the San Jacinto Waste Pits should be dealt with, EPA officials finally unveiled how they want to deal with the pits — by removing the toxic component, or at least most of it. 

EPA officials announced Wednesday that their preferred remedy is to remove about 202,000 cubic yards of toxic waste from the site, a process that will cost about $97 million to complete. This plan will leave about 50,000 cubic yards of dioxin-laced waste — contaminated but at a lower level — at the site, according to a report the EPA has put out on the decision. 

“We do believe the plan is the most protective plan for both the communities and the ecosystem,” Ron Curry, the administrator for EPA Region 6, says, though he highlighted that the agency wants and needs feedback on the plan.

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Since the pits were first discovered by federal regulators in 2005, there's been fierce debate about what to do with them.  The waste pits had been there for more than 40 years at that point. Back in the 1960s, International Paper's predecessor company, Champion Paper, contracted with McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to get rid of the paper mill crud the company was spewing out in Pasadena.

McGinnes barges toted the sludge, which contained dioxin, a known carcinogen, up the San Jacinto and deposited the containers in the waste pits for decades. The land on the edge of the river was packed with the toxic waste over the course of the decade until 1968, when it was deemed "full" and taken off the company's listed assets. This was two years before the EPA was even established.  

Congressman Gene Green has been working on the San Jacinto Waste Pits for years now. When he was representing the area in the state Legislature back in the 1980s, there were reports of dioxin in the area, but nobody could pinpoint where the pollutant was coming from. 

The pits were just beyond the boundaries of Green's district at that time, so he joined up with Congressman Ted Poe, the guy whose district the pits were actually in, to petition the EPA to designate the pits a Superfund site. By 2008 the site was on the list. "It happened at light-speed compared to how long it usually takes to get a Superfund site created," Green says. 

The companies on the hook for the pits put a temporary $9 million cap on the site in 2011, and have been big on the idea of keeping the site capped versus dealing with the expense of moving it. Meanwhile, community members and activists have been intent on seeing dioxin completely excised from the pits. 

“Leaving the waste in the river is unacceptable," Jackie Young, a former resident in the area and executive director of the San Jacinto River Foundation, says.  "This decision shows the EPA is taking a firm stand based on the science and engineering and what the community has called for."

The EPA chose this proposed plan removing most of the waste because of a few factors, according to the report. For one thing, the cap on the site has had issues and required repairs at least four times in the past six years, including the discovery last December of a large hole leaking dioxin-tainted crud. But this wasn't the only reason.

There's also the reality of the river itself. The San Jacinto River has seen serious flooding in recent years and may see even worse flooding in the future, according to the report. On top of that, the ground near the river has been sinking while repeated flooding has sliced new channels into the land. "The Preferred Alternative is the only one that will reliably result in no catastrophic future release of waste material upon completion of construction," the EPA report states.

The proposed plan isn't a done deal yet, though. The EPA is taking public comments for the next 60 days, which will be topped off with a public hearing on October 20. From there comes a period of negotiation with the companies involved, the design phase and then the final remedial action. 

All of this means the actual removal is years down the road, as Curry noted. And that's assuming the companies go with this plan and don't file lawsuits to push for cheaper ways of dealing with the pits, Green says. “These companies have dealt with issues like these before, and they know how to take care of this stuff. They probably want to do it on the cheap, but the EPA is pushing to do it right. Hopefully the companies are willing to do it that way,” Green says.


So yeah, the EPA has finally decided, and (some) of the toxic waste will be taken out of the pits. Eventually. Possibly.

It's amazing really. It only took a few years to create the waste pits. Getting rid of them is proving to take significantly longer. 

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