After spending a lot of time dodging the question of whether or not the San Jacinto Waste Pits were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, officials with the federal Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that the pits had indeed been damaged earlier this month. Now, they've admitted the extent of the damage, and it was fairly impressive even for the standards of this flood prone site.
During a meeting between EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, EPA Region Six personnel and stakeholders for the San Jacinto Waste Pits, a federal Superfund site, the EPA finally laid out findings of severe erosion to the site since Harvey. In total, more than 6,700 square feet of the temporary cap and site was damaged.
The river channel on the eastern side of the pits experienced erosion across 1.5 acres, up to 12 feet deep. Repairs have been made to the cap and recent data does not indicate the cap is currently leaking. However, up to 20,000 square feet of adjacent river bottom has eroded, according to an EPA release.
This comes hot on the heels of the decision last week to remove the waste pits from the lip of the San Jacinto River.
The waste pits were created in the 1960s as a storage site for the toxic sludge from nearby paper mills. After the site was packed full of dioxin, a known carcinogen, and other toxic substances, the whole site was abandoned and forgotten for years until the increasing dioxin levels in the San Jacinto River were ultimately traced back to the waste pits in the early 2000s. (The waste pits had started out lodged on the edge of the river but had ended up partially submerged over the years due to erosion and shifts in the river itself.)
After years of contention, waiting and then contentious waiting (local environmentalists and many of those living in the area have long wanted the waste pits gone while company officials that will have to pay for the cleanup and local industry types pushed to simply cap the pits permanently), the EPA finally announced its plan to have the companies on the hook for cleaning up the Superfund site remove the waste pits entirely, a project expected to cost about $115 million.
It's a good thing the EPA is stepping up on this, because otherwise the news about how the San Jacinto Waste Pits actually fared during Harvey would be even more troubling.
The EPA is downplaying the damage like a teenager who just got in a fender bender with her father's car, but the erosion from the storm alone means the site has to be stabilized. The project will include placing a geotextile fabric layer covered with at least three feet of rock with a median diameter of eight inches and will take about three weeks to complete, weather and tide permitting.
Meanwhile, we know that the area around the waste pits saw spiking levels of dioxin after the hurricane and flooding rolled through. (Samples showed 70,000 parts per trillion of dioxin in areas near the pit. The EPA recommends a cleanup for anything above 30 parts per trillion).
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And even though the EPA officials are still doing their best keep-calm-and-don't-panic take on the San Jacinto Waste Pits, it's worth noting that Pruitt stopped by and met with local EPA representatives and local stakeholders on this issue, even though he was really in town to speak to energy industry representatives at the Texas Oil and Gas Association meeting.
Pruitt is doing his best to roll back many of the regulations, rules and policies enacted under the Obama administration, as we've pointed out, but even he could not find a way to do anything other than order those waste pits to finally be removed.
So while the EPA is likely going to continue to downplay the extent of the damage to the pits, the amount of dioxin that has left the pits and all the rest, Pruitt's actions show what the agency officials are unlikely to say anytime soon.
After all, the toxic sludge-packed, flood-prone San Jacinto Waste Pits are finally being removed, and based on how the pits weathered Hurricane Harvey, even a Trump administration-era EPA administrator can't find fault with the Obama-era plan to do so.