Still to Come From Harvey: Possible Contamination From the San Jacinto Waste Pits

Harvey hit the area hard, but it's still unclear how it affected the various environmental toxic sites in Houston and Harris County.
Harvey hit the area hard, but it's still unclear how it affected the various environmental toxic sites in Houston and Harris County. Photo by Doogie Roux
As the rain from Hurricane Harvey continued to pour down, Jackie Young, executive director of the San Jacinto River Coalition, could not stop thinking about the San Jacinto Waste Pits perched on the lip of the San Jacinto River.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits — created in the 1960s when a paper mill signed a contract to dump industrial waste in a 20-acre lot along the bank of the San Jacinto — are like an enormous toxic jelly doughnut, packed full of dioxin, a known carcinogen.

The waste pits have been classified as a Superfund site for decades, but that's not the only reason Young and others in the area have been concerned as Harvey dumped more than one trillion gallons of water on Houston and caused unprecedented flooding that sent the San Jacinto and various other bayous, creeks and waterways out of their banks last week.

See, the San Jacinto Waste Pits have been known to leak.

The pits are just one of many sites that could be a problem in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality oversees numerous toxic sites in and around Houston, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency tends to more than a dozen Superfund sites in Harris County.

However, it may be a while before we know how the San Jacinto Waste Pits or any of the numerous toxic sites across Harris County have held up against Hurricane Harvey and the floods that came with the historic storm.

On August 29, EPA officials came in from Washington, D.C., to observe the Superfund sites in the Houston area, but at that point the storm itself was still lingering over Houston and the flood waters hadn't even crested yet, so the officials didn't really see anything, let alone do any inspections.

Besides, it can sometimes take a while for leaks or other issues with these sites to be discovered.

When the San Jacinto Waste Pits sprang a leak most recently, after the Memorial Day floods in 2015, it took months for the puncture on the pits to be detected, as we then reported. It took even longer to get the leak fixed, as we noted.

Leading up to the storm, the TCEQ took measures to secure most of these sites before the storm hit, according to TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow. This included removing any drums of chemical waste and shutting down systems at sites that were projected to be in Harvey's path.

The EPA has been coordinating with potentially responsible parties as well with the TCEQ on these sites, Morrow says, but many of the locations are either still under water or are only just now beginning to emerge from the flood. (All while President Donald Trump is proposing to slash the EPA budget to ribbons next year.) So far, the EPA reports that 13 of the 41 sites in the area were flooded, based on the agency's analysis of aerial images. Of the 13 sites, inspectors have made it out to two spots so far, Falcon Refinery and Brine Service. Neither of the sites needs any repairs based on the inspections.

The TCEQ and the EPA will be inspecting sites in the affected areas once they can get to them, Morrow says. That's encouraging, but keep in mind that right now it is still very unclear when exactly that will be. EPA inspectors reportedly got to the San Jacinto site on Monday and took samples to determine if the cap, put in place the last time the site flooded, had held the dioxin in during Hurricane Harvey. The test results will reportedly be released as soon as EPA investigators get them, but there's no word on when that will happen either.

Meanwhile, there's little to do but wait for the flood waters to recede and hope for the best. Young is trying to be optimistic, but she lived near the waste pits for years and is unable to believe the site has come through the storm unscathed, with its poisonous contents still tucked securely beneath the surface. Part of the San Jacinto Waste Pits site was already partially submerged in the river long before the storm hit. And it doesn't help that the entire area near the waste pits is pocked by gouged-out portions of the roads, twisted-up houses and debris hanging from the treetops.

"It's a scary thought to know that hundreds of cubic yards of carcinogenic sediment, which make up the Waste Pits, is currently lurking under the San Jacinto River's churning flood waters," Young says. "The last video I saw of the site, the water was pounding against the Interstate 10 bridge. No part of me believes the waste pits are intact."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray