Army Engineers Wants the San Jacinto River Waste Pits to Stay As Is

Despite the leak in the San Jacinto River Waste Pits cap last December, and the tests that found local water wells have been tested for dioxin, a known carcinogen found in the waste pits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just released a study finding that it may be best to just leave the toxic enchilada nestled on the edge of the San Jacinto River exactly where it is. 

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits were created in the 1960s when International Paper's predecessor company, Champion Paper, contracted with McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to carry industrial waste and paper-mill sludge to a 20-acre dump site on the river bank. Over time, clay impoundments meant to contain the toxic waste eroded, and eventually more than half the site was submerged. By the time the landfill was, you know, filled, the tract of land along the San Jacinto, originally valued at about $50,000, was estimated to be worth roughly $1 and was subsequently abandoned by the company, as we've previously reported. 

Decades passed before regulators first stumbled upon the San Jacinto waste pits in 2005 while evaluating the river bottom for sand dredging. A 14-acre section was declared a Superfund Site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. Federal regulators found the site contains all kinds of toxic waste, including dioxin, a known carcinogen. The companies responsible for the waste pits put a massive $9 million cap over the hole that contained the toxic sludge in 2011. 

Ever since then, there's been a back-and-forth about what to do with the site. Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come out with its final report on the waste pits, conducted by Region 6 of the EPA and the Corps. The 237-page document, released in August, goes over all the details of the waste pits, examining the options — removing the waste, or leaving it where it is with the cap in place — and potential fallout from each of those options in detail.

Jackie Young, executive director of the San Jacinto River Coalition, says the waste pits should be removed entirely. She points out that the study is actually an assessment of the responsible parties draft feasibility study. “We know the responsible parties wanted to make containment look like the best possible option,” Young says. Thus, she says, it's crucial to remember the Corps is just critiquing the responsible parties draft report, which may be the reason the final report is more focused on containment.

The study is huge and written in such a way that the reader can “cherry-pick” the ideas, scenarios and solutions presented, she says. “The study does paint removal like a very dangerous process,” Young says. “But if you get into the actual study, they do say removal can be done with virtually no loss or leakage. There are short-term risks with removal, but you can safely do it.”

However, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., one of the companies involved in the waste pits mess, has pointed to the Corps study as evidence that the pits should be left undisturbed, partially submerged in the river. This might just possibly be because the cost of the live-and-let-the-toxic-waste-lie approach would be significantly less than the cost of actually removing the waste pits, according to KUHF.

Over the course of the report, the authors go over just about every scenario short of aliens landing alongside the San Jacinto River Waste Pits and zapping the stuff away, weighing out how it all could play out. This meant considering all kinds of potential calamities, like the odds of whether a barge is likely to strike the cap or run aground on top of the waste pits — the study found that a barge is likely to strike the cap only once in every 400 years or so. 

The study also considered the question of flooding and storms. A simulation was conducted to show how the cap would fare during Hurricane Ike and the October 1994 flood, using the parameters of these two events to test how the site would do during "very extreme hydrologic events." The study found that under these extreme scenarios, the cap didn't hold up so well, with about 80 percent of the 15.7-acre tract going through severe erosion during the simulation.

The authors recommend thickening the cap because of the potential for severe erosion from a big storm or a major flood because "the armored cap is predicted to have longterm reliability" otherwise. Well, you know, aside from the fact that "the uncertainty associated with estimates of the effects of some of the potential failure mechanisms...is very high."  

Anyway, the removal option didn't hold up as well in the Corps study.

While the odds of any leakage from the site are minuscule if the site is simply capped and not dug into, the chance of leakage if it's moved is much more likely, according to the study. Short-term releases will be virtually nonexistent, while between 0.1 percent and 0.3 percent of the "contaminant mass" will likely be released by removal operations, the study finds.

According to the Corps study's conclusions, the cap will have issues only if it erodes or if it gets hit by a barge. Meanwhile, the dredging option will never get all the crud out of the waste pits or guarantee that there won't be residual leakage from whatever is left behind once the rest of the waste pits are unearthed and hauled away, according to the study. 

Thus, the Corps essentially (by virtue of the emphasis placed on containment in the summary and conclusion of the mammoth report, if not by actual word or deed) picks a side on this and it's all about keeping the cap in place. 

This isn't what residents living near the San Jacinto River Waste Pits want, as Young has stated time and again, but removal will cost millions, according to Young, while keeping the cap in shape and leaving it where it is will cost quite a bit less. And now there's a very detailed study that has given those in favor of keeping the waste pits right where they are a whole stack of environmental reasons that have nothing to do with cost. 

There was one bright spot in the study for those hoping the waste will be removed. The Corps didn't just stick to the options laid out by the companies in charge of actually paying to overhaul the site, Young points out. There's a newly added dredging option titled “Alternative 6N*,” which uses current technology and techniques that have been employed successfully at other, similar sites, according to Young. “The new remedial alternative the Corps offered in the report is extremely important because it could work and actually remove the waste. If the waste is left there, it will leak,” she says.

The cap was built to withstand a 100-year storm event, but there have already been problems with the cap, including a massive hole, 25 feet long and 22 feet wide, that was discovered last December. “The Corps pointed out that with containment, it's not a question of if the waste pits will leak; it's a matter of when,” Young says. “There's enough dioxin in those pits to kill off all of everything in Galveston Bay, and the Corps report tells us it may not happen right away but there could be real problems in the future.”

The EPA is expected to release its report with a final proposed solution for dealing with the waste pits in the coming weeks. It certainly will be interesting to see whether the agency goes for the cap or for a no-cap option. 
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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