When EPA administrator Scott Pruitt toured the San Jacinto Waste Pits site after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the area, he said the federal agency would make a decision by October 14 about whether to remove, dredge or permanently cap the waste pits.
In other words, the debate over what to do about the San Jacinto Waste Pits, the dioxin-filled kolache of a federal Superfund site nestled on the edge of the San Jacinto River, has been raging ever since the site was deemed toxic and given a temporary cap back in 2011. But now it's crunch time.
The waste pits were created starting in the 1960s when International Paper's predecessor, Champion Paper, hired McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation to haul off the toxic sludge the paper mill was producing in Pasadena. McGinnis toted the toxic crud up the San Jacinto and tucked containers of waste into the pits until they were packed full and written off of the company's assets in 1968.
Since then, the containers have remained at the site, but the paper mill byproducts saturated the ground around the area and over the years dioxin, a known carcinogen, has oozed out of the site, a situation that many residents say has caused all sorts of health problems, including cancer. After decades of being forgotten, the waste pits were "discovered" by the EPA in 2005 and the spot was turned into a Superfund site, designated for cleanup, by 2008.
The companies on the hook for polluting the site had placed a temporary $9 million cap on the pits, and before the cap was even completed, company officials were already hoping to talk the EPA into allowing them to simply make the cap permanent by reinforcing it and putting more rock on top of it.
Local environmentalists and some area residents have remained intent on seeing the waste pits removed entirely, while officials at McGinnis, International Paper and the Houston-based Waste Management Inc. — the parties responsible for funding and overseeing whatever cleanup option the EPA chooses — have continued to push to put a permanent cap on the waste pits and be done with the whole endeavor.
Now, as the Pruitt-imposed deadline — a seemingly random choice since it's just the date of the annual game between University of Texas and Oklahoma University in Dallas, despite the fact that the issue at hand has nothing to do with any of those things — looms, both those who want to see the waste permanently capped and those who want to see it removed are making their last-ditch pitches to argue that their preferred approach is the right one.
Jackie Young, founder and executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, a nonprofit started specifically to deal with the San Jacinto Waste Pits (it is now also intended to handle environment and health issues around other Superfund sites in Harris County), wants the EPA to go with the plan the agency officially announced was the favored method of remediation roughly a year ago, removing the contents of the pits entirely.
Young has repeatedly dismissed the idea that there is any other solution to the problem. She argues that the pits have already proved that a cap will not hold in the toxins, since holes in the temporary cap and subsequent higher levels of dioxin in the surrounding area have occurred regularly over the past few years.
She maintains this is the only option based on the EPA's recent report that Hurricane Harvey had, in fact, caused a breach in the San Jacinto Waste Pits that resulted in more than 70,000 parts per trillion of dioxin being found on the river bank of the pits. (The EPA recommends cleanups for anything above 30 parts per trillion.)
But J.T. Edwards, founder and executive director of the Galveston Maritime Business Association, an organization formed in December 2016 that supports capping the waste pits, maintains that any of the other options for handling the pits will leave the river and Galveston Bay at risk.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Edwards — who was a programmer for Waste Management for about four years more than a decade ago and whom Texas Health and Environment Alliance accused of being the front man for pushing the company's pro-capping agenda, allegations he denies — points out that removal will leave the San Jacinto Waste Pits exposed for more than a year, a time when the perfect storm whipping up Galveston Bay into the Houston Ship Channel would spill the contents of the waste pits into the river. From there dioxin and other toxins would be able to flow into Galveston Bay and other bodies of water, potentially contaminating a far greater area.
"I'm Galveston born and raised and I am protecting our waters down here," he says. "You can't predict Mother Nature, you can't predict storm surges, heavy rains, and you certainly can't predict the next big hurricane. If they take the stuff out, it's exposed and what if a storm comes through? But if you drop a cap on it, it's over and it's done."
Of course, Edwards also maintains that the pits did not leak or even sustain serious damage. "It did not release into the San Jacinto River, it did not release into Galveston Bay, so it did not release," Edwards says.
This, despite the reports from the EPA that admitted — albeit in careful language — that the pits did, in fact, leak.