Scott Pruitt Visits San Jacinto Waste Pits Post-Harvey, Promises EPA Decision by October

Scott Pruitt says the EPA will reach a decision on the San Jacinto Waste Pits by October 14, but he didn't give any hints as to what that decision will be.
Scott Pruitt says the EPA will reach a decision on the San Jacinto Waste Pits by October 14, but he didn't give any hints as to what that decision will be. Image from the EPA
During his visit to Texas last week, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt promised the EPA would arrive at a permanent solution for the San Jacinto Waste Pits before the football rivalry game between the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma on October 14.

It's unclear why Pruitt, an Oklahoma native, felt it was important to make the annual Red River Rivalry — which occurs in Dallas — a deadline for the EPA finally deciding on a plan for what to do with the waste pits, but then again, if Pruitt is making promises that even smell like there's a decision around the corner on what will be done, why look such a gift horse in the mouth?

The San Jacinto Waste Pits have sat on the banks of the San Jacinto River, packed full of dioxin and other toxic substances from a local paper mill, for more than 40 years. In 2011, the EPA came up with its first fix for the pits — agency workers stuck a temporary armored cap on top of the site to keep the contents from spilling into the river and the rest of the surrounding area.

But Hurricane Harvey once again underscored how fragile the situation with the waste pits really is — the pits have been known to leak, as we've recently noted — and why it decidedly is time for the federal agency to finally settle on a long-term solution for the pits. (Hint: Because they are full of toxic sludge held in by a temporary cap and could leak and cause all kinds of devastation if the perfect storm were to roll up at just the wrong time.)

Jackie Young, founder of the San Jacinto River Coalition and director of the Texas Health and Environmental Co-alliance, and Scott Young, with the Galveston Bay Foundation, were on hand to meet Pruitt when he rolled up to the site, the Baytown Sun reports.

Pruitt said he is determined the EPA will deal quickly with the “ongoing risk and the crushing anxiety felt by thousands of Texans that live near the San Jacinto Waste Pits," a sentiment that sounds good but may not mean much depending on how the San Jacinto Waste Pits ultimately weathered Hurricane Harvey. The EPA had divers in the water inspecting the site all week, including while Pruitt was visiting, and it remains unclear how the site, which is partially submerged in the San Jacinto River and packed full of dioxin, a known carcinogen, actually came through the storm without a breach.

After all, if the waste pits came through the storm just fine as is, that could be a good argument for leaving them there in perpetuity. However, that's not the solution Young and others who have lived near the pits for years are pushing for.

It's still unclear how the San Jacinto Waste Pits weathered Hurricane Harvey - IMAGE FROM THE EPA
It's still unclear how the San Jacinto Waste Pits weathered Hurricane Harvey
Image from the EPA
Many of those living in the area are hoping that the EPA opts to move forward with its own proposed remedy for the waste pits, an $87 million plan to remove the bulk of the existing cap and more than 152,000 cubic yards of contaminated crud stored beneath that cap at the northern leg of the site, the part that dips into the San Jacinto River. It will take more than a year and a half to finish the removal, which will end with more than 13,000 truckloads of toxic waste from the old paper mill tucked away at another facility.

If the EPA decides to go this route, that is.

There's a lot in favor of removing the waste. For one thing, while EPA Region Six officials have not been clear about what actually happened to the waste pits during the hurricane, the statements issued so far imply that the pits did not come through unscathed. The agency was working on repairing the armored layer of the cap and still figuring out if the waste pits will require more repairs, a question that remains open until the diving team has completed its inspection, according to an agency release. 

After his stop at San Jacinto — a visit that was rather difficult to make since the road leading to the waste pits washed out entirely in some sections, while the entire area surrounding the waste pits looked as if it had been struck by a bomb — Pruitt moved on with the U.S. Coast Guard to take a flyover tour of the other Superfund sites believed to be affected by Hurricane Harvey, including Patrick Bayou, U.S. Oil Recovery, the Highlands Acid Pits, French Unlimited, Brio Refining and Dixie Oil Processors, according to the Baytown Sun. Of course, officially none of these sites have been at all hit by Harvey or the resulting floodwaters. Obviously, Pruitt was just checking them out since he was in the area.
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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