Following Obama-Era Guidance, EPA Orders San Jacinto Waste Pits Removed

The San Jacinto Waste Pits will be removed, the EPA ordered.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits will be removed, the EPA ordered.
Image courtesy of the EPA
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Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has made good on his word.

With three days to go before the football game between Oklahoma University and University of Texas, the deadline Pruitt set when he visited the San Jacinto Waste Pits and other Houston-area sites after Hurricane Harvey rolled through town last month, the EPA has indeed made a decision on the fate of the pits.

The dioxin-packed, partially submerged pits tucked along the lip of the San Jacinto River will be removed.

"Today, we are announcing our decision to ensure the San Jacinto site is cleaned up for the benefit of the entire community," Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said in a press release. "As exemplified today, EPA is prioritizing Superfund clean-up by making decisions in a decisive, timely manner."

So a decision has officially been made.

It's been a long time coming. The San Jacinto Waste Pits were packed full of toxic sludge, including dioxin, a known carcinogen, from the runoff from a paper mill in the 1960s. The pits were full by the end of the decade and were then largely forgotten over the following years — U.S.Representative Gene Green noted that there were higher levels of dioxin in the area going back to the 1980s, although nobody knew for sure where the dioxin was coming from.

And then, 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.

In 2011 the companies on the hook for polluting the site, Champion Paper, McGinnis Industrial Maintenance and Waste Management Inc., placed a temporary $9 million cap on the pits. 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.

Over the years, the companies continued to push for putting a permanent cap on the waste pits, a cheaper solution that supporters claimed would also be safer since the waste would never be exposed to the elements. At the same time, locals and environmentalists in the area, after years of claims of increased cancer rates, reports of dioxin found in area wells and fish pulled out of the river, and repeated breeches of the temporary cap on the waste pits, the most recent one occurring during Hurricane Harvey, pushed to see the waste pits removed entirely.

The EPA had already made clear in a decision last fall that agency officials favored removing the waste over capping or dredging the pits, but it was unclear whether Pruitt, the new head of the agency for the Trump administration, would see things the same way his predecessors did. In fact, based on the general approach to environmental regulations and to-the-bone budget cuts being proposed under the new administration, it seemed highly possible the EPA would reverse itself on this.

But the people supporting removal have won out.

We may never know the extent of damage from Hurricane Harvey or numerous other storms, but at least the EPA is putting their best foot forward and moving in the only direction that upholds their mission. All 7 similar sites across the country have been removed- this can be done safely and we will remain engaged as a watchdog and advocate for our communities as this process moves forward.” Jackie Young, the founder of the San Jacinto River Coalition who has worked since 2011 to see the waste pits removed, stated.

The EPA’s final cleanup plan, called a record of decision, includes installing engineering controls such as cofferdams before excavating almost 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated material for disposal, which should allow construction crews to keep the area dry while excavating the waste material, according to the EPA's release. A small amount of material will stay on the site where controls will prevent access, eliminate off-site migration and monitor the natural recovery into the future.

Changes in the construction method will effectively eliminate any potential for spreading contamination to downstream areas, the release states, bumping the cost of removal from about $97 million to about $115 million, a price EPA officials consider to still be "cost effective" and "representing a reasonable value for the cost incurred." 

“I thank the EPA for making the right decision to remove the toxic waste pits out of the San Jacinto River,” Congressman Green, who has been asking EPA officials to remove the sludge from the waste pits since 2007, noted in a release issued shortly after the decision was announced late Wednesday afternoon. “Our communities in eastern Harris County have been fighting for over a decade to have the dioxin and other cancer-causing toxic waste fully removed and disposed of safely. We will be monitoring the remediation process closely and call on the EPA to move as quickly as feasibly possible before additional dioxin is exposed into the environment.”

However, not everyone is thrilled with the EPA's decision. McMinnis Industrial Maintenance sent out a release that made the company's take on the plan to remove the waste clear. "We cannot support a plan for the site that provides less protection to all affected communities than the existing cap already has provided. We are deeply concerned that the decision announced today could result in a release to the San Jacinto River and downstream areas. We disagree with EPA’s claim that the local or downstream areas can be protected during removal. We will review U.S. EPA’s Record of Decision in its entirety."

It's understandable though. After all, they're one of the companies that has to foot the bill and pay for the final remediation the EPA has chosen. It would be a little much to expect them to be enthusiastic about it.

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