Even With the Flooding, the EPA Is Already Totally Checking on the San Jacinto Waste Pits

When floods swept through Houston last year, it's unclear if anybody at the federal Environmental Protection Agency really thought to check on the cap placed on the toxic enchilada that is the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site, located on the edge of the San Jacinto River, for any leaks or holes. Luckily, Jacquelyn Young, executive director of the San Jacinto River Coalition, started bugging the agency to do just that. And when EPA divers late last year did check the cap, which is supposed to prevent toxic sludge from leaking into the water the way it did in the 1970s and 1980s, they found a hole. 

This time around, though, the EPA, which is charged with overseeing the Superfund site, is on it. As everyone continues to reel from the damage caused by last week's flooding, the EPA has already started checking out the San Jacinto Waste Pits. And it apparently took only a little bit of prompting from Young. 

The San Jacinto Waste Pits contain some particularly nasty stuff, the toxic leftovers from a Pasadena paper mill that deposited its refuse along the banks of the San Jacinto 50 years ago. Since that time, it's been learned that chemicals used to whiten paper and then subsequently dumped are highly toxic and can cause cancer and screw up reproductive systems and immune systems.  The EPA says there's no safe level of exposure to these chemicals, which include a large amount of dioxin. 

Back in 2014, Harris County and the state filed a civil lawsuit against the companies technically responsible for creating the toxic sludge that fills these waste pits. They asked the court to have the three companies involved — International Paper Co., McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Waste Management Inc. — pay $25,000 per day for every day the site opened in 1965. Ultimately, the parties made a deal, with two of the companies agreeing to pay $30 million in damages. (The third company was cleared of any responsibility by a split jury.)

The companies responsible for the waste pits put a massive $9 million cap over the hole that contained the toxic sludge in 2011. Until last year, the cap help together pretty well. Right up until last December, that is, when an EPA dive team found a hole in the structure meant to contain the toxic waste stored at the site. 

With all the floodwaters rolling through the area, it's still unclear if the waste pit site had any issues, but concerns were raised when someone noticed the nearby "dolphin bumper structures" — bumpers created by the Texas Department of Transportation that are intended to keep the I-10 bridge from being hit by a barge — had been damaged. Last week, Young snapped photos of damage outside the Superfund site and sent them to the EPA, according to the Baytown Sun

The EPA responded by getting someone out to the site late last week, Gary Miller, the EPA remedial project director, told the Baytown Sun:

“An EPA on-scene coordinator was dispatched to the site this afternoon to observe the site conditions,” Miller stated “The site remains locked to prevent access. Areas of the site visible from the gate did not appear to be damaged."

Miller said a follow-up inspection was planned. The Houston Press has submitted questions to Miller about what the Friday inspection revealed. We'll update as soon as we hear back from him. When the floodwaters recede, he stated, the parties who put the cap on the superfund site will have to perform a detailed inspection of the cap to make sure there aren't any holes or leaks. The EPA will oversee the inspection, whenever it occurs. 
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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