Sunnyside Residents Rebel Over Potentially Toxic Site of New Multi-Service Center

A crew tests the old Bellfort Landfill site in Sunnyside for contaminants in October 2010, which, until last month, was the last time the site had been examined.
A crew tests the old Bellfort Landfill site in Sunnyside for contaminants in October 2010, which, until last month, was the last time the site had been examined.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Targeted Brownfields Assessment Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Report, October 2010
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The controversy over the proposed move of the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center is as unpleasant as an old fetid landfill, with claims of mistruths told by City of Houston officials, alleged harassment of senior citizens and policies that promote “environmental racism.”

As previously reported, the City of Houston is considering constructing a brand new multi-service center, at an expected cost of approximately $25 million, to replace the crumbling 40-year-old city Health and Human Services facility on Cullen Boulevard. The proposed location is Sunnyside Park, which is contagious to Bellfort Landfill, an old dump that was built in a poor African-American area with little to no concern for the area residents.

Houston City Council Member for District D Dwight Boykins told the Press in December that the site, which was tested seven years ago by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is completely safe. Mayor Sylvester Turner has also said over and over and over that the site is not contaminated.

But a closer look at the October 2010 "Targeted Brownfields Assessment Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Report" shows that only the landfill was tested and not the adjoining park, which is the proposed site for the new Sunnyside Multi-Service Center. Additionally, the report says that methane was detected “during the drilling of one boring at a concentration high enough to stop drilling. It is recommended that methane should be monitored during future construction activities.”

“You can have things that are polluted but not contaminated,” says local environmental engineer Tahir Charles. “It’s a play on words. Just because it says it’s not contaminated, that still doesn’t mean that it’s not polluted. It’s safe compared to what? For someone to say it’s safe and not contaminated, there’s no science backing that up. You can’t say it’s safe if it hasn’t been tested.”

Last month, the City of Houston had the 299.5-acre site retested, landfill and park included, for soil and groundwater contaminants. Terrain Solutions, a Houston-based company that specializes in environmental site testing and geological hazard investigations, invited Charles to monitor the testing. (At the time of writing, the results remained outstanding.)

Overall, Charles says, the testing strategies were sound, but some aspects fell short. For instance, Terrain Solutions took groundwater samples on a day when it had rained.

“If you do a temporary testing plug, how do you know that you’re getting true groundwater representation? You don’t know because you have topical rainwater from this rain event that has now permeated into the soil,” says Charles. “Therefore, your test collection could be contaminated. You’re not getting a true representation. They monitored it. They’re not monitoring it over a period of days, weeks, months.”

In the 2010 study, the Corps of Engineers also found that two of the four monitoring wells contained high levels of metals that exceeded their respective critical protective concentration levels. (The report states that the area is served by municipal water and “there is no direct exposure pathway for contaminants in the groundwater to potentially impact human receptors; thus there is no need for further action.”) Charles says that those wells hadn’t been checked for pollutants or toxins between approximately October 2010 and February 2017.

Charles and multiple Sunnyside residents took Turner to task during a heated Houston City Council session on February 28.

Turner and Travis McGee, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council District D in 2013, engaged in a verbal donnybrook. A Sunnyside-South Park woman claimed environmental racism tactics by the city. And a man who lives in a different neighborhood of Houston said that he recently visited Sunnyside Park a day after a heavy rainstorm and could “smell the methane [while] walking through the field.”

We’ve watched a fair share of City Council meetings and we’ve never seen Turner – who had just returned from a press conference announcing the manhunt in the shooting of Houston Police Department officers Ronnie Cortez and Jose Munoz – that on edge. Council member Boykins, who has called the opposition to the project “loudmouths,” did not attend the meeting.

“If we can’t come in and ask questions, it’s not a problem with us. It’s a problem with you,” says Charles.

In the meantime, some of the senior citizens who regularly visit the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center have allegedly been targeted. “We’ve had our seniors being harassed, getting numerous phone calls saying that they should support the move of the center and that if they do not support it, the center will probably be closed completely,” says Dikombi Gite of Sunnyside.

There have been other instances in which people swear a construction site is safe, but then the new building, whether it’s a school or correctional facility, turns into a so-called death accelerant.

A lawsuit filed by correction officers at New York’s Rikers Island in 2014 alleges that the infamous jail is a cancer-causing cesspool because it was built on a landfill. A planned track facility at Honolulu’s Radford High School was put on the back burner when construction crews found very high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury at the site of an old dump. A new KIPP San Antonio campus opened in 2014 to backlash from concerned parents because the school was built upon a landfill.

One of the most rotten cases of an old toxic dump allegedly ruining the health of local residents happened in Houston in the 1990s. Residents of Kennedy Heights sued Chevron, claiming that crude oil stored in three earthen storage tanks in the 1920s caused multiple cases of cancer, brain tumors, lupus, birth defects and premature death. Chevron settled out of court in 1999 with homeowners in the subdivision, located approximately two miles from the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center.

Many are afraid that a new Sunnyside Multi-Service Center in Sunnyside Park might become Kennedy Heights 2.0.

“A lot of this falls under environmental stewardship,” says Charles. “At the end of the day, you just don’t put a community center and things of that nature next to an ol’ damn dump.”

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