The San Jacinto River Waste Pit Superfund Site Was Abandoned According to Plan

These days, everyone knows about the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site. The toxic pits have been nestled in the ground for years now. But it's easy to forget that this mess was deliberately created more than 40 years ago.

Back in the 1960s, International Paper's predecessor company, Champion Paper, contracted with McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to carry industrial waste and paper-mill sludge to a 20-acre dump site on the river bank. Over time, clay impoundments meant to contain the toxic waste eroded, and eventually more than half the site was submerged.

Regulators first stumbled upon the San Jacinto waste pits in 2005 while evaluating the river bottom for sand dredging, and a 14-acre section was declared a Superfund Site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. The federal regulators found the site contains all kinds of toxic waste, including dioxin, a known carcinogen.

For years it's been clear how the toxic waste ended up at the dump site, but a document recently reported on by the Baytown Sun illustrates just how aware officials with at least one of the companies involved in creating the waste pits were about what they were doing at the time.

Since at least 1966, tugboats and barges had slid downriver countless times to deposit toxic sludge at the site, but now the land was packed to the brim with the stuff, like a toxic jelly donut. A summarized report of an August 1968 annual meeting, excerpted in the Baytown Sun this week, goes over how the board of McGinnes got together that summer and specifically discussed abandoning the waste pits on the edge of the river because the tracts of land were packed full with toxic sludge.

The board had a plan, though, and the entire pitch was spelled out during McGinnes's annual meeting, according to the Baytown Sun. The document, apparently a summary of what the board discussed during the meeting, briskly summarizes how McGinnes started using "certain real estate owned by the corporation on the San Jacinto River" to store waste materials from the paper mill starting in 1966:

“Discussion then turned to certain real estate owned by the corporation on the San Jacinto River, which was used during fiscal 1966 and part of fiscal 1967 as a dump for waste materials hauled by the corporation. The chairman stated that during a conference with the corporation’s auditors the physical status of the property was discussed.

It was pointed out that the property was completely filled with waste materials and could no longer serve as a dumpsite. Due to its physical condition it was also regarded that the land was worthless in that it had no present sales value. Because of these factors, the corporation’s auditors were instructed to eliminate the land as an assets from the corporation’s books and records by writing down its stated book value from $50,000 cost to the nominal sum of $1.

This action would be reflected in the corporation’s balance sheet as of August 31, 1968. Based on the foregoing and upon motion duly made, second and unanimously approved, it was resolved, that the real estate owned this corporation on the San Jacinto River, previously used as a dump site in connection with corporate hauling activities, be abandoned as a dump site; and that said land be eliminated as an asset from the corporation’s books and records by reducing its state book value from cost of $50,000 to the nominal sum of $1.”

To translate, McGinnes used land the company already owned on the edge of the San Jacinto River to store some incredibly nasty toxic waste, including dioxin, a known carcinogen that recent testing by Harris County Public Health has indicated may have seeped into nearby water wells, as we recently reported.
Then, in 1968 once the property was "completely filled with waste materials" and of no further use, the company auditors were instructed to take it off the books.

Previously, the land had been worth about $50,000, but it was now considered worthless. Well, not quite worthless, technically, since the land was subsequently valued at $1. 

Once that was all taken care of, the corporation took the land off the books as an asset, and that was that. McGinnes helped to create the environmental pustule that is the San Jacinto Waste Pits, and then McGinnes officials along with the rest of those involved in disposing of the toxic waste at the site on the edge of the San Jacinto just left the mess for others to discover and subsequently clean up. 

In 2014, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's Office settled a lawsuit filed against McGinnes, International Paper and Waste Management of Texas for polluting the San Jacinto River with toxic pollutants, namely dioxin. Ultimately, Waste Management and McGinnes struck  a deal with the county, agreeing to pay about $29 million in civil penalties for dioxin contamination, as we reported. (The third company, International Paper, opted for a jury verdict and was cleared of any responsibility by a split jury.) The state and Harris County split the settlement money, though the state recently handed over its portion to Harris County, as we've previously reported. 

Meanwhile, EPA officials are still trying to figure out what to do with the site. The EPA originally ordered the responsible companies to cap the waste pits back in 2011 but in December 2015, it was discovered that the cap has been leaking. The cap was repaired, but news of the leak has only made people more eager to see the federal agency make a final decision about how it will deal with the waste pits — the options range from doing nothing at all to removing the contents of the pits entirely.

And that's where things stand right now, with everyone waiting. "We are working on a proposed plan for the site where we present remedial alternatives to the public and get their comments," Jennah Durant, Region 6 EPA spokeswoman, told the Houston Press via email. "Plans are to start the comment period late this summer. After going through the comment period, the next step is to select the remedy in the Record of Decision."

The EPA should make a decision sometime in the near-ish future about what to do with the pits, but there's no firm deadline for the agency to do so. 

It's amazing, really. While it only took a few years to create the San Jacinto River Waste Pit Superfund Site, at the rate the EPA is moving, it's almost definitely going to take a lot longer to clean this mess up. 
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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