Remove toxic waste from river
As is now well-established, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site has been a major source of dioxin contamination in the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay. The more than three-month comment period for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to remove the most toxic waste has just ended. It’s time to move on this, post-haste. Continued efforts to establish a different approach — namely, “permanently” containing the waste on this dynamic river — do not deserve support. This approach would present continuing risks of uncontrolled releases that could harm our health and the environment.
We have waited long enough to clean up this mess.
In 1990, the state of Texas issued the first dioxin-based consumption advisory for fish and shellfish from the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay. Dioxin is a highly toxic contaminant that is associated with cancer, birth defects and other significant health problems. Despite years of efforts to reduce known sources of dioxin, problems persisted.
In 2005, what we now call the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site was rediscovered. In the mid-1960s, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. disposed of dioxin-containing pulp and paper mill wastes from Champion Paper in pits then adjacent to the San Jacinto River. The pits were abandoned in 1968. When rediscovered, most of the site was submerged in the river or had eroded away. McGinnes (now a subsidiary of Waste Management of Texas) and International Paper (which acquired Champion Paper) became the “potentially responsible parties” to whom the cleanup task would fall. The Superfund designation became official in 2008.
In 2011, the EPA required Waste Management and International Paper to install a temporary cap to minimize continuing releases as the site was investigated and a more permanent remedy determined. While this was an improvement, the cap, arguably designed to withstand a 100-year flood event, has had multiple major maintenance issues associated with much smaller storms. An approximately 500 squarefoot uncovered area was discovered in December 2015, which exposed the most contaminated waste tested so far at the northern portion of the site.
The EPA’s recently proposed remedy calls for isolating and removing the most contaminated waste materials, using best management practices such as raised berms and sheet piling to control re-suspension of the waste during removal. The removal would be done in stages to limit the uncovered area.
The proposed removal at the pits, where source waste still is concentrated, is very different from the experiences in the Hudson River in New York and the Passaic River in New Jersey, where contamination had spread through the sediment in many miles of these rivers.
Contamination is most effectively and efficiently addressed before it has dispersed. Here, much of what will be removed is source waste that hasn’t yet been dispersed downstream. EPA’s estimate of $87 million to remove the waste costs more than “containment” options that were considered. However, it is much less expensive than the $2 billion being spent to remove contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River or the projected $1.38 billion to remove contaminated sediment in eight miles of the Passaic River.
Similar contamination has been removed successfully at other river and bay locations in the U.S. The EPA states that removal, its preferred remedy, “is the only one that will reliably result in no catastrophic future release of waste material.” The San Jacinto River Coalition, for which I do volunteer work, agrees. Throughout planning and implementation, there needs to be continuing dialogue on how to most effectively remove the waste while also minimizing disruptions to barge traffic and the many other important uses of the river. An open and constructive process for sharing and addressing these concerns is the best way to move forward.