Order to clean up waste pits hailed
Residents and activists praise EPA’s decision to take action on San Jacinto River dioxin site
Since moving to the Highlands more than three decades ago, Doyce and Rae Bobo have watched their neighbors die one after another.
The Bobos don’t think these deaths are from old age or natural causes. In fact, they’re pretty sure it’s related to the cancercausing dioxins in the San Jacinto Waste Pits not far from their home.
And now that they both have cancer, they’re left wondering when they might be next.
“If (dioxin) is in my drinking water, and I’ve been told that it is, how much water did I consume?” Doyce Bobo said Thursday. “How much dioxin did I consume?”
Despite their concerns, the couple was among a group of residents and environmental advocates who gathered for a Thursday news conference to celebrate the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to permanently remove tons of toxics from the waste pits — a Superfund site that was heavily flooded and began leaking dioxin into the river after Hurricane Harvey.
Standing outside the waste pits Thursday, the group popped bottles of champagne and sparkling cider, praising what they called a “victory” for the area.
“This is the most important single decision the United States Environmental Protection Agency has ever made with respect to Houston-Harris County,” said Terence O’Rourke, a special assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “When the work is done, it will literally liberate the people here and in the Galveston Bay.”
The decision comes only two weeks after the EPA confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Harvey’s floods. An EPA dive team found dioxin in
sediment near the pit in a concentration of more than 70,000 nanograms of dioxin per kilogram of soil — more than 2,300 times the EPA standard for cleanup.
The extent of damage caused by that release remains unknown. But flooding of the Superfund site prompted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to visit the area and move up a decision on the proposed cleanup plan that had been pending for about a year. The estimated cost is $115 million, the EPA announced.
Scott Jones, director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation, said he’s elated with the decision.
“We don’t need this threat anymore,” he said. “Removal was the only option.”
Jones added that he expected the cleanup would not begin for another two years but was hopeful the parties responsible for the pits will work with the EPA to get the job done.
That may not be what happens, however. A spokesman for McGinnes Industrial Maintenance, one company responsible for the cleanup, announced Wednesday that it will oppose removal.
If the companies do not cooperate, Jones said, the EPA should move forward with the cleanup and seek restitution later.
Officials soon will begin the process of facilitating a settlement with the potentially responsible parties, according to an agency news release.
Those parties will have about two months to provide a “good-faith offer” to finance or conduct the cleanup and reimburse the agency for all of its expenses to date. This plan must be signed off on by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. It also needs judicial approval, according to the news release.
“If a timely settlement cannot be reached, EPA may take appropriate action at the site,” the release stated, which could include “civil litigation against the recipients to require compliance.”
The Bobos are incredibly happy that cleanup is on the horizon, mostly for their grandkids’ sake.
“This is for the younger generation,” Doyce Bobo said. “When this is over with, we’ll have young people that have a safe environment.”
Scott Jones, director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation, and Jackie Young with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance pop bottles of champagne before the start of a news conference Thursday at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.
Terence O’Rourke with the Harris County Attorney’s Office said the EPA’s decision to clean up the San Jacinto Waste Pits was the “most important” it has ever made for the Houston area.