Floods may have re­leased dan­ger­ous diox­ins

EPA tests say Hous­ton-area Su­per­fund site may have lost chem­i­cals down­river

The Dallas Morning News - - State - Michael Biesecker, The As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON — The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency says an un­known amount of a dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal linked to birth de­fects and can­cer may have washed down­river from a Hous­tonarea Su­per­fund site dur­ing the flood­ing from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

The EPA said Thurs­day night it has or­dered the com­pa­nies re­spon­si­ble for the San Jac­into River Waste Pits site to im­me­di­ately ad­dress dam­age to a pro­tec­tive cap of fab­ric and rock in­tended to keep sed­i­ments highly con­tam­i­nated with diox­ins from spread­ing. The com­pa­nies — In­ter­na­tional Pa­per and the Waste Man­age­ment sub­sidiar y McGin­nis In­dus­trial Main­te­nance Corp. — have made ini­tial re­pairs to the un­der­wa­ter sec­tion of the cap where the pro­tec­tive rock was miss­ing.

The EPA said a sam­ple col­lected by an agency dive team from the ex­posed area showed dioxin lev­els at 70,000 nanograms per kilo­gram — more than 2,300 times the level set to trig­ger a cleanup. Diox­ins do not dis­solve eas­ily in wa­ter but can be car­ried away with any con­tam­i­nated sed­i­ments and de­posited over a wider area.

Res­i­dents in nearby neigh­bor­hoods that flooded dur­ing the storm are now wor­ried con­tam­i­nated mud might have been washed into their homes, said Jackie Young, a lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cate.

“For years we’ve told the EPA it’s not a mat­ter of if this area is struck by a hur­ri­cane but when,” said Young, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Texas Health and En­vi­ron­ment Al­liance. “The scary part about this is we have no way of know­ing where all the con­tam­i­nated ma­te­rial was car­ried by Har­vey’s flood­wa­ters.”

At least one dozen Su- per­fund sites in and around Hous­ton were flooded last month in the days af­ter Har­vey’s record-shat­ter­ing rains stopped. As­so­ci­ated Press jour­nal­ists sur­veyed seven of the flooded sites by boat, ve­hi­cle and on foot, in­clud­ing San Jac­into. The EPA said at the time that its per­son­nel had been un­able to reach the sites, though they sur­veyed the lo­ca­tions us­ing aerial pho­tos.

The San Jac­into River Waste Pits Su­per­fund site is on and around a low-ly­ing is­land that was home to a pa­per mill in the 1960s. The site was com­pletely covered with roil­ing flood­wa­ters when the AP sur­veyed it Sept. 1.

About 16 acres of the site were covered in 2011 with an “ar­mored cap” of fab­ric and rock in­tended to con­tain the con­tam­i­na­tion un­til it can be re­moved as part of a pro­posed $97 mil­lion cleanup plan. The cap was de­signed to last for up to a cen­tury, but it has re­quired ex­ten­sive re­pairs on at least six oc­ca­sions in re­cent years, with sec­tions be­com­ing dis­placed or go­ing miss­ing.

In its state­ment, the EPA did not dis­close pre­cisely when the dam­age to the cap from Har­vey was first dis­cov­ered. The AP ob­served a dive team work­ing from a boat over an un­der­wa­ter sec­tion of the site Sept. 13. Work­ers be­gan us­ing heavy ma­chin­ery to add lay­ers of rock to the cap the week af­ter the storm.

The EPA said ad­di­tional test­ing will now be needed to de­ter­mine whether the con­tam­i­na­tion spread and to en­sure that the ex­posed waste ma­te­rial is iso­lated.

De­spite the EPA’s state­ment af­firm­ing that con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als were ex­posed by the storm, In­ter­na­tional Pa­per and McGin­nis said in a state­ment that “no ev­i­dence ex­ists that there was any re- lease of waste ma­te­rial to the en­vi­ron­ment as a re­sult of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.”

“The as­sess­ments also demon­strate that the ex­ist­ing ar­mored cap per­formed well,” the com­pa­nies said.

San Jac­into is at least the sec­ond Hous­ton-area Su­per­fund site where con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als may have been spread by Har­vey’s flood­ing. The AP re­ported Sept. 18 that three sep­a­rate spills were re­ported from flooded tanks at U.S. Oil Re­cov­ery, a former petroleum waste pro­cess­ing plant con­tam­i­nated with a dan­ger­ous brew of can­cer­caus­ing chem­i­cals.

EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt has called clean­ing up Su­per­fund sites a top pri­or­ity, even as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed 2018 bud­get seeks to cut money for the pro­gram by 30 per­cent.

Tom Fox/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Res­i­dents in neigh­bor­hoods near the San Jac­into River, which flooded dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, fear that con­tam­i­nated mud might have been washed into their homes.

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