EPA an­nounces $115 mil­lion cleanup for Hous­ton site

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Michael Biesecker David J. Phillip, The As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON» The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has handed a rare vic­tory to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, or­der­ing two big cor­po­ra­tions this week to pay $115 mil­lion to clean up a Texas toxic waste site that may have spread dan­ger­ous lev­els of pol­lu­tion dur­ing flood­ing from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt signed a di­rec­tive Wed­nes­day re­quir­ing In­ter­na­tional Pa­per and McGin­nis In­dus­trial Main­te­nance Corp., a sub­sidiary of Waste Man­age­ment Inc., to ex­ca­vate 212,000 cu­bic yards of con­tam­i­nated sed­i­ments from the San Jac­into River Waste Pits.

Pruitt vis­ited the Su­per­fund site out­side Hous­ton last month af­ter his­toric rains and flood­ing from the storm, meet­ing with lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists who had cam­paigned for years for ap­proval of a cleanup plan.

Pruitt has said clean­ing Su­per­fund sites is among his top pri­or­i­ties, even as he has worked to de­lay and roll back a wide ar­ray of en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions that would re­duce air and water pol­lu­tion. Of­ten Pruitt has done so di­rectly at the be­hest of in­dus­tries that pe­ti­tioned him for re­lief from what they char­ac­ter­ize as overly bur­den­some and costly reg­u­la­tions.

At the waste pits, both com­pa­nies op­posed the ex­pen­sive cleanup, ar­gu­ing that a fab­ric-and-stone cap cover­ing the 16-acre site was suf­fi­cient. The for­mer site of a de­mol­ished pa­per mill that op­er­ated in the 1960s, the is­land in the mid­dle of the San Jac­into River is heav­ily con­tam­i­nated with diox­ins — chem­i­cals linked to cancer and birth de­fects.

“In­ter­na­tional Pa­per re­spect­fully dis­agrees with the de­ci­sion by the EPA,” said Tom Ryan, a spokesman for In­ter­na­tional Pa­per. He said re­mov­ing the ex­ist­ing pro­tec­tive cap “could re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to pub­lic health and the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.”

Pruitt’s de­ci­sion trig­gers the be­gin­ning of what could be months of ne­go­ti­a­tions between the EPA and the two com­pa­nies to reach a fi­nal set­tle­ment. If the com­pa­nies refuse to com­ply with Pruitt’s or­der, the EPA could sue in fed­eral court to re­quire com­pli­ance.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported Sept. 2 about the risks from flood­ing at Hous­ton-area Su­per­fund sites, high­light­ing six prior oc­ca­sions where the cap at the waste pits re­quired sig­nif­i­cant re­pairs. Jour­nal­ists sur­veyed seven flooded Su­per­fund sites in and around Hous­ton by boat, ve­hi­cle and on foot, in­clud­ing San Jac­into.

The EPA said at the time it was too un­safe for its work­ers to visit the sites and ac­cused the AP in a state­ment of en­gag­ing in “yel­low jour­nal­ism” and cre­at­ing panic. Nearly one month later, how­ever, the agency con­firmed that con­tam­i­nated sed­i­ments at San Jac­into had, in fact, been un­cov­ered by the storm.

A sam­ple col­lected by an agency dive team from an ex­posed area at the site 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.

The EPA says ad­di­tional test­ing will now be needed to de­ter­mine whether the con­tam­i­na­tion spread and to en­sure that the ex­posed waste ma­te­rial is iso­lated. Those re­sults should be known in about two weeks, the agency said Thurs­day.

Mean­while, work­ers have tem­po­rar­ily cov­ered the ex­posed sed­i­ments with stone un­til the fi­nal cleanup be­gins.

The San Jac­into River emp­ties into Galve­ston Bay, where state health of­fi­cials have long ad­vised against reg­u­larly con­sum­ing fish and shell­fish be­cause of con­tam­i­na­tion from diox­ins and PCBs. The cleanup plan EPA ap­proved this week re­quires the construction of a tem­po­rary dam to hold back the river while work­ers use heavy ma­chin­ery to dig up and re­move enough con­tam­i­nated soil and sen­ti­ment to fill about 16,000 dump truck loads.

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