San Jac­into waste pits’ neigh­bors stay vig­i­lant

Or­ga­nized op­po­si­tion prompts with­drawal of ap­pli­ca­tion to dredge near Su­per­fund site

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - STAFF WRITER By Emily Fox­hall

Four days be­fore Christ­mas, Beach City’s new mayor learned some­thing wor­ri­some: A com­pany was seek­ing a per­mit to dredge near haz­ardous waste pits in the San Jac­into River. The firm wanted to dump the po­ten­tially toxic sludge 15 miles away on a neigh­bor­hood lot next to the only park in Beach City, which stretches along the coast­line south of Mont Belvieu and Bay­town.

Mayor Jackey Lasater heard about it not from the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers, which re­ceived the ap­pli­ca­tion, but be­cause of an ad­vo­cacy group, which in turn was tipped off by a Chan­nelview res­i­dent the Corps no­ti­fied by mail. At the time, Lasater was on his way to Arkansas to visit his fa­ther, who fell and had hip surgery. But the 15-day pub­lic com­ment pe­riod for the project was half­way over. The mayor and oth­ers got to work.

This was their re­al­ity.

With cleanup of the waste pits planned but not yet started, lo­cal politi­cians, non­prof­its and res­i­dents still vig­i­lantly watch what takes place around the river’s Su­per­fund site, a scary sound­ing name for a spot, vis­i­ble from In­ter­state 10, where waste from a pa­per mill was dumped decades ago and is to­day un­safe. Pol­lu­tants like that are not a con­cern in Beach City, where res­i­dents rely on wa­ter from wells.

“We just don’t want that here,” Lasater said.

By day’s end, the op­po­nents had won a re­prieve. With in­put from U.S Rep. Brian Babin, a Repub­li­can from Woodville and oth­ers, the Corps in­creased scru­tiny of the per­mit. The agency changed it from the 15-day so-called “let­ter of per­mis­sion” process to that of an “in­di­vid­ual per­mit,” which would un­dergo a month­long pub­lic re­view, end­ing Feb. 15.

Lasater emailed Beach City res­i­dents that evening.

“Rest as­sured that we are do­ing our due dili­gence to learn more about this project so that we will be pre­pared to deal with this devel­op­ment in the ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner,” he wrote. “I will keep you up­dated.”

The fight had be­gun.

Alert­ing oth­ers

Greg Moss moved to Chan­nelview, an un­in­cor­po­rated area next to the San Jac­into River in north­east Har­ris County, in 1994. In 2011, he read in the news­pa­per that Har­ris County and the state were fil­ing suit against three com­pa­nies al­legedly re­spon­si­ble for pol­lu­tion from the Su­per­fund site, one of 55 in Texas that the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency deems a “na­tional pri­or­ity” among known or threat­ened haz­ardous waste lo­ca­tions.

Moss made a liv­ing fix­ing boats. He wears a neck­lace with a boat-pro­pel­ler pen­dant. The law­suit ar­ti­cle was the first he had heard of the dan­ger. Chem­i­cals at the site known as diox­ins caused cancer and re­pro­duc­tive prob­lems in lab an­i­mals, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Moss sold his jet ski and stopped fish­ing.

It was Moss who opened his mail­box in De­cem­ber to find no­tice of the dredg­ing project, a fa­mil­iar topic. He and other res­i­dents near the pro­posed site were no­ti­fied. From his home, he can see the roof of the wa­ter­front com­pany be­hind it, Holt­mar Land LLC. He re­called that the com­pany failed to push through a sim­i­lar plan sev­eral years be­fore, which the Corps said was with­drawn.

Holt­mar now out­lined a plan to dredge 31,000 cu­bic yards of ma­te­rial from the wa­ter­front, enough to fill at least 2,000 dump trucks. As Moss un­der­stood it, it wanted to build a place for oth­ers to park their barges.

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in­un­dated the ram­shackle neigh­bor­hood that Moss and Holt­mar both in­habit, San Jac­into River Es­tates. Moss did not want to deal with the smell and noise of those boats. He thought the com­pany needed to test more strin­gently the dredged-up ma­te­rial it would be re­mov­ing from the so-called “Area of Con­cern for San Jac­into River Waste Pits Su­per­fund Site.” Did the peo­ple in Beach City even know what was com­ing?

“It needs to be done safely,” Moss said.

The 63-year-old scanned the 12-page doc­u­ment and on Dec. 19 emailed it to Jackie Young, who leads the Texas Health and En­vi­ron­ment Al­liance, and to the Mithoff Law firm, which is rep­re­sent­ing him and more than 600 oth­ers in a class ac­tion law­suit.

Young grew up across the river in High­lands. She took Moss’ in­for­ma­tion and spurred the flurry of ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing Mayor Lasa­tar. Cleanup of the waste pits was com­ing. She won­dered: Was now re­ally the right time to bring in con­struc­tion equip­ment and boats?

Full-on at­tack

An es­ti­mated 2,600 peo­ple live in Beach City, which stretches in a long, skinny curve along the coast­line. It in­cor­po­rated in 1966 so that Bay­town could not gob­ble it up. A con­ser­va­tive phi­los­o­phy pre­vails: There is no city tax and, with a bud­get of around $140,000, few city ser­vices. Two part-time em­ploy­ees work in the City Hall of­fice housed in a county build­ing.

Some res­i­dents years be­fore had won a sim­i­lar fight against a com­pany that tried to build a land­fill for con­tam­i­nated ma­te­rial, re­called Billy Combs, who was sworn in Jan. 2 as a Cham­bers County com­mis­sioner. “This is not the first threat,” Combs said.

Holt­mar pro­posed to dump its dirt on a wooded, 3-acre lot. A res­i­dent lives on one side. The county-main­tained McCol­lum park is on the other. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, birds chirped in the foggy quiet and some­one walked laps around the park’s path. In front of it stretched Trin­ity Bay.

Across the street lies a neigh­bor­hood called Bar­row Ranch. Ni­c­hole Holmes and her hus­band moved there in 2017, in­tend­ing it to be the place where their two boys would grow up.

Holmes felt blind­sided by the email from the mayor. A na­tive of Chan­nelview, she takes daily sup­ple­ments be­cause her thy­roid was re­moved years ago; she sus­pects the fish she ate from the river may be to blame. She knew the is­sues her home­town faced, and she did not want to see those same prob­lems in Beach City, where many of her rel­a­tives now lived. They weren’t a bunch of rubes read­ily taken ad­van­tage of, she said.

They or­ga­nized, post­ing on Face­book and Nex­tDoor and, one week­end in early Jan­uary, go­ing door-to-door with a pe­ti­tion. Holmes said ev­ery­one she asked agreed to sign it. She took a copy wher­ever she went, be it HE-B, Tar­get or the eye doc­tor.

“We, the un­der­signed, de­mand that any ma­te­ri­als from near the San Jac­into River Waste Pits Su­per­fund Site, NOT be moved into Beach City, the pe­ti­tion read. We are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial ad­verse im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health dur­ing re­moval, trans­port and de­po­si­tion.” More than 800 peo­ple signed.

That was just one tac­tic. On Jan. 22, Com­mis­sion­ers Court and the City Coun­cil passed res­o­lu­tions op­pos­ing the project.

Then there were the let­ters, which the Corps project man­ager says the agency takes into ac­count. They de­scribed res­i­dents’ con­cern for their drink­ing wa­ter, prop­erty val­ues and en­vi­ron­ment. The mayor wrote one. The man liv­ing next to the pro­posed dump site wrote one. The Hous­ton chap­ter of the Sierra Club, and mem­bers of the health and en­vi­ron­ment al­liance, wrote, too. What hap­pens if kids track their dirt in on their shoes? What hap­pens if an­other storm comes?

In hers, Holmes of­fered a warn­ing: “Please un­der­stand that we will tire­lessly fight to pre­vent any San Jac­into River dredge ma­te­rial from com­ing to our com­mu­nity.”

Good news came Feb. 4, when the Army Corps of En­gi­neers says that Holt­mar no­ti­fied the agency that it wanted to pull its per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion. Those op­pos­ing it felt cau­tious op­ti­mism. They would not de­clare vic­tory un­til they saw the proof. At 5 p.m. Fri­day, the Army Corps sent word that the ap­pli­ca­tion had been with­drawn.

Tom Mar­ian, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the ap­pli­cant, wrote in an email last week that he was un­avail­able to com­ment.

A hand­shake

Moss, who tipped ev­ery­one off about the project, wor­ries the com­pany will file again and try this time to dump the dirt on a swampy prop­erty it owns near him. He says it asked his neigh­bor about putting a drive­way through the neigh­bor’s prop­erty to ac­cess it. His neigh­bor, Joe Sar­tain, said he had no prob­lem with it.

A se­cond per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion for work around the Su­per­fund site has been sub­mit­ted, this one from a com­pany called the San Jac­into River Fleet. Its no­tice went up a day be­fore Holt­mar’s and ex­pires Feb. 14. The pro­posal de­tails work on ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture at its fa­cil­ity, where barges park. Ad­vo­cates have reser­va­tions about this, too.

There is broader con­cern about barges in the area: What if storms blow the boats into the pits? What if an ac­ci­dent sends a barge knock­ing into them?

En­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice ad­vo­cates note that other com­mu­ni­ties might face bar­ri­ers that Beach City, a pre­dom­i­nantly An­glo com­mu­nity, did not. En­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect com­mu­ni­ties of color with lim­ited re­sources, said Yvette Arel­lano, pol­icy re­search and grass­roots ad­vo­cate for Texas En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Ad­vo­cacy Ser­vices. Some com­mu­ni­ties might not be or­ga­nized, feel re­luc­tant to speak out or lack con­nec­tions with leg­is­la­tors.

“What this com­mu­nity was able to do, not all com­mu­ni­ties are able to do that,” said Juan Par­ras, the ad­vo­cacy group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

The San Jac­into Waste Pits are closely watched. Young, who got the tip from the Chan­nelview res­i­dent, holds monthly meet­ings of a group known as the San Jac­into River Coali­tion. About 30 peo­ple at­tended the Feb. 5 meet­ing, where mem­bers dis­cussed the two per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions — one over for now, one not — then spent much of the 90 min­utes with de­tailed up­dates on the progress of the cleanup, which Young thinks could be­gin be­fore the end of the year.

On top of the meet­ing agenda was a quote at­trib­uted to an­thro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thought­ful, com­mit­ted cit­i­zens can change the world; in­deed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Af­ter the meet­ing, Young and Lasater shook hands.

“Let us know if you need us,” Young said.

“You, too,” said Lasater, headed for the door.

Pho­tos by El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Greg Moss of Chan­nelview lives near where a com­pany pro­posed to dredge the San Jac­into River.

Tur­tles soak up the sun at Mead­ow­brook Park, where a sign warns vis­i­tors not to fish or catch crabs be­cause of diox­ins taint­ing the wa­ter.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Jackie Young of Texas Health and En­vi­ron­ment Al­liance holds a piece of the “cap” used to con­tain the diox­ins at the San Jac­into River Su­per­fund site dur­ing a San Jac­into River Col­la­tion meet­ing on Tues­day in High­lands.

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