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EPA Proposes to Remove Long-Festering Toxic Waste Near San Jacinto River

Federal environmental regulators have proposed to remove 202,000 cubic yards of toxic waste that has festered for more than half a century along the San Jacinto River.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits, an EPA Superfund site that is contaminated with dioxins, is located off Interstate 10 east of Houston.

This story has been updated with a statement from McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp.

Federal regulators have a plan to remove toxic waste that has festered for more than half a century near the San Jacinto River in Harris County.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday proposed to remove 202,000 cubic yards of dioxins and other pollutants from a 14-acre site along Interstate 10 east of Houston, which has long stirred environmental and health concerns. The projected price tag is $97 million.

Five years ago, the companies responsible for the waste installed a temporary cap that sought to contain the sludge. But that armored structure has occasionally needed repairs — including a significant fix after divers found a 20-foot hole in it last December.

“Based on the recommendation of EPA site managers and the on-going maintenance and repairs of the temporary cap, we are proposing to remove contaminated material and provide the community with the most protective cleanup plan for the San Jacinto waste pits site,” Ron Curry, an EPA regional administrator, said in a statement.

The agency will take public comments through Nov. 28 before finalizing the plan.

Local environmental groups cheered the announcement Wednesday. 

“It looks really good,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, as he was still reading the proposal. “Now, the issue is to ensure that the engineering plans and on-the-ground actions that take this waste away are as tight as possible.”

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who long pushed to remove the waste, called the announcement “a relief.”

“The regulatory process works,” he said in an interview. “Galveston Bay is so important for both industrial, but also recreational and fishing, that we need to clean this up.” 

But the plan drew some criticism.

“What EPA is proposing to do is the riskiest of the two solutions," Thomas Knickerbocker, an attorney for San Jacinto Citizens Against Pollution, said Wednesday. His citizen group instead calls for the waste to stay put, and be secured by a permanent cap — so as not to disturb long-settled contaminants.

One of the companies responsible for the waste voiced similar concerns. 

The San Jacinto River and waterways it feeds into, like Galveston Bay, are tainted with a wide variety of chemicals that probably came from many different industrial operations. In recent years, regulators have traced some of the most noxious pollution to the partially submerged site in question — where wastewater from a now-shuttered paper mill was dumped into Houston-area waters beginning in 1965.

Decades ago, environmental rules were more lenient, and no one knew the wastewater held dioxin, now known to be highly toxic and carcinogenic.

Long-term exposure to dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, the herbicide that devastated countrysides during the Vietnam War, can lead to severe reproductive and developmental problems. In the short term, dioxin exposure can cause skin and liver problems, as well as nausea and vomiting.

Discovered in 2005 and added as an EPA Superfund site in 2008, the San Jacinto pits have spurred litigation and years of debate about how best to clean them up.

In 2014, lawyers for Harris County and the state won a $29.2 million settlement from McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Houston-based Waste Management Inc. related to the pollution — money that's been used to improve communities near the site.

Another defendant, International Paper Co., escaped penalties in the lawsuit, but Harris County is appealing that decision.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan called the EPA's announcement Wednesday "good news."

Removing the waste carries some risks, such as the potential to stir up some of the contaminants, which do not dissolve in water.

That's what San Jacinto Citizens Against Pollution fears, and it argues that building a permanent cap would prove cheaper than hauling away the pollution. Knickerbocker pointed to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that suggested that removing the waste could prove riskier than letting it sit. 

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. echoed those concerns in an emailed statement. 

"It is disappointing that the EPA has apparently decided to ignore science and technical data," the statement said. "Excavation will result in resuspension of the material, worsening the river and putting nearby communities at risk for years to come."

But a host of local officials and environmental groups say the best option is to remove the waste but to do so carefully.

“This is not going to be 100 percent clean," said Stokes, of the Galveston Bay Foundation. “There is some risk in taking this away, but we felt like the risk of leaving it in place is greater, certainly, in the much longer term.” 

Read more on these issues: 

  • Houston officials said state regulators did little about dioxin pollution, so they sued three companies themselves and ask for billions of dollars in fines.
  • A dry cleaner tucked in one of Houston's most expensive neighborhoods has become the epicenter of a contentious debate over the enforcement of Texas' environmental laws. 
  • Gov. Greg Abbott has signed legislation that could make it tougher for local governments to sue big-time polluters – an effort that largely targets Harris County prosecutors. 

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