In Harvey's Wake

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that rains from Hurricane Harvey damaged a temporary protective cap on a pit of toxic sludge along the San Jacinto River east of Houston, exposing “underlying waste material.”

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits — one of the most hazardous of Houston’s many EPA Superfund sites — is contaminated with carcinogenic waste, including dioxins.

In a statement late Thursday, the EPA said samples from 14 different areas “confirmed the protective cap had been damaged and the underlying waste material was exposed. The sample showed dioxins at 70,000 ng/kg. EPA recommended clean up level for the site is 30 ng/kg.”

The agency said it had directed companies responsible for the waste — International Paper Co. and Industrial Maintenance Corp. — "to conduct supplemental sampling to ensure that the exposed waste material is isolated.”

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“The dioxin in the waste material does not dissolve easily in water but it can migrate further out into the surrounding sediments,” the statement said. “The supplemental sampling will determine the extent, if any, of this migration."

The announcement comes after the EPA reported the cap didn’t appear to be damaged, although it has said for several weeks that its dive teams were conducting additional inspections. Even before Harvey hit, Administrator Scott Pruitt deemed the cleanup of Superfund sites a priority.

In 2011, the companies responsible for the waste installed the temporary cap to contain the sludge, which had festered for more than half a century — wastewater from a now-shuttered paper mill was dumped into Houston-area waters beginning in 1965. But the armored structure has occasionally needed repairs, including a significant fix after divers found a 20-foot hole in it in 2015.

Pregnant women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught in the area.

Environmentalists and lawyers argue the temporary cap is an insufficient fix and have advocated for the material to be dredged. In 2016, the EPA proposed a plan to remove 202,000 cubic yards of dioxins and other pollutants from the 14-acre site.

“While devastating, Harvey was far from a worst-case scenario for the site, and this most recent cap failure is further evidence as to why removal of the waste is necessary,” said Rock Owens, who oversees environmental cases for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and has sued the companies over the pits.

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In 2014, 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 appealed the decision.

In an interview Friday with Tribune CEO Evan Smith, Harvey recovery czar John Sharp said it would be a priority to mitigate similar breaches.

Business groups have opposed the removal of waste, saying the work — which could take months — would interrupt fishing and maritime operations.

JT Edwards, a spokesman for the Galveston Maritime Business Association, said such dredging could stir up toxins and, because it would take so long, would make the site vulnerable to another storm.

“Once you start dredging, you gotta finish it. What if a really, really bad superstorm shows up outside of hurricane season, what do you do about it?” he said. “Just put it in a tomb and call it a day.”

In its statement, the EPA said it would “continue to provide updates about the status of the Superfund site, and continue to work with the” the responsible companies “to ensure that risk to human health and the environment is managed as best as possible.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Watch Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune, one month after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 40 inches of rain, flooding entire areas of the city. [Full story]

  • As efforts to rebuild have slowly begun in areas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, officials continue to warn of lingering environmental hazards, including the health risks posed by receding floodwater. [Full story]

  • When first responders were sent to the scene of a chemical fire at a manufacturing plant last week, they were never alerted to the toxic fumes in the air, a new lawsuit alleges. And the plant's parent company could face another lawsuit in the next several weeks. [Full story]

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