In Harvey's Wake

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A pit of toxic sludge along the San Jacinto River east of Houston is no longer on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency priority cleanup list, the agency announced Monday.

The announcement comes a week after the EPA reached a much-anticipated agreement to clean up the San Jacinto Waste Pits — one of the most hazardous of Houston’s many EPA Superfund sites — with the two companies deemed responsible for the waste. Local environmental prosecutors and activist groups who have pushed for removal of the waste cheered the deal.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits — currently contained by a temporary protective cap — is one of two Superfund sites the agency removed from its so-called "Emphasis List," along with the Anaconda Copper Mine in Nevada; three sites in California, Delaware and Minnesota were added to the list.

“We are making tremendous progress expediting sites through the entire Superfund remediation process,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Monday in a statement. “The updated Emphasis List reflects our commitment to addressing Superfund sites as quickly and safely as possible.”

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Pruitt ordered a full cleanup of the pits, which are contaminated with carcinogenic waste including dioxins, about six months ago. The responsible companies — International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. — initially fought the plan but agreed to pay for the $115 million cleanup last week. The EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will oversee the cleanup process.

In 2011, the companies paid to install 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 1960s. But the armored structure has occasionally needed repairs, including a significant fix after divers found a 20-foot hole in it in 2015.

In late September, after initially reporting that the protective cap covering the waste pits didn’t appear to be damaged, the agency confirmed that rains from Harvey had compromised the temporary armor, exposing “underlying waste material.” Pregnant women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught in the area.

Local environmental prosecutors and activist groups have argued that 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.

"We never thought we'd see the day the Pits' Responsible Parties agreed to the clean-up set forth by the EPA but Pruitt's Administration made it happen," said Jackie Young, the founder and executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance. "I am extremely thankful for the emphasis and commitment put forth by Administrator Pruitt and his Superfund team."

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general appointed by President Donald Trump, made the cleanup of Superfund sites an agency priority, although the EPA came under fire in the wake of Hurricane Harvey for being slow to inspect potential damage to the waste pits and other highly contaminated areas.

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There are more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area.