Groups demands answers about Harvey’s impact on San Jacinto River Waste Pits site

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Representatives of nonprofits gathered on the river’s edge on Tuesday to urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide additional information on whether dioxin is escaping from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Scott Jones, of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said he does not believe recent assurances from federal officials and the company overseeing the Superfund site’s cleanup that the site’s cap appears intact.

He said dioxin has already leached from the cap in many past flood events, creating hot spots throughout the Galveston Bay that he says the state has failed to monitor because of a lack of resources.

Longtime Channelview resident Jennifer Harpster said her home fell into a sinkhole during the storm.

Harpster said the tainted water flooded her entire neighborhood, which local residents are still trying to clean up.

“When you go down there, it looks like a bomb went off.” she said. “The smell of chemicals is inside my house.”

Grassroots activists Jackie Young, founder of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, said the group needs “data and mapping to tell us nothing has escaped from these pits and everything remains intact.”

Young said she doesn’t believe assurances from companies managing the waste pits that they can handle this through routine maintenance.

“Harvey was not a routine event. Let’s stop kicking this can to future generations,” Young said. “We need the waste pits removed in a controlled, engineered environment, not in a hurricane.”

Dioxin is a paper byproduct and one of the most potent human carcinogens. It has been linked to birth defects.

Harpster is the lead plaintiff in a civil lawsuit in which 600 people claim their lives and livelihood already have been damaged by the waste pits.

She believes dioxins have already affected her family’s health, noting that her granddaughter died of a rare form of cancer at age 6.

Pam Bonta of Texas Quality Water said she’s worried about 6,000 households in the flood plain around the pits in the communities of Channelview, Highlands and on the Lynchburg peninsula — all in Harris County.

The county has tested just 150 of those wells in the past year and plans to retest in the wake of the storm.

Two companies are overseeing the cleanup of the San Jacinto site, a former waste dump for a paper mill that was located on the banks of the river and became submerged.

Officials from the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continued to work through the Labor Day weekend to assess 13 of 41 Superfund sites in the counties hit by Hurricane Harvey that they say were flooded and could have been damaged.

On Monday, federal and state inspectors visited the San Jacinto site near Channelview via boat and visited two other Houston-area Superfund sites by land – the Highlands Acid Pit and US Oil Recovery.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pit and Highlands Acid pit are both submerged in the San Jacinto River on the eastern edge of Harris County. US Oil Recovery is a historic municipal wastewater and industrial treatment plant in Pasadena.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits are of particular concern. They contain decades of waste from a pulp and paper mill that is laced with dioxin. The cap covering them has leaked before and for the last year, the EPA has been considering a plan to entirely remove the waste from the river’s flood zone.

Local residents and Harris County officials are worried because the raging river already has doused miles of homes with contaminated floodwaters and caused visible damage to a section of Interstate 10 bridge adjacent to the pits.

On Sunday, federal and state officials briefed members of Congress, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other key responders at the Harris County emergency management center on the Superfund inspection process. They also provided a briefing to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other city leaders on the status of Superfund sites in and around the city. The EPA said the agency remains “in constant communication with Governor Abbott’s office and as of Sunday a member of the EPA staff would remain in Turner’s office to provide continued updates to state, local and federal officials.

Of particular concern are people who depend on individual or municipal well water that lies in the flood plains of the Superfund sites.

“TCEQ and EPA toxicologists and technical experts are on the ground and in the air collecting real-time air monitoring and water quality data,” the EPA said Monday. “That information is being analyzed by experts now and will be provided to the public as soon as it is available. We encourage the community to continue to follow the expert safety advice of local officials.”

The EPA’s list of 13 potentially damaged sites include nine Superfund sites in the greater Houston metro area. The Harris County sites include both the San Jacinto River Waste Pits and the Highland acid pit, which is also flooded by the San Jacinto River. Others include the Geneva Industries/Furhmann Energy site, at 9334 Canniff Road near Hobby airport in Houston; the French Limited industrial storage and disposal site in Crosby, the US Oil Recovery wastewater site in Pasadena and a section of Patrick Bayou in Deer Park.

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