Cleaning Up Texas Toxic Sites
Thousands of old industrial and waste sites across Texas have left dangerous pollution in our land and water. These sites need to be cleaned up as they pose threats to our health which could be spread into more waterways and homes by flooding. We support #CleanUpTX in their efforts to secure key changes to Texas environmental remediation programs. We support…
- Changes to the protective benchmarks used to assess pollution risks that will make them as strong or stronger than the figures used in nearby states. In particular we need to tighten the cancer risks Texas tolerates, which are ten times higher than Louisiana, Mississippi, and federal risks.
- Stricter scoring guidelines for assessing sites so that sites of known high levels of pollution very close to homes, churches, schools, workplaces, and waterways will not be allowed to go without remediation or even further testing for potential risks.
- More thorough involvement of local officials–cities, counties, and school districts–in the remediation process, at the very least notifying them of potential risks in their jurisdictions.
The Big Picture
When old industry shuts down, including even many small businesses such as dry cleaners and gas stations, or when waste sites are abandoned–especially old or illegal unregulated dumps–the communities around them are left with a mess. Someone has to clean it up or communities can get sick.
There exist both federal and state programs for cleaning up these sites. The most famous is the federal Superfund program which Congress created in the early 1980s in response to several high profile pollution crises. Unfortunately, the taxes on polluting industry used to fund the Superfund program went away in the mid 1990s and its trust fund ran out in the mid 2000s. Without these funds it is much harder to get sites cleaned up, especially if the people responsible for making the mess have gone out of business or passed away.
State governments are not only left responsible for many of these sites, they actually implement much of the federal Superfund program as well. These state agencies are often underfunded as well, and so sites are left polluted for years on end. There is strong incentive to sweep these problems under the rug and pretend that there’s nothing wrong. These threaten health every day, and when floods then wash these pollutants into waterways it threatens everyone’s environment, wildlife, health, and quality of life.
The purpose of this campaign is to fix these cleanup programs and ensure that every site in Texas is remediated fully. This is crucial for our environment and for our resiliency in the face of increasing climate change.
How Big is the Problem?
There are a few basic types of federal cleanup programs. First, the Superfund program is the most notable and covers the most significantly polluted sites anywhere, putting them on its “National Priority List” (NPL). There are also cleanup programs for certain types of regulated waste facilities and for old federal properties like military bases. Finally, there is the federal Brownfields program, which provides grants for assessing sites and cleaning some of them up to local governments that request the money.
In Texas we have a series of state cleanup programs. These include a cleanup program for old dry cleaners, another for underground storage tanks, a state Superfund program modeled on the federal version but for slightly less polluted sites, and a series of programs to help landowners discharge any pollution liability by agreeing to state designed cleanup protocols.
Between all of these programs we estimate that there are at least 5,533 sites that have needed cleanup or assessment for possible cleanup across the state of Texas. Here is a map of all of them:
Statewide Map of Potentially Polluted Sites in Texas (data retrieved from U.S. EPA in July 2017 & data requests of TCEQ staff on toxic site programs in Jan-Feb 2018. Some sites unlisted.)
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of sites in Texas bear the burden of toxic legacies–former industry and waste sites typically that still have dangerous pollution in the soil and groundwater. In just 10 years of data TCE/TCE Fund found 77 “Sites of Concern” with no recorded cleanup or with minimal testing to ensure people and the environment were safe–our “Sites of Concern.” You can see a map of these sites (and hundreds of other investigation sites) here.
Missing the Mark
The most significant problem with these programs we’ve found: the pollution benchmarks they use to determine whether a site needs to be cleaned up and how much to clean it up. In Texas these numbers are in many cases dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times weaker than the benchmarks used in other states or the federal government. We allow about 14 times more soil pollution than the benchmarks used by the federal Superfund program, and 35 times more groundwater pollution. For some chemicals it is much worse, like hexavalent chromium (the chemical making everyone sick in the movie Erin Brockovich), which Texas allows at 1500 times the federal level.
We’re weaker than nearby states too, even those without strong environmental protections. Texas would sign off on residential developments on polluted soils unfit even for industrial uses in Louisiana or Mississippi. That means that we would say a site is clean enough for homes, churches, schools, daycare centers, etc. that Louisiana or Mississippi would say is too polluted even for a factory or refinery.
Once these state “cleanups” are finished they are no longer eligible for potentially stricter programs: homes and businesses can be developed on them with no liability. In fact, DISD’s Joe May Elementary School was knowingly built on one of these sites. Bottom line: This means Texas permits a greater risk of harmful chemical exposure that can lead to health problems in Texas communities.
One of the main demands of our campaign then is to demand significant improvements to these benchmarks. Specifically we want to see the cancer risks assumed in the calculation of the benchmarks strengthened to the same level used by the federal government (whose benchmarks are used in Oklahoma and Arkansas), Louisiana, and Mississippi. In Texas, our cancer benchmarks are 10 times weaker than the ones used in these other places, and fixing this would be a big improvement for our program.
What Other Changes Do We Need?
Our assessment of 10 years of site inspection data found that at least 77 sites–about 10% of all the sites inspected–had reasons to believe pollution was on site and threatening the environment and human health. Besides the weak benchmarks mentioned above, the most common reasons for disregarding these sites included loose and ineffective definitions of “pathways” to sensitive parts of the environment or human populations. Sites sitting on the banks of creeks or rivers were said to have “no direct pathway” to water!
We will be pressing for new definitions of “pathways” and standards for assessment that will require more sampling and which will include more sites in the cleanup programs. Also we need more involvement from our local officials–right now they get little to no notification of what’s going on in their own backyards. That needs to change.
Ultimately EVERY polluted site needs to be cleaned up, and your efforts here will help make that happen!
One last piece of helpful background info: an in depth summary of how sites get included in cleanup programs. You can see that here.
Join the movement of Texas businesses, elected officials, community leaders, families, and public interest groups demanding a change to this program! Endorse #CleanUpTX today!
What actions are needed?
- Volunteer to help us build this movement in Texas. You can fill out the form here and we’ll be in touch.
- Send a quick message online to the TCEQ Executive Director and Commissioners demanding action.
- Have your organization get involved and send a letter to the TCEQ Executive Director, TCEQ Commissioners and state lawmakers:
Send Organizational Letter
- Help spread the word – share items on Facebook, Twitter, write a Letter to the Editor to your local newspaper – Use #cleanuptx as a social media hashtag.
- Endorse the campaign! You can email us here to let us know you stand with our demands.
From our blog: Federal officials have finally ordered the full removal of dioxin-laden waste pits just outside of Houston on the San Jacinto River. Yes, the current U.S. EPA, headed by Scott Pruitt–who was appointed by Donald Trump–went against corporate power and took the environmentalists’ side in a major dispute.
Chicago Tribune: Trump administration orders two big corporations to pay for a $115 million cleanup at a Texas toxic waste site that may have spread dangerous levels of pollution during the flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Houston Press: Houston-area activists gathered in the Fifth Ward on Tuesday to announce that they are joining organizers from across the country in influencing how the EPA deals with the Superfund program.
ABC News Houston: New test results found very high levels of chemicals called dioxins around the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site in Channelview. Thursday’s testing results released by EPA found levels at 70,000 nanograms per kilogram, more than 2,000 times the recommended level of 30 ng/kg.