news & announcements

Clean up of San Jacinto Waste Pits moving forward

April 9, 2018

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

A plan for designing the cleanup of the San Jacinto Waste Pits has been agreed upon by the Environmental Protection Agency and the companies responsible for the contamination, which means it likely will happen sooner rather than later.

The EPA on Monday announced the agreement, the next step toward removing about 212,000 cubic yards of material contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin from the pits. The work is estimated to cost $115 million.

Monday’s announcement “is a big deal for us and the community,” said Rock Owens, an environmental attorney for Harris County. “This is a very important step – now we’re officially on to the step where the (companies) are cooperating.”

The EPA, along with The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, will oversee the design work for the cleanup, which will be completed over the course of 29 months by the responsible companies — International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., the release said.

In a statement, International Paper Co. said it “is committed to protecting public health and the environment and we believe that remediation planning for the San Jacinto site must be rigorous, transparent and science-based and lead to engineering standards that will protect the river and the community.”

McGinnes also provided a statement, saying it “will continue to work collaboratively with the Agency and other responsible parties to ensure a safe, protective and effective remedial design for the site.”

Owens said the county will participate during this phase of the cleanup, providing comments on both the design and, eventually, the construction phase.

After the EPA announced in October the removal of tons of toxins from the waste pits, there initially was concern that the companies would fight, resulting in years of litigation and cleanup delays.

In fact, the companies responsible for the cleanup previously said they would oppose a removal plan as too risky for the environment, which could have forced the EPA to go to court to carry out the plan.

Given the companies’ initial objections, Jackie Young, founder of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance Inc., said she’s happy to hear of the agreement and “cautiously optimistic as we move forward.”

Though the announcement is good news, Scott Jones, director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation, said the foundation “will remain vigilant until the last of the wastes are removed.”

The EPA’s removal announcement in October came just two weeks after officials confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Hurricane Harvey’s flooding.

After Harvey, agency officials found dioxin in sediment near the pits at a level more than 2,000 times the EPA standard for cleanup. Subsequent testing, done after the cap was repaired, showed far lower levels of dioxin in that area, officials said in a December meeting.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson said in a statement Monday that he’s pleased to see state and federal officials taking this step.

“Our community deserves to know the water is clean and safe,” he added. “I look forward to seeing this site addressed as quickly and safely as possible so that folks don’t have to worry about this in the future.”

The waste pits became a federal Superfund site in 2008.

The U.S. Department of Justice and EPA now will start working with the companies to agree on methods for the cleanup.

“Let’s lay down the sword, pick up the shovel and start digging,” Owens said.

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