cleaning up toxic sites

Cleaning up Texas Toxic Sites

What is the problem with the way Texas addresses toxic site cleanups?

Check out a new report from TCE Fund, Missing the Mark here for all the details. Read a summary from the Texas Tribune here.

Read the Full Report

The state environmental agency, the TCEQ, sets its own benchmarks for cleaning up contaminated sites. Often, these benchmarks are significantly worse than those in other states. Pollution benchmarks are important because they are a major factor in determining whether and how much a toxic site is cleaned up. In some cases, sites that have toxic waste might not be considered polluted enough for any clean up to happen at all. In other cases, weak benchmarks can leave significant pollution in the ground or water even after a site is supposedly “cleaned up.”

Some examples of this problem:

  • Texas will allow 31.7 times more arsenic in soil than the EPA.
  • Texas allows approximately 1,500 times more hexavalent chromium in groundwater than the EPA.
  • On average, Texas will allow 40.1 times more pollution in our groundwater than Mississippi.
  • On average, Texas tolerates 5.88 times the amount of pollutants in our residential soil as Louisiana does in their industrial soil.
  • The average Texas soil benchmark for known carcinogens is 6.81 times weaker than standards in nearby states (AK, OK, LA, MS).
  • When calculating chemical risk at toxic sites, Texas tolerates a cancer risk 10 times higher than the EPA and nearby states (AK, OK, LA, MS).
  • Texas has inspected sites and declared them requiring “No Further Action” when later the EPA declared them serious enough to be considered for the Superfund National Priority List (the most toxic sites in the country).

Our federal Superfund program has been underfunded for years, so state agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have been tasked with cleaning up most polluted sites in our communities instead. Contaminated sites often don’t get cleaned up, or they are remediated years after they should have been taken care of.

For instance, in 2014 the TCEQ inspected River City Metal Finishing—the site of a former metal finishing businesses in San Antonio—that is above the Edwards Aquifer, the only drinking water source for the city. The TCEQ decided that no further action was needed, but in 2018 the EPA decided it was one of the toxic waste sites most in need of action and it was nominated for the federal Superfund.

For carcinogenic chemicals, environmental agencies use “risk factors” to determine cancer risks that chemicals pose to communities. Unfortunately, TCEQ uses a risk factor which permits a cancer risk 10 times higher than agencies in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Our state agency also assumes that Texans are smaller in stature, will have less skin exposure to chemicals, and that Texas children ingest less soil than kids in other states.

Acceptable Levels of Carcinogenic Pollution in Texas and Other States

These assumptions, along with a number of other factors, skew how the TCEQ creates cleanup standards. For a number of chemicals tied to birth irregularities, Texas groundwater benchmarks are 45 times weaker , and for soil pollution our state standards are on average 15 times worse than federal protections for the same chemicals.

For example, hexavalent chromium: “Protective Concentration Level” (PCL) for hexavalent chromium groundwater pollution—the chemical that was making people sick in the biographical film Erin Brockovich —is 1500 times weaker than the national standard.

What problems does this cause?

Texas permits more harmful chemicals in the ground and water than our neighbors and deems it safe. This means that even after the state declares a site in need of “No Further Action” it could still be as polluted as a Superfund site in another state. Texas industry workers are permitted to be exposed to higher levels of contaminants than in neighboring states. A site that Texas might say has been cleaned enough for residential housing could be unacceptable for industrial development in Louisiana or Mississippi.

Once these state “cleanups” are finished they are no longer eligible for these 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.

What is our solution?

We need the state environmental agency (TCEQ) to strengthen our toxic waste benchmarks to better protect us from dangerous pollution. We need our state lawmakers (and candidates) to make it clear that they support public health by calling on the TCEQ to improve toxic waste pollution benchmarks.

What specific policy options would make a difference?

The simplest would be to adopt EPA “Regional Screening Levels” as Arkansas and Oklahoma have already done. Alternatively, The second strategy would be to maintain Texas’ independent “Protective Concentration Level” benchmarks but to adjust them by the most protective cancer, skin, water and soil exposure used by neighboring states.

Why is this an urgent issue?

These sites are affecting the air, water and land of Texas on a daily basis. Worse, disasters like Hurricane Harvey or recurring flash floods here across Texas pose a serious environmental risk: they can wash pollution from these contaminated sites into our homes and waterways. Once they strike, however, it can be too late to do anything—we need action to clean these sites up NOW.

Statewide Map of Toxic 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.)
US Oil Recovery Site in Houston Following Hurricane Harvey

Further, Texas is the fastest growing state in the country. As more people move to our state, developers will continue to use these abandoned spaces to house and accommodate them, and previously unnecessary groundwater resources may need to be tapped. Without adequate cleanup standards implemented NOW, we risk exposing people to dangerous chemicals in their own spaces.

What actions are needed?

  • Tell the TCEQ leaders you want them to strengthen toxic waste clean-up benchmarks:
    Send Message to TCEQ
  • 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.
  • Educate other individuals and organizations about this problem and engage with them!