Hurricane Harvey Shows the Dangers of Neglecting Toxic Sites
Texas Campaign for the Environment was heartbroken by Hurricane Harvey’s devastation on our neighbors and supporters in Houston and across the Texas Coast. The good news: we are back to work organizing our communities on these important issues, especially as some of the region’s numerous toxic waste sites have been washed into area waterways and even homes.
Even before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, we have been working to protect communities there from the legacy of toxic polluting facilities. Polluted sites such as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits pose enormous public health threats to our communities. Just as many predicted, disasters can spread the contamination. The EPA finally revealed that the flooding of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits caused the level of dioxin to soar more than 2,000 times the “safe” limit for the deadly chemical. Harvey shows that state and federal officials need to get serious about cleaning up these sites.
“Superfund” is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s process for cleaning up legacy pollution sites. Spills from chemical storage facilities, wood treatment plants, hazardous waste disposal, and groundwater contamination from a many industries are just some of the toxic Superfund sites that can be found in Texas. These sites are leaking known carcinogens and hazardous substances into soil, groundwater, and waterways. TCE supporters wrote thousands to letters to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the U.S. Senators and Congress members from Texas to oppose budget cuts to the Superfund program. TCE Staff delivered these letters personally to Administrator Pruitt in Washington D.C. and to the offices of our federal elected officials. (See below for more information on the Superfund budget fight.)
Unfortunately, the federal Superfund program has been underfunded for years and so the state environmental agency – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or TCEQ – is expected to clean up most of the polluted sites in Texas communities instead. This is a problem because Texas pollution standards for cleaning up toxic sites are incredibly weak. That means these sites are still polluted even after they are supposedly “cleaned up.”
How bad is it? The Texas standard for groundwater polluter of hexavalent chromium – the chemical that was making people sick in the movie Erin Brockovich – is 1,500 times weaker than the national standard. For a number of chemicals tied to birth irregularities, the groundwater pollution standards are 45 times weaker.
This means that even after the TCEQ declares a site “fully remediated” it could still be as polluted as a Superfund site in Louisiana or Oklahoma or Arkansas. Once these Texas “clean-ups” are “completed,” homes, schools and businesses can be developed on them and the polluters no longer have any responsibility. We need to strengthen Texas clean-up standards so that we have protections just as strong as the national standards.
More on the Superfund Budget Fight
Unfortunately, the Superfund for cleaning up toxic sites was targeted for 30% budget cuts under the President’s proposed budget. The Superfund has already suffered major cuts over the past few decades. Before 1995, a unique tax on chemicals and petroleum products funded the cleanup program. Since the tax was discontinued, the EPA has relied only on appropriations from Congress and the cleanup costs paid for by Potentially Responsible Parties – companies that can be identified as the cause of the pollution. After the dedicated tax funding was discontinued, the number of cleanups declined by 37% over a 15-year period despite a consistent number of sites being added to the Superfund list. The money available for Superfund cleanups is already simply not enough, and we cannot afford to cut the program even further.
- Read about the history of the federal Superfund here.
- Check out our campaign to get the EPA to fully remove the toxic San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site in the Houston area here.
Tell leaders of the state environmental agency we want toxic waste clean-up standards to protect our health.