By Christopher James
Environmental activist Jacquelyn Young continues to advocate for the cleanup of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, this time taking the fight to Washington, D.C.
In late January, Young joined community leaders from across the country in the nation’s capital to meet with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Albert Kelly, head of the Superfund Taskforce, along with other EPA officials.
Andrew Dobbs, policy director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, presented EPA officials with a stack of personal written letters at the meeting, asking to cleanup the waste pits. The hundreds of letters served as quite a statement to EPA officials.
“Administrator Pruitt came in for part of the meeting and talked about our site nonstop,” said Young. “This site, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, is at the forefront of that man’s mind when it comes to Superfund.”
The San Jacinto Waste Pits, adjacent from the Interstate 10 bridge, were filled with paper mill wastes in the 1960s and then abandoned. Due to erosion around the pits they leaked into the river for decades. The site was eventually designated for Superfund status in 2008 and a temporary cap was installed in 2011.
Since being appointed as EPA administrator, Pruitt has continually said he’s focused on expediting the Superfund process, which has proved to be true with the waste pits. In October, Pruitt approved an ambitious cleanup solution for the pits that included excavating 212,000 cubic yards of material laced with dioxin in the dry. The EPA’s plan is to isolate the waste material with a cofferdam, pump out water and then excavate. The remedy will cost about $115 million and construction time is slated to take about two years.
“(Pruitt) said when the (potentially responsible parties) got mad at him when he came down with the Record of Decision, he said, well you can sue us but we’re not going to let it slow this cleanup down,” Young said. “So I like that. We haven’t seen much movement before and I’m cautiously hopeful.”
The group of environmental activists also used the opportunity to advocate for the reinstatement of the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, which would reinstate the Superfund tax to ensure polluters, not taxpayers, pay for the cleanup of Superfund sites. This could also potentially speed up cleanup of Superfund sites.
“Back when Superfund was created there was a fee for any company who created a product that could become pollution. They would pay these fees into the Superfund system, and it was a great, robust system,” said Young. “The EPA back then would clean up around 80 sites some years. When the fees were done away with in the 90s the number of cleanup sites tanked very quickly to less than 20. And I think it’s under 10 in recent years.”
In March, Congressman Frank Pallone reintroduced legislation to make polluters pay for Superfund cleanup, saying, “With media reports showing that the Trump Administration is considering massive cuts to the EPA, this legislation is more important than ever. President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt want to roll back environmental regulations that will benefit powerful corporations. It is essential that Congress step in and pass legislation that protects working families from having to pay for the misdeeds of corporate polluters.”
Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker along with Congressman Bill Pascrell and EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck joined Pallone in calling for the passage of the bill.
The EPA is currently in remedial design negotiations with potentially responsible parties, International Paper and McGinnes Maintenance Industrial Corporation.
Once design negotiations conclude, the EPA will request a good faith offer for the entire cleanup. If the EPA deems a good-faith offer isn’t made, it can either require the parties to perform the decided-upon remedy, fund the remedial action and pursue a cost recovery clam against International Paper and MIMC.
If the companies still refuse to comply with the order, EPA can pursue civil litigation to require compliance. Once either a an administrative order is in place, the companies would then have to develop work plans for construction of the remedy and for protection of the public during construction.
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