Texas Deserves Better Pollution Cleanup
This map shows 10 years (2007-2017) of sites inspected for possible inclusion in Texas pollution cleanup programs and declared in need of “No Further Action” (NFA). 77 of them had pollution on site with no recorded cleanup or with minimal testing to ensure people and the environment were safe–our “Sites of Concern.”
What is This Map?
Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund, with the help of Air Alliance Houston, requested 10 years of inspection data from TCEQ cleanup programs–grouped under the Texas Risk Reduction Program. They returned over 800 reports from 2007 to 2017. Most of these sites were designated for “No Further Action,” but TCE Fund’s investigation has found at least 77 sites where we believe more investigation or remediation should have been done if protecting the environment is a priority.
What Does “NFA” Mean?
“No Further Action” is the TCEQ designation when all necessary response actions at an affected property have been taken, there was no release of pollution in the first place, or no remedy is needed because any pollution is present at concentrations less than the critical levels known as “Protective Concentration Levels” or PCLs.
In this report there were just over 800 total inspected sites. Of these 502 were declared NFA. These included 110 military-related sites declared NFA because they will be the federal government’s responsibility to remediate. Of the remaining 392 NFA sites the most common reasons for declaring sites “NFA” were:
- “No documented release or mismanagement of substances” (174)
- “No visual evidence of substances/ releases” (60)
- “No operations taking place at the address” (50)
- “Cause of pollution/pollutants removed” (39)
- “No direct pathways to groundwater or other populated sites” (31)
- “Site still active” (24)
- “Site not found” (20)
- “Low HRS ranking” (HRS is “Hazard Ranking Score,” a measure developed by EPA to determine the risk posed by a polluted site and its eligibility for the Superfund program) (19)
- “Doesn’t exceed PCLs” (18)
- “Low/no contamination to water/ MCLs” (MCL is “Maximum Contamination Level” which is the basic water quality standard set by the EPA) (15)
- “Case closed in the past” (10)
- “No immediate health risk” (7)
- “Low likelihood of human contact” (6)
- “Cause of pollution not found” (5)
- “Enforcement process not exhausted” (2)
- “EPA Determined” (2)
- “Scored below Superfund ranking” (1)
- “Nonsite b/c pollution is from different property” (1)
- Unclear (1)
- “Under impervious cover” (1)
Numbers are not equal to 392 because some sites had multiple reasons for their NFA designation. Of the sites designated “Sites of Concern” by TCE Fund the most common reasons for declaring the site “NFA” were:
- “No documented release or mismanagement of substances” (29)
- “No direct pathways to groundwater or other populated sites” (28)
- “Doesn’t exceed PCLs” (13)
- “Low HRS Ranking” (13)
- “No visual evidence of substances/releases” (9)
- “Cause of pollution/pollutants removed” (5)
- “No immediate health risk” (4)
- “Low likelihood of human contact” (3)
- “Low/no contamination to water/ MCLs” (3)
- “Site still active” (3)
- “EPA Determined” (2)
- “Site Not Found” (2)
- “Cause of pollution not found” (1)
- “Enforcement process not exhausted” (1)
- “No information for the site exists” (1)
Note that cases designated for “no visual evidence” included…
- An instance with discolored soils and an open tank filled with unknown substances (Dale Sybert Fertilizer Company)
- A site with dead vegetation running from the site to a runoff pit (Tide Products Inc; Wilbur-Ellis; owner Don Bensten care of Rio Properties)
“no direct pathways” was used for…
- A location less than a quarter-mile from a residential subdivision with mercury contamination of soils 30,000 times the state PCL (Amber Refining Inc)
- A groundwater plume of (at least) arsenic and chloromethane that was excused because the water was only used to water lawns (Merkel Groundwater Plume)
“no documented release” included instances where…
- Wells tested positive for atrazine (City of Bellaire PWS)
- Wells tested positive numerous times for arsenic, lead and other pollutants above PCLs (Northgate Mobile Home Park)
“Low likelihood of human contact” includes a site where a pollution killed numerous fish in a pond on a neighboring property (TPC Products; Texas Phenothiazine Company), “no immediate health risk” includes a site that later got added to the Superfund National Priority List (River City Metal Finishing Inc), and as the designations suggest in many cases sites cannot be found at all.
Note that there were many instances in which confirmation of “no release” or “no evidence” was obtained simply by calling the property owner on the telephone and asking them about the site. No documentation or testing was needed to confirm these verbal declarations.
Of the 800+ sites investigated fully 163 of them were part of the system because of a mass referral of pesticide applicators sent by the EPA to state environmental officials (then the Texas Water Board) in the mid-1980s for check up. There would be nearly a quarter fewer investigations were it not for this effort. This also indicates a final problem: the time period for these efforts is often extraordinary. The average time between the first indication that a site may have a pollution problem and the final report sent to us by TCEQ is 21.9 years. There are frequently many years, even a decade or more between determinations that a specific action ought to be taken and the actual accomplishment of that action–testing, further analysis, remediation, etc.
This would indicate to us the need for more funding for these programs. Most important: a restoration of the Superfund polluter pays taxes that were used to finance the program for the first 25 years of its existence.
What Else Needs to be Done?
Legislation in the Texas House and Senate right now, HB 893 and SB 2385 would address the second most common reason for excluding sites from cleanup–weak “Protective Concentration Levels” (PCLs). Other reasons will need additional fixes in the future, however. One key reform that could help minimize the risk from these sites would be some new, more rigorous standards for determining pathways and other exposure risks to human health. TCE/TCE Fund will explore these in the future and invited interested stakeholders to join us in proposing these changes.
(Project Credits: Jordan Brown, Hailey Brey, Carlos Chavez, Laura Cuervo, Brenly Drake, Santi Griffin, Safiyyah Hossain, Jaewoo Kim, James Knittel, Mallory Marcone, Dante Parker, Callie Peterson, Natalie Regennitter, Lauren Sweat, Caroline Wageman, William Wallace, Madison Wheeler. Special thanks to Air Alliance Houston.)
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