Stokes and Byers:
Toxic waste must be removed from San Jac river
By Bob Stokes and Robby Byers | September 16, 2016
A sign warns fisherman and visitors not to eat contaminated seafood caught from the water along Interstate 10 near the San Jacinto River east of Houston in Channelview. (Chronicle file photo) Photo:
Michael Paulsen, Staff / © 2013 Houston Chronicle Photo: Michael Paulsen, Staff
A sign warns fisherman and visitors not to eat contaminated seafood caught from the water along Interstate 10 near the San Jacinto River east of Houston in Channelview. (Chronicle file photo)
Recent attention to the deadly, cancer-causing dioxin wastes from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits is sorely needed: These wastes need to be removed as soon as possible because they pose a serious, looming threat to Galveston Bay and those who consume its seafood. The pits, placed on the federal Superfund list reserved for the nation's most toxic sites in 2008, are in the worst possible location on the bank of this major tidal river made all the worse due to subsidence. About half of the site is now in the river.
As your recent editorial noted ("Remove the Waste," Page A22, Sept. 3), the Environmental Protection Agency has before it two general options to address this mess: dig up and remove the waste from the site, or try to contain the waste in place in a hurricane- and flood-prone area with an armored rock cap. We believe the best solution is to remove the waste now, rather than pass on the possibility of future contamination to our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.
Some of the dioxin originally placed there in the 1960s has leaked out over time and has been passed up the aquatic food chain into fish and crab, presenting a serious health hazard to people who eat fish and crab from parts of the river and Bay. The 200,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated wastes that remain still pose such a great threat that the EPA required the parties responsible for cleanup to place a temporary armored rock cap on it in 2011 to try to prevent further release. The cap has had repeated problems in its five short years. Last December, a large hole was found in the cap's northwest quadrant, exposing the river to the wastes. What makes this all the more troubling is the fact that dioxin is extremely persistent. The EPA has calculated that it will take 750 years for the dioxin in the pits to degrade to a nontoxic concentration. Despite these problems, those responsible for the wastes now want to convince EPA that they can make the cap permanent by simply adding more rock in some areas.
As your editorial noted, the recently released U.S. Army Corps of Engineers third-party report on cleanup alternatives did not provide a recommendation; instead it answered questions posed by the EPA. One overarching point the Corps report does make is that a hardened cap can work, but only if it remains intact. This is key to the whole issue: Can a man-made cap can withstand the extreme forces of nature in this vulnerable location until the Year 2766?
The Corps report is not reassuring at all. It states that 80 percent of the cap would incur severe erosion under an "extreme hydrologic event." We know from experience that it is only a matter of time before another major hurricane or disastrous flood strikes this area. Conversely, a full removal alternative would isolate the wastes from the river, using the latest industry-accepted methods, to minimize and nearly eliminate any concern about re-suspending waste during removal. This practice, which would take care of the problem once and for all, has been successfully used in other cleanups across the nation.
This cap only needs to fail once for us to have an ecological and economic disaster on our hands. A breach of the cap by a hurricane would lead to a significant uncontrolled release of dioxin into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay, and the seafood we love to eat and upon which thriving recreational and commercial fisheries depend.
Rather than leaving the waste onsite forever, the EPA should insist that the waste is removed. This solution, completed in a timely fashion, is less risky than relying on a man-made cap to keep this waste in place in what amounts to forever in this vulnerable location. All eight local congressional representatives whose districts touch the Bay or tidal tributary waters have called for removal - a strong showing of bipartisan support! The EPA needs to call for removal, as well. Let's solve this problem now and not pass it on to future generations.
Stokes is president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. Byers is executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Texas.
San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site
- May 25, 2016 EPA Community Open House/Meeting Slides
- February 17, 2016 EPA Community Meeting – Frequently Asked Questions
- February 17, 2016 EPA Community Meeting Slides
- December 2015 Armored Cap Deficiency Response and Results:
- Groundwater Sample Locations and Results from the Remedial Investigation (see full RI under Independent Review Findings below)
- EPA Fact Sheet – January 2016
- EPA’s Presentation Slides from April 30, 2015 Open House (PDF, 7MB)
Location and HistoryThe 14-acre pits are located on the west bank of the San Jacinto River immediately upstream of the I-10 Bridge in Channelview, Harris County. An additional pit is located south of I-10 on an upland site, but it has been characterized as not posing an immediate.
In the mid-1960s, the pits north of I-10 received wastes from the former Champion Paper mill located in Pasadena, Texas. The paper mill wastes contained dioxins, which are extremely toxic and can cause increased risk of cancer and other threats to human health such as liver damage and birth defects. The abandoned pits, like the rest of the surrounding area subsided (the sinking of land as the result of groundwater pumping) and the dioxin-laden wastes have been exposed to the waters and sediments of the San Jacinto River for decades. The pits are now partially submerged in the river and are often completely inundated by high river flows or high tide events.
The SJRWP was added to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites in 2008. As a result the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began overseeing the Superfund process cleanup of the pits, which is being performed by International Paper (IP) and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation (MIMC), the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) for the pollution at the site. Given the immediate threat to human and environmental health, EPA directed the PRPs to install a temporary armored cap on the pits north of I-10. The cap was completed in July 2011.
Nature of the Toxins and Threats to Human and Environmental HealthRather than easily dissolving in water, dioxins tend to bind to soil and sediments. From there, they are ingested by small animals feeding in the sediments, and through the process of bioaccumulation, can concentrate in fish, shellfish and crabs. If humans have been exposed to dioxins from this site, it is very likely to have been through eating contaminated seafood. In fact, dioxins have been found in certain fish and crabs at concentrations which have prompted the state health department to issue seafood consumptions advisories in Galveston Bay and its tidal tributaries, such as the San Jacinto River.
Two other critical exposure paths have been characterized at this site. Before the pits were temporarily capped, people could come into direct contact with the dioxins through or dermal absorption (absorption through the skin) as they touched the wastes with their bare skin or through accidental ingestion (e.g. children placing there hands into their mouths) of contaminated sediments.
Given the chemical nature of dioxins, including its relative insolubility in water, and the characteristics of the SJRWP, people are not expected to be exposed to contaminants from airborne dust, groundwater, or surface water. For more information on the routes of exposure to SJRWP dioxins, see the Public Health Assessment – Final Version that was prepared by the Texas Department of State Health Services.