Saturday, September 17, 2016

Toxic waste must be removed from San Jacinto River Waste Pits

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





The Galveston Bay Foundation wants you to be informed about the cleanup of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits (SJRWP) Superfund Site and learn how you can be involved.

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.
The Superfund Cleanup
 The cleanup is being implemented by U.S. EPA and the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs): McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation and International Paper Company. Here are the highlights of the investigation and cleanup actions have been completed to date or are underway:
Activity Description Start Date Completion Date
Discovery the Site Texas Parks and Wildlife Department became aware of information suggesting the presence of waste pits in and adjacent to the San Jacinto River and notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. April 2005
Placement on National Priorities List The U.S. EPA’s listing of the site on the NPL made it a “Superfund” site, eligible for further investigation and action. March 2008
Time Critical Removal Action A short-term stabilization/capping of the waste pits by the responsible parties. In this case, an armored cap was placed over the waste pits to temporarily address the release of dioxin into the San Jacinto River. The final method of cleaning up the site will not be chosen until the end of 2013, but this cap was designed to stop the release of additional contaminants into the river while the site was being investigated and the final method of cleanup chosen and implemented. April 2010 July 2011
Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study / EPA Proposed Plan for Cleanup The process of data collection and analyses of the site problem, identification of cleanup alternatives, and the recommendation of a clean-up remedy. NOTE: The latest information we have received from the U.S. EPA indicates that they will announce their proposed plan for cleanup late Summer 2016, which will kick off a 30-day public comment period.  We will notify those on our mailing list and update this page when the dates are confirmed. December 2009 Late Summer 2016 (tentative)
More information can be found on the U.S. EPA’s San Jacinto River Waste Pits webpage.
Independent Review Findings
The Galveston Bay Foundation received a grant from the U.S. EPA to hire scientists from the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) to serve as the independent technical advisors and review site cleanup process reports, provide expert input, and communicate their findings to the public. These findings will be posted on this webpage and communicated to the public via meetings, electronic communications and print pieces.

Technical Advisor’s Reviews of Key Document Produced for the U.S. EPA Cleanup Process:

Jan. 24, 2013 GBF/HARC Meeting Summary
Frequently Asked Questions**Answers provided by Houston Advanced Research Center and Galveston Bay Foundation.
What Else is Being Done?
 Not all of the contamination in the San Jacinto River is from the Waste Pits site. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Houston-Galveston Area Council have initiated total maximum daily load (TMDL) projects for the Houston Ship Channel, San Jacinto River, Upper Galveston Bay, and Galveston Bay to pinpoint different sources of dioxins, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), another  highly toxic family of compounds, and develop a plan to reduce their concentration in the environment and seafood. General information about TMDL projects can be found here. Specific information on TMDL projects in the San Jacinto River Basin can be found here.
Get on Our Mailing List
If you would like to be added to our mailing/emailing list to receive San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site updates and public meeting notices, please contact Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation at 281-332-3381 x209 or e-mail
For More Information
For more information on the SJRWP and its cleanup, please contact:
  • HARC Technical Advisor: Jennifer Ronk at (281) 363-7927 and
  • EPA SJRWP Project Manager: Gary Miller at (214) 665-8318 and
  • EPA Community Involvement Coordinator: Donn Walters at (214) 665-6483 and
  • Texas Department of State Health Services (for information on the Public Health Assessment): Richard Beauchamp at (512) 776-6434 and
  • Texas Department of State Health Services (for information seafood advisories and shellfish harvest areas): Michael Tennant at (512) 834-6757 and
  • Texas Department of State Health Services (for information on the Public Health Assessment and seafood advisories): Tina Walker at (512) 776-2932 and
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Superfund Program: Satya Dwivedula at 1-800-633-9363 and
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Superfund Community Relations: Crystal Taylor at (512) 239-3844 and
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (for information on sediment dioxin concentrations in the bay system and other potential sources): Linda Broach at (713) 767-3579 and
  • Houston-Galveston Area Council (for information on the Total Maximum Daily Load projects): Steven Johnston at (832) 681-2579 and
For more information about the Technical Assistance Grant itself, contact Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation at (281) 332-3381 x209 or

Thank You Galveston Bay Foundation !

In 1965 Champion Paper Mill, which was located in Pasadena, contracted with McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation to dispose of Champion’s industrial waste. MIMC dug pits along the San Jacinto and dumped toxic waste there until 1967, when the unlined pits reached capacity. The following year, MIMC’s board of directors voted to abandon the site. Over the next four decades, the riverbank that separated the pits from the river gradually eroded, until large sections of them were submerged beneath the water. The site was basically unknown to anybody else until 2005, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department realized what was there. In 2008, the EPA granted it Superfund status but initially did nothing to stop the flow of poisons—such as dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man—from the pits. 

Young came to suspect that her family’s troubles could be traced back to the site; in 2008 Hurricane Ike struck just east of the pits and flooded the Highlands area. Her health problems escalated after that. “I try not to think about it,” she says, “but my dad may not be able to walk me down the aisle. I may not be able to have kids.”

Young and her mother wanted to know if they were the only family in the neighborhood experiencing these sorts of symptoms, so they started knocking on doors. Nearly every opened door produced a story of illness. “Every day I run into somebody who has leukemia, multiple myeloma, lymphoma, lupus,” Bonta says. The Bontas knew they needed to move off the property, but they couldn’t in good conscience sell it to someone else. Their only option was to allow the bank to foreclose and to walk away from everything, which is what they did. The Bontas moved to Cypress and Young left for Houston. Young’s health slowly improved, though she is still being treated for endometriosis. John remains in bad shape.

Convinced that others were suffering, Young and her mother continued to visit Highlands, knocking on more doors. Not everyone was receptive to their overtures. “People tell me, ‘You’re not going to get nothing done in this town,’ ” Bonta says. But they discovered that there were others who shared their concerns. In 2010 the nonprofit group Texans Together had begun a campaign to inform Highlands residents about the dangers of the pits. Young started volunteering for the nonprofit’s San Jacinto River Coalition, eventually signing on full-time as the coalition’s director. 

Texans Together wasn’t the only organization grappling with the issue of the waste pits. In 2011 the Harris County Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against International Paper (which had merged with Champion Paper years earlier), MIMC, and MIMC’s parent company, Waste Management, for violating the Texas Water Code, Health and Safety Code, Solid Waste Disposal Act, and Hazardous Substances Spill Prevention and Control Act and conspiring with one another to violate these codes and acts.

The case finally went to trial last October. Young knew that it would be tough going; the evidence was complicated and the defendants had well-funded legal counsel. But she was encouraged by the example of a new friend she had made several months earlier, a woman named Marie Flickinger.
see map ;

snip see full story ‘A Tail of Two Sites’

What kind of water are we going to leave our children and grandchildren?

The San Jacinto River Wastepits - an environmental tragedy

Terry S. Singeltary Sr.

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