Stokes and Byers: Toxic waste must be removed from San Jac river

By Bob Stokes and Robby Byers
The Houston Chronicle

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.