Local health officials want EPA to remove toxic river waste

By Kim McGuire, Houston Chronicle
September 1, 2016

The director of Harris County Public Health on Thursday sent a letter to federal environmental regulators urging them to remove toxic waste from the San Jacinto River, arguing it's the only course of action to address threats to human health and the environment.

Umair Shah, Harris County Public Health's executive director, told U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials that leaving the waste in the river is a bad idea, pointing to the problems that have occurred since a temporary cap was placed over the waste five years ago.

"In the short period since its implementation, the cap has eroded significantly and has required repeated repairs," Shah wrote. "Harris County Public Health is concerned that future cap deficiencies will continue to occur, further exposing the local community to dioxins through the water and sediments."

In issuing the letter, Harris County Public Health becomes the latest local agency to urge EPA officials to remove the waste. Last month, the Harris County Flood Control District urged similar action.

EPA officials are expected to soon release a proposed clean-up plan for the San Jacinto Waste Pits, which is a federal Superfund site.

A recent U.S. Army Corps report said leaving the waste in the river under a modified cap was a feasible clean-up option. However, the report also stated that extreme weather events might cause the cap to erode.

Texas officials discovered the waste pits in 2005 along the river, between Channelview and the small town of Highlands. The EPA determined that tugboats pushed barges of waste sludge from a Pasadena mill to the pits for offloading and storage in the 1960s.

The agency identified several hazardous substances in the pits, including dioxins, which are carcinogens linked to numerous potential health effects, including birth defects.

In 2008, the EPA designated the area a Superfund site and placed a $9 million armored cap over the sludge to keep it sealed.

In December, divers discovered a hole in the northwest portion of the cap. EPA officials characterized the damage as "displacement" of the stone cover of the protective cap and ordered repairs.