Houston Chronicle Editorial
Few today remember the flood that ruptured a 40-inch pipeline in Harris County and sent "pools of burning gasoline down the rain-swollen San Jacinto River and setting fire to homes and boats on the banks." This October 1994 nightmare which looked like "hell opened up on the water and the whole river was gasoline," as quoted in the Los Angeles Times - illustrates the unpredictability of nature.
This time-honored principle of nature's unpredictability should be the Environmental Protection Agency's guiding star when deciding what to do about a contemporary problem on the San Jacinto River: the federal Superfund site known as the San Jacinto waste pits. The pits, located immediately upstream of the Interstate 10 Bridge in Channelview came into being in the mid-1960s when they received wastes containing dioxin from the former Champion Paper mill.
Abandoned afterward, the pits, like the rest of the surrounding area, subsided as the result of groundwater pumping, leaving the dioxin-laden wastes exposed for decades to the waters and sediments of the river.
EPA began overseeing cleanup, to be performed by the responsible companies, after the pits were added to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites in 2008. To counteract an immediate threat to human and environmental health, EPA directed the installation of a temporary armored cap on the pits, which was completed in July 2011.
EPA is expected to announce whether it will allow the waste to be secured by the armored cap or to require removal. This decision will have ramifications not only for the people living and recreating in the neighborhood but also for all of Galveston Bay.
A river in a low-lying area prone to flooding and hurricanes is no place to store toxic sludge, even under the security of an armored cap. The agency should choose the permanent solution and compel responsible parties to dig up and haul away the toxic sludge in the waste pits.
An Army Corps of Engineers report released in August assessed the options without taking a side, and the effect of a hurricane on the cap was one of the risks considered. The Corps predicted the armored cap would be reliable "except under very extreme hydrologic events which could erode a sizable portion of the cap."
For our hurricane-prone area, that is like saying we'll all stay dry except when it rains. Sooner or later, we'll get hit by "the big one." The only way to protect residents and to keep this area safe is to remove the waste.
Advocates for the less expensive armored cap, which include the parties responsible for the clean-up, cite it as the safest option. Removal does pose risks - toxic chemicals can leak into our soil and water. But so does leaving the toxic sludge in place, even when secured by an armored cap. To date, the cap has undergone several repairs.
The science is complicated but one area official is in a good position to evaluate what makes the most sense. Mike Talbott, the retiring head of Harris County Flood Control District, has more than 30 years' experience in Harris County fighting floods. He let his strong views be known in an Aug. 9 letter to the EPA, "The highly toxic waste at the site, in this major river's floodway and subject to extreme forces of flood flow, tides and storm surge, should not be allowed to remain there," he wrote as reported by Chronicle reporter Mihir Zaveri ("Official urges feds to remove toxic waste pits" Page A3, Aug. 19).
Talbott's knowledgeable assessment affirms what seems obvious even to the layman: The EPA should act to prevent future catastrophes by compelling removal of the waste now.