Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan and Commissioner Jack Morman Praise EPA For Decision to Remove Waste Pits

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan and Commissioner Jack Morman  praised Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to order the removal of the dangerous material in the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday approved a plan to permanently remove dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man, from the San Jacinto Waste Pits - a Superfund site that was heavily flooded after Hurricane Harvey.

“I want to thank EPA Administrator Pruitt for this decision,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “We appreciate that he visited the San Jacinto site personally and that he had EPA personnel checking it out to discover the dioxin exposure after the hurricane.”

“The hard work by County Attorney Vince Ryan and his staff has been remarkable. Jackie Young, Galveston Bay Foundation and other activists have been relentless in advocating for this solution and I’m thrilled the EPA made the right decision,” said Jack Morman, Harris County Commissioner Precinct 2.

Leaks from the cap have been reported for years but EPA dive teams reported collectingsamples after the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey that showed that the protective cap over the waste site “had been damaged and the underlying waste material was exposed.”  The EPA found that one of its samples showed dioxins at 70,000 parts per trillion; EPA’s clean up level for the site is 30 parts per trillion. 

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan says finding that dioxin was exposed at the waste pits during the flooding was frightening proof that the chemical must be removed from the Superfund site.

“The EPA reported the dioxin exposure is more than 2300 times the level required for clean up,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “And let’s be clear:  What we had from Hurricane Harvey was a rain event.  Had the storm hit closer to Harris County, we would have experienced high winds and storm surge.”

“Today, we are announcing our decision to ensure the San Jacinto site is cleaned up for the benefit of the entire community,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “As exemplified today, EPA is prioritizing Superfund clean-up by making decisions in a decisive, timely manner. The San Jacinto Waste Pits site was added to the National Priority List nearly a decade ago, and I am pleased to announce a decision has been made to permanently address the highly toxic materials to ensure health and safety in the surrounding communities.”

EPA’s cleanup plan includes installing engineering controls such as cofferdams before excavating almost 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin contaminated material for disposal. The EPA estimates the cost for the remedy is $115 million and says it is “cost-effective; representing a reasonable value for the cost incurred.”

EPA’s final cleanup plan, called a Record of Decision, addresses comments on the proposed plan concerning the risk of water spreading dioxin contamination downstream by installing controls such as cofferdams to allow for dry excavation of the waste material. The removal plan will ensure that no chemicals are released during this process and the contaminated material will be put into a secure, stable, inland permitted facility.

Highly-toxic paper mill waste was deposited along the River at the I-10 bridge in the 1960s and has become partially submerged in the water.  The waste pits were discovered by the government in 2005.  The EPA named the pits a Superfund site in 2008.  Although the companies responsible for putting the waste at this site were ordered to put a temporary rock cap over it in 2011 as an interim measure, dioxin has leaked out through the years. Signs warn people not to eat fish or crabs caught near this location.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office and their outside counsel Baker Wotring LLP sued the companies involved in 2011, obtaining a $29.2 million settlement from Waste Management Inc. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp.

“These waste pits were a disaster waiting to happen that could continue to have contaminated the San Jacinto River for another 700 years,” said Ryan.  “This would not have happened without the hard work and dedication of the many people who live and work along the River and Galveston Bay who want to see these vital waterways protected.”

Click here to read the news release from the EPA.