Houston Chronicle, Jacquelyn Young
The San Jacinto River waste pits are a known source of pollution in the Houston-Galveston region and a remedy should be one that is well planned, engineered and based on sound science to ensure long-term protection of natural resources and public health on the Upper Texas Coast. Local communities, local governments and local environmental organizations support full remediation of the waste pits. The pits should be isolated from the river, dewatered and excavated in a controlled environment before Mother Nature further disrupts the site.
When the waste pits were rediscovered in 2005, they presented a tremendous threat to public health and the environment, and something had to be done quickly to temporarily stop the release of highly carcinogenic waste until the EPA could determine a long-term remedy. The temporary cap has proven highly problematic in its five short years of existence. The cap has undergone several repairs; there are currently over 40 known deficiencies in the cap, and this past December a 22 foot-by-25 foot hole was discovered in the cap and the highest concentrations of dioxin (&43,000 ppt) to date were found just outside this hole.
If you aren't familiar with this type of dioxin, it was the active ingredient in Agent Orange, the chemical warfare agent used extensively in the Vietnam War that has caused horrible harm to the people there and our veterans who were exposed to it. If the dioxin currently in the pits remains capped in place, it could take 700 years, and possibly much longer, for the toxicity to degrade. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved now and not one that should be passed on to future generations.
The responsible parties, International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corp. (a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management of Texas, Inc.), want to contain the large volumes of highly toxic waste in the delicate and dynamic environment of the San Jacinto River. Fortunately, that proposal doesn't meet the EPA's policies and past practices. A study identified seven Superfund sites similar to the waste pits in terms of toxicity and location in a tidal-influenced waterway. The EPA required removal of the highest concentrations of waste at all seven sites. The residents and environment of Harris and Galveston counties should be treated no differently.
Additionally, containment is not supported by the surrounding communities, which are plagued with horrible health stories and documented increased incidence rates of some types of cancer in children and people of all ages.
A July 29 commentary ("Superfund money not a good fit for San Jac," Page A19), suggests that federal processes for remedying environmentally degraded sites are incompatible with local needs. Superfund is not the "super-fund" that many envision. The money to pay for cleanups comes from parties found to be responsible for the site, if such parties are found. For the San Jacinto River waste pits, the EPA is requiring the responsible parties to cooperate in the clean-up process. And on this point, local communities have made clear: Containment has not and will not work as a long-term remedy for the pits. Full remediation is not a simple sediment-dredging project; it would involve contained removal of the concentrated waste remaining in the pits. If anything has slowed this process, it is the carefully sculpted information that the responsible parties have presented to the EPA and public in an attempt to create a global consensus for their preconceived remedy of containment.
Instead of advocating for a cheap and quick fix, Waste Management and International Paper should take this as an opportunity to be environmental stewards and live up to their "green" policies.
Young is executive director of Texas Health and Environment Alliance and leader of the San Jacinto River Coalition.