Houston Matters

Harvey Damage At San Jacinto Waste Pits Illustrates Bigger Problems For EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency confirms Harvey damaged a Harris County Superfund site. An environmental law expert helps us understand what it means.

A sign near the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund Site.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it has found damage to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site following Tropical Storm Harvey.

The agency is ordering the parties responsible for the site to take immediate action to “address damage to the protective cap and high-levels of underlying waste material found at one of the samples on site.”

The site, which holds waste from a former paper mill decades ago, sits just off I-10 in eastern Harris County near Channelview. The site has been known to include the highly toxic chemical pollutant dioxin

The EPA faced criticism in the days following Harvey for not immediately inspecting Superfund sites on the ground after the storm hit.

What does the EPA’s finding mean for surrounding residents, and what are the potential long-term implications? Houston Matters talks with Victor Flatt, environmental law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

What The Finding Means: 

Flatt says the finding means those responsible for the Superfund site are not in compliance with their post-closure order for site. He says, anytime remediation is done at a hazardous site, the EPA will issue an order saying what’s supposed to happen there over time. The responsibility falls back on those private companies who are responsible for such sites to follow the cleanup procedures in the order.

Symptomatic Of Bigger Issues

Flatt says issues like this have been concerning him, and that, in the last 15-20 years, the EPA has been less aggressive with its cleanup plans. This illustrates a bigger problem with how the EPA handles sites like this, he says.

What Are The Implications?

Flatt says damage at the site could lead to exposure and could require more expensive procedures to deal with that exposure. If containment is breached, that means potentially toxic substances are getting into the groundwater and soil. Anyone who comes into contact with that is going to be exposed to those chemicals. 

Other sites the EPA says it has stopped monitoring could have leaks as well. Some private organizations have attempted to do that testing. There are numerous roadblocks to determine what else might have happened at other sites in relation to Harvey.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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