Cleaning up the San Jacinto River toxic waste pits may now take three times as long as previously estimated, according to initial design documents.
The pits, which are part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, contain dioxins, a group of chemicals known to cause cancer. The agency has been working on plans to remediate the site for years.
When the initial cleanup plan was released in 2017, it was estimated to take 27 months. Now, preliminary design documents show the waste extends deeper than previously thought — up to 25 feet in some areas.
That means about 218,000 cubic yards of toxic waste need to be removed, and the cleanup process is now expected to take seven years.
"As long as that waste is there, the risk to the environment and to public health is great," said Jackie Young-Medcalf, executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance.
The waste pits flooded during Hurricane Harvey, releasing chemicals into the river. Young-Medcalf said that she worries the longer the waste stays there, the greater chance it has of flooding again.
"It's not a matter of ‘if’ a hurricane will strike our coast, it's a matter of ‘when’," she said. "Looking at a timeline for the clean-up of seven years versus two, means that's five more hurricane seasons that this waste, to a certain extent, is going to be in the San Jacinto River."
The San Jacinto River waste pits were built in the 1960s to store hazardous waste from a nearby paper mill.
In 2011, a temporary cap was put in place to protect the river from contamination while the EPA and the two companies involved developed a plan. After flooding from Harvey damaged the cap in 2017, the EPA approved a plan that would remove the waste from the site. And in April 2018, an agreement was reached with the two companies involved — International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. — to pay for the site's cleanup.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits are just one of more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area. Previous research has found that 60% of Superfund sites nationwide are in areas that are increasingly vulnerable to climate-change driven disasters like flooding and wildfires.
The final design for the San Jacinto Waste Pits is due at the end of the year.