Energy & Environment

Cleanup of the toxic San Jacinto waste pits faces another potential delay, frustrating residents

The waste pits were built in the 1960s to store hazardous waste from a nearby paper mill and contain dioxins, a group of chemicals known to cause cancer. Community advocates have been fighting for their cleanup for years.

Macie Kelly/Houston Public Media
An EPA superfund site sign restricting visitors from entering the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

The companies responsible for cleanup of the highly toxic San Jacinto waste pits have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to reevaluate an agreed-upon cleanup plan and pause the nearly-complete design process — the latest in a series of setbacks and delays that have frustrated community members.

The waste pits were built in east Harris County on the San Jacinto River in the 1960s to store hazardous waste from a nearby paper mill and contain dioxins, a group of chemicals known to cause cancer.

International Paper Company and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation are supposed to submit a nearly final version of the cleanup design for the northern portion of the site on June 26.

But in a letter to the EPA at the end of March, the companies asked the agency to reexamine the agreed-upon cleanup plan based on new information regarding the waste. There is more waste and it goes deeper than previously thought, increasing the complexity, risk, duration, and cost of removing it, according to the companies.

They also raised concerns about how TxDOT’s plans to replace and widen the nearby I-10 bridge would interfere with the current cleanup plan to remove the waste and dispose of it off site.

"Each of these changes represents a significant if not fundamental change with respect to the remedy; collectively, these multiple changes will unequivocally result in modifications to the ROD (record of decision) that the EPA must address," reads the letter.

The companies say the EPA should pause the design schedule while evaluating the new information.

In a statement, the EPA said it is still preparing its response to the letter, which it will share with the community.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Community advocates expressed frustration with the latest delays to the cleanup plan of the San Jacinto Waste Pits during a Thursday press conference.

At a press conference Thursday, community advocates said they view the latest request by the companies as another attempt to shirk responsibility.

Jackie Medcalf, the executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, grew up near the waste pits and has long fought to have them cleaned up.

“Our communities, the future of Galveston Bay and the surrounding environment, hinges on the cleanup of this site,” she said.

Medcalf said these types of updates should be expected and aren't a valid excuse for changing the agreed-upon plan to remove the waste.

"You don’t stop and say I don’t think we can clean it up because we’ve actually found that there’s more waste," she said, calling on the EPA to take over the process if need be.

Bobby Stone said he lives about a mile from the pits and has been in Channelview since 1972. As a kid, he used to play by the pits before the community was made aware of how toxic they are.

"I just believe that this needs to be cleaned up on a permanent basis, not a temporary basis," he said. "They need to dig it all out and just dispose of it where it needs to be disposed of."

In 2011, a temporary cap was put in place to protect the river from contamination. After flooding from Harvey damaged the cap in 2017, the EPA approved a plan that would remove the waste from the site. In April 2018, an agreement was reached with the two companies involved to pay for the site's cleanup.

The companies were originally supposed to submit a final cleanup design plan by the end of 2020 — a deadline that has been extended several times.

The EPA did however give the green light in September 2021 for the cleanup process to begin on the southern portion of the waste pits, while the plans for the larger, more complicated northern impoundment are finalized.

In a statement, International Paper Company said it’s committed to protecting public health and the environment and looks forward to continue working with the EPA on the cleanup plan.

“We believe that remediation planning for the San Jacinto site must be rigorous, transparent and science-based and lead to engineering standards that will protect the river and the community,” the company said.

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