Energy & Environment

Cleanup of the San Jacinto Waste Pits must continue as planned, EPA says

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.

Macie Kelly/Houston Public Media
Danger signs at the San Jacinto River waste pits indicating that the water is contaminated. September 9, 2019

Cleanup of the highly toxic San Jacinto Waste Pits must continue as planned, the Environmental Protection Agency said — rejecting a request from the companies responsible for the site to pause the process and reevaluate the cleanup plan.

International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. are supposed to submit a nearly final version of the cleanup design for the northern portion of the waste site on June 26. In a recent letter to the EPA, the companies asked the agency to reexamine the agreed-upon plan to remove the waste and dispose of it offsite, citing new findings that the waste is deeper and more complicated to remove than previously thought.

In a response to the companies' request dated April 15, the EPA Regional Administrator for Region 6, Earthea Nance, said that "none of the potential issues or changes" cited in the letter should be a reason to delay the submittal of the nearly-final design documents for the northern section of the site.

She added that the EPA hasn't been able to review any design documents since an initial draft was submitted in May 2020, and that it’s vital for stakeholders to be able to review and comment on the current plans.

"Engaged members of the public will also benefit from the opportunity to review draft details of the implemented remedy, as currently designed, in order to assess its potential impact on their communities," Nance wrote in the letter.

She wrote that viewing the design documents will allow the EPA to better evaluate if any changes to the agreed-upon plan are needed.

"To the extent there are uncertainties about design issues, including access, that are still unresolved in June 2022, or even the need for a partial re-design of parts of the best management practices in light of additional information, the EPA would expect those to be noted in the submittal," she wrote.

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. The pits contain dioxins, a group of chemicals known to cause cancer. Community advocates have been fighting for years to have the site remediated.

Jackie Medcalf, the executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, said she's pleased with the EPA's response to require the companies to continue as planned.

"This is what the community wants and we appreciate the EPA hearing our concerns," Medcalf said. "We ask that the agency continue to involve the public in this process and create the space for community concerns."

Medcalf said the cleanup process has already been delayed too many times.

"The responsible parties have already been granted over 430 days to delay this process and nearly a decade of investigating this site," she said.

A spokesperson for International Paper Co. declined to comment.

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