Environmental and Energy Law Blog

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The San Jacinto Waste Pits Revisited

What has the EPA proposed for remediating toxic waste near the San Jacinto River?

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to remove over 200,000 cubic yards of dioxins and other pollutants from a site near the San Jacinto River in Harris County. At an estimated cost of $97 million, cleaning up the site may allay the longstanding environmental and health concerns of community members. At the same time, the proposed remediation plan is also stirring controversy.

Pros and Cons of the Cleanup

Since 2011, the site has been contained to some extent by way of a temporary cap that was installed by companies responsible for dumping the waste. However, the cap has needed repairs over the years, the most recent of which was for a 20 foot hole discovered by divers in December 2015. Some local environmental groups support the EPA's plan, including the Galveston Bay Foundation.

 “It looks really good,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. “Now, the issue is to ensure that the engineering plans and on-the-ground actions that take this waste away are as tight as possible.”

Another group, the San Jacinto Citizens Against Pollution, argues the EPA's plan poses the risk of releasing more contaminants into the waterways. They believe the waste should not be removed, and that a more secure, permanent cap should be installed.

Perilous Wastewater

The San Jacinto River and nearby waterways, which feed into Galveston bay, have long been tainted by chemicals and wastewater that were dumped by a variety of industrial operations as far back as 1965. Back in the day of more lenient environmental rules, it was not widely known that wastewater contained dioxin. Since then, dioxin has been shown to be a highly toxic carcinogen. Exposure to dioxin can cause skin and liver problems in the short run, while long-term exposure can lead to severe reproductive and developmental problems.

The pollution at the San Jacinto pits was not discovered until 2005, and was subsequently added as a Superfund site in 2008. In the ensuing years, litigation over the site culminated in a $29.2 million settlement against certain industrial and waste management companies responsible for dumping the wastewater.

The Takeaway

While that settlement was used to make improvement to the local communities, it is unclear who will foot the $97 million for the EPA's proposed plan. It's likely that there will be push back by opponents as the plan is open to public comment until November 28. The overarching issue is whether the risk is greater from stirring up contaminants in the removal process, or leaving the site and capping it.

In the final analysis, this matter demonstrates the complexities of environmental remediation and the need for the advice and counsel of experienced health, safety and environmental attorneys in devising the best solutions. 

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