Amid ongoing repairs, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin visited the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Friday for an exclusive look at the pits and the protective cap that is in constant need of repairs.
“I’ve driven by here 100 times, and this is actually the first time I’ve been on the ground down here,” Babin said. “And I think this temporary cap repair that they’re doing right now is absolutely necessary. We have 22 areas that are exposed and I think as the project goes on the EPA, of course, could change their minds pending on what the criteria is, but I’m confident that this is the right track. That we’re going to clean this place up.”
An EPA dive team discovered 22 small areas measuring up to 50-square-feet earlier this month that confirmed the protective cap was absent and the underlying toxic waste material was exposed. Data indicated that dioxins are still registering nearly as high in concentration as they were in those first days and weeks after Hurricane Harvey when they were more than 70,000 parts per trillion. The latest data found levels up to 60,500 parts per trillion, which is far beyond acceptable, as the EPA mandates cleanups for 30 parts per trillion and up.
“This is a very, very important site to our district. This is a fragile area because of its location on the San Jacinto River for flood events and storm events, and I think we have to be very cautious and knowledgeable,” Babin said. “Being forewarned is forearmed. If we know the lay of the land and the situation here, I think we can more readily solve this problem.”
To that end, the EPA says the repairs are ahead of schedule and are expected to be complete by the end of next week. And according to the potentially responsible parties — International Paper and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation — the maintenance activities at the site went beyond restoring those discreet areas requiring maintenance and required placement of geotextile and geogrid panels, overlaid with 12 inches of rock armoring across the entire maintenance area to enhance the integrity of the cap.
Current repairs are about halfway through, according to John Meyer, Remedial Branch Chief of the EPA’s regional Superfund division.
Meyer said contractors are laying down an area of sand in the northwest region of the cap first to give it a smooth bed. Then a geotextile fabric is laid on top of that, which is needed to support protective rock. He also said they’re going to put a minimum of one foot of rock on top of the geotextile fabric.
“Our concern in this northwest corner has always been it’s a very soft area,” Meyer said. “So this fabric going down first will basically help distribute the load on top of it, and we think this will really take care of any future failures that are going to happen in this area.”
Since the cap was installed in 2011, it has needed repairs in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018 because of thin or missing cap, and/or dioxin exposure.
In 2015, the EPA found a 25-foot by 22-foot irregular trapezoidal hole in the surface of the cap. And then in 2017, in the wake of Harvey, underlying dioxin was exposed at about 70,000 parts per trillion, which is the highest concentration found at the site so far.
After so many repairs, especially in dealing with the northwest corner, Meyer said they went to the potentially responsible parties and told them they couldn’t keep doing this.
“We keep coming back, seems like twice a year, and (we told the PRPs) you guys have got to come up with a better solution,” Meyer said. “We brought in the Army Corp of Engineers to advise on how to do that. And the Corp of Engineers advised that this is the best approach.”
The northwest corner of the cap has been the most problematic area of the pits due to a steep slope, which is also the reason why the EPA did not already have geotextile fabric on this portion.
“So they’re not going all the way down on the edge of the slope,” Meyer said. “There is a pretty big flat area in the northwest corner, which is where we saw most of the missing rock this time. And so at the extremely steep part, they’re going to go in and just do a really thick cover system of the sand, gravel and rock on top of that.”
When asked by a concerned citizen why the EPA doesn’t just go ahead and install a cofferdam, or a temporary dam that would hold back the San Jacinto River while the toxins are removed, to avoid making “little fixes” Meyer said it all starts with engineering.
‘To build the cofferdam we have to do the engineering to make sure we can build it right, and that’s a fairly complicated step to do,” Meyer said. “It sounds on the surface like a real simple process of just removing the material that’s out there. But installing the cofferdam in the middle of the river, managing the all of the water and making sure no contaminated water leaves the area is a very extensive engineering phase, and it’s going to take a while.”
According to the EPA’s Record of Decision, which lays out the agency’s approved cleanup plan, it will take about 29 months complete construction and will cost an estimated $115 million. But before work can start, the EPA has to come to an agreement with the potentially responsible parties to fund the project.
“We are pushing as hard as we can,” Meyer said about getting the final remedy in place.
Dayna Steel, a Democrat challenging Babin for the District 36 seat, took aim at the congressman’s first visit to the site over three months before the Nov. 6 election.
“Rep. Babin’s visit to the San Jacinto Waste Pit Superfund site is both long overdue, and wholly insufficient,” Steele said. “He is acting as a politician not a representative. He is playing politics with the health of the people he is supposed to represent.”