Tempers were high when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted a meeting Tuesday night amid a barge strike on the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. Fortunately, preliminary results indicated no significant damage was sustained at the Superfund site.
To confirm its preliminary assessment, contractors for the potentially responsible parties — International Paper and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation — were slated to probe the site this week.
“People are walking around the cap with survey equipment and taking measurements that we can evaluate alongside the samples from the previous quarter to see if rock has moved around out there. They’ll also be probing in areas that could have potential erosion,” Remedial Project Manager Gary Baumgarten said. “The concern of having a big gaping hole in the cap where this thing landed did not happen, which is really the good news. So there wasn’t a need for emergency repairs.”
On Monday, contractors conducted a bathymetric survey, and initially results indicate that elevations remain the same in the area where the barge hit.
“That ongoing evaluation is to see if everything around the general area is stable,” Baumgarten said.
The barge, containing 11,000 barrels of lube oil, was removed from the waste pits over the weekend. In addition, contractors collected water samples about 100 feet upstream from the barge strike and 100 feet downstream.
“They were looking for dioxins in the water and also looking for volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, which would be associated with what was in the barge itself,” Baumgarten said. “Those samples are in the process of being analyzed.”
The EPA is also trying to obtain video footage and photos from site cameras to see what exactly happened when the barges broke loose.
“We want to see if (this barge) was the only one (to hit the site),” Baumgarten said. “We also want to know how these nine barges got loose and where they ended up.”
Baumgarten hopes contractors can continue phase 2 pre-design work by the latter part of next week.
While the news was good, considering a barge hit a Superfund site that contains 17,000 truckloads of dioxin with no release into the river, community members were frustrated that nothing is being done to prevent barge traffic in the area.
“What can the EPA do to get the Army Corps of Engineers to get these barges out of there because there going to continue to operate even though they’re destroying the bridge,” one community member said.
In response, Remedial Branch Chief of the EPA’s regional Superfund division, John Meyer, could only promise they would have a discussion with the Army Corps about its permitting process.
Meyer said when it comes to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, the EPA has a lot of authority and a lot of control. But once they start moving from that site, dozens of other authorities have control.
“We can have conversations with people, and we can tell them that we have a site here that we’re worried about. But they’re going to say, you need to take precautions on your site to protect it,” Meyer said. “We will have these conversations. We will engage the Army Corps and whoever we need to talk to, but a lot of it is educating them on what we have and asking for different solutions.”
“But the likelihood of stopping river traffic is just not realistic,” he added. “This is commerce, this is business and these are things that businesses have a right to do as long as they are compliant with the permit they are issued. It’s just the reality of it.”
Nonetheless, community members continued to urge the EPA to do more about the permits being issued in the area of the San Jacinto River.
“I would like to encourage the EPA to get with the Army Corps, and maybe there needs to be some inspections of barge facilities,” Brandt Mannchen, member of the Houston Sierra Club, said. “Because we’ve seen what can happen when (barges) are not secured appropriately.”