Just a week before the San Jacinto River Coalition’s monthly meeting Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced damaged was found out at the San Jacinto River Waste pits again and the EPA administrator, who approved the removal of the pits, was resigning.
Both revelations were topics of discussion at the coalition meeting, but the recent damage at the pits was more poignant to the residents of Highlands and Channelview, as 22 small sampling areas confirmed the protective cap was absent and the underlying waste material was exposed. The samples also indicated dioxins levels were up to 6,500 parts per trillion.
“For many years we thought that the highest concentration at that site, at the northern pits, was (36,000) parts per trillion. Then Hurricane Harvey happened, and the EPA’s dive team went down and found a spot over 70,000 parts per trillion, nearly two times the toxicity we had thought was the highest there for many years,” Jacquelyn Young, director of Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, said. “ And now the dive team finds just over 60,000 parts per trillion. So this is of great concern.”
When the EPA made the announcement, they added a disclaimer of, “the dioxin in the waste material does not dissolve easily in water, but can migrate further out into the surrounding sediments.” According to Young, that was the first time the EPA has recognized and expressed concern for that specific detail about dioxin.
“(The EPA) has talked about how dioxin acts but when they have found it exposed, they typically don’t talk about this type of stuff,” Young said. “And this to me showed they’re really concerned.”
Since the announcement, the EPA and the Potentially Responsible Parties —International Paper and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation — have been developing a work plan to repair the northwest area of the cap.
As part of the work plan, the EPA is testing to determine the load-bearing capacity of the cap to establish whether land-based or water based equipment can conduct the repair work. This work was supposed to be completed by Tuesday of this week, but the EPA did not respond to The Baytown Sun’s inquiries Wednesday to confirm testing was complete.
The EPA says land-based repairs could be initiated within a week of testing, pending EPA approval of the work plan, but also said water-based repairs could require more time for mobilization.
The preliminary plan to this point is to cover a portion of the northwest area, an area in which there is no protective fabric, with geotextile material and riprap (loose stone) to provide an armor layer.
“The northwest corner has been the most problematic,” Young said. “Back in the day, sand mining operations dredged into the pits, so there’s a very steep slope there, and to date, they’ve not been able to get the geotextile or geomembrane to stay on that slop. So what they’ve done is put the riprap, or rocks, there.”
The armored cap at the pits, which was installed in 2011 to temporarily address the release of dioxin, has required repairs every year. Because of this, members of the coalition expressed concern, suggesting more should be done.
“The cofferdam should be really critical,” one woman said Tuesday night. “And even if there’s an availability of some of those monies they have from discovery, they should go ahead and move forward on the cofferdam just to get it locked in place so there’s no movement of material.”
The cofferdam, which will allow the EPA to excavate in the dry, will be used as part of the EPA’s remedy to excavate almost 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated material for disposal. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned just last week, approved the cleanup plan in October, which will cost $115 million and take 29 months to complete.
With Pruitt’s resignation, coalition members are already penning letters to acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, asking him to continue the momentum of Pruitt’s actions and move swiftly to get the waste pits removed. Letters cite the recent damage to the cap as a reminder that the cap isn’t sufficient for the short-term protection of public health and the environment.