Members of the San Jacinto River Coalition were pleased to hear the Harris County Attorney’s Office is investigating the recent barge strike and is pushing for protective measures.
At the coalition’s monthly meeting Tuesday, applause filled the Highlands Community Center after Jacquelyn Young, Texas Health and Environment Alliance executive director, informed members the attorney’s office called on the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen protection around the waste pits immediately to protect the site now and during removal.
The EPA’s remedial plan aims to remove 212,000 cubic yards of toxic material from the site using a cofferdam to encompass the site, allowing contractors to excavate material in the dry.
The attorney’s office said it is vital to protect the cofferdam during construction from barge strikes when wastes behind cofferdams could be released if they are breached.
“The lack of this requirement for the next 4-5 years is unacceptable,” Rock Owens, special assistant county attorney of environmental affairs, wrote in an email to the EPA on Sept. 27.
In the correspondence to the EPA, the Harris County Attorney’s Office believes protection could include:
• Semi-permanent concrete or concrete-filled steel pipe pilings or movable obstructions placed around areas where active remediation is occurring;
• Enhanced mooring facilities and procedures for barges in the San Jacinto River; and
• Re-locating barges to downstream moorings when there is potential for flood releases from Lake Houston.
The EPA has yet to respond to the attorney’s office regarding future protection of the waste pits.
“We have to look at the factor that this is an extremely powerful river and we just have to take that into account while we’re trying to take care of this,” Owens said. “We can no longer ignore it and it has to become part of the overall plan.”
“We have to plan for the next one and make sure that it doesn’t happen,” he added.
The attorney’s office even pointed out to the EPA in the proposed remedial action plan for the waste pits, it included a protective perimeter barrier with construction of a 5-foot high submerged rock berm outside the cap. The plan also included a pre-stressed concrete or concrete-filled steel pipe pilings place 30 feet apart around the perimeter of the waste pits.
“Outside of (the pits), they would basically build another wall, another perimeter around that site along the river bottom that’s 5-feet high,” Young said. “It’s not that shallow there, we’re talking less than 12-feet. So, in theory, the barge would hit this outer berm if it were to be sailing towards the pits.”
Young added that the EPA did not look at putting up protective barriers in the remedy that was selected because that remedy was full removal.
“If we’re talking maybe 4 or 5 more years until construction is complete, there is just too much risk,” she said. “Something needs to be done to protect the site.”
In addition to asking for protective measures, the attorney’s office is also investigating the Interstate 10 San Jacinto Bridge barge strike to ensure the responsible parties are accountable and that they take action to prevent further incidents on the river.
“Barges have been operating out there a long time and we’ve now had two barge strikes since the start of the year at the bridge,” Owens said. “It’s pretty safe to assume that it’s going to happen again unless we do some positive things to keep that from happening. We can’t just sit back and blame it on the weather.”
The investigation will look to uncover how nine barges recently broke free during Tropical Storm Imelda. As a result of the incident, two barges hit the San Jacinto Bridge, causing significant damage and an immediate closure, while another barge was grounded on the waste pits.
While the investigation is ongoing, the attorney’s office is asking for any witnesses of the barge strike, or anyone with information regarding the operation of barges on the San Jacinto River north of I-10 to contact its office immediately.
If you have information, reach out to Harris County Attorney Investigator Todd Black at 713-274-5380 or at email@example.com.
Witnesses can also call Harris County Attorney Investigator Richard Wagner at 713-274-5379 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.