With hurricane season underway, contractors this week secured a sloped area of the San Jacinto Waste Pits that has needed multiple repairs over the years — an interim fix while officials continue to work on a design to remove cancer-causing toxic substances from the site.
The pits became a federal Superfund site in 2008 and were capped in 2011, partly in response to prior reports of leaks and fears of damage from hurricanes. But the northwest side has been a source of trouble, especially during heavy storms and hurricanes, because it includes a steep slope.
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency found dioxin sediment near the pits at a level that was more than 2,000 times the agency’s standard for cleanup. While rocks have been used to help keep the cap on the flat parts of the site, the rocks would slide off the northwest side, said Gary Baumgarten, project manager with the EPA.
On May 20, a team of divers and workers began placing what’s called an articulated concrete block mat to extend from the surface of the capped area to the floor of the San Jacinto River. Once the mat was in place, they brought out a special mix of concrete and pumped it into tubes that are part of the blockmat, Baumgarten said. Work was finished Wednesday.
The plan involved installing about 4,100 square yards of this material over the existing cap in the northwest area to help stabilize it while the design for the remedy is completed, he said.
It’s an area where the responsible parties had to do repairs on several occasions, and given that the remedial design process was going to take about two and a half years to complete, theydecided it was best to shore up that section of the site, Baumgarten said.
The pits, on the western bank of the San Jacinto River near the Interstate 10 bridge, were used into the 1960s to store waste that was taken by barge from a nearby paper mill. The site was originally on the riverbank in eastern Harris County, but it became partially submerged over time due to subsidence, dredging and construction of the I-10 bridge near Channelview, which altered the path of the river. The site is about 60 percent underwater on a normal tide.
Dioxins are linked to birth defects, cancer and reproductive problems even in microscopic doses.
The EPA announced plans in October 2017 to remove about 212,000 cubic yards of material containing the dangerous compounds from the waste pits. And in April 2018, it reached a long-awaited agreement with International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. to clean up the pits.
The estimated cost of the plan is $115 million and the design is expected to be completed by November, after which the actual cleanup can begin.
The cap, even though at one point sold as a potential final remedy to the waste pits, was never applicable for that location, said Jackie Young, who leads the Texas Health and Environment Alliance.
“Here we have a dynamic river with varying depths and the pits are located right where the river bottlenecks and goes under I-10, so the flow velocity rates are among the highest in that location of the entire river,” said Young, who grew up around the site.
“But something had to be done to stop or slow the release from the site because there was nothing protecting it from the river,” she said.
In late December 2015, Young said, an EPA dive team discovered a 22-foot-by-25-foot hole in the northwest portion of the site, which is also a place that has shown some of the highest concentrations of dioxins over the years.
“The cap has needed repeated repairs nearly every year since it was constructed in 2011. Some years numerous repairs, and most of those repairs occur in the northwest quadrant where they are now putting the concrete block mat,” she said.
While Young and her organization preferred the work be done sooner, she said, it is a move in the right direction.
“Without it being properly covered, we can’t have any confidence the waste is safely contained,” she said. “And this matting system has given us the confidence that we have never had.”
At the same time, they understand this is a temporary fix.
“If our coast were to be struck by a hurricane, I don’t know how this site would fare,” she said. “None of this man-made construction is for sure when it comes to dealing with forces of Mother Nature.”
As opposed to dealing with an oil spill, dioxin is colorless. “If they were released from the site, we likely would not know unless it was picked up in a quarterly inspection.”
The waste pits are a sore reminder of everything the community has gone through, Young said.
“Getting that site out of the river cannot happen fast enough,” she said. “However, it is an incredibly delicate process when we have a river as dynamic as the San Jacinto River on a hurricane and flood-prone coast. We have to take every step possible to mitigate any potential releases or accidents during construction and removal.”
Even though the design process is scheduled to take more than two years, the group is not pushing to speed it up, she said.
“At every other part of this process we have pushed to go faster,” she said, “but not this design process because we understand the work that has to go into figuring out exactly how this waste is going to be removed and how it’s going to be transported and where it’s ultimately going to go.”