Experts continue to work on a design to clean up the San Jacinto Waste Pits in hopes of beginning actual remediation in less than two years, federal officials said Monday.
The EPA announced plans two years ago 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 site. The estimated cost of the plan is $115 million.
Federal officials gathered at the site on Monday to tout progress on efforts to clean up the waste pits and other Superfund sites across the country.
“This renewed focus is paying dividends for communities nationwide, like here at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site,” said Ken McQueen, the newly appointed EPA Region 6 administrator. “The first goal was to evaluate and accelerate sites listed on the National Priorities List to completion.”
The waste pits were among the first sites to get on the list.
Steve Cook, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, said officials hope to be done with the remedial design phase in 18 months, which will then allow them to start the actual cleanup. That phase is estimated to take another two and a half years.
The Trump administration has been trying to change the narrative on its environmental record, which has been criticized by advocacy groups. Trump has dismissed climate change as a “hoax,” pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, rolled back Obama-era clean-air regulations and appointed a former coal lobbyist to lead the EPA.
But federal officials say the progress on Superfund sites represents a success story.
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. They became a federal Superfund site in 2008 and were capped in 2011, partly in response to prior reports of leakage and fears of damage from hurricanes. For instance, after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the EPA found dioxin sediment near the pits at a level that was more than 2,000 times the agency’s standard for cleanup.
Dioxins are linked to birth defects, cancer and reproductive problems even in microscopic doses.
The EPA, joined by Harris County officials and the director of the state’s environmental agency, were in Houston to talk about the Superfund Task Force’s last report, which was released Monday. The EPA created the task force in 2017 to identify ways to expedite cleanups and to promote revitalization of contaminated properties. This has helped expedite the decision-making process and allowed officials to work more closely with communities to determine a future use for sites.
Since the creation of the task force, in 2018, the EPA has taken out all or part of 22 sites from the national priorities’ list, the largest number of deletions in one year since fiscal year 2005, officials said. Also last year, they had 51 sites ready for reuse, the highest total since fiscal year 2013.
Officials developed new enforcement guidance to speed up the beginning of remedial design, encouraged private investment, and created a strategy to increase public participation.
“I believe this site is a partial success story for the work of the Superfund Task Force by putting more emphasis than there was in previous years,” said Jackie Young, who leads the Texas Health and Environment Alliance. “However, this site will not be a full success story until the waste is safely removed and disposed of.”
Officials said the pits’ proximity to the San Jacinto River underscores the importance of cleaning them up.
But among the biggest challenges, McQueen said, “is how do we sufficiently isolate the river from the site because when we start removing material from the site we don’t want water coming in.” One possibility is building cofferdams — watertight enclosures pumped dry to allow work below the waterline — to isolate the pods so material can be removed.
For Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the progress on Superfund sites was welcome news in the wake of recent chemical fires and barge collision in the Houston area.
“It’s a legacy site that has needed to be cleaned up and I’m excited that we are actually starting to move that way and making progress needed,” he said.
There are more than 50 Superfund Sites in Texas and progress is slow, he said, because so much work has to go into them.
“We want people to know we continue to be here working on this site every day and it has not been forgotten,” EPA’s McQueen said.