THEA partners with UTMB to test for Superfund Site Contamination

In the coming weeks, what looks like a tricked-out RV will roll into the neighborhood around Jones Road and F.M. 1960 in Northwest Houston. The coach is a mobile clinic used by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) for environmental health research. Its destination is near the Jones Road Ground Water Plume Superfund Site. It’s going there because UTMB and our organization, Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA), are working together to find out how far chemicals from the Site have spread and how many of the local residents may be at risk.

What we’re doing 

THEA and UTMB researchers are recruiting area residents to be a part of a health study. We will take water and air samples at their homes and check the health of the families. The results will give us a better picture of how the underground plume of chemicals from the Superfund Site has spread and whether it is impacting people’s health. 

Why we’re so concerned 

To understand why this is such a concern, you need to go back more than 30 years when the operators of a local Bell Dry Cleaners started dumping wastewater behind their business. That wastewater contained hazardous chemicals like tetrachloroethylene, known to raise the risk of cancer and damage to nervous systems and organs, particularly the liver and kidneys. The facility shut down in 2002 and the EPA labeled it a Superfund Site. The toxic chemicals that seeped into the soil and groundwater could pose a threat to people living near the site for many years to come. 

We need to know how much of a threat

The saying is, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens under a Superfund Site often doesn’t. Once toxic chemicals reach the water table, they can spread to new areas. Our famous Houston heat and humidity can turn those chemicals into vapor that circulates in the air people breathe. That may be happening at the Jones Road Site.

The EPA started mitigation efforts in neighborhoods across the road from the old dry cleaners, including helping people hook into the local water system instead of relying on groundwater wells that could be contaminated.

However, the map that depicts the plume of chemicals hasn’t been updated since 2010. At that time, the plume was migrating to the west. We know it has shifted since then, but we need to study the area to know how much and what other residential areas may be impacted.

This is what responsible environmental health safety is all about 

Thinking there may be a problem and finding the answers are two different things. Answers take time. They take attention to detail. Most of our work at THEA is done behind the scenes, gathering and double-checking the data, researching the law, and creating the technical record that makes us effective advocates. When people’s health is at stake, we need to have the facts.

The neighborhoods around the Jones Road Site are becoming more diverse as new homeowners enter the area. They often don’t realize that their new houses sit on top of a plume of contamination that could threaten their health.  In some cases, they have drilled new groundwater wells without knowing the EPA has identified that as an unsafe practice. 

They deserve better. They deserve to know how an invisible chemical that escaped from a business three decades ago could threaten their health. That’s what THEA and UTMB hope to accomplish.      

So, if you see the big bus, stop and say hello.

Let us explain what we are doing and why it is so important. We are working to make Harris County a healthier and environmentally safe community and we would love to have you join our coalition.