The San Jacinto River Waste Pits


The Superfund site is a Difficult Reminder of Houston's Past,
what will happen to it in the Future?
by Adrian Shelley, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a hearing to discuss its "progress" in remediating one of Houston's most contaminated toxic waste sites: the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. Located north and south of I-10 at the San Jacinto River, the waste pits have been active since 1965. For several decades, the site was a dumping ground for some of the most toxic chemicals known to man: dioxins, furans, PCBs, and mercury. In 2007, EPA added the site to the Superfund list, making cleaning it up a national priority.

In 2011, EPA covered the pits with a temporary cap. At least once since then, severe weather has breached the cap and caused release of toxic chemicals. Some chemicals have been measured at levels hundreds of times that considered safe for residential property. Citizens in the affected community of Highlands claim higher incidence of cancer and other illnesses.

Tensions ran high at last week's hearing. Residents demanded EPA take immediate action, claiming they were paying for delay with their lives. EPA presented six options for remediation of the northern portion of the site, one of which was total removal and disposal of all contaminated material. A full remediation could cost between $100 and $600 million. Applicable federal law makes companies responsible for the site liable for the cost of cleanup.

For the residents of Highlands, there was no question which course EPA should take. With the knowledge of how to do a full remediation and several companies on the hook for the cost of cleanup, EPA should act immediately, they said. Unfortunately, the process moves slowly. EPA should choose a remediation option for the northern portion of the site by the Summer. Remediation could take several years after that. No plan has been developed for the southern portion, where contamination is 250 times that considered safe for residences.

Resources: San Jacinto River Waste Pits (EPA)

Air Alliance Houston would like to thank several organizations who participated in this hearing, including the San Jacinto River Coalition, the Sierra Club, and Texans Together.

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