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Explore, Enjoy and Protect


By Art Browning

A big, old superfund site east of Houston has popped back into the news, and people living near it are hopping mad that it's not fixed yet. Defunct Champion Paper Mill of Pasadena dumped waste into pits alongside the San Jacinto River fifty years ago; since then, the area has subsided and is partly underwater. Leaks of toxic material were discovered about 8 years ago, when the EPA designated it a Superfund Site; it was upgraded to the "National Priority List" in 2008. To begin dealing with the situation, a temporary "cap" was installed in 2011, but breaches were found in 2012. Progress seems glacial to some, as evidenced by some impassioned comments at a public town hall in Highlands, Texas early this year.

You may have read or heard about this lately, and in the past, in the Houston Chronicle, or from local TV news outlets. Most recently, on January 30th, EPA Region 6 representatives presented an update and took questions and comments from the public in Highlands (one of a series of such meetings). They began by reviewing the history of the site and progress to date, more or less as outlined above. Partway through their presentation, some in the audience rose to protest, asking "when something be DONE?" Some commented about how their neighbors have had skin lesions, multiple myeloma, cancer; others spoke of how family members have died. (From the side of the room, workers with Texas Department of State Health Services asked people telling these stories to talk with them.)

You have driven right past this Superfund Site, probably without realizing it, if you have travelled east along I-10 past Channelview toward Baytown or Beaumont. It looks like it's completely industrial, but lots and lots of folks live there, and have done so for generations. The pits don't look like much, especially since they're half submerged. Here's a map;

Superfund Site

you can find others like this online, So what, exactly, are these pollution problems? And how can they be addressed?

Dioxins, furans, and mercury are some of the wofirst chemicals oozing out of the pits. They get into the water, and then into various organisms, some of which turn up on people's dinner plates. You know the story. Some pollutants work their way up to the top of the food chain, becoming more concentrated via bioaccumulation so that tuna and swordfish are bad to eat, especially for infants and pregnant women. (See for example, http://www. ) Some bind to sediment, where bottom-dwelling creatures like oysters ingest and concentrate them. Volatile pollutants can also get into your body if you breathe them; soluble ones can be absorbed by your body if you swim in water containing them. All these sources affect all of us,

mostly unknown to us. Businesses ship seafood from our fisheries to the rest of the planet, proudly; likewise, we get food from everywhere, with who knows what in it. But the people most affected by this particular Superfund site are the families who live, work and recreate near the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. Signs such as these have been posted along the river in places near where they live, but too many people ignore them. (Figure 2)

What is to be done? The EPA is studying the matter, with due diligence. They presented six options at the meeting January 30th. The ? first was to do nothing; the sixth was the most expensive, and might cost 100 to 600 million dollars. (It must be noted that our government would not be paying that, but the "Potentially Responsible Parties" would have to pay. Those "PRPs" are International Paper and Waste Management , largely due to corporate acquisitions of the original polluters.) Past, present and future costs on everyone's health are practically incalculable if the mess is left in place. The sixth option would be to remove the pollutants to a level meeting standards of 220 nannograms/kilogram (ng/kg, or parts per trillion) of dioxin, the standard used for residential soil. Most people in the room agreed that standards must be set to this level; then Sierra Club activist Brandt Mannchen boldly spoke up, saying we should go even further. He formalized his words in a follow-up letter to Gary Miller of the EPA: "We must not do a half-way job and use as an excuse that we need to save money or that we don't have enough money. No one 20, 30, 40, or 50 years from now must be responsible for finishing our job, the job we did not do in the right manner. Delay can only add to the cost of cleanup. I encourage EPA to choose Alternative 6 with a 50 part per trillion target concentration or lower." (50 ppt is the standard for the protection of the Galveston Bay Estuary, more stringent than for your garden.)

Jacqueline Young of Texans Together agrees that "full remediation" is the only acceptable answer. She is an environmental geologist who grew up in the area. She points out that the most robust plan may take nearly as much as a year and a half, which would go through a hurricane season, possibly subjecting the excavations to storm surges. But

doing that is better than putting it off year after year and risking continual erosion of temporary caps, continued subsidence, recurrent "blue-northers" and gully-washers that spread the pollutants up and down the river, into Trinity and Galveston bays, and on down to the Gulf of Mexico. It's time to act.

What can we do ourselves? Encourage our government to do the right thing. Some of the most active community organizers on this issue work with the San Jacinto River Coalition http:// () in conjunction with Texans Together. Actions they recommend are to write letters such as Brandt's to the US EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 6, 1445 Ross Avenue, Suite 1200, Dallas, Texas 75202), expressing your concern, or even your personal anecdotes, if you have any. This coming August, the EPA expects to release a proposed solution. It would be best for the public to submit comments before then, and to be prepared to comment further at that time.

The following web sites are somewhat dated, with information up to 2012. The EPA has information here:

with contact information here:

(The "contacts" page is rich with other links on the right side.)

TCEQ has information here: superfund/epa/sanjacpits

Finally, here are two reports from a couple of years ago: one from CLEAN (Citizens' League for Environmental Action Now) business/features/tragedy.htm

and another from a local newspaper article:

Last updated:  04/01/2013.   Content © 2013-2013 by the Sierra Club.