Texas Clean-Up Plan Could Cause Environmental Disaster, State, Army Corps Say

Published June 6, 2017

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt will soon have to decide whether to pursue a possibly dangerous plan developed by EPA under the Obama administration to dredge a 14-acre contaminated site near Galveston, Texas, known as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

Citing an analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stating there are safer, less-expensive ways to prevent the toxic waste in the site from polluting local waters and ecosystems, state officials and local leaders are fighting EPA’s plan.

Superfund by the River

In the 1960s, Champion Paper Company, now International Paper Company, dumped waste from a pulp and paper mill it operated into open pits adjacent to the San Jacinto River, which feeds into Galveston Bay. The sludge in the pits contains dioxins, furans, and other contaminants. Over the years, the river eroded the walls of the pits, and pollution began to seep into the river, contaminating marine life.

In 2005, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality of the existence of the waste pits. Three years later, EPA declared the waste pits a Superfund site, triggering a multiyear process to clean up the waste.

As an interim measure, EPA required International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation, under the Superfund law, to construct an armored, waterproof cap around the pits to secure the sediment temporarily and ensure containment of the toxins. The cap was completed in July 2011.

What has stirred up controversy along the Texas coast and elsewhere is EPA’s long-term plan to clean up the waste pits. After considering several options, EPA proposed excavating, removing, and transporting by truck the contaminated material to be treated at locations yet to be determined.

Under the plan, some 202,000 cubic yards of contaminated material would be excavated from the northern and southern impoundments on the site at a cost, according to EPA, of nearly $96.9 million.

Storm Warning

EPA’s preferred remedy stands in sharp contrast to the recommendation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an August 2016 report, titled “Evaluation of the San Jacinto Waste Pits: Feasibility Study Remediation Alternatives.”

The Corps’ comprehensive analysis of various cleanup alternatives notes the low-lying waste pits are “subject to flooding from storm surges generated by both tropical storms (i.e., hurricanes) and extra-tropical storms” that could quite possibly strike during the dredging operation and cause a harmful toxic spill, polluting the area’s beaches and fisheries.

Even under the best conditions, the chance of leaks from dredging and removal were found to be 99,900 percent greater than from the installation of a permanent cap, making it likely fish in the region would become highly contaminated, the Corps states.

The report further states caps have consistently contained toxins and protected human health at similar sites around the country. The chances of toxins leaking from such a cap are “nonexistent,” the Corps concludes.

As a result, the Corps recommends placing a permanent cap over the site instead of the excavation scheme EPA favors. EPA estimates a permanent cap would cost approximately $29.8 million to install and maintain, less than one-third of the cost of dredging and hauling the contaminated material away.

Concerted Opposition

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Manufacturers Association, Texas Association of Businesses, and others submitted letters to EPA opposing its excavation and removal plan, expressing concerns about the effect of EPA’s plan on wildlife, the local seafood industry, recreation, and public health.

Saying it believes EPA understated the time needed to complete the dredging and excavation project and the dangers and costs involved, TCEQ wrote in a January 12, 2017, letter to EPA, “TCEQ cannot support the preferred remedy at this time without a further evaluation of the short-term risks and the uncertainties associated with the implementation of the preferred remedy[, dredge and remove].”

Another Gold King Disaster?

Business leaders—including Stephen Minick, vice president for government affairs at the Texas Association of Business, and J.T. Edwards, executive director of the Galveston Maritime Business Association—say many Texans are concerned EPA could be setting the stage for a repeat of its ill-fated August 2015 effort to remediate the abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado, in which an EPA-led crew accidentally spilled three million gallons of highly contaminated wastewater into the Animas River.

Minick says he’s concerned EPA is ignoring the substantial risk to people and the environment its preferred option poses.

“It troubles many in Texas that EPA would completely ignore a highly detailed and technically sound remediation plan for the waste pits developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in favor of a plan that could release 1,000 times as much dioxin into Galveston Bay System,” Minick said. “In addition, EPA has yet to identify the destination of the wastes or through whose neighborhoods the thousands of trucks carrying dioxin would travel under its plan.”

Edwards says EPA’s plan would be more dangerous and costly than the other options.

“The Army Corps’ analysis shows EPA’s dredging plan is more expensive and poses a greater risk of harm to the business community and the environment than a safe, permanent cap,” Edwards said. “Only Washington bureaucrats gain, both in power and increased budgets, under EPA’s foolhardy plan.

“The tourism industry and fishing industries can’t afford a Gold King-type disaster in the Galveston Bay,” said Edwards.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.