On September 28, 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed removal of the deadly dioxin-contaminated wastes at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site in Channelview, Harris County. These wastes, first placed in unlined pits located on the banks of the river in the mid-1960s, have already caused harm to the river, Galveston Bay, and our recreational and commercial fisheries.
Galveston Bay Foundation agrees that removal, rather than trying to contain the toxins in place in a vulnerable location on a tidal river subject to hurricanes, floods and barge strikes, is the only way to permanently remove the threat of further harm.
The EPA is now reviewing and assessing the thousands of comments, petitions, and technical documents they received during the official public comment period that ended January 12, 2017. The EPA has indicated that it will issue their Record of Decision in “late” 2017, which will include the responses to public comments and a final cleanup plan.
|Activity||Description||Start Date||Completion Date|
|Discovery the Site||Texas Parks and Wildlife Department became aware of information suggesting the presence of waste pits in and adjacent to the San Jacinto River and notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.||April 2005||n/a|
|Placement on National Priorities List||The U.S. EPA’s listing of the site on the NPL made it a “Superfund” site, eligible for further investigation and action.||March 2008||n/a|
|Time Critical Removal Action (TCRA)||A short-term stabilization/capping of the waste pits by the responsible parties. In this case, an armored cap was placed over the waste pits to temporarily address the release of dioxin into the San Jacinto River.||April 2010||July 2011|
|Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study (RI/FS)||The process of data collection and analyses of the site problem, identification of cleanup alternatives, and the recommendation of a clean-up remedy (see links to these documents under Key Cleanup Documents and Our Technical Reviews/Summaries below).||December 2009||September 2016|
|EPA Proposed Plan for Cleanup Public Comment Period||On September 28, 2016, U.S. EPA announced their Proposed Plan for Cleanup (see link to this document under Key Cleanup Documents and Our Technical Reviews/Summaries below). The official public comment period began on September 29, 2016. The EPA has extended the public comment period until January 12, 2017. See the EPA press release near the top of this webpage for details on how you can submit comments.||September 29, 2016||January 12, 2017|
|EPA Record of Decision (ROD)||The U.S. EPA’s public document that explains which cleanup alternative(s) will be used at the site. The ROD is based on information and technical analysis generated during the RI/FS and consideration of public comments and community concerns.||January 13, 2017||Late 2017 (tentative)|
More information can be found on the U.S. EPA’s San Jacinto River Waste Pits webpage.
How to Submit Your Comments
You can send in your comments by one of three different methods:
- Via EPA’s online form
- By email to: R6_San_Jacinto_Waste_Pits_Comments@epa.gov
- By U.S. Mail to: Remedial Project Manager, U.S. EPA Region 6 (6SF-RA), 1445 Ross Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75202-2733
Sample Comments for Your Use
You are welcome to use all or parts of the sample comments below. We encourage you to add your own personal story and/or concerns with the waste pits. You can also download a Word version of the sample comments by clicking here.
Remedial Project Manager
U.S. EPA Region 6 (6SF-RA)
1445 Ross Avenue
Dallas, Texas 75202-2733
Dear Mr. Miller-
I am writing you to state my support for the U.S. EPA’s proposal to remove the dioxin wastes at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site (SJRWP). I agree with EPA that removal is the only correct and permanent cleanup solution for this site. I also agree with EPA that containment alternatives cannot be shown to reliably contain the waste over a long-term basis, subjecting the community to the continued risk of a catastrophic release of dioxin.
Galveston Bay and its tributaries have already suffered due to the past release of dioxin from this site. It still poses a major threat today, 50 years after the wastes were first placed here. Those who enjoy recreating on the river and Bay and eating local seafood face a threat to their health due to the presence of dioxin in sediments, fish, and crab. This source of dioxin at the SJRWP needs to be removed now, once and for all, so it no longer poses a threat to our community.
This location is unsuitable for containment. EPA’s own Guidance for In-Situ Subaqueous Capping of Contaminated Sediments states that low-level, dioxin-bearing wastes can be capped and isolated in a low energy environment such as a protected harbor or low flow stream. However, the wastes in this pit are not low-level, and the San Jacinto River is not low energy, protected, or low flow. Attempting to cap the wastes in this location is simply too risky.
EPA has estimated that the dioxin concentrations in the northern pits, up to 44,000 parts per trillion, will NOT degrade to a safe level for another 750 years, so the cap itself will have to endure for over seven centuries as the river and the land around it move and change. A lot can happen at this site by the Year 2766 including hurricane strikes, major floods, new river channel cuts, river course changes, and barge strikes. Any such event could cause containment to fail.
The cap, purportedly designed to withstand a 100-year flood, has had repeated problems in the short 5 years it has been in place. Despite these problems, those responsible now want to convince us that they can make the cap permanent by simply adding more rock. Neither of the original companies responsible for disposing of waste at this location exist 50 years after its initial placement. So, we also have to ask who will repair a cap hundreds of years from now?
Instead of forcing future generations to deal with this mess, we need to take care of it now. Thank you again for your proposed plan to remove the wastes!
<Your name, address, and if you desire, other contact info>
The Corps report did NOT make a recommendation on a clean up alternative; instead it answered questions about the nature of the risks at the site and answered questions about all possible cleanup alternatives. At the outset, it is critical for readers to note that the Corps’ evaluation of successful containment is contingent on the continued integrity of the armored cap and is extremely limited by uncertainties in modeling. In other words, the ability for the Corps or any other entity to state that a cap will remain intact for the time we need it to protect us (hundreds of years) is not possible.
In truth, either side could pick from the Corps report statements that support an argument for removal or an argument for capping. GBF believes that the statements that highlight the risks of an uncontrolled release trump any statements that support capping. See Houston Advanced Research Center’s (HARC’s) Technical Review of the Corps’ report for a summary. In particular, see Tasks 2, 7, and 10 to better understand the risks of capping, the high degree of uncertainty in any analysis of cap reliability, and the high modeled erosion of the cap from floods and from hurricanes. See Tasks 11 and 12 to better understand the risks of removal and steps that can be taken to reduce those risks.
Notably, the Corps’ Task 7 modeling showed that 80 percent (12.5 acres) of the 15.7 acre pits utilizing an “upgraded” permanent cap (the responsible parties’ Alternative 3N) incurred severe erosion from a severe hydrological event (from a Hurricane Ike storm surge combined with flows from a 1994 100-year flood event), resulting in a release of 170 g of dioxin. EPA estimates that to correspond to a 29% release of dioxin.
As a comparison, here are are some key findings from the Corps report which provide evidence that removal with industry-accepted BMPs is the best remedy:
- Task 12, page 153: Short-term contaminant releases during removal utilizing a combination of excavation of shallow water areas in the dry and dredging deep water areas in the wet within a silt curtain enclosure would be 0.40%. A 0.40% release would correspond to a release of 2.37 grams of dioxin.
- Task 12, Table 12-19, page 155: Releases could be be further be reduced to 0.34% by utilizing a combination of excavation of shallow water areas in the dry, dredging the Eastern Cell deep water area in the wet within sheet piles, and using silt curtains in the NW area. A 0.34% release would correspond to a release of 2.0 grams of dioxin.
- Task 12, Table 12-19 Footnote 3, page 155: Releases could be further reduced to 0.20% if shallow water areas are removed in the dry and all deep water areas are enclosed in sheet pile walls while dredged in the wet. A 0.20% release would correspond to a release of 1.1 grams of dioxin.
- Task 12, page 154: The Corps writes, “If sediments from the entire site are removed in the dry, the contaminants releases would be limited to releases from construction of the containment structures and fugitive dust losses which would amount to about 0.1% of the contaminants removed.” THIS SCENARIO CORRESPONDS TO EPA’S PROPOSED PLAN FOR CLEANUP (Alternative 6N).
Based on the information in the Corps’ study, the uncontrolled release of dioxin from a cap failure are at least 140 times those from a controlled removal. The EPA came to the conclusion that removal is less risky after weighing all the evidence and therefore called for such a remedy in their proposed plan for cleanup. Namely, the EPA writes in the proposed plan the following: (1) the waste is highly toxic and may be highly mobile in a severe storm, (2) the location of the waste is in a river environment subject to dramatic change that creates concerns with the permanence of a cap, (3) the area has a high threat of repeated storm surges which could result in the release of toxic waste, and (4) the history of the cap reveals repeated maintenance from floods that are much less than a 100-year event.
NOTE: Importantly, because they are beyond the ability of existing sediment transport models to simulate, the Corps report did not consider changing river conditions such as new channels eroding during flooding as well as changes in channel cross section due to bank erosion, shoreline breaches, etc. during a high flow event caused by a major flood or hurricane. Additionally, the Corps did not evaluate an “enhanced” permanent cap (Alternative 3aN which would call for increasing the size of the rock and doubling the thickness of the cap) as they only evaluated what the responsible parties had provided as alternatives in their draft feasibility study. Regardless, EPA indicates in their proposed plan that this unsuitable location with its inherent failure mechanisms from storm events and river channel changes as well their concerns with adding that additional weight on top of the waste to create the Alternative 3aN enhanced cap which could cause cap settling or the waste to be pushed out of the sides of the cap results in removal being the best remedy, exposing the river to the toxins.
A major source of the dioxin are the wastes generated at the old Champion Paper mill which were pumped into open, unlined San Jacinto River Waste Pits in 1965-1966. These are called ‘legacy pollutants’ because they resulted from long past poor practices, spills or dumping. Due to subsidence, the old pits sank into the river. The site, discovered in 2005, was deemed so dangerous that it was declared a Superfund Site in 2008. The danger from the site was still so high 50 years after the wastes were pumped into the pits that the EPA required the responsible parties McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation (MIMC), along with Waste Management (who acquired MIMC) and International Paper (who acquired Champion Paper), to put a temporary cap on the waste pits to try to prevent more dioxin from entering the environment until a final remedy is implemented. The temporary cap, comprised of a partial liner covered by rock armor, was completed in 2011.
While we all wish that the wastes had never been placed in this location, we have to deal with it appropriately to remove the risk to current and future generations. The responsible parties have argued that these extremely high concentration dioxin wastes can be capped in place. Based on the evidence, we believe that is a bad idea.
The Location is Woefully Unsuitable
First, the location is woefully unsuitable for permanent capping. EPA’s own Guidance for In-Situ Subaqueous Capping of Contaminated Sediments, states that low-level, dioxin-bearing wastes can be contained and isolated in a low energy environment such as a protected harbor or low flow stream. The wastes in this pit are not low-level, and the San Jacinto River is not low energy, protected, or low flow. No one should try to permanently retain a persistent, toxic chemical, in a river, in this sort of environment. Keeping this waste contained would be a constant battle against the forces of nature.
The Cap Would Have to Last Forever
The dioxin that remains dioxin in the pits, up to 44,000 ppt, or 200 TIMES the concentration considered safe in river sediments, 220 ppt, will NOT degrade underneath a cap. Based on the current concentrations in the waste (up to 44,000 ppt), this waste will still be toxic 750 years from now, so the cap itself will have to endure for hundreds of years as the river and the land around it move and change. A lot will change by the Year 2766. Hurricanes strike, floods rage, streams change course, waters rise, land sinks, and sediment moves. This problem is ours to solve now, not one to pass on to our grandchildren. We have seen failures of too many man-made structures over much shorter periods to trust that solution.
The Cap Has Bad Track Record
The cap, purportedly designed to withstand a 100-year flood, has had repeated problems in the short 5 years it has been in place. The first incident was in 2012 when a mere 10-year storm displaced some of the rock armor and exposed but did not rupture the liner. However, a large portion of the cap has no liner at all! In December of 2015, a large hole was found in this unlined area, meaning that the environment was once again exposed to dioxin!
NOTE: The EPA requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers perform an independent evaluation of the responsible parties’ cleanup alternatives, as well as a new full removal alternative that the EPA developed. EPA developed this new alternative because the responsible parties’ version did not include appropriate best management practices such as sheet pile, berms, etc. to isolate the waste before removal and prevent loss of material to the river. The Corps report did not make a recommendation on a clean up alternative; instead it answered questions about the nature of the risks at the site and answered questions about all possible cleanup alternatives. See the HARC Technical Review of the Corps study for more info.
Instead of forcing future generations to deal with this mess, we need to take care of it now. Methods to safely remove the waste from the site exist today, and safe removal of dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants have been successfully completed at other sites in the country, e.g. Cumberland Bay, Lake Champlain, Plattsburgh, NY; Housatonic River ½ Mile and 1½ Mile sections, Pittsfield, MA; and Lower Passaic River Phase I, near Newark NJ. Just like in those locations, we can solve this problem on the San Jacinto right now!
We believe that by using the best available technology, e.g. earthen berms, cofferdams and sheet piling, the waste can be isolated from the river and then safely removed, eliminating the problem for all time.
- February 2017 Site Update from EPA
- November 2016 Site Update from EPA
- EPA Extends Public Comment Period Deadline to January 12, 2017
- October 20, 2016 EPA Proposed Plan for Cleanup Public Meeting Slides
- October 8, 2016 – GBF/Coastal Conservation Association Texas Houston Chronicle Op-Ed: Solution should be a full cleanup
- September 28, 2016 – EPA Proposes Full Removal of the Wastes
- September 16, 2016 – GBF/Coastal Conservation Association Texas Houston Chronicle Op-Ed: Toxic waste must be removed
- September 2, 2016 – Houston Chronicle Editorial: Remove the waste
- September 1, 2016 – An Expert Review of Corps’ Evaluation Supports Our Call for Removal
- September 1, 2016 – Harris County Public Health Calls for Removal
- August 15, 2016 – Harris County Office of the County Engineer Calls for Removal
- August 9, 2016 – Harris County Flood Control District Calls for Removal
- May 2016 – Galveston Bay Foundation Comment Letter to EPA on Draft Cleanup Alternatives
- September 2015 – Galveston Bay Foundation/Houston Advanced Research Center Comment Letter to EPA on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Draft Evaluation of Remediation Alternatives
- June 2014 – Houston Chronicle Editorial: Enduring solution now
- June 2014 – Galveston Bay Foundation/Houston Advanced Research Center Comment Letter to EPA on Draft Cleanup Alternatives
If you are not already on our SJRWP Advocacy e-mailing list but would like to be added so you can receive updates and notices about the site cleanup, please contact Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation at email@example.com or 281-332-3381 x209.