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Corps of Engineers report says Toxic Waste Pits can stay, with cap

Waste Pits under this containment cap are no more dangerous to the Public’s health, than if an attempt is made to excavate and remove the toxic waste, according to the new report by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Waste Pits under this containment cap are no more dangerous to the Public’s health, than if an attempt is made to excavate and remove the toxic waste, according to the new report by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Residents along the San Jacinto River, and environmental activists will be disappointed in a report issued Monday, Aug. 10th by the Army Corps of Engineers.

They were expecting the report to clearly indicate the need to remove the waste pits and toxins they contained, but instead the report was ambivalent at best, saying that dredging and removal posed as much of a risk to health as leaving the wastes under a secure, well maintained membrane cap.

At the request of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who are charged with cleaning up Superfund Sites, including the so-called Toxic Waste Pits in the San Jacinto River, the Corps conducted a thorough study of six varied remediation schemes ranging from containing and capping the site, to partial removal, to complete removal of the toxic materials. These toxic materials on the site include dioxins, and other carcinogens with the potential to affect human health. The toxins are contained in a sludge, or sediment that was deposited on the site, from barges filled with waste from paper mills, around 1965 and later.

The EPA has identified Potential Responsible Parties as McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., Waste Management, and International Paper. These so-called PRPs were responsible for constructing the current membrane and rock containment cap now over the waste site, and they have argued that this is all that is required to safely isolate the toxic wastes.

However, the Harris County Attorney, Vince Ryan, and his assistant attorney Rock Owen, have sued the companies in court for damages and to clean up the site. They won a judgement against McGinnes and Waste Management for $29.4 million dollars, but International Paper was excluded from the settlement by a jury. The county is now appealing the ruling on this third company.

In addition to the county suite, several other lawsuits have been filed against the PRPs, including one with about 170 individuals who live in the general area along the river, and another by Vietnamese fisherman who have had their livelihood affected by the restrictions issued by the county on fishing and consuming certain species.

The Corps of Engineers report is a draft, and subject to revisions. The public is invited to submit comments up until September 8th.

Jackie Young, representing the San Jacinto River Coalition, plans on meetings Tuesday, September 1st at 6:30 pm at the Highlands/San Jacinto Community Center, and Tuesday, September 15th at 6:30 pm at the J.D. Walker Community Center on Wade Road.

In comments to the Star-Courier, Young indicated that she thinks the report is incomplete and flawed, and that the executive summary presents a completely wrong picture of the situation.

In particular she mentions that the report does not model or study the affect that a hurricane or surge event could have on the cap over the site; and that during such a heavy weather event, barges perhaps broken loose as they were in the flood of 1994, might severely damage the cap and release some or all of the toxins.

Young noted that the SJRC is also waiting to hear from the Texas Department of State Health Services, on whether they will conduct a cancer investigation study, to determine if there is in fact a causal relationship between pollution in the river and ground water of nearby wells, and a high incidence of certain types of cancers that have been documented recently in a state statistical study.