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San Jac Coalition hears updates on pollution issues

At their regular monthly meetings, members of the San Jacinto River Coalition heard updates on various issues related to pollution in the waste pits in the river, and in their private water supply wells.

In addition, SJRC director Jackie Young brought the latest news from the EPA, and the representatives of the PRPs, or Potential Responsible Parties.

Harris County’s Rock Owens, who is managing attorney for the Environment and Infrastructure Practice Group in Vince Ryan’s office, reported to the audience that they had dropped the appeal of the lawsuit against International Paper Company. The county lost this suit in a jury trial, but contended that the trial judge withheld evidence that would have brought a different outcome. Attorney Owens said that their office had decided to drop the appeal because of the unlikely result they could win, and to focus their resources on other environmental problems.

Harris County Pollution Control director Bob Allen reported on the next phase in the county’s testing of private well water. He said that they had tested 101 wells in Channelview, Highlands, and Lynchburg, and found dioxin in all of them, but at levels that were considered not a risk to health. He said they now wanted to test the other wells in the area, and had sent out 148 letters and advertised in the local paper, to get consent to test more wells. They will be tested for 17 types of dioxin and furan. He said they know of about 15 wells on the west side of Highlands, and 140 wells in Channelview that might qualify for this additional testing. Information on this is available at pcs.harriscountytx.gov.

To be tested, well owners must be in a certain geographic area, can’t be served by a public water supply, and can’t have been tested previously by the county.

Pam Bonta suggested that they should also test in areas with high rates of cancer, such as Highlands Shores, the Highlands Reservoir area, and McNair. Allen seemed surprised at this news, and said it might be necessary to have a third round of testing at a later date.

Testing is being paid for by the county’s successful lawsuit settlement with Waste Management and McGinnes IMC, who settled for a $29.2 million payment. About $10 million of this went to the county, who has pledged to use the money for remediation efforts and health issues.

The county has completed a study of supplying new water and sewer lines in the Highlands area, according to Pct. 2 infrastructure director Jeremy Phillips. It was learned from this study that it would cost around $10 million dollars to supply water and sewers to about 1232 persons, from the Baytown Area Water Authority. This included 186 single-family homes, 31 mobile homes, and 60 other lots and businesses.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Jack Morman indicated that a project of this scope would require multiple funding sources and was beyond the capacity of the county to undertake alone.

During the meeting, Young revealed that the McGinnes company had another waste pit site in the area, that they began using after the San Jacinto River site was filled.

This site is along Halls Bayou near Hitchcock in Galveston County. It consists or 32 open pits, of which three have tested for dioxins. These lagoons have been there for over 40 years she said, and the McGinnes company has been monitoring them and making reports to the TCEQ and the EPA. They contend that in all that time, they have not leaked any toxins, even though they are near sea level and contained by only earthen berms.

Television Channel 26 has made a three-part video news story about these pits, reported by their environmental reporter Greg Groogan. His report includes helicopter views and water level views of the lagoons, revealing a murky green color to the watery sludge in the pits.

In the video report, State Representative Mike Martin is quoted as saying these pits are not safe, and might spread toxins during a storm or hurricane.

Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn has also spoken out against the pits. The site is about 200 acres, much larger than the San Jacinto Waste Pits site, which is only about 14 acres. The dioxin tested in three of the pits shows a higher level than in the San Jacinto pits, according to the video.

The EPA issued a Site Update in February 2017. This report said that they were reviewing public comments that were sent to them. The quantity is 6000 individual comments, 48,000 signatures on various petitions, and about 2800 pages of detailed technical comments.

They said that written responses to all comments would be included in the ROD (Record Of Decision) that would be issued in late 2017.

Criteria for reviewing the comments were listed as follows:

1. overall protection of human health and the environment;

2. compliance with applicable, relevant, and appropriate requirements;

3. long-term effectiveness and permanence;

4. reduction of toxicity, mobility, or volume through treatment;

5. short-term effectiveness;

6. implementable;

7. cost effective;

8. state acceptance;

9. community acceptance.

Of some concern to the SJR Coalition was the part of the EPA Update that a site inspection on January 23, 2017 revealed some missing rock in the cap, and some exposed geotextile membrane. In addition, some subsidence has occurred on the eastern side, up to one foot. Repairs were ordered by the PRPs, and additional rock will be placed.

In the February SJRC meeting, Young noted that the group wanting to “Keep the Cap” has enlisted more experts, including Sediment Management Work Group, Detroit, Michigan. They contend that solution 2N, an enhanced cap, is a better solution than 6N, a complete removal. They have also engaged another law firm, Winstead PC, to help their case.

The public is of course involved in many ways in this issue. Young noted that students at Furr High School had undertaken a class project, a video entitled “Jackie’s River” which won a prize in a film festival.

Another concern is a bill now in the Texas Legislature, HB2533, which would restrict counties and cities from lawsuits against polluters without state permission, and set a cap on the amount of the claim. She distributed a sample letter that she urged interested citizens to send to state representatives on the Environmental Regulation Committee, opposing the bill.

The coalition also discussed an area adjacent to the waste pits, known as the Upland Sand Separation Area.