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EPA head tours Waste Pits

EPA Director Scott Pruitt, center, looks out over the Superfund site with Region 6 Acting Director Sam Coleman (straw hat), other EPA officials, and FoxNews26 reporter Greg Groogan (in cap). Pruitt wanted to be more familiar with the site and its potential problems, he said, especially after the recent flood event.

Scott Pruitt walks on site, promises “containment”

By Gilbert Hoffman

The head of the federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the person who will have the final say on how the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site is disposed of, was in East Harris County last Friday to walk across the site and learn about the conditions firsthand.

Accompanying EPA Director Scott Pruitt were officials from the EPA, both nationally and from the Dallas office, including the Region 6 Acting Head Sam Coleman. Also on hand was Fox News 26 reporter Greg Groogan, and after the walk Pruitt had an opportunity to discuss his visit with Jackie Young of THEA (Texas Health and Environmental Alliance) and Scott Jones of GBF (Galveston Bay Foundation).

Pruitt’s visit to the site was highly unusual, with EPA officials normally relying on reports and inspections from their staff and consultants.

In addition to the personnel accompanying Pruitt, there were also at least two boats with dive teams inspecting and probing the waste pits just beyond Pruitt’s presence. They were searching for breaks in the armored cap and its geotextile membrane after the Hurricane Harvey, and the subsequent flooding by the raging river. Nearby the torrent of the river had washed out two roads, making them impassable, and caused huge sinkholes in a residential area, where houses slid into the holes.

From where Pruitt stood, he could also see the damage to two large bumpers in the river that were meant to protect the I-10 bridge, but obviously had been hit and compromised.

After viewing the displaced rock cover, and in some areas exposed and dislodged membrane, Pruitt said, “When you have a temporary situation like this, when you take rock and put it on top of a site to secure it, you have a big enough storm, something like this, that could cause a disruption of that rock and a release could occur. We pray that didn’t happen here. That’s what we are testing.”

Pruitt was able to see the 1/3 of the material that is above the waterline, but 2/3 of the toxic waste remain below, with its condition of containment not really known. Days after Pruitt left the site, divers were still in the river probing the cap’s condition below the waterline.

After walking the site, and viewing the extent of the problem, Pruitt said he would take quick action, but did not indicate which “permanent solution” he favored. The EPA staff has recommended complete removal of the toxic material, which might mean as many as 17,000 truckloads hauled off the site, a project that will take over a year and cost up to $60 million dollars. However, another group (San Jacinto Citizens Against Polution) has recommended to the EPA that they build a permanent concrete cap, with administrative controls for the next 75 years.

Pruitt said, “Our team at Region 6, the EPA has really each year had to come in here and provide some kind of remedial effort to the site — that’s not good. You don’t want that, and that’s absent a hurricane. So as we look to answers here, they need to be permanent, they need to provide confidence with the people of this area that it’s going to be for the long haul and we fix this situation, so that anxiety goes away.”

Environmentalist activists Scott Jones of GBF and Jackie Young of THEA were pleased that Pruitt had visited the site, witnessed the problem first-hand, and promised a quick solution.

At the end of the on-site tour, Pruitt was able to talk with local environmentalists Scott Jones of GBF and Jackie Young of THEA, who explained their concerns about leaving the toxic waste in place with only a cap to protect future containment. A complete removal of the waste material is favored by local residents and recommended in the last EPA report, he was told.

Jones said “He said he would expedite the decision. EPA staff has already said removal is the right course.”

Jackie Young cautioned that “As long as the waste pits stay in the river, our residents won’t feel safe, especially in the storm situations that we have had recently. Administrator Pruitt made it clear he understands that.”

Pruitt was able to tour some of the other 42 Superfund Sites in Harris County during his visit.

The final ROD (Record of Decision) for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site is due to be announced before the end of the year.

During the on-site inspection, Pruitt and his group were able to see sights such as this rock cover and geotech membrane, pushed back by the force of the river, and exposing the material contained underneath. Tests are planned to learn if any toxic waste was able to escape from several similar areas. Drone photos showed the site with a number of areas opened like this.