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Waste Pits meeting reviews EPA decision

HIGHLANDS – About 100 persons joined elected officials and leading environmental activists last Monday night, at the Community Center, to get up to date information on the EPA final decision to remove the toxic waste from the San Jacinto River.

The meeting was hosted by Pct. 2 and Commissioner Jack Morman, and had a festive atmosphere with snacks and drinks served. This is the first public meeting after the EPA announced that the RPD or Record Of Decison had been signed, calling for the complete removal of the toxic material in the waste pits. Most of the attendees in the room had been in favor of that decision.

Officials that were present included County Attorneys Vince Ryan and Rock Owens, Bob Allen of the Harris County Pollution department, and Commissioner Morman and many of his staff.

Presentations on the status of the Superfund process were made by Jackie Young of THEA, Scott Jones of Galveston Bay Foundation, and Rodrigo Cantu of Lone Star Legal Aid. Also present and introduced was Nick Anderson, well-known cartoonist, who had an interest in environmental issues, and is working with THEA on several initiatives.

In his remarks, Attorney Vince Ryan expressed that EPA director Scott Pruitt’s site visit was a good sign of the seriousness of the EPA decision, and that they are committed to the ROD. He admonished the group to keep working on cleaning up the river. He said “The harder you work the more we can keep this on schedule.” To this end, Young asked everyone to send a letter to EPA asking for immediate action, which later in the meeting was a recurring theme of the questioning.

In her comments, Young pointed out that further negotiations with EPA had achieved a gain in the amount of material that would be removed, from 202,000 cubic yards to 212,000. Also, the standard of the pollution level to be achieved has been revised to allow for safer residual material.

At present, the removal process is expected to cost about $115 million, and would be paid for by the PRP, or Potential Resonsible Parties. In this case, it is McGinnes Industrial Material Corporation, now a division of Waste Management, and International Paper Company, who is the successor to Champion Paper Company, the mill that generated the waste.

It is expected that at least 17,000 truckloads of material would be removed from the site, and disposed of in an approved solid waste landfill. This work would commence in 2019, and continue for at least 18 months.

EPA has said they will require the PRP or their contractor to use “best management practices” to eliminate potential contamination to the surrounding environment.

Young explained that the process of removal would require steel cofferdams around the site, the material would be dewatered and removed dry, by excavation, not dredging.

At this point in the meeting, a video of Fox26 newsman Greg Groogan interviewing Scott Pruitt when he was in Houston, was shown. Pruitt said he was responsible for 1330 Superfund Sites around the nation, but would work to make sure the San Jacinto River site “was kept from languishing.” He mentioned that damage done to the cap by Hurrricane Harvey, and his concerns for future storms. He said “People need confidence they are safe.”

Young then updated the audience on recent problems with the cap, both pre-hurricane and posthurricane. In addition to the storm, there has been erosion on the east side of the site from weather, and barge traffic. Sampling of 14 sites found one site with 70,000 ppt of dioxin, when the standard is only 30.

She then showed a slide with four steps that she asked the attendees to include in their letter to EPA and Pruitt.

These were:

– A dive team to make more underwater inspections;

– More groundwater tests, dioxin has been detected in river water;

– Require the PRP to develop an emergency plan in the event of a cap failure or subsidence;

– Require the PRP to stockpile repair materials close to the site for rapid repair work.

Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation made a presentation of the history of the Bay, and the environmental dangers that have been detected in the river and the bay.

He discussed Seafood Advisories that were the reason for the GBF to become involved in the health of the bay, and concern about the waste pits site. He reviewed some of the proposals for reinforcing the cap and making it permanent, pointing out the problems of these, and their unpredictable nature.

Rodrigo Cantu, of Lone Star Legal Aid, reviewed the next steps that the EPA will be taking to implement the ROD. He pointed out that Congress passed a law, known as CERCLA, that prescribes the steps that EPA can take to make the PRP clean up the site, but pointed out that each step has a waiting period, and the process will take time.

Anxious to ask questions, members of the audience interupted several of the presentatioins.

Questions centered around the schedule, now that the decision to remove the material has been finalized.

One person said, “The crisis is now,” referring to Cantu’s explanation of the law. “Why not start the cofferdam now? The Dioxin is leaking on the East Edge.”

Another person noted that EPA Superfund rules require that these sites be completely fenced, but obviously the river side is open, and now after the hurricane, a large gap in the fence on the south edge allows uncontrolled access.

Another questioned why the PRP would be responsible for the clean-up, instead of a third party.

Young announced that the EPA had just said they will hold a public meeting in Highlands on Dec. 4th, and urged all to attend to get answers to these questions.