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EPA meets with community on Waste Pits

Ashley Howard, EPA Project manager for the Superfund San Jacinto River Waste Pits, made the presentation and update to the community last Thursday evening at Channelview’s Fluckinger Center.

CHANNELVIEW – Representatives of the federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) met with the public last Thursday evening, June 23 at the Flukinger Community Center in Channelview. The purpose of the meeting was to update interested members of the public on progress in remediation and removal of the toxic wastes in the San Jacinto River at several sites.

The slide presentation was made by the Superfund Project Manager, Ashley Howard, and a question and answer period following the talk was moderated by Jeanetta Coates.

About 75 interested members of the Channelview and Highlands communities attended the meeting. Many of them asked questions after the presentation.

The Audience at Flukinger Center listened intently for almost two hours, while EPA representatives (at far right in the background) showed slides and reported on progress and the schedule. Excavation of toxic material in the Southern Impoundment site is scheduled to start in the fall of this year, but the Northern Impoundment work will not start until next year, and continue for 5 or more years.

Also attending the meeting were a number of public officials, and agency representatives. The included staff from Senator John Whitmire, Congressman Brian Babin, Representative Ana Hernandez, and County Attorney Chris Menefee.

EPA had several staff members, engineers and geologists present, headed by John Meyer, who is Acting Deputy Director of Reg. 6 Superfund Sites.

Also present were members of Harris County Pollution Control, and TCEQ.

Howard showed a series of 25 slides, that covered the history of the waste pits, the remediation solution approved by the EPA, and the current progress and schedule by the consultants for the PRP (Potential Responsible Party).

Howard’s presentation was divided into details on the two sites called the Northers and Southern Impoundments. She characterized the problems and solutions and unique and different at the two locations.

Each site is about 15 acres, and the dumping of toxic waste from paper mills occurred in the mid 1960s. However, the waste is much deeper and more extensive area in the Northern site, she said.

When some toxic waste escaped from the Northern site in the 1980s, it was declared a Superfund site and a temporary cap of stone and mesh membrane was placed over the waste pits to contain the toxins.

After extensive studies by an engineering consultant and the EPA, a permanent solution of excavation and removal inside a BMP sheet piling wall was decided upon as the acceptable solution.

A final report on this method, a 90% Remedial Design document, was due to be presented to the EPA on June 26. Then the agency said it would take at least 60 days to review the document prior to authorizing the next step. After this a 100% RD will finalize the design and the EPA will authorize remediation work to begin.

However, the consulting firm, GHD, has raised some new issues since the last 30% Remedial Design submission. They say that additional test borings have shown that the waste is deeper and more extensive than originally thought, and will require more work and more material to be removed.

They also questioned whether the design solution originally proposed was safe or even possible, and asked for additional time to study. A partial schedule extension was approved in October 2021, but another request in March of this year was denied, and the PRP were directed to continue to work on the current schedule.

Howard described one of the new problems as “hydraulic heave” where the excavated area could heave upward when water pressure from below pushes up and causes the integrity of the excavation to fail. Howard said that the consultants were still studying two methods to solve the problem, one a dry method and one a water column. In either case, a sheet pile enclosure, known as a BMP (Best Management Practice) would be required.

This graphic explains the problem of Hydraulic Heave, when the overburden is removed and water pressure from below may cause the remaining material to heave upward.

In summary, Howard said they are working to solve three problems: the excavation technique just mentioned, the Northwest corner of the site where the greatest heave potential exists due to its depth and configuration, and the coordination with TXDOT as they plan on a replacement bridge for I-10 over the river. TXDOT has expressed concerns over interference with a permanent construction around the waste pits, construction access, and the potential liability to the stability of the I-10 bridge when material is excavated next to the foundations of the bridge.

Howard said that she expects many of these questions to be answered in the 90% RD submittal, due this week. Then all agencies affected by the work will have an opportunity to review and comment on their concerns.

SOUTHERN IMPOUNDMENT REPORT:

Howard said that the Southern Impoundment is on schedule, and excavation and removal should start in Fall 2022. She said that it has not been determined yet where the toxic material will be sent. She showed a colored map, indicating that excavation will only need to be 10 feet deep at the most, and none of it will be under existing buildings or structures. She indicated that below 10 feet some toxic material might remain, but the toxicity would be at acceptable levels. She said the whole excavation process should take about two years. After remediation work is completed, the sites will be under Institutional Controls forever, and EPA will monitor them every 5 years.

A lengthy question and answer session followed, with many attendees not satisfied that the remediation would be complete and satisfactory.

Questioning covered bacteria growth in the water, which Howard said they were not aware of.

Also questioned was whether the Remedial Design took into account the barge activity adjacent to the site, and the hurricane potential during remediation. Howard said they were aware of both problems, and that the RD would address them. She said remediation work is limited to November to April, out of the storm season.

Some of the questions came from THEA representatives, several of whom were present. Rachel Jordan asked if there were plans to repair the CAP after a hurricane or barge strike. John Meyer of EPA said that the contractor now has a stockpile of extra stone and membrane in the area, ready to use for repairs if needed.

Carolyn Stone of CHIC asked if there was a master list of agencies that would be notified if a problem arose at the site, and if they were trained to handle toxic materials. She was told that a list existed, and that coordination meetings were being held.

One question was whether remediation called for the BMP wall to be removed, and the excavation filled with clean material. The answer to both questions was yes.

On the Southern Impoundment site, a person asked why the material was not completely removed so that it was 100% non-toxic. And if not, whether property owners would be compensated for any decrease in land value. John Meyer of EPA explained that decisions were difficult and complex, and many times factors included compromise with cost and capability. He said that EPA maintains a department that is just involved in “re-use of property” on Superfund sites, and they were involved in these decisions.

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