Environmental Group finds Hazardous Chemicals in Ship Channel sediment dump sites in Galena Park, seeks more testing

By Elena Bruess

GALENA PARK – A coalition of local organizations released testing results Tuesday that found elevated levels of hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium and dioxins, in sediment from the bottom of the Houston Ship Channel that is dredged and dumped in communities near the port.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition, which includes environmental nonprofits Air Alliance Houston and Bayou City Water keeper, analyzed data provided by the Army Corps of Engineers and conducted its own testing over the past year, finding that 11 pollutants exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carcinogenic screening levels.

Residents and community groups are calling on the Army Corps for additional, regular testing of the six dredged sediment piles throughout Galena Park, Channelview and Pleasantville, as well as further safeguards to protect the community from flooding they worry could move the dredged material into residents’ homes.

“The information we have received so far is concerning because it shows that there are certain elevated levels of chemicals that we don’t want in our community,” said Erandi Trevino, a Houston organizer for the Healthy Port Communities Coalition. “We don’t have a lot of conclusive information to provide on every chemical, but we can say that what we found so far shows that there’s more to be found and we really need more testing.”

 

Residents long have been concerned about the possible contaminants in the man-made hills piled in their communities.

For more than a century, the Port of Houston – a 52-mile complex along the ship channel – has scooped up, or dredged, tons of soil and sediment to widen and deepen the waterway for ships going to and from Houston’s petrochemical industry. The materials dredged from the channel were dumped in piles in eastside communities, including Galena Park, Channelview and Pleasantville.

Over time, this process has created six 20 foot high mounds eventually covered in grass and clay, including one hill directly across from the Galena Park sports complex. Now, the Port of Houston is expanding the channel again through Project 11, a six year effort to deepen the waterway to 46.5 feet and widen it by 170 feet for larger ships.

The Army Corps plans to dump the dredged material at four sites in Galena Park, Pleasantville and Central City. Two piles already exist in Pleasantville, while Galena Park and Central City will get new dredge piles.

The Healthy Ports Communities Coalition, the Environmental Defense Fund and Lone Star Legal Aid hired a lab for $35,000. With legal access to those properties, the lab tested samples from the edges of the existing dredge piles. They also requested two sets of data from the Army Corps related to sediment tested by the agency before it was removed from the ship channel.

Neither the Army Corps, nor any other federal or state entity, has tested the dredged material at the dump sites. Instead, the Army Corps drills into the ship channel and tests the material there. In its environmental impact study – which was finalized in 2020 – the agency tested for the impact on aquatic life in the ship channel, not for humans in the nearby communities.

The EPA did not have any objections to the impact study.

•A sign welcomes those entering Galena Park on June 11, 2024, where piles of dredged sediment from the Houston Ship Channel have been dumped at various sites, including public parks, for years. (Danielle Villasana for Houston Landing)

•Amnesty International representatives wait for a press conference hosted by the Healthy Port Communities Coalition to begin in Galena Park, Texas, where they’ll release the results of testing conducted at disposal sites for sediment pulled from the bottom of the Houston Ship Channel, June 11, 2024. (Danielle Villasana for Houston Landing)

•Naomi Yoder of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice speaks during a press conference hosted by the Healthy Port Communities Coalition in Galena Park, where testing results conducted at disposal sites for sediment pulled from the bottom of the Houston Ship Channel are released. (Danielle Villasana for Houston Landing)

In the statement, the Port of Houston said “sediment testing is conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) prior to material being placed in the sediment placement sites and we have seen no evidence of contamination or discharges at any of the dredged material placement areas that would pose a hazard to human health.”

What do the results say?

The Healthy Port Coalitions Community published test results in three categories: Project 11, community samples and operations and maintenance dredging. The six dredged piles of sediment throughout the port communities generally are the result of typical maintenance and operations of the ship channel. Of the 22 spots tested, the Coalition found all had arsenic levels exceeding the EPA’s limit. One sample, the group said, arsenic levels were 45 times higher than the limit.

The Coalition also analyzed data contained in an appendix that was not made public from the Project 11 Environmental Impact Statement that found arsenic at seven times the EPA limit and dioxins at 16 times the EPA limit. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems and damage the immune system, according to the EPA.

The coalition tested for arsenic, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs – which are human made chemicals that can impact the thyroid and reproductive system. PCBs, which have been banned from use in the United States since 1979, were found at 2.5 times the EPA limit.

In a statement, the Army Corps of Engineers said the work is in full compliance with applicable laws.

“The USACE considered all relevant laws, executive orders, regulations, and local government plans, aligning with the U.S. Water Resources Council’s Principles and Guidelines,” the statement read.

Community calls for action

At a news conference Tuesday across the street from a dredged site in Galena Park, advocates for healthy ship channel communities – including Amnesty International, Air Alliance Houston and Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park – held up signs reading “Our community has suffered long enough” and “Houston believes in science.”

Naomi Yoder, a GIS data manager from the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University, told the crowd that placing the dredged material in communities is a way of sacrificing the communities for profit.

“We see no reason that the industries that sit along the ship channel, who the dredging is for, and the agencies that conduct the projects, couldn’t afford to pay for safe disposal of the sediments in areas that don’t affect low income communities and neighborhoods of people of color,” Yoder said.

Last year, the Army Corps, the Port, the EPA and the Coalition met several times to find a dredging solution that everyone could agree upon for the community. Yoder said the participants met again a couple months ago, but the effort has not moved forward the way the coalition had hoped.

In Pleasantville, residents expressed concerns about a dredged site that was closed in the 1950s after a hole formed in the protective berm and spilled sludge throughout the community. The Army Corps is planning to reopen the site to dump sediments dredged for Project 11.

“The port wants to expand for those larger ships to be able to come in for economic reasons and we understand that,” said Bridgette Murray, the executive director for Achieving Community Task Successfully in Pleasantville. “All we’re asking for is reassurances. How safe will our communities be?”

Lisa Ashley, director of media relations for the Port of Houston, said the agency’s Port Commission Community Advisory Council is very sensitive to all issues like this in the community and the Port has attended numerous meetings with the community groups to listen to their concerns.

In its statement, the Corps said the agency’s “decision-making integrates environmental considerations throughout the EIS process, and extensive efforts over the years include considering the perspectives of all interested parties, particularly historically marginalized communities.”

For the community groups, however, the testing is just the beginning.

“We’d like to have the Army Corps take some responsibility and dig a little deeper because this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Juan Flores, a longtime community activist in Galena Park and community air monitoring program manager for Air Alliance Houston.

–Houston Landing

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