The Environmental Protection Agency has removed a toxic waste site flooded by Hurricane Harvey from a special list of contaminated sites that require the personal attention of the agency's leader, because it says there's been significant progress on a cleanup plan.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits are a heavily contaminated area near Houston that is right next to homes and schools, and that has frightened residents for decades. Monday's decision to take it off the list, and to add other sites, underscores the delicate equilibrium between rigorously protecting public health and expediting the cleanup of toxic waste areas across the country. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt calls this a priority for his agency.
Last year, Pruitt appointed a task force to recommend ways to speed up decisions about toxic waste sites. One of their recommendations was that Pruitt personally push for legally-binding cleanup plans at a handful of locations.
One of those sites was the San Jacinto Waste Pits. It's a pair of pits in the middle of the San Jacinto River that were used as a dumping area for toxic waste from a paper mill in the 1960s. The area full of chemicals called dioxins and furans, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department warns people should not eat fish and crabs from the area because the animals may be contaminated.
It took decades for the site to get any federal attention.
In 2008, the EPA added the San Jacinto Waste Pits to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites, which is meant to funnel money and attention to toxic areas that are a threat to human health. The Superfund program has been plagued with budget shortfalls for years, and nationwide, many communities have complained that cleanup progress is slow, inadequate or both.
For years before Hurricane Harvey, progress on the pits was slow and the two companies responsible for the waste opposed any plan that required them to remove any contaminated rock and dirt.
"For folks who live near the site or see that site every single day, [remediation] can't happen fast enough," says Jacqueline Young of Texas Health and Environment Alliance, an advocacy group that leads the local effort to clean up the pits. But, she adds, "we need to take time to make sure that all the fine details can be worked out. At the end of the day, we have hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated material in a dynamic river, and that's not something that you can just go in and start digging."
In 2011, the EPA oversaw the installation of a temporary concrete cap meant to protect the river from contamination while the agency and the two companies came up with a more permanent cleanup plan. That still left the site vulnerable to rainstorms or hurricanes, since Houston lies along the flood-prone Gulf.
When Hurricane Harvey inundated the area last year, the normally-placid San Jacinto became a raging torrent of muddy water that ripped away chunks of the temporary caps. Inspectors found a plume of contamination both up and downstream from the pits.
When the water subsided, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt visited the site, and promised to expedite the clean up. Less than a month later, the EPA announced a $115 million plan to remove the contaminated material, and last week, a judge signed off on an agreement that requires the two companies responsible for the waste to develop specific cleanup plans for both pits.
Today's announcement that the waste pits no longer need Pruitt's personal attention cited "cleanup activities progress and completion of specific milestones and timelines." A former copper mine in Nevada was also removed, and three other areas in California, Delaware and Minnesota were added to the list.
For the San Jacinto Waste Pits, the two companies have 29-months to come up with a specific cleanup design. Rock Owens, an environmental lawyer with the office of the Harris County Attorney, notes this means at least two more hurricane seasons will pass before waste material is actually removed.
Both Owens and Young, of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, credit the relatively fast pace of recent EPA decision-making in part to the Pruitt's personal attention. "Scott Pruitt has made it clear that Superfund sites are a high priority," says Owens.
Now that the EPA chief's attention is shifting to contaminated sites elsewhere in the country, Young says her group will be watching carefully to make sure companies don't fall behind schedule.
"Folks are not particularly excited about the 29-month estimate," says Young. She notes that even though many environmental advocates agree with the current pace of cleanup planning at the waste pits, people who live near the site are understandably concerned about the immediate risk of another flood.
"We will do everything we can to make sure the plan moves forward and doesn't take any longer than it needs to," she says.