The Story of the Lost Waste Pits
by Vicki Wolf, Photo by Jim Olive October 2007
In 2000, Larry Koenig, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality engineer, started investi-gating the source of dioxin polluting the Galveston Bay and Houston Ship Channel. Dioxin in this area had become a mystery because limiting permits and regulating nearby industry for dioxin emissions had not reduced the levels of dioxin that made fish and crab from the area unhealthy to eat. Permit limits in other situations had significantly reduced dioxin levels, according to Koenig, but not in this case.
“After the project started, we measured every possible source of dioxin -- we measured sediment, fish and crab tissues,” says Koenig, who has worked for TCEQ 20 years and is with the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Program to monitor water quality. “It wasn’t adding up. There was a huge amount of dioxin, causing limits to be exceeded that wasn’t accounted for.”
In 1990, the Texas Department of State Health Services issued a health advisory warning that: Women who are pregnant, and children younger than 12, should not eat catfish and blue crab caught in the river, Upper Galveston Bay or the Houston Ship Channel because of high dioxin levels.
Dioxin is an endocrine disrupter - it alters cell growth and development and can have long-term effects on the reproductive system and the immune system. Pregnant women exposed to dioxin risk damage to the fetus and developmental problems for newborns. Dioxin also is known to cause cancer. Dioxins are produced as a by-product of waste incineration, bleaching of pulp and paper, and certain types of chemical manufacturing and processes.
Koenig, who is a scientist as well as an engineer, and colleagues were puzzled and intrigued by the dioxin mystery. “We were scratching our heads, then one fellow who worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife remembered a conversation he had with someone about sand dredging near the San Jacinto River when someone had mentioned waste pits.” Aerial photos clearly showed sub-merged waste pits -- several holes dug in the sand with soil bermed up into levees around them. The EPA report says there were three former disposal pits covering about 3.5 acres. Koenig and scientists working with TCEQ sampled soil in the area to find “astonishing levels of dioxin” near where the pit was submerged.
A series of aerial photos shows that, in 1956, on the west banks of the San Jacinto River, just north of Interstate Highway 10, there was nothing but sand dunes covered in vegetation. In the late ‘60s, you would see trucks hauling waste and dumping it into pits there. The view changes drastically by the 1970s: When you looked out your window driving over the San Jacinto River, you’d see the waste pits sticking up out of water, and by the 1980s your view from the bridge would be mostly water with no pits in sight. Subsidence -- the sand dunes sinking 8 to 10 feet -- had caused the waste pit to disappear, submerged under the water to quietly poison the river, Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel for decades.
The waste pits were created by McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation when the com-pany started hauling waste there in the late 1960s. The EPA report describes the waste as sludge hauled from Champion Paper Company’s paper mill in Pasadena. Dioxin was produced as a by-product of the paper bleaching process. The toxic sludge was dumped into the pits in the sand dunes. No specific permit to dispose of toxic waste was needed in the ‘60s. “In that era, there was not much regulation,” Koenig says. “Waste was hauled away somewhere. It was pretty sloppy everywhere.” Ironically, Koenig, grew up in Pasadena. “I grew up there, and we could smell it,” he recalls.
The ugly truth about the effects of toxic waste began to be glaringly brought to light in the ‘70s. In one case, toxins being sprayed on an East Texas roadway killed livestock and made people living in the area ill. As a result, in 1976 the U.S. government enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requiring “cradle to grave” bill of lading to track toxic materials from where they are created to the site of disposal. The goals of RECRA are to protect the public from harm caused by waste disposal; to encourage reuse, reduction and recycling; and to clean up spilled or improperly stored wastes.
In another, more famous case, Lois Gibbs, a housewife living in the Love Canal neighborhood, near Niagara Falls, New York, was researching possible causes of her son’s illness. She discov-ered the school yard where he played every day was on top of a toxic waste site. More investiga-tion revealed 20,000 tons of hazardous chemicals buried beneath the Love Canal neighborhood. The story made headlines in the New York Times, and Gibbs was interviewed on television shows. In response, President Jimmy Carter ordered payment for 900 families to be relocated from Love Canal and started a superfund to clean up hazardous sites across the country.
Today, the Superfund program investigates and cleans up the most complex contaminated waste sites in the country. There are about 1,300 sites on the National Priorities List (NPL). These sites are considered some of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites and are eligible for long-term reme-diation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now considering placing the San Jacinto River waste pits on the NPL. If it becomes a Superfund site, the EPA can clean up the abandoned waste site and force responsible parties to pay for the clean-up. That’s not always easy, accord-ing to Don Mayerson, a Houston lawyer who has represented many people who live near toxic sites.
“The difficulty in these cases is that the site was in use 35 to 40 years ago,” Mayerson says. “You have to try to prove and reconstruct what took place during that time. It is a difficult task.” Mayerson adds that if a company has been dissolved for more than three years, they can’t be sued. If the EPA cannot find a responsible party, the site is declared an “orphan site” and the clean-up comes from federal dollars -- taxpayers end up paying for the clean-up.
“In recent cases, the Supreme Court of Texas has morphed the law and made it increasingly harder to bring a case against a company,” Mayerson says. “Texas courts favor business and in-dustry 100 percent,” he adds.
Mayerson also notes that the long-term pollution problem now becoming evident with Superfund sites is partly the result of negligence by state officials elected to protect public health. “What I have found out at some of these Superfund sites that were in operation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is that the state never required owners to safely close down the sites,” he says. “This is a prime example of how the state is not properly functioning to do its job.”
Mayerson strongly suggests that people living near these sites get involved in the system. Much public information is available on the internet. “Learn about the site and enter into the discus-sion,” Mayerson says.
People living in the Houston-Galveston area potentially are affected by the toxic waste from these pits. Although a health advisory has been issued warning about the dangers of eating fish from these waters, the EPA reports that people are still consuming fish caught here. For more information on the San Jacinto waste pits, go to www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/newprop.html.
TCEQ’s Larry Koenig says the discovery of toxic waste sites is interesting and rewarding in some ways. “It’s a paradox. It’s good that we found it and frustrating to know that it will take a long time to clean up, and that it happened.”
The story of dioxin offers insight into the toxic burden we carry today. Dioxin is created acciden-tally as a byproduct of other processes.Koenig says it’s an example of technology and chemistry being a two-edged sword. “We didn’t know it existed until the ‘70s with agent orange,” Koenig says. “We found out that the dioxin in the herbicide was affecting the villagers in Viet Nam. We discovered dioxin long after harm had been done,” Koenig adds. “It pays to be careful.”