Planning prof calls Harris County toxic waste pits a ‘loaded gun’

Sam Brody

Sam Brody

Toxic waste pits along the San Jacinto River in far east Harris County containing dioxin and other hazardous substances are a “loaded gun” threatening human health and the environment, said Sam Brody, professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University.

He spoke at a June 26, 2014 press conference hosted by Texans Together, a Houston-based civic engagement group.

Brody, who conducted a study of the pits with four Texas A&M graduate planning students in the spring 2014 semester, found that the pits, covered with a temporary cap consisting of a layer each of geotextiles, geomembranes and 59,000 tons of stone, are extremely vulnerable to flooding from hurricane storm surge, rainfall and storm-induced waves.

“Major surge events are extremely powerful, and there’s a high likelihood that a hurricane, with its accompanying storm surge and flooding, is going to hit the site in the next 10 years,” said Brody, who is also the co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities, a joint effort of Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University at Galveston, where he is holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Chair in Sustainable Coasts and head of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores.

“Wave action and the scouring effects of wave action on the pits’ caps could prove catastrophic,” he said, “I don’t think those caps are going to hold, and no one I’ve talked to across the country has said otherwise.”

Floodwaters could spread the chemicals in the pits to neighboring residential areas, schools, wastewater management facilities and a reservoir that provides drinking water. Very small amounts of dioxin are known to be hazardous to human health.

“If you can imagine the size of a child’s aspirin or Tylenol and divide that 34,000 times, that’s the amount (of dioxin) that’s been proven to cause cancer,” said Jackie Young, head of the San Jacinto River Coalition.

The river near the pits already registers high levels of dioxin, which a 2006 study (8.3M PDF) found is likely being leaked from the pits. Despite numerous consumption advisory signs on the river, it’s a popular fishing and crabbing area.

Built in the 1960s by Champion Paper Inc. to dispose of paper mill wastes, the 14 acres of pits are located on the mouth of the San Jacinto River near interstate 10 between the communities of Channelview and Highlands, approximately 20 miles east of downtown Houston.

“I’m hard pressed to find a more vulnerable site to put this type of material,” said Brody. “If someone asked me to put this site in the most vulnerable area to storm surge and flooding, this would probably be it, at the mouth of a river of a major bay.”

Brody’s study also found that an above-average percentage of children under five years old, who are most adversely affected by exposure to chemicals in the pits, live close to the pits, and that residences surrounding the pits have already been inundated by adjacent flood waters.

Brody said that removing the waste pits is the only way to protect the communities and environment surrounding them on a long-term basis.

There is insufficient evidence, said the study’s summary, that any proposed on-site remediation option can effectively stabilize the pits over the long term and prevent the leakage of contaminants to surrounding areas.

The potential for catastrophic exposure to the pits’ chemicals will only increase as the years pass, said Brody. In addition to projected population growth in the area, he said, sea level rise in the bay has been documented, and storm intensity and frequency is on the rise.

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” he said.

To arrive at their findings, Brody and Kayode Atoba, Russell Blessing, Will Mobley, Urban and Regional Sciences Ph.D students, and Morgan Wilson, a Master of Urban Planning student, performed a flood risk assessment based on the area’s hurricane frequency, storm surge, sea level rise and an analysis of land use and socio-demographic trends.

Brody forwarded the study’s final report to the EPA, Harris County and Texans Together, and plans to use it as a case study for future classes. 

The location of the pits had been forgotten until Texas Parks and Wildlife officers, looking for the source of rising dioxin levels in Galveston Bay, discovered the partially submerged pits in 2005. The pits soon landed in the National Priorities List, which the federal government considers the country’s most dangerous hazardous waste sites.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office is suing Waste Management Inc. and International Paper, which maintain the pits, for $25,000 a day from 1967 to 2005.  "For three decades they've hidden this from the citizens and done nothing to fix it," said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s Office Environment Division. Owens said. Trial is set for September 2014.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a proposal to address the pits’ future by the end of 2014, to be followed by a 30-day public comment period.

posted July 25, 2014