DALLAS — About $97 million will be spent to remove material in waste pits along the San Jacinto River east of Houston that is contaminated with toxic chemicals from a former paper mill, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.
The remediation of the Superfund site will include hauling away soil, sediment and other material from the disposal sites that were built in the 1960s and contain material contaminated with dioxins, which in people can cause cancer, reproductive problems, skin disease and changes in hormone levels.
The mill was in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, and pulp and paper waste was placed on barges and then dumped along the San Jacinto. The area was deemed a Superfund site in 2008, a designation used for the nation’s most contaminated land. Signs in the area caution people not to eat fish or crabs caught there.
Most of the $97 million will go to efforts to clean up 14 acres just north of Interstate 10, the EPA said in a statement. Another $10 million will be spent on removals from about 20 acres south of the interstate. An estimated 152,000 cubic yards of material will be hauled away from the area north of the interstate, a volume that amounts to 140,000 tons.
The EPA will accept public comments on the cleanup plan for the next two months, and Rock Owens, who heads the environmental compliance division for the Harris County attorney’s office, said contractors could begin removing contaminated material in the next year or two.
“It’s been moving forward rather quickly, I think,” Owens said of the effort since the land was given Superfund status. “Our office has been putting pressure on the EPA since Day 1 to get the stuff out of there.”
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement that the waste pits weren’t discovered by government inspectors until 2005 and that they had become partially submerged in the river water.
A protective cap was put in place in 2011, but not before dioxins for years had leaked into the water and riverbank, Ryan said. Problems have been found with the cap, such as a hole found in it last year that may have allowed additional dioxins to seep away.
“We are very pleased that the EPA’s preferred remedy … will lead to the removal of the contaminated material from the San Jacinto River,” Ryan said.
Two companies, International Paper and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., a subsidiary of Waste Management, will cover the cost of the cleanup, Owens said.
Tom Ryan, a spokesman for International Paper, said IP is not responsible for the waste and that the dumping occurred before it purchased the mill.
“When you purchase a company you purchase the liability that comes with it,” he said.
IP said in a formal statement that it is evaluating the plan.
McGinnes, the company that contracted with the mill’s previous owner to dig the waste pits, released its own statement criticizing the EPA plan. The company argued that the better option is reinforcing the cap because excavating the site would release contaminated material along the river and put “nearby communities at risk for years to come.”
But Owens has argued that in light of destructive storms that periodically strike southeast Texas, the best course of action is to haul away the soil and sediment. He added Wednesday that the EPA’s solution may not be a panacea because a full assessment of the site has not been done.
“I hesitate to say they’re getting all of it out because we just don’t know,” he said.
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