The following is the testimony of our director, Bay Scoggin, at the Environmental Regulation Committee today:
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for having me today. My name is Bay Scoggin, and I am the director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group. We are a statewide, citizen-funded, non-profit advocacy group for the public’s interest. We stand up to powerful interest whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.
Today, I’m here as an advocate for the public’s right to be protected from dangerous chemicals, even after a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey. The Superfund program is designed to cleanup some of the most dangerous toxic waste disposal sites, refineries, and other contaminated areas all across the country. Specifically, a contaminated site falls into the Superfund category when it is considered “orphaned”, or more technically, that there is no clear responsible party.
The state of Texas, under the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has a remediation division that deals with all toxic chemical sites, both orphaned and not. Further, the TCEQ is responsible for conducting the testing that leads to a site being put into the superfund program and whether the site will be listed as a federal priority site or a state priority site—determining who takes the requisite actions for cleanup.
The best possible situation would be for the hundreds of sites across the state to be fully cleaned up and removed, ending the danger to citizens who live nearby. To facilitate this goal, we continue to argue that we reinstate the Federal “Polluter Pays Tax”. By reinstating the Polluter Pays Tax, we could fund more cleanups at the expense of the persons responsible for creating these hazardous chemicals in the first place. When this tax was in effect, the Superfund program was removing 90 sites a year. Without it, that number has dwindled to below 20. If the Federal government continues inaction, the state should act. There is some evidence that the danger from these sites could have been mitigated and limited earlier if the Superfund program were better funded.
In the meantime, while we work towards the ideal, we need to make sure we are protecting the Superfund-adjacent residential areas, especially in light of the affect Hurricane Harvey had on our Superfund sites along the Gulf Coast. Harvey flooded 25 Superfund sites, 13 that belong on the federal registry, and 12 that belong on the state’s priority list. I have brought a list of those sites with me today for your future reference.
Further, there were at least two instances of contamination found. Dioxin, one of the most toxic carcinogens known to man was found in the water near the San Jacinto Waste Pits. Mercury, which can cause kidney damage and lead to a variety of neurological disorders, was also found in a residential area.
Unfortunately, it took weeks for environmental agencies to conduct review and testing of these flooded sites. Only after significant public pressure was notable effort made to conduct a thorough review of the flooded sites and their possible contamination levels. This response wasn’t quick enough at either the federal or state level.
At the federal level, enough questions were raised of the EPA response to the Hurricane that the Inspector General is conducting an investigation into their readiness and disaster-follow up. We think there are similar questions that should be asked of the TCEQ by the state auditor about their Superfund-related disaster readiness. Notably:
· Why was testing delayed until weeks after the Hurricane?
· What is the process for notifying citizens within contamination bounds and how can it be improved?
· Are the standards for protective concentration levels high enough to ensure human safety?
· Are the standards for testing/site investigation robust enough to satisfy industry standards?
In summation, there is no reason that any community should have to suffer the effects of toxic waste contamination. We are long past the days when whole neighborhoods should be at higher risk of cancer, yet that’s where we are. Communities within 2 miles of the Houston Ship Channel live with a 56% greater chance of their kids getting acute leukemia than those that live just 8 miles further away. Worse, with millions of people living in the same counties as those with Harvey-flooded Superfund sites, we just don’t fully know the extent of the exposure. The least we can do is be better prepared to protect and inform our fellow Texans who live in these areas. The last thing they should have to worry about when disaster hits is whether or not they are safe from poison.
Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG State Director