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AUSTIN, TX: In Texas, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials confirmed that floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey have spread contamination from toxic waste sites known as “Superfund sites” to nearby areas. The EPA says thirteen Superfund sites were flooded and two of the worst sites released damaging chemicals into the water. Despite environmental and community groups asking the EPA for weeks to tell residents whether these sites were damaged, the EPA only released information on the latest contamination yesterday.
One site that contaminated water with dangerous chemicals is the San Jacinto Waste Pits, located near the San Jacinto River. A nearby paper mill deposited toxic sludge at this site in the 1960s. The Waste Pits were declared a Superfund site in 2008 after decades of cancer clusters and fish kills in the San Jacinto River. The site contains dioxin, which according to the World Health Organization, is linked to cancer, miscarriages and learning disabilities. The site was temporarily capped in 2011 with rocks and sediment, but plaintiffs in a recent lawsuit alleged that chemicals leaked to nearby water wells in 2015.
“For the past month, TexPIRG has cautioned the public and regulators that the San Jacinto site was flooded by the waters and had disturbed soil,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, U.S. PIRG Toxics Program Director. “It’s troubling that the EPA only now is confirming that this site released a dangerous chemical into neighboring waters. Residents deserve better than this. They need to know what’s in the water that flooded their homes, schools, and playgrounds.”
“I was concerned when I saw it: rocks and a tarp aren’t enough when our health is at stake. Bottom line—it’s time to clean this mess up,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Director, who toured the site soon after the hurricane.
TexPIRG Education Fund released a report detailing the health problems associated with Superfund sites across Harvey-affected areas, including the San Jacinto Waste Pits, here.
The danger from these sites could have been identified and eliminated earlier if the EPA and the Superfund program were better funded. TexPIRG is calling for two changes: 1) “Polluter pays,” should be restored as a funding policy for Superfund; and 2) the EPA needs to prioritize a faster response time for testing air and water after a disaster.
The “Polluter Pays” policy should be restored for Superfund sites. The policy once ensured that the party responsible for producing pollution is responsible for paying for the damage done to the site. Congress allowed this tax to expire in 1995. By 2003, the Superfund's coffers were empty. As a result, orphaned site cleanups are now financed through taxpayer dollars. The loss of industry tax revenues led to a decline in performance. In 1999, for example, the EPA cleaned up 89 orphaned sites. By 2009, the number had dropped to 19 per year.
“There are many lessons from Harvey, one of which is that we can’t dilly dally about cleaning up these dangerous sites,” said Cook-Schultz. “We need to go back to polluter-pays fees funding to clean up these messes so that every disaster doesn’t bring about new worries of toxic sludge spreading into their neighborhoods.”
The EPA's ability to remediate these sites is significantly limited by lack of funding. In 2010, the EPA wrote a letter to Congress saying that a lack of funds has hampered its ability to conduct environmental cleanups around the country and asked for the tax to be reinstated.
Further, the EPA needs to prioritize testing and remediation at Superfund sites following a natural disaster. Throughout the month of September, Houston health department officials and public health advocates have been waiting for the EPA’s emergency operations department to let them know when testing of the sites would be completed. Residents deserve to know much earlier whether waters contaminated by toxic sites flooded their homes and neighborhoods. Many residents in Houston have already begun work on cleaning out their flooded homes—meaning that people have been cleaning flooded areas without knowing what toxic chemicals were surrounding them.
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