On a recent weekday, workers in the Cypress Centre in northwest Harris County prepared food, worked on cars and groomed dogs. Across the parking lot, two men in orange safety vests sat in plastic chairs beside a white pickup and took water samples.
The contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency were testing some of the wells surrounding the site of a former dry cleaning business that was found to have contaminated the groundwater underneath. They repeat the process every six months to monitor the progress of clean-up efforts at the polluted nondescript site in a corner of Jones Road strip mall.
To varying degrees, federal and state environmental agencies have been working to improve conditions at what is officially known as the Jones Road Ground Water Plume since it was first identified nearly 20 years ago.
The continuous monitoring will give federal environmental officials a better idea of what’s going on and help determine the next steps, said Raji Josiam, remedial project manager for EPA Region 6. “Our main thing is that we don’t want any exposures, we want to keep it safe.”
Based on the monitoring that the federal environmental agency has done, she said, “we don’t know of any exposure right now.”
Rising seas and more intense flooding caused by climate change could put nearly 80 percent of the Superfund sites in the Houston area at greater risk of releasing toxic pollutants into waterways and nearby communities, data from a congressional watchdog agency show.
A report by the Government Accountability Office found that more frequent or intense extreme-weather events such as flooding, storm surge and wildfires could affect 60 percent of the contaminated sites nationwide — and 67 percent in Texas — overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The GAO recommended that the federal agency do more to manage the risks from climate change.
The EPA largely rejected the report’s recommendations.
Assistant Administrator Peter Wright said in a statement that the agency “believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events” that become more intense or frequent are covered by risk-response decisions at the sites.
There are 24 of these sites with hazardous toxins in the Houston area, according to the GAO data. Of these, 14 would be affected by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, 13 by flooding risk, seven by sea level rise and one by wildfires — with many of them potentially affected in more than one way.
Experts continue to work on a design to clean up the San Jacinto Waste Pits in hopes of beginning actual remediation in less than two years, federal officials said Monday.
The EPA announced plans two years ago to remove about 212,000 cubic yards of material containing the dangerous compounds from the waste pits. And in April 2018, it reached a long-awaited agreement with International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. to clean up the site. The estimated cost of the plan is $115 million.
Federal officials gathered at the site on Monday to tout progress on efforts to clean up the waste pits and other Superfund sites across the country.
“This renewed focus is paying dividends for communities nationwide, like here at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site,” said Ken McQueen, the newly appointed EPA Region 6 administrator. “The first goal was to evaluate and accelerate sites listed on the National Priorities List to completion.”
The waste pits were among the first sites to get on the list.
With hurricane season underway, contractors this week secured a sloped area of the San Jacinto Waste Pits that has needed multiple repairs over the years — an interim fix while officials continue to work on a design to remove cancer-causing toxic substances from the site.
The pits became a federal Superfund site in 2008 and were capped in 2011, partly in response to prior reports of leaks and fears of damage from hurricanes. But the northwest side has been a source of trouble, especially during heavy storms and hurricanes, because it includes a steep slope.
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency found dioxin sediment near the pits at a level that wasmore than 2,000 times the agency’s standard for cleanup. While rocks have been used to help keep the cap on the flat parts of the site, the rocks would slide off the northwest side, said Gary Baumgarten, project manager with the EPA.
On May 20, a team of divers and workers began placing what’s called an articulated concrete block mat to extend from the surface of the capped area to the floor of the San Jacinto River. Once the mat was in place, they brought out a special mix of concrete and pumped it into tubes that are part of the blockmat, Baumgarten said. Work was finished Wednesday.