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A Year After Hurricane Harvey, Band-Aid Fixes To A Superfund Site


It has been a year now since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. There was widespread damage, including to several toxic waste sites that were flooded during that storm. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on one of the largest of them.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The San Jacinto Waste Pits are an environmental nightmare, more than 5 million cubic feet of sand contaminated with carcinogens sitting in pits in the middle of a river east of Houston. Scott Jones of the nonprofit Galveston Bay Foundation took me out to see them.

SCOTT JONES: We'll go up this embankment here on Interstate 10. And then we'll get a little bit better view of the whole site.

HERSHER: Oh, yeah.


HERSHER: I can see all the way.

JONES: Right.

HERSHER: It looks like a rocky outcropping in a wide, flat channel. A year ago, Hurricane Harvey turned this whole area into a rushing torrent of muddy water. It took out fences, signs, entire roads. And it washed away rocks that had been separating the river from the toxic waste pits. Today it's looking back to normal - fences up, orange buoys out in the water to keep people away and rock piled back up on top of the contaminated sand.

JONES: That area where you can kind of see looks like maybe new rock, that's where they've been having to go and put some more Band-Aids on it.

HERSHER: Band-Aids because the rocks are a temporary barrier - there is a much more substantial cleanup in the works. After Harvey, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt personally visited this site and put it on a special list of toxic waste areas that would get his personal attention. About six months later, the agency announced a preliminary cleanup agreement. The $115 million plan is to remove hundreds of thousands of pounds of sand that's contaminated with dioxins. Dioxins cause cancer and reproductive and developmental problems according to the CDC. And most dioxin exposure in people comes from food, especially seafood.



HERSHER: Muggy, 100-degree weather doesn't stop James Blocker from fishing and crabbing along the Houston Ship Channel. But he didn't go to his usual spot near the waste pits.

BLOCKER: That's where I used to catch crabs at. But last time I went there about four months ago, there was a sign.

HERSHER: So you used to catch crabs there.


HERSHER: Like, before the hurricane last year.

BLOCKER: Yeah. They got a sign not that says no crabbing, no fishing.

HERSHER: The signs are there in part because of Jones.

JONES: Our seafood consumption advisory signs say danger in big red letters.

HERSHER: The government and local groups say these warning signs are an important part of keeping people safe until the waste pits are cleaned up, which will still be years.

JONES: We're still looking, at the very least, at 3 1/2 years before this waste is removed - best-case scenario. And I worry every summer because if we get a hurricane with really high wind speeds, you can basically think of that as being caught in the middle of a washing machine agitator. So we've got to get this stuff out as soon as possible.

HERSHER: The EPA agrees that it's urgent. In a statement to NPR, the agency said a liner and extra rock were being added to the pits to help protect against future storms but that it's only temporary until the waste is removed in a couple years. Jones says, despite the wait, he's excited that the toxic waste is actually getting removed, even if it is after the big storm. Some hazardous waste sites have been waiting decades for even this much cleanup attention.

JONES: I think a take-home is for local communities to get involved. You'll get a lot better result if the EPA hears the voices of the people.

HERSHER: Local and federal officials say they'll continue to hold public meetings nearby as the cleanup unfolds.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "THE APARTMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.