A clean-up plan lingering from Barack Obama’s EPA could make a contaminated Texas river even worse AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Fresh from his high-profile support for President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt can now turn his attention to another glorious mess the Obama administration left behind.

In 2016, the EPA hatched a plan to clean up a contaminated site on the Texas Gulf Coast near Galveston. There’s just one problem: local residents are terrified that the agency’s convoluted remediation scheme will wind up resulting in even worse pollution than was there before.

In the 1960s, Champion Paper Company, now International Paper Company, began dumping waste from its pulp and paper mill into pits on soft sediment adjacent to the San Jacinto River, which feeds into Galveston Bay. The sludge, containing dioxins and furans, was transported by barge from the mill to the pits. Over time, the walls of the pits were eroded by the river, and most of the site now lies submerged.

By 2005, Texas officials became concerned that pollution from the eroding pits posed a threat to marine life, and three years later EPA declared the pits a Superfund site.

Wielding the considerable power granted to it under the Superfund law, the EPA ordered International Paper and another company held responsible for the site’s contamination, McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation, to place an armored cap over the pits. Completed in July 2011 as an interim measure, the cap has succeeded in keeping sediment and liquids from escaping into the river.

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But it’s the EPA’s long-term plan for the Galveston Bay area that has set off alarm bells all across the Lone Star State. After considering several cleanup options, the Obama EPA in 2016 proposed excavating, dewatering, removing, and transporting by truck some 202,000 cubic yards of contaminated material to a location, or locations, yet to be determined. The agency said the project will last about 18 months and cost nearly $96.9 million.

That’s right. The EPA’s plan would have sludge-laden trucks rumbling through residential neighborhoods past schools and shopping districts day after day for at least a year and a half. But it gets worse. The agency’s scheme completely ignores the area’s volatile weather, which includes heavy storms with torrential downpours and the occasional hurricane – just the kind of things that can wreak havoc on such a project.

The threat the EPA’s scheme poses to the environment and public safety was underscored by a 2016 report issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Analyzing the same data as the EPA, the Corps reached a radically different conclusion. Pointing out that the low-lying site is located in a FEMA-designated floodway, the Corps’ report noted that “Storm surges originating in the Gulf of Mexico propagate into Galveston Bay and into the lower SJR [San Jacinto River].”

In fact, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history struck Galveston in 1900, killing an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people. Instead of subjecting the Galveston Bay area to the manifold risks of the EPA’s dredging plan, the Corps recommended something simpler and cheaper: placing a permanent cap on the San Jacinto Pits. The Corps calculated that the chance of contaminating the area’s waterways were 1,000 times greater from dredging and removal than from sealing the site with a cap. Caps, it said, have been used to encase pollutants at similar sites around the country, and the chances of toxins escaping the cap and contaminating the water are “nonexistent.” The Corps estimated that installing and maintaining a cap on the pits will cost $29.8 million, or less than one third of the EPA’s dredge and removal price tag.

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Indeed, the EPA’s recent history casts doubt on the agency’s ability to handle a complex remediation project. In August 2015, an EPA-led crew, in an ill-fated effort to plug the long-abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado, managed to spill 3 million gallons of wastewater containing 550 tons of metals into the Animus River.

Galveston Bay may be spared such a fate. Last month, the EPA’s Pruitt unveiled a new policy designed to cut red tape by putting the decision on how to clean up sites directly into the hands of the administrator. For too long, the Superfund program has enriched lawyers and remediation companies, empowered EPA bureaucrats, and burdened communities with never-ending cleanups. Pruitt is charting a new course.

He should include Galveston Bay on his itinerary. The safety of local Texans may depend on it.

Author placeholder image About the author:
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
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