On an October night in a bland, one-story municipal building east of Houston, hundreds of residents from Highlands, Lynchburg, Baytown, and other areas surrounding the San Jacinto River lined up one by one, many of them listing off a slew of illnesses they say were caused by the river’s pollution: rare cancers, tumors, fertility issues. They spoke of friends and family members who had died too young.
The crowd was there to give input on an EPA plan to clean a nearby toxic waste site. It was a long time coming: Over the span of roughly 50 years, officials say a dangerous carcinogen known as dioxin has leaked from waste pits in the river alongside the East Freeway. Finally, it seemed, something would be done.
Dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt from a Galveston motorcycle rally, David Canard, 49, sat in the San Jacinto Community Center listening patiently to stories he’d heard too many times before. Canard lives roughly a quarter-mile from the pits. He’s not on the city’s water grid, so he’s forced to use water from his well, near what the EPA lists as a Superfund site: a highly polluted area posing a risk to health or the environment.
Though he lives in a region found to have higher rates of cancer than normal, Canard is mostly healthy. But he told us that “of course,” he’s known friends and neighbors who have passed away from cancer and other illnesses. Sickness, he explained, is just a fact of life in this part of Texas.
“Just look around town, there’s sick people all over the place,” Canard said. “When we first moved here, I found it odd that we’d go to the grocery store and there are all these kids in wheelchairs being pushed around. You could tell they were really messed up. I don’t see them anymore. They’re gone.”
“You talk to anybody in this room, they’ll tell you, ‘I know somebody who’s got cancer.’”
The ongoing waste-pit saga dates back to 1965, and a contract between a paper mill and a waste-management company. The mill produced a significant amount of sludge-like waste, and contracted the waste company to deposit it in pits alongside the San Jacinto River. A year after the pits’ construction, they were abandoned, and decades later, the county discovered dioxin in the environment.
Now that saga could finally be coming to its conclusion. The EPA’s proposed plan, up for approval this year, calls for the waste’s removal, soil excavation, and other remediation efforts, at the cost of $96.9 million, to be paid by International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corp.
But in recent months, support for another plan has cropped up, from a somewhat mysterious group called the San Jacinto Citizens Against Pollution. In its materials, that group argues against removal. It cites an Army Corps of Engineers report warning of a possible dioxin release if crews attempted to remove the waste from the site, and recommends a permanent cap. The EPA characterized the cap plan as an unreliable long-term solution: The dioxin is expected to remain toxic in the environment for hundreds of years.
Not a lot is known about this group: Their fliers and Facebook page list no contact information. The domain name to their website, keepitcapped.org, leads to a dead end; whoever registered the site hid personal information behind a proxy. The group’s marketing materials include glossy pamphlets and a sleek animated video, leading most residents to believe they’re backed by some business interest. (Both International Paper and MIMC have denied any involvement with the group, though an MIMC spokesman said the company also endorsed a permanent cap.)
While a handful in attendance at the EPA meeting argued the Keep It Capped line, no official spokesperson from that group was in attendance, save for an attorney who read a brief prepared statement over a stream of shouted comments from the audience.
“Let me sell you some of my well water!” someone yelled. “You done had your chance to cap it!” another person cried. “He doesn’t even live here!” someone else said.
“People are angry, man,” Canard told us. “If the EPA came in here and said, ‘We’re going to keep it capped,’ they’d need to call the police up here.”
The EPA has yet to make its final decision, and even though it will likely be for removal, work won’t begin until 2020. But as the meeting drew to a close, many, like Canard, were cautiously optimistic.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been going to these meetings for two or three years now,” he said. “And this is almost the end.”