STARING OUT AT THE SAN JACINTO RIVER burbling lazily along Meadowbrook Park's edge, it’s hard to imagine that anything about this place could be dangerous. But then the smell fills Jackie Young-Medcalf's nostrils, and peering along the curve of the river, she can almost see the infamous San Jacinto Waste Pits, the decades-old EPA Superfund site that a paper mill packed full of dioxin and other carcinogenic toxic waste decades ago. “You know, even with all the warning signs up, people still actually fish here,” she says.
Young-Medcalf, executive director and founder of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to inform and protect communities affected by toxic waste sites, stares hard at the water moving toward the waste pits, knowing it will flow into local well lines and flood the ground during hurricanes and tropical storms. Environmental activist isn’t a role the 33-year-old former model and beauty queen ever expected to play. If it weren’t for these waste pits, her life might have been entirely different.
Young-Medcalf grew up in Atascocita, and by her early teens she was a star hurdler at Humble High School, weighing out whether she should go straight to college once she graduated or try her hand at modeling, following in her mother's footsteps.
Her family’s 2003 move to the Highlands changed everything. The sprawling house—built in a neighborhood near the San Jacinto on a lot so large they called it “the ranch”—was their dream home, but within a year of taking up residence, Young-Medcalf started experiencing a slew of health problems. She was plagued with gastrointestinal issues—enough to warrant a colonoscopy at age 18—and chronic knee pain that ended her hurdling career. Doctors couldn’t find the cause of these ailments, but when she graduated she decided to move to San Diego to give modeling a go.
She was making good money, mostly with corporate gigs, but the health issues continued. Her stepfather began suffering from symptoms that would later be diagnosed as multiple myeloma, and she moved back home in 2008 because of her own health problems. She started taking college classes while continuing to model, becoming Miss Darque Tan 2009, with her face plastered on a Houston billboard that she saw every time she drove into the city.
That image of a gleaming, sun-kissed woman soon became almost laughable as her health began declining again, this time with even worse fatigue, more gastrointestinal issues, and kidney infections with no discernible cause. In 2010, shortly after earning her associate degree in natural sciences from Lee College in Baytown, she had her first seizure. Again doctors couldn’t explain the incident. “I would lay in bed at night terrified,” she says now.
By the next year she was averaging a seizure a day, weighed just 90 pounds, and had skin lesions all over her body. Doctors were mystified, and as Young-Medcalf continued to grow weaker, she was terrified that whatever was causing this would ultimately kill her.
Then in mid-2011 a KHOU report on Houston’s radioactive tap water caught her attention. She did a case study in her UH-Clear Lake hydrology class, comparing Houston water with that in her family’s well, which had been described as “pristine” when they bought the house.
Metallic particles, visible to the naked eye, floated in the water. “My professor looked at me and said, ‘That’s metal. You have to get tested for metal, because that may be where your seizures are coming from.’”
Ingesting heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic can damage the brain, kidneys, and other organs, as well as the composition of your blood, according to the National Institutes of Health. When she had her bloodwork done, Young-Medcalf tested positive for 19 of 21 heavy metals.
That same year she began knocking on her neighbors’ doors to warn them that she believed the water they were drinking could give them cancer or other health problems. “The first time I had two doors slammed in my face,” she says. “They said, ‘You’ll never get anything done,’ and I’ll never forget, I said, ‘Well, you don’t know me, because I’m not giving up.’”
Her family, who’d already changed their water source, moved in 2013, and the bank foreclosed on the house the next year, about the same time that Harris County reached a settlement for more than $20 million with two of the companies sued over the waste pits. Young-Medcalf got her bachelor’s degree and began working for the San Jacinto River Coalition, which educates the public about the waste pits, and in 2015 she started THEA, all the while knocking on doors. Slowly she learned that nearly everyone in town had experienced similar health problems. She started lobbying lawmakers, and joined a class action lawsuit alleging negligence against McGinnes and Waste Management, two of the companies that previously owned the pits, in 2016.
In October 2017 Environmental Protection Agency regulators announced plans to remove the toxic contents of the pits entirely. The EPA is slated to begin a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.
Now the people who once doubted Young-Medcalf attend her monthly meetings, and she represents them in quarterly meetings with the EPA, communicating with public officials to push for milestones in the cleanup process, like FEMA buying out her former neighbors from their dioxin-polluted properties over in Channelview. She also advocates for Fifth Ward residents living near the Union Pacific contamination site, which left the ground there saturated with creosote.
At those meetings with EPA and other government officials, she’s often the only woman in the room, definitely the youngest, and certainly the only billboard model. She plays that to her advantage.
“I’ve absolutely been in situations where people are like, ‘Who’s this little girl? Who’s this blond?'” she says. “I sit back and go, ‘That’s fine, they can think that,’ and when I open my mouth and I know what I’m talking about, they might have a different opinion.”