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International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., both working to clean up a Superfund site slammed by Hurricane Harvey last year, say it will take two years to figure out how to adapt the site’s waste-removal plan for the potential of severe weather.
That delay has environmentalists keeping their fingers crossed during this year’s hurricane season.
The season is already underway, and Texas and Louisiana aren’t changing their hurricane preparedness plans after a historic storm pounded their states. However, some companies that saw Harvey’s record-setting rain flood their contaminated sites are taking the lessons of the storm to heart.
Some of them are working with the Environmental Protection Agency at Superfund sites this hurricane season to ensure they reduce the risk of hazardous substances spilling or leaking during severe weather, but that process could take a couple of years.
This year’s hurricane season is expected to have “below-average” storm activity, according to a July 2 forecast from Colorado State University.
At the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site, which got a year’s worth of rain during Hurricane Harvey, International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. repaired a cap covering partially submerged, dioxin-contaminated waste after Harvey tore through the area. Exposure to dioxins, a class of persistent chemicals, can cause developmental problems in children as well as reproductive and immune system disorders in adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The design phase of that site’s cleanup plan is expected to take more than two years because the companies must consider the risk of another record-breaking storm causing a hazardous substance spill, International Paper and McGinnes said in a statement.
“The best experts need to minimize the potential for release during the [waste] removal process by thoroughly understanding what experience tells us about this kind of project,” the companies told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.
Sites added to the EPA’s National Priorities List, also known as Superfund sites, are the most contaminated in the country. All followup work and repairs at sites that Harvey hit last year have been completed, according to an agency spokesperson.
Companies involved with cleanup at part of the U.S. Oil Recovery Superfund site in Pasadena, Texas, are preparing for severe weather by taking waste out of units that may be vulnerable to flooding, David Margulies, spokesman for the potentially responsible parties’ group, told Bloomberg Environment in an email. The group’s members include BASF Corp., AkzoNobel, and BP America.
The EPA added the site to its National Priorities List in 2012. The site, which includes two properties and housed multiple facilities, including chemical manufacturing companies. U.S. Oil Recovery LP took in used oil, municipal solid waste, and wastewater at the site.
The U.S. Coast Guard received calls of potentially contaminated stormwater spilling from the site into a nearby bayou as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s heavy rains last year, according to National Response Center records.
The group of potentially responsible parties is working closely with the EPA on a hurricane preparation plan, Margulies said. The agency acknowledged that it is working with the companies to remove materials from the site.
Though companies at San Jacinto River are looking to ward off future flooding, an environmental group wants them to do more.
The companies are doing spot repairs to the caps, Scott Jones, director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation in Houston, Texas, told Bloomberg Environment. But they aren’t doing anything differently for this year’s hurricane season.
“We are crossing our fingers that we don’t get a direct hurricane strike” until the waste can be removed, he said.
The plan former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt chose for the site is expected to cost the companies $115 million. It involves excavating more than 212,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste, including dioxins, generated in the bleaching of wood pulp to make paper. The EPA considers this family of compounds to be carcinogenic and to have the potential to affect hormone levels and human growth and development.
Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) pushed the EPA to add the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site to the National Priorities List in 2008. The San Jacinto River Waste Pits are no longer in Green’s district, thanks to redistricting after the 2010 Census, but he still attends the agency’s public information meetings about the site.
The companies involved there could be delaying the design process because of the anticipated cleanup bill, Green told Bloomberg Environment.
“I know the hesitation of the responsible parties,” he said.
With Pruitt’s decision, the EPA is making good on its commitments to the community for a complete cleanup, Green said. But it’s hard to tell how a future hurricane may affect the Houston area, he said, especially with some local businesses and residents still recovering from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey last year.
“Every time we have a storm, it’s a different issue,” he said.
Texas and Louisiana’s state environmental departments aren’t changing their hurricane preparation plans because of Hurricane Harvey.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality “believes the plan in place before last year was appropriate, and nothing that occurred in Louisiana last year made us question that plan,” Greg Langley, a spokesperson for the department, told Bloomberg Environment in an email.
Andrew Keese, a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the state’s preparedness plans include assessing Superfund sites before a hurricane makes landfall. The state didn’t make changes to hurricane preparedness plans as a result of Harvey, he said.
Major storms also hit Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Florida during last year’s hurricane season.
“While there were minor impacts to a small number of Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, the agency did not identify any major spills or releases from Superfund sites,” a spokesperson for the EPA told Bloomberg Environment. “All hurricane-related response actions and repairs at these sites have been completed.”
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