Texas Health and Environment Alliance RE: EarthX Fund Initiative

By: Cata Hopkins

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 73 million Americans live within three miles of a hazardous pollution site that could be harming their local environment and their health.

These areas of abandoned toxic waste are identified by the federal government as “Superfund Sites.” There are over 40,000 of them across the country, but due to the complex and expensive nature of remediating these sites, the EPA has prioritized just 1,327 of them for urgent attention. 53 of the 1,327 priority Sites are located in Texas, and of those 53, 21 are concentrated in Harris County alone. Harmful chemicals commonly found in Superfund Sites include dioxin, benzene, and arsenic. Exposure to these chemicals can result in health complications ranging from skin irritations and headaches to cancer and birth defects.

THE ISSUE:

 One of the most vulnerable and widely known Superfund Sites in Greater Houston is the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. These Waste Pits are massive impoundments in the San Jacinto River filled with toxic material produced by a former paper company. The waste material contains dioxin, and since the Pits were left unmanaged for decades, the dioxin seeped into the river and the local environment.

In the decades since the waste was abandoned, the communities closest to the Waste Pits have experienced abnormally high rates of several types of cancer. Children in this area suffer retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer, at a rate over 16 times higher than the expected average. Women here face high rates of cervical cancer and some of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the developed world.

Since the Waste Pits are a national priority Superfund Site, the EPA is tasked with overseeing cleanup efforts commissioned by the responsible parties. EPA personnel are spread thin, and the parties responsible for the Site’s pollution are powerful corporations who have the resources to produce lengthy, scientific reports that can overwhelm the EPA and create an environment in which details get overlooked and critical questions go unasked.

In 2011, the responsible parties began rolling out a plan to convince the EPA that leaving the toxic waste in the river indefinitely was actually safer than full remediation. It wasn’t until vigilant local community members started asking questions that the EPA began to look more deeply into the responsible parties’ preferred solution. Community members expressed concerns regarding how the strategy accounted for the effects of climate change or protected against potential flood damage.

One of these attentive community members was local resident and Geology student at the University of Houston Clear Lake, Jackie Young-Medcalf. Jackie grew up in a home close to the Waste Pits, and for years, she and her family members battled cancer, seizures, and other severe health conditions.

Jackie’s desire to learn more about the contamination of her local water supply led her to start following the Waste Pits’ Superfund process. The more she got involved, the more frustrated she became at the dangerous communication gap she saw between the community and the government agencies meant to protect them. The EPA rarely came to the community to discuss potential dangers to public health and what residents could do to protect their families, and when they did, they’d use technical jargon that made it impossible for someone without a science background to understand.

The need to bridge this gap–to hold polluters accountable and to help Houstonians get answers about issues threatening local health–inspired Jackie to found the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting public health and the environment from the harmful effects of toxic waste through advocacy and education.

MAKING AN IMPACT:

 The formation of THEA shifted the direction of the Waste Pits Superfund process completely. A major turning point happened when the group commissioned a coastal scientist to conduct a flood risk assessment of the Site, a critical element of the remedial process previously overlooked. In 2017 the EPA formally rejected the responsible parties’ containment strategy and initiated the path towards full remediation.

The responsible parties began to take note of THEA’s work and ramped up opposition efforts. They subpoenaed Jackie at her home, dragging THEA into a court battle that has cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars. It surfaced in the court case that one of the responsible parties had substantial involvement with individuals posing as local residents who opposed full remediation and intimidated THEA supporters.

Despite all of this, giving in never once crossed Jackie’s mind. She knew she was fighting for the very lives of her family members and for families all across small-town America who were being bullied by powerful corporations polluting their communities.

While facing ongoing opposition efforts, Jackie continued to build up THEA’s capacity to serve as a watchdog over the Waste Pits Superfund process to ensure a complete, integrous, and people-centered solution to this environmental crisis. Throughout the process of developing a remediation plan, THEA has caught several instances of data manipulation and flawed methodologies which have resulted in the EPA retracting the plan for further review to ensure the cleanup is safe and effective. The plan is set to be finalized this year, and construction to remove the toxic material from the river should start within the next two years.

Today, six years after its founding, THEA keeps growing. Jackie is now surrounded by a team of community outreach specialists, GIS experts, technical analysts, and geologists working in three communities across Harris County facing environmental injustices.

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Jackie’s work at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits impacts not only her local community but also the 73 million Americans living near a Superfund Site. THEA’s advocacy is raising the standard for the Superfund process nationwide by fighting back against powerful polluters and by providing resources and support to other communities seeking to understand the opaque Superfund process.

Irresponsible toxic waste management poses an urgent threat to this country’s environment and to our very lives. The Texas Health and Environment Alliance is there on the ground, holding polluters and government agencies accountable with bipartisan community organizing and sound science.

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