I’ve been thinking about spring. It’s just been that kind of winter, described by a Wisconsin native in our local paper as “a cold spell,” which is definitely one way to talk about a week when the windchill dropped to -50 Fahrenheit.
When I look out the window – it’s just been that kind of winter – I try to look past the drifts of snow and see trees leafing into green, a bright chorus of birds in the branches, backyard cookouts, spring evenings with steamed shrimp and cold wine. One of harbingers of warm weather here in Madison is the arrival of trucks packed with seafood from Galveston, Texas. The fishermen hoist a banner proclaiming “Never Been Frozen” – which is, yes, slightly ironic here on the Midwestern tundra – and simply wait for customers to cue up.
Imagine me in that cue, as I have been for many years, breathing the balmy spring air and loading up on seafood from the famous bay. And imagine how dismayed I was when I discovered, while doing some background reading on dioxins, that the state of Texas has been allowing that and other notable industrial compounds – to seep into those waters – and, of course, into the fish that live there. The dioxins, in particular, have been directly traced from waste pits on the edge of the San Jacinto River as it rambles from Lake Houston and into this, one of our country’s great estuaries.
“Most people just aren’t aware of this,” Jackie Young, an environmental activist with Texans Together, tells me ruefully. She adds with some cynicism: “The state hasn’t been in a hurry to let people know. There’s a lot of Galveston Bay seafood sold on the open market and there’s a lot of revenue involved.”
Of course, I’m obsessing on seafood and, as Young reminds me, the real story – and the more important one- is that of an environmental disaster years in the making. The San Jacinto waste pits have tainted the soil, the river, the private wells of nearby communities as well as the bay. In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the disposal siteas a Superfund clean up project.
The agency has scheduleda community meeting tonight, in fact, to discuss further options in managing the slow spill of poisonous materials into the waterways.
But to start at the beginning. In the mid-1960s, the Champion Paper company decided to create a disposal site for the chemical wastes from its mill in Pasadena, Texas. It chose a sandy region along the main channel of San Jacinto, east of Houston, so that it could move the waste by barge. No permit was required. By 1966, the waste pits covered 14 acres and over the following decades they were loaded with a toxic stew of compounds. The EPA lists the worst of them as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated furans (dioxins and furans), and some metals. By “some” metals, the agency means lead and mercury, in particular. None of this is what you might call friendly chemistry. The agency classifies dioxins and furans as suspected human carcinogens, and notes that they are also known to be immunosuppressive and implicated in birth defects. Lead and mercury are famously neurotoxic. And they, as well as dioxins, bioaccumulate, meaning that they tend to be stored in the body.
In retrospect, it’s easy to argue that dumping them near a major waterway, that lead into a major fishing resource, was not a brilliant idea. Because, of course, those “safely” stored chemical wastes leaked into the river. (Not an isolated problem, as we all know from recent events in West Virginia). But not one either that has gotten the same degree of national attention, even though, as Young points out, wells used for drinking water in that area are now measurably contaminated.
In fact, her family lives in one of the at-risk areas, a tidy blue-collar community called Highlands, which (with the Houston area’s famous disregard for zoning), is situated near the waste pits. “It might look like an industrial area but it is surrounded by residential properties,” Young says. After her father unexpectedly developed a festering acne-like skin condition – one of the classic signs of dioxin exposure – she and her mother did a door-to-door health survey, finding what they considered dismaying rates of autoimmune and other diseases. “We found eight cases of lupus on one street.” Young turned her analysis over to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which concluded that although the community well was just over a mile from the disposal site, it did not believe that tainted ground water should be a health issue. A full copy of that report is archived here.
It was at that point that Young became a dedicated environmental activist. And it wasn’t sick people that brought the issue to forefront; the state has not conducted a full epidemiology assessment. What happened as that dioxin levels started mysteriously risingin Galveston Bay. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality started back-tracking up the San Jacinto and eventually found that the sandy soils around the old waste pits were startlingly high in dioxin levels. A form of analysis called chemical fingerprinting established that the toxic compounds had traveled both into the Houston shipping channel and into the Galveston Bay fisheries. The toxicity levels had not decreased in any meaningful way over the past decade.
As it turned out, the waste pits tucked into unstable sand were simply subsiding into the river. The companies now responsible for the waste pits – International Paper and Waste Management – rather than going through an expensive removal process decided to simply cap the pits and stop the seep. But so far, that method has not proved entirely successful; due to continued subsidence, the cap itself has started to fail. The corporations are moving to reseal the waste pits but the contamination is now considered so severe that Harris County, where Houston is located, has filed a $100 million lawsuit against them for mismanagement. And tonight’s community meeting is designed to let the EPA get citizen input on whether it should require a complete cleanupof the waste pits, moving the compounds to a disposal site where massive water pollution is not an issue.
Which, of course, brings me back to the issue of tainted seafood. If you go to the website of the Galveston Bay Foundation, you’ll find a detailed page on the health risks associated with eating fish out of these waters. There are four main areas of the bay where even the state of Texas recommends against seafood consumption, three of those are contaminated with dioxins. The highest risks, according to these advisories, are catfish, sea trout, and blue crab. But there are parts of the bay, where the toxicity levels are so high and so wide spread that the recommendation is against eating any species at all.
Women of childbearing age and children under the age of 12 – DO NOT EAT ANY AMOUNT OF THE SPECIES LISTED!
Women past childbearing age and adult men – DO NOT EAT MORE THAN 8 OUNCES PER MONTH OF THE SPECIES LISTED!
I should emphasize here (*this is an update in response to concerns raised by commercial fishermen, among others, which you’ll find in the comments below) that the high risks here are for local fishermen. Commercial catches are done in the open waters of the bay where the pollutants are far more dilute. And that the shrimp of my springtime dreaming is caught in the Gulf of Mexico – to my relief, and I am sure many others – and not cited among the risky species.
Still, my point here – as I look out the window and dream of greener days – is that pollution is is never really just someone else’s problem, that the poisons never just stay in some else’s back yard. That’s a fiction we need to let go by, along with that 1960s attitude that we could trust companies like this to do it right. Yes, the risks here are much higher for close by communities. But we share in it. And it makes no sense to step back while this sludge from our unregulated past seeps into water supplies, taints a river, poisons a fishery, and contaminates not only local residents but people across the country.
I hope that Texans Together makes a lot of noise, that community members pack that EPA meeting tonight, angry and determined and demanding a real clean up. And I hope they get it.