HOUSTON (FOX 26) - For residents along the San Jacinto River and south throughout Galveston Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency announcement was the long-awaited answer to a desperate prayer. The proposed agency remedy for what many consider "a clear and present danger" will be complete removal of nearly 600 million pounds of cancer-causing Dioxin waste from the Superfund site known as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.
"We do believe this plan is the most protective plan for both the communities and the eco-system," said Regional EPA Director Ron Curry. "It makes more sense than replacing the temporary cap with something stronger that has to be maintained far into the future."
For dogged community and environmental advocates, the "dig and haul" option offers the promise of security from a catastrophic contamination.
"This proposal means hopefully that our communities will not have to live in fear of the next storm or the next barge strike on the San Jacinto River Waste Pits," said Jackie Young of the San Jacinto River Coalition.
"This is a big step forward, a very positive step forward, but we still have many steps to go before that sludge is removed," said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.
Dumped and deserted back in the 1960s, the Dioxin has been covered by a temporary containment cap on the banks and below the river's surface.
Bob Stokes with the Galveston Bay Foundation contends the real possibility of a major breach that threatened to taint marine life and seafood in the bay for seven centuries.
"We said from the beginning, it is way riskier to keep this waste on site than to take it out," said Stokes.
The price tag of the clean-up effort is estimated at $97 million and if approved, will be paid by the companies legally responsible for the pollution, International Paper and a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management.
A company spokesman for McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. told FOX 26 News said, "The EPA-proposed remedy ignores science and technical data. Excavation will result in resuspension of the material, worsening the river and putting nearby communities at risk for years to come."
But environmental advocates strongly disagree.
"Best management practices and science and engineering capabilities that we have here in America show us that this site can be safely remediated," said Young.
"There may be some nominal risk of some of it resususpending, but the risk of that happening is way less than leaving the waste in place to be fully resuspended sometime in the future," added Stokes.
The EPA is accepting public comment on the plan over a 60-day period.
McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. released the following statement:
The EPA-proposed remedy ignores science and technical data. Excavation will result in resuspension of the material, worsening the river and putting nearby communities at risk for years to come. The Army Corps report and subsequent EPA-required testing around the site make clear that retaining and fortifying the cap - making it even stronger and permanent - is the best way to protect the river and surrounding communities. The sampling results demonstrate that no dioxin from waste is moving from the waste pits into groundwater below the pits or into surface water above the pits. We'll carefully review the EPA's proposed remedy and maintain our focus on ensuring that the ultimate remedy fully protects public health and the environment.
A spokesman for International Paper submitted the following response:
We are aware of the issuance of the proposed remedial action plan and are in the process of evaluating it.