In Texas, Concerns About Damage To Flooded Toxic Waste Sites
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Officials in Texas are still trying to confirm whether floodwater has spread contamination from decades-old toxic waste sites. Thirteen so-called Superfund sites were flooded last week. NPR's Rebecca Hersher visited six of them and talked to people who live nearby.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Dwight Chandler has made serious progress ripping out drywall in his flooded house east of Houston.
DWIGHT CHANDLER: I was born and raised in this house. My parents had it in '42.
HERSHER: In the '50s, petroleum companies dumped industrial sludge, including sulfuric acid, into pits around the corner from his home. In the '80s, the federal government got involved and trucked out a bunch of contaminated soil. Chandler knows the so-called Highland Acid Pits well. When they'd fill up with water, people would swim in them.
CHANDLER: I grew up down there in that acid pit, played in it my whole life. That's my cousin. He was raised here and played in it. Ain't affected us, you know?
HERSHER: He says he's never had any health problems that he knows of. He even took his daughter there when she was little.
CHANDLER: And I know she was just a baby in diapers, you know? She don't have three eyes or nothing.
HERSHER: It's always difficult to tie any particular health outcome to contamination or a lack of it. Studies have found significantly higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness along the Houston ship channel here. But a lot of people in this region are in Chandler's situation, knowing they were exposed to toxic waste decades ago and still living right next to those sites, hoping they're not dangerous. Even Chandler agrees it's probably a good idea for experts to test those sites after the floods, see what toxins might have moved around.
A lot of that hasn't happened yet. The EPA is still working to inspect multiple sites. Three more were checked today, although the results of those inspections have not been announced. Neither the EPA nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would be interviewed. Scott Jones used to work for the state agency.
SCOTT JONES: With all of our government agencies, whether it's federal or state, we don't put enough money into it.
HERSHER: Now Jones is with the Galveston Bay Foundation, which works on water contamination issues. He is most concerned about a Superfund site that's partially submerged in the San Jacinto River. It's heavily contaminated with chemicals called dioxins which leaked out for decades before the area was temporarily capped in 2011.
JONES: As a result we've got, you know, seafood consumption advisories on the bay for fish and crab.
HERSHER: Although advisories can only do so much. There were people fishing there yesterday. Before the storm, the EPA was already considering removing more than 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated material. Now Jones is concerned that the plastic covers over that which are held in place with huge rocks could have come loose in the floods.
JONES: The issue we have with this is that's a temporary cap. So hopefully temporarily it's doing its job. We'll have to see what happens after this storm. But prior to this, some of the rocks were getting eroded away from just, like, a 10-year storm.
HERSHER: The water this time was so powerful it removed part of the road nearby. The EPA sent in a team in boats today. But some residents aren't waiting for official inspections at toxic waste sites. Barbara Luke and Ellen Luke grew up near the Highland Acid Pits.
BARBARA LUKE: We always walked down there and messed around.
ELLEN LUKE: Yeah.
HERSHER: Now they're in the front yard of their mother's ruined home around the corner from the pits, setting fire to whatever waterlogged belongings will burn. They're skeptical of any official who tells them the area is safe.
Do you trust what...
E. LUKE: No, I don't trust it...
B. LUKE: Trust it? I mean that's something that will probably forever affect the...
E. LUKE: Yeah.
B. LUKE: ...Environment.
E. LUKE: Yeah.
B. LUKE: I don't see how you can get rid of that.
HERSHER: Now the yard is covered in mud that came from the direction of the acid pits, and they're looking to sell the house. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.