Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Concerns about the dangers of abandoned toxic waste sites including Love Canal in New York State and Times Beach in Missouri turned such dumps into a national issue in the 1970s. In response, Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 to identify and clean up the most hazardous sites.
Superfund sites by definition are threats to public health and the environment. They’re often controversial and typically fraught with complex technical concepts, terms and data that can leave even an engaged and well-informed citizen living nearby scratching her head in confusion.
In 1986, Congress addressed this problem, establishing a Technical Assistance Grant Program to enhance community participation in cleanup decisions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these grants go "to qualified community groups so they can contract with independent technical advisors to interpret and help the community understand technical information about their site."
Under a grant to the Galveston Bay Foundation, an area conservation group, HARC is currently serving in that independent-advisor role for a Houston-area Superfund site where officials say potentially cancer-causing chemicals have polluted waters linked to the Galveston Bay system.
Jennifer Ronk, who joined HARC in 2009, is heading the advisory effort for the contaminated San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site. Ronk, the director of HARC's Environmental Science and Energy Efficiency Program, took on this task well-prepared. She had 20 years of experience as a private consultant working at other Superfund sites across the U.S.
"As a science-based, non-profit organization in the region, HARC is able to provide the expertise necessary for technical assistance to the community," Ronk said. "We are available to answer questions, explain complex technical documents and provide independent reviews of the work being done."
One recent example of this service was a public meeting held to explain and answer questions about the San Jacinto River site, which was co-hosted by HARC and the Galveston Bay Foundation in Baytown.
The agenda included explanations of the Superfund program and EPA's highly-prescriptive rules for carrying out site cleanups; a progress report on work conducted so far at the site; and a recently-released public-health assessment by state officials.
Health issues, including the Texas Department of Health's seafood consumption advisory, which warned about contamination in fish and blue crabs in the area, are the foremost concern for many citizens, Ronk said.
The public meeting was part of an unfolding process that began in 2005 when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that pits containing industrial waste might exist on the west bank of the San Jacinto River, just north of the Interstate 10 bridge near where the river flows into the northern end of the Galveston Bay system.
Officials confirmed the presence of the pits, which they say received wastes from the Champion Paper mill a half-century ago. Contaminants on the site were found to include dioxins – toxic chemicals that can increase an exposed person's chances of developing cancer and pose other health risks including liver damage and birth defects.
The EPA added the San Jacinto River site to the national Superfund list in 2008. In 2010-11, parties deemed responsible for the contamination carried out a project aimed at temporarily stabilizing and capping the wastes to prevent further releases. A full-fledged investigation leading to the choice and implementation of a permanent cleanup plan is proceeding. HARC assumed its role as an independent technical advisor to the public in late 2011.
So far, that work has included preparing and publishing summaries and reviews of all EPA documents related to the site. In some cases, HARC has identified "areas of concern," Ronk said, such as a place where pollutant levels were "not well-explained."
The EPA's most important report – its "Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study" – is still pending, with publication expected around the end of this year. At each Superfund site, that's the document in which EPA officials lay out their analysis of the data that's been collected, identify cleanup alternatives and recommend a preferred remedy.
This key study will present the first opportunity for HARC's scientists to declare whether they think the EPA has adequately characterized the nature and extent of the contamination problems at the site, or perhaps missed some, Ronk said.
One challenge for HARC involves explaining that the San Jacinto site is a major source of dioxins and other pollutants in the bay system, but not the only one, and that a separate government process is addressing those additional sources, Ronk said.
HARC is pleased to be able to help the public understand such issues surrounding the site, she said.
"An active and knowledgeable community is critical to the success of this sort of complex environmental cleanup. We are fortunate that the community has been interested and involved so that together we can make sure that the problems related to this site are appropriately addressed."