Workers assessing the San Jacinto River Superfund site in September 2017.
Photo: AP

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last August, the area’s most polluted sites immediately became vulnerable. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is finally starting to clean up the first of 13 Superfund sites damaged and flooded by the storm.

The EPA announced Tuesday it’s reached an agreement with the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund’s former owners, International Paper Company and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation, to begin cleanup. The toxic waste pits are located in Harris County, Texas, an area whose residents are primarily black and Latino. So far, it’s the only Superfund by Harvey that the EPA’s taken action on because, according to emails the agency sent Earther, it’s the only one that’s “required major action.”

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The EPA added the pits to its National Priorities List in 2008 after discovering they were leaching dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) into the San Jacinto River, the fish supply, and, ultimately, human diets. Hurricane Harvey made shit wayyyyy worse.

The storm dropped 27 trillion gallons of rain over Texas and Louisiana. The subsequent floods damaged the waste pits (even though they were covered in armored concrete) and released their contaminated liquids into the San Jacinto River, further exacerbating the pollution crisis.

In the EPA’s report after the storm, the agency wrote that up to 43,000 nanograms per kilogram of dioxins and furans, byproducts of paper bleaching which can cause skin disease and cancer, as well as liver and nerve damage, may have entered the San Jacinto River due to severe flooding. A post-hurricane sample in the area showed the dioxin levels were 2,300 times above the action level, reports The Associated Press.

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The EPA estimates that cleanup of the site will cost the $115 million, and that it’s likely to take more than two years. It’ll involve removing 212,000 cubic yards of contaminants and housing them somewhere they won’t get blown or flooded away come the next hurricane. “EPA will ensure that the remedial design removes all the contamination as quickly and safely as possible and permanently protects the health and safety of the surrounding communities and the San Jacinto River,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in a statement.

Repairs and cleanup still continue nearly eight months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Harris County was hit particularly hard, so much so that the state is putting $1 billion of an initial $5 billion aid package toward its recovery.

Meanwhile, researchers and students try to uncover how much pollution and contamination traveled around and entered people’s homes.

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