Plans to Dump Possibly Toxic Sludge Reviewed in Beach City

Four days before Christmas, Beach City's new mayor learned something worrisome: A company was seeking a permit to dredge near hazardous waste pits in the San Jacinto River.

The firm wanted to dump the potentially toxic sludge 15 miles away on a neighborhood lot next to the only park in Beach City, which stretches along the coastline south of Mont Belvieu and Baytown.

The Houston Chronicle reports Mayor Jackey Lasater heard about it not from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which received the application, but because of an advocacy group, which in turn was tipped off by a Channelview resident the Corps notified by mail. At the time, Lasater was on his way to Arkansas to visit his father, who fell and had hip surgery.

But the 15-day public comment period for the project was halfway over. The mayor and others got to work.

This was their reality. With cleanup of the waste pits planned but not yet started, local politicians, nonprofits and residents still vigilantly watch what takes place around the river's Superfund site, a scary sounding name for a spot, visible from Interstate 10, where waste from a paper mill was dumped decades ago and is today unsafe. Pollutants like that are not a concern in Beach City, where residents rely on water from wells.

"We just don't want that here," Lasater said.

By day's end, the opponents had won a reprieve. With input from U.S Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican from Woodville, and others, the Corps increased scrutiny of the permit. The agency changed it from the 15-day so-called "letter of permission" process to that of an "individual permit," which would undergo a monthlong public review, ending in mid-February.

Lasater emailed Beach City residents that evening.

"Rest assured that we are doing our due diligence to learn more about this project so that we will be prepared to deal with this development in the appropriate manner," he wrote. "I will Keep you updated."

The fight had begun.

Greg Moss moved to Channelview, an unincorporated area next to the San Jacinto River in northeast Harris County, in 1994. In 2011, he read in the newspaper that Harris County and the state were filing suit against three companies allegedly responsible for pollution from the Superfund site, one of 55 in Texas that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems a "national priority" among known or threatened hazardous waste locations.

Moss made a living fixing boats. He wears a necklace with a boat-propeller pendant. The lawsuit article was the first he had heard of the danger. Chemicals at the site known as dioxins caused cancer and reproductive problems in lab animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moss sold his jet ski and stopped fishing.

It was Moss who opened his mailbox in December to find notice of the dredging project, a familiar topic. He and other residents near the proposed site were notified. From his home, he can see the roof of the waterfront company behind it, Holtmar Land LLC. He recalled that the company failed to push through a similar plan several years before, which the Corps said was withdrawn.

Holtmar now outlined a plan to dredge 31,000 cubic yards of material from the waterfront, enough to fill at least 2,000 dump trucks. As Moss understood it, the company wanted to build a place for others to park their barges.

Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in August 2017, inundated the ramshackle neighborhood that Moss and Holtmar both inhabit, San Jacinto River Estates. Moss did not want to deal with the smell and noise of those boats. He thought the company needed to test more stringently the dredged-up material it would be removing from the so-called "Area of Concern for San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site." Did the people in Beach City even know what was coming?

"It needs to be done safely," Moss said.

The 63-year-old scanned the 12-page document and on Dec. 19 emailed it to Jackie Young, who leads the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, and to the Mithoff Law firm, which is representing him and more than 600 others in a class action lawsuit.

Young grew up across the river in Highlands. She took Moss's information and spurred the flurry of activity involving the mayor on his way to visit his recovering father. Cleanup of the waste pits was coming. She wondered: Was now really the right time to bring in construction equipment and boats?

An estimated 2,600 people live in Beach City, which stretches in a long, skinny curve along the coastline. It incorporated in 1966 so that Baytown could not gobble it up. A conservative philosophy prevails: There is no city tax and, with a budget of around $140,000, few city services. Two part-time employees work in the City Hall office housed in a county building.

Some residents years before had won a similar fight against a company that tried to build landfill for contaminated material, recalled Billy Combs, who was sworn in Jan. 2 as a Chambers County commissioner. "This is not the first threat," Combs said.

Holtmar proposed to dump its dirt on a wooded, 3-acre lot. A resident lives on one side. The county-maintained McCollum park is on the other. On a recent afternoon, birds chirped in the foggy quiet and someone walked laps around the park's path. In front of it stretched Trinity Bay.

Across the street lies a neighborhood called Barrow Ranch. Nichole Holmes and her husband moved there in 2017, intending it to be the place where their two boys would grow up.

Holmes felt blindsided by the email from the mayor. A native of Channelview, she takes daily supplements because her thyroid was removed years ago; she suspects the fish she ate from the river may be to blame. She knew the issues her hometown faced, and she did not want to see those same problems in Beach City, where many of her relatives now lived. They weren't a bunch of rubes readily taken advantage of, she said.

They organized, posting on Facebook and NextDoor and, one weekend in early January, going door-to-door with a petition. Holmes said everyone she asked agreed to sign it. She took a copy wherever she went, be it H-E-B, Target or the eye doctor.

"We, the undersigned, demand that any materials from near the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site, NOT be moved into Beach City," the petition read. "We are concerned about the potential adverse impacts on the environment and public health during removal, transport and deposition." More than 800 people signed.

That was just one tactic. On Jan. 22, Commissioners Court and the City Council passed resolutions opposing the project.

Then there were the letters, which the Corps project manager says the agency takes into account. They described residents' concern for their drinking water, property values and environment. The mayor wrote one. The man living next to the proposed dump site wrote one. The Houston chapter of the Sierra Club, and members of the health and environment alliance, wrote, too. What happens if kids track their dirt in on their shoes? What happens if another storm comes?

In hers, Holmes offered a warning: "Please understand that we will tirelessly fight to prevent any San Jacinto River dredge material from coming to our community."

Good news came Feb. 4, when the Army Corps of Engineers says that Holtmar notified the agency that it wanted to pull its permit application. Those opposing it felt cautious optimism. They would not declare victory until they saw the proof. The Army Corps days later sent word that the application had been withdrawn.

Tom Marian, an attorney representing the applicant, wrote in an email that he was unavailable to immediately comment.

Moss, who tipped everyone off about the project, worries the company will file again and try this time to dump the dirt on a swampy property it owns near him. He says the firm asked his neighbor about putting a driveway through the neighbor's property to access it. His neighbor, Joe Sartain, said he had no problem with it.

A second permit application for work around the Superfund site has been submitted, this one from a company called the San Jacinto River Fleet. Its notice went up a day before Holtmar's. The proposal details work on existing infrastructure at its facility, where barges park. Advocates have reservations about this, too.

There is broader concern about barges in the area: what if storms blow the boats into the pits? What if an accident sends a barge knocking into them?

Environmental justice advocates note that other communities might face barriers that Beach City, a predominantly Anglo community, did not. Environmental issues disproportionately affect communities of color with limited resources, said Yvette Arellano, policy research and grassroots advocate for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. Some communities might not be organized, feel reluctant to speak out or lack connections with legislators.

"What this community was able to do, not all communities are able to do that," said Juan Parras, the advocacy group's executive director.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits are closely watched. Young, who got the tip from the Channelview resident, holds monthly meetings of a group known as the San Jacinto River Coalition. About 30 people attended the Feb. 5 meeting, where members discussed the two permit applications -- one over for now, one not -- then spent much of the 90 minutes with detailed updates on the progress of the cleanup, which Young thinks could begin before the end of the year.

On top of the meeting agenda was a quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

After the meeting, Young and Mayor Lasater shook hands.

"Let us know if you need us," Young said.

"You, too," said Lasater, headed for the door.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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