EPA orders dioxin removal to commence at Superfund site

In October of 2017 Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt ordered the complete clean-up of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

"To witness the threat, the danger that this site poses to the community in person makes a difference and the difference it makes is urgency," said Pruitt at the time.

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And yet for eastern Harris County, almost four perilous years have passed and not a single ton of cancer-causing dioxin waste has been dug up from the now notorious Superfund site - a seeming state of limbo that's about to change.

This week the Biden Administration issued a "Unilateral Administrative Order" in effect, ordering the polluter to start paying and the excavation of poison-laden soil to begin.

 For the past decade, Jackie Young Medcalf of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance has led the pitched, grassroots battle to remove a threat - which remains lethal to humans for a half-century.

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She says folks in Highlands and surrounding neighborhoods are ridden with anxiety that's become chronic.

"They want this waste out of there. They are tired of living with the fear the next time a hurricane or a flood is going to come to the San Jacinto River and possibly spread this Dioxin further. Extremely high concentrations of Dioxin have sat in these pits since the 1960s and we are finally getting to the point where they are physically going to remove this waste material," said Young Medcalf.

The new Federal order is targeted at only half the Dioxin dump, the so-called "Southern Impoundment." International Paper Corporation has been ordered to pay the nearly $10 million cost. According to court documents, the $21 billion company will comply.

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Environmental attorney Terry O'Rourke waged legal war against IP and fellow polluter Waste Management during his years with the Harris County Attorney's Office.
He welcomes the impending excavation but warns the clock is ticking on a potential catastrophe. 
"If a hurricane hits, just like the one that hit New Orleans, it will be a disaster that will make us look like a chemical Chernobyl. That's how bad this is," said O'Rourke.

RELATED: EPA says protective cap missing, Dioxin exposed in San Jacinto River

FOX 26 reached out to International Paper and the company responded.

"International Paper is committed to protecting public health and the environment. We continue to work with the EPA and other stakeholders to perform the remediation of the southern impoundment at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, as described in the administrative order," said Amy Simpson, a spokesperson for IP.

The new federal order comes with enforcement "teeth" with IP facing fines of up to $59,000 per day for failure to comply.