Fox investigation reveals Dioxin in Galveston Bay sludge pits

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Just south of the Galveston Causeway, not far from splendid bay side homes, the terrain along the Intracoastal alters, with modest grass covered levees rising from the shoreline.

What lies behind is beyond the casual boater's line of sight, but, from the air all is revealed—a massive chain of grotesque storage ponds, each filled with millions of gallons of toxic sludge.

There are 32 "ponds" in all.

The collection of unnaturally "black lagoons" stretches as far as the eye can see and they've been there for more than 40 years.

Largely forgotten, they came to the attention of Fox 26 because Dr. Kent Hood decided to blow the whistle on what he believes is an enormous and ongoing threat to public health.

"They wanted me to look at these sludges. We know we're not doing the right thing," said Hood.

Hood is talking about waste from the Simpson Pasadena Paper mill where he worked as a chemical engineer. It was waste which contained the cancer causing compound known as Dioxin.

Unbound now by confidentiality restraints, Hood says the contaminated sludge was loaded by the ton onto barges and dumped by McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Company into unlined, open pits along Hall's Bayou.

While the dumping violated no state law at the time, Hood contends McGinnis should have invested in recommended environmental safeguards, especially in relation to closure of the pits. 

"They did not use standard practices. They were negligent and I would say they were beyond reckless," said Hood.

As proof the sludge was toxic, Hood preserved 1992 storage recommendations and test results from environmental consulting firm RMT.

Those tests detected alarming levels of Dioxin in paper mill waste headed to the McGinnis pits.

Hood claims he ordered additional tests that year as well, which probed deeper into the pits.

"The sludges, I later found out, were parts per billion range," said Hood referring to Dioxin.

By the early 1990's the evidence in regard to Dioxin's impact on human health was mounting. It was a known carcinogen and proven to cause developmental problems in infants and infertility.

The primary way people are exposed to Dioxin is through the food supply, primarily fish.

But between 1966 and 1994 when the pits closed, anyone who questioned the safety of the waste was assured by McGinnis that the sludge it stored was harmless, posing no threat to humans or wildlife.

Documents obtained by Fox 26 show in 1993 McGinnis was still making the claim on the record before the Texas Water Commission and successfully persuading environmental regulators.

"The idea of putting it in an open pit on the side of a bay and thinking that's okay. I mean it's stupid on its face," said Mike Martin, a former State Representative who represented the Hitchcock community near the dump.

Twenty five years ago Martin helped lead a fight to close down the McGinnis pits and says the RMT test results confirm his worst fears. 

"It was asked at every single meeting I had and I got lied to and that's unacceptable because of the damage, the harm, the risk of the family sitting at the dinner table cannot be underestimated in any way," said Martin.

State records also show that back in 1992 well known environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn unsuccessfully pushed to have McGinnis prosecuted for dumping toxic sludge without a solid waste permit. 

"Basically there was deceit going on, if not outright lying and I think we need to get it cleared up," said Blackburn.

Compelled by Hood's evidence, to search for more, Fox 26 reviewed records accumulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

What we discovered is deeply troubling - testing commissioned by McGinnis in 2009, which revealed levels of Dioxin contamination in three ponds that were five times higher and more toxic than those found at the notorious EPA Superfund site known as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

What environmentalists had long suspected has now been confirmed with hard data from the waste company who did the dumping.

"Clearly there is a Dioxin issue at this site. The fisherman of Galveston Bay should rise up in mutiny against the government if they don't do something about this," said Blackburn.

Isolated behind locked gates on a large swathe of private land, the giant dumpsite is approachable only by water. Dozens of bird species can be seen flying in and out of the contamination zone.

 Along the Inter-coastal and other parts of Galveston Bay, Texas Parks and Wildlife has issued seafood consumption advisories. The principle chemical of concern is Dioxin.

McGinnis and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claim the Dioxin is safely stored in the pits and hasn't reached the Bay.

But Bruce Bodson, a scientist and attorney with Galveston Bay Keeper, believes there's simply no way these levees safely contained the sludge held within from storm surge from hurricanes like Ike.

"Water gets over, things get churned up material comes out. The entire Bay system has a Dioxin advisory. All of these sites from the mills themselves have contributed over time," said Bodson.

McGinnes, which is a holding of Houston based Waste Management, declined our interview request and offered no response when provided the whistleblower's RMT test results.

The company, did however, offer this statement.

"Measured levels (of Dioxin) are typical of decades-old legacy waste from that period. The facility was certified closed more than a decade ago, the material continues to be safely contained, and TCEQ confirms that the ongoing maintenance of the site continues to be appropriate."

As for oversight, since confirmation of Dioxin contamination at the site more than seven years ago, TCEQ has allowed McGinnes to self-inspect the sludge pits on an annual basis and submit a report.

Advocates for better containment say the current course is risky at best.

"We have not seen the bad storm that is coming and it's coming," said Blackburn.

"We need a buffer between this area and people and their food sources," said Hood.

"This needs to be an emergency priority," said Martin.

On a bay where Texans have built homes collectively worth billions and treasure the health of native wildlife, people must now decide if they're truly protected from a compound among the most lethal and persistent on the planet.