Yesterday the EPA released their recommendations for what to do about the toxic muck in the San Jacinto Waste Pits, after more than a decade of local and federal agencies poking and fishing around in the area (on either side of the I-10 crossing of the river). So far the Superfund site has been temporarily dealt with by the 2011 placement of a pretty-much-just-a-tarp-with-rocks-over-it armored cap, which the EPA says has already been repaired at least 7 times; the document released yesterday notes, however, that disturbances at the site caused by weather and previous nearby sand mining operations “could cause a catastrophic release of the highly toxic waste materials from the impoundments, if they remain in place.”
The EPA wants to remove about 202,000 cubic yards of contaminated material (roughly enough to fill the floor of the Astrodome with a 13-foot-deep layer) but says it’ll have to be done carefully so as not to accidentally stir up the waste into the surrounding river while trying to get it out; the removal would also probably take place in stages to avoid potentially exposing too much of the waste at a time to storms or flooding. Here’s the EPA’s map of the 2 sites where the paper sludge was originally dumped in the 1960s — the (capped) northern area is outlined in blue and labeled Cap Site, while the southern site (outlined in yellow and labled Southern Impoundment) is covered in part by the Glendale Boatworks building, next to Southwest Shipyard:
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Not Keeping a Lid on It
Some zoomy conceptual renderings of the University of Texas’s coming Houston campus, centered on the largely undeveloped intersection of Buffalo Spdwy. and Willowbend Blvd., made their debut at last month’s Board of Regents meeting, where the intended purchase of land for the project was announced. Buffalo Spdwy. gently winds through the drawings of the new campus to a track and several baseball diamonds along Holmes Rd. (which runs horizontally across the top of the image above).
Although the images are only “concepts”, the pictures do provide a sense of how the campus might unfold: For example, that linear water feature shown at the center of the campus aligns with an existing drainage ditch on the property, and the 3 long, low structures in the foreground are good candidates for parking garages, which will be needed regardless of the new institution’s yet-to-be-decided purpose.
Existing residential communities and industrial parks are here rendered as sparsely-treed fields — the boundary of the land slated for purchase by UT currently houses several apartment complexes on the north side and the Orkin Industrial Surplus facility to the south.
But another conceptual rendering (this one looking northwest across Holmes Rd. towards the distant Williams Tower) shows the campus in place amongst some of its eclectic neighbors:
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Welcome to the neighborhood
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOME IS WHERE THE CHEMICAL WASTE IS “I lived there from 1984-1990, from 2nd to 7th grade. I remember there being a ton of empty houses by the end. They never finished the neighborhood either, given that the problems occurred and people knew about it by the end. You’d have entire streets with 4 or 5 houses on it. My friends and I would play baseball, or football in those empty lots. We’d hit baseballs through windows of abandoned homes, and it’d be a dare to ‘go into that ghost house’ to get the ball back.
I remember going back in 1993 or so, and the entire place was empty, boarded up. It was sad. My dad and I hopped the fence and walked back to where our house was. We were there for about 5 minutes when the police came and wanted to know what the hell we were doing. Apparently, it’d become a place for squatters.
By 1995 the entire neighborhood was bulldozed to the ground. Now just an empty field. Yes, my dad lost a ton on that house. But we were part of that settlement that is mentioned. Paid for a small portion of my college, will pay for a tiny portion of my kids’ college. We were lucky in that I didn’t have any defects (that I know of), and my sister seems alright as well, though she had severe migraines at the time. It was a weird situation, especially for a 7-12 year old. But, I didn’t know it was ‘odd’ at the time. I just thought that it was cool, that I could break a window, or climb into a back yard to get a ball back, at a house that sat empty for 4 years. I thought it was ‘normal.’” [Matt, commenting on My Toxic Houston Childhood] Illustration: Lulu
Signs have gone up around the former metal foundry site at 3617 Baer St. in the Fifth Ward indicating that a hearing is scheduled for this Thursday to get city approval for the latest rejiggering of homesites on the 35-acre tract. Developer Frank Liu of Lovett Homes, InTown Homes, and a few other local builder brands plans to put a total of 538 homes (down from 589) on the EPA-monitored property, known as the MDI Superfund Site after the last owner of the metal-casting operations, Many Diversified Interests, which shut down in the early 1990s (previously, the plants were owned by TESCO). The property, which lies just south of I-10 about 2 miles of east of downtown, was listed on the EPA’s list of priority Superfund sites in 1999, after tests showed the soil and groundwater was contaminated with lead and other hazardous metals.
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Inspired by reading René Steinke’s new and recently optioned-for-film novel Friendswood, the plot of which centers on the aftermath of the Brio Superfund mess just south of I-45 and the Beltway, Cite magazine’s Allyn West returns to the former chemical waste facility at Dixie Farm Rd. and Beamer Rd. to snap some photos and have a look around: “The first thing you pass is a landfill. And then, incongruously, you pass archetypal subdivisions with bucolic names, much like Southbend must have been. There’s a dedicated bike lane on both sides of Dixie Farm, clearly marked and freshly painted. Then turning toward the site onto Blackhawk Boulevard, you pass Ashley Pointe, a new subdivision. That morning, I saw construction workers milling about around unfinished stick frames. If Southbend still existed, Ashley Pointe would sit right next to it.”
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SOME REAL-LIFE OCCUPANTS FOR GALVESTON’S LONG-ABANDONED BREWERY? The endangered historic Falstaff Brewery that once harbored a bunch of scared architecture students in a horror flick might become a real refuge for Galvestonians looking for cheap housing — or so Culturemap’s Tyler Rudick seems to think, divining a hint about Dallas developer Matthews Southwest’s plans for the property from the very title of the rep he interviews: “Company officials are unable to reveal the full details until a purchase is finalized,” cautions Rudick. “But [we] spoke with current project leader Scott Galbraith, whose position as Matthews Southwest’s vice president of affordable income development suggests the company’s larger plans for the complex.” Perhaps, but Galbraith is also quick to point out that Matthews Southwest is keeping its options open while studying the site; previous environmental investigations have found plenty of asbestos in the 313,000-sq.-ft. building and soil contamination around it. [Culturemap; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Candace Garcia
SMELT ON THE BANKS OF THE HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL Included in USA Today‘s national list of “ghost factories” — forgotten lead smelting sites that have left behind toxic particles in the nearby soil — is the Lead Products Co. site at 709 N. Velasco St., just south of the Ship Channel a mile and a half east of Downtown. The TCEQ tells the newspaper that the site was a secondary lead smelter until 1968: “Contamination at the site is being addressed under a voluntary cleanup program and has focused on the disposal of lead battery casings at the site and on the adjoining KQXT transmitter property, the state said. Cleanup actions have included construction and placement of an earthen cap. Groundwater contamination also has been investigated, the state said.” Helpfully, Lead Products Co. has a “ghost” website to go along with its “ghost” factory. [USA Today] Photo of adjacent Cary St. play area: Lead Products Co.
Start with a few architecture students on some kind of field trip with their professor. Throw in a “freak storm.” Then trap everyone — along with a “chaperone” — inside a massive and spooky abandoned building. What do you get? The setup for Hellstorm, a new horror movie from local producers Epiphany Filmwerks.
Epiphany promises its filming location, Galveston’s long-abandoned and rotting Falstaff Brewery, will be “one of the main characters in the movie.” That’s where the young cast of pouty screamers will, of course, “encounter something much more terrifying than the storm itself.” What could that be?
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A little more detail on that other Walmart headed for I-10, from Memorial Examiner reporter Rusty Graham: Construction will begin within a couple of months on the 185,000 sq. ft. Supercenter just north of the Marq*E Entertainment Center, on the remaining 23 acres of the former Cameron Iron Works plant. The company has quietly owned a portion of the TCEQ remediation site, which features soil and groundwater rich in cleaning solvents, since 2008. (“Most of the soil at the site has now been cleaned to meet residential standards,” Cooper Cameron claims.) Six of 7 surrounding pad sites will line Silber Rd. The Walmart itself will form a scenic backdrop to an expansive 880-space parking lot:
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Playing around with a super-fun online tool that lets you superimpose the blobbish outline of the 2500-sq.-mile (and growing!) Gulf of Mexico oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon offshore-rig disaster onto various cities, Houstonist editor Marc Brubaker tries it on Houston — for size.
“It’s almost creepy how the slick follows I-10 out to Beaumont,” he comments. Of course, Brubaker should have nudged the oily blob a bit more to the east. Sure, he might have lost a few of those shiny exploration-company offices that have fled to the western stretches of Katy that way, but you’d be picking up lots of fun storage tanks and chug-chugging industrial plants at the northern reaches of Galveston Bay, and you’d get better coverage of Texas City, too.
Oh — but the outline is only up to date as of May 6th? Maybe we’ve got full coverage by now, then!
COMMENT OF THE DAY: CLEAR LAKE CITY CLEANS UP NICELY “Is there a discount [for homes near chemical plants]? Hell yes! And it’s for lots of reasons: 1) real or perceived pollution, 2) real or perceived high crime, 3) low elevations, 4) higher property insurance rates, 5) fewer nearby white collar jobs, and 6) living there indicates to snobs that you’ve got a low social status.
Most of the discount is unwarranted, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at Clear Lake City; parts of it are only about 1.5 miles from the nearest chemical plants. It was developed upon depleted oil fields and is adjacent to still-active fields. (It was developed by a subsidiary of Exxon!) It’s adjacent to an airport. It has a low elevation. But all that stuff is out of sight, out of mind, and so there’s no stigma.” [TheNiche, commenting on House Shopping in the Chemical Discount Zones: Finding Houston’s Less-Toxic Neighborhoods]
HOUSE SHOPPING IN THE CHEMICAL DISCOUNT ZONES: FINDING HOUSTON’S LESS-TOXIC NEIGHBORHOODS “A commenter on your blog who says he works at a chemical plant recently wrote that a neighborhood 1 mile from a chemical plant ‘is never going to be an “OK” neighborhood.’ Is there a single citywide map that shows where all these plants are, so I can find a place to live accordingly? And how far do I have to be from a chemical plant to be ‘OK’? 5 miles? 20? I presume there’s no absolute answer. But there’s got to be a de facto ‘discount’ on homes in neighborhoods that are within certain radiuses of the toxic stuff, right? If so, how far do the discount zones extend? Could someone draw that map for me?” [Swamplot inbox]
HOW TO PREPARE SAN JAC RIVER STEW What’s the local recipe for that San Jacinto River fishin’ favorite, toxic redfish? “The dioxins come from submerged waste pits north of the Interstate 10 bridge.
McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., which is no longer in business, owned and operated the pits in the 1960s, filling a 20-acre site on dry land with waste from a now-closed paper mill near the Washburn Tunnel.
In the bleaching process, paper mills generated large amounts of dioxins, a family of compounds so toxic that scientists measure them in trillionths of a gram. The EPA says there is no safe level of exposure to the chemicals, which are known to cause cancer and disrupt immune and reproductive systems.
The San Jacinto River began to run through the waste pits by the early 1970s because of subsidence — the sinking of soft soils as water is pumped from underground.
With the McGinnes pits under water, the dioxins spread into the river and worked their way through the ecosystem, becoming more concentrated at each step in the food chain.
For more than a decade, the Texas Department of Health has warned that fish and crab caught along this stretch of water, north of the Lynchburg Ferry, are tainted with cancer-causing dioxin, pesticides and PCBs. . . .
In July, the EPA identified the International Paper Co. and McGinnes, which became part of Waste Management through a series of mergers and acquisitions, as the firms responsible for the dioxins problem.
Under the Superfund law, the two companies will be required to evaluate and clean up the contamination. They paid about $65,000 for the fencing and roughly 50 warning signs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, a McGinnes spokesman said.” [Houston Chronicle]
Here’s a view from a Seabrook resident’s home this morning, looking across the way to the American Acryl acrylic-acid plant at 11600 Port Rd. off Old Texas 146, less than a mile east of the newer Hwy. 146. A loud chemical explosion is certainly a lot to get excited about in the morning, but people in the area may just want to go back to bed:
Area residents were asked to shelter in place after the blast, but that recommendation was lifted by 11 a.m. Officials said the blast involved toluene, a toxic substance that can cause nausea and tiredness in low to moderate levels.
However, in a recorded message company said the explosion did not cause a release of the chemical.
Update: From NASA engineer Jim Thompson, here’s a collaborative map showing the observations of people nearby, including a photo of the blast as seen from the Johnson Space Center.
Photo: Twitpic user nelagster
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE UNCHARTED INNER LOOP “. . . you really haven’t got a clue if you think that suburban soil toxicity is a good reason to live inside the loop. The oldest parts of the city experienced the longest duration of industrial activity prior even to the creation of the EPA, much less even an understanding of what chemical agents were toxic. Check out the EPA’s EnviroMapper applet for an account of all known toxic waste sites (you’ll be amazed at the number), and even then bear in mind that that information is far from complete because there’s no telling what kind of crud was being mindlessly dumped on bare earth way back when and never reported. The Inner Loop isn’t supplied with well water anymore, so the toxic soils below us fortunately aren’t much of a problem…but that redeeming characteristic is shared by most of the City of Houston. The municipal water supply certainly doesn’t just abruptly stop all at once at the 610 Loop.” [TheNiche, commenting on My Toxic Houston Childhood]