The Galveston Bay area has official warnings on the consumption of speckled trout in large portions of the ecosystem.
According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants.
“Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and the ability to be absorbed by fat tissues, where they are stored in the body,” WHO said.
According to the EPA, dangerous amounts of dioxin concentrations have been found in samples collected from the submerged portion of the original 1966 waste ponds near the San Jacinto River.
Biologist Scott Jones with the Galveston Bay Foundation said many potential pollutants can run off from land surrounding the bays, but dioxin is the worst.
“Paper mill wastes are a problem because when you bleach paper,” Jones said. “You use chlorine and you end up making dioxin, a persistent organic chemical that has some really bad properties that can cause cancer and a variety of different illnesses. It can cause developmental problems in the unborn or the young. It is known as the worst toxic chemical out there.”
According to Jones, starting in the mid-1960s, barges would dispose paper mill waste into the San Jacinto River at the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site, an area of about 15 acres.
“Not only did we have these open pits that were subject to the waste getting out when it was hit by high river flow from the San Jacinto River,” he said. “Starting in the early ’70s, about half of that pit was going literally into the water. Ultimately, the fish and shrimp and crab and other seafood have been exposed to this dioxin for 50 years now. As a result, dioxins are one of the reasons there are seafood consumption limitations in parts of Galveston Bay.”
“If you’re catching speckled trout, well they’ve been eating smaller fish or they’ve been eating shrimp or other animals that have been eating small animals, and those animals originally were down in the waste eating little organisms and they’re taking in that dioxin,” he said.
After decades of exposure to the waste, aquatic life has inevitably ingested and absorbed dioxin at levels that are dangerous to humans for consumption. Texas Department of State Health Services monitors seafood and administers the seafood advisories. They say the driving factor is the amount of fat in the organisms.
“These types of chemicals reside in the fatty tissue. Animals that have more fat in their tissues are going to have more dioxin or any other toxin,” Jones said. “That’s why not all fish in most of the bay have advisories. That’s why you don’t have redfish listed or flounder listed.”
The source of dioxin was unknown until about a decade ago, according to Jones.
“There had been some anecdotal talk about waste pits,” he said. “Sure enough, in 2005, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) found what looked like a peninsula just north of the I-10 Bridge on the San Jacinto River, and that was the old waste pits.”
TPWD reported it to Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, and then it was reported to the EPA. At that point, the waste pit was added to the superfund list, a list of the most toxic sites.
Multiple organizations are working together to increase the safety of these waters both for people and for aquatic life.
“We have taken a stance and would like to see the EPA push to get the dioxins removed from the waste pit site adjacent to the San Jacinto River,” Advocacy Director for CCA Texas Shane Bonnot said. “The EPA came out with a proposal in September, and their plan is to indeed remove the waste pits from that superfund site and from the San Jacinto River.”
According to Bonnot, the EPA will publish a final ruling that will outline their recommendations for the water cleanup project in early 2017. “We hope the EPA sticks to their guns,” he said. “We do indeed recommend to get the waste pit site removed from the river in the first of next year.
Bonnot said the CCA was told no cleanup projects would be started for another four years. “It’s going to be a couple of years of an administrative process working with the responsible parties on the cleanup site,” he said. “Then there will have to be a design and a plan. So, 2020 is probably the soonest we will see any positive difference in the water, and it could take a little bit longer.”
Until changes begin to happen, the water in the Galveston area is expected to retain its current quality.
“Unless there is some sort of breach in the protective cap that’s covering this waste pit site, the water conditions are going to stay the same,” Bonnot said in a recent CCA podcast.
“But if there is a severe storm and we get a lot of flooding- and there is always a potential for some sort of environmental event that could damage that cap,” he said. “Or if a barge running up the river runs into it, that of course potentially allows the dioxins and sediments to wash downstream.”
Bonnot admits the waters will never return to the quality they were before the toxins from the waste pit seeped into the San Jacinto River.
“In 2007, the river widened and some of the sediments that were in the waste pits washed down the river—that’s going to be in the river for the next several hundred years,” he said. “There is no way to recapture that. That is not going to change, but if we are able to at least remove this waste pit site, we at least prevent any future uncontrolled releases into the river.”
The farther away from the waste pit that aquatic life is caught, the less likely consumption is to be risky, but that is no reason to take the precautions lightly.
“Once this project is done,” Bonnot said. “It will take some time. It may not be in our lifetime- before we see health advisories lifted on speckled trout in that part of Galveston Bay.”
—story by Danielle Sonnier