Superfund Site Still Dirty After 30 Years
By Dave Fehling, StateImpact Texas
A 12-acre field just off Interstate 45 just before the causeway to Galveston Island was once deemed among the worst threats to human health in Texas. It took a federal program to clean it up, and the work isn’t finished even after 30 years.
Between the chain-link fence surrounding the site and the road is one of those stone markers, like you might find outside an historic home or battlefield. But this marker identifies this land as a federal Superfund site. In 1982, the Environmental Protection Agency ranked it as the most hazardous chemical waste site in Texas.
There are dozens of the wells on and around the site. Some allow the EPA to track an underground plume of pollution to see if it’s moving. Others are pumping out polluted groundwater and sending it to a treatment plant on the site. It’s a process that could go on for years.
How’d it get this way?
Back in the 1960s, private companies had state permits to dump millions of gallons of toxic petrochemical wastes into pits. The pits were simply dug out of the earth and not lined with anything. It stank so bad that the nearby city of La Marque got it shut down in 1968.
“I remember that now, in high school, that was a lot of the talk, ‘Well, it’s because of that Superfund,’” one resident said. “I don’t know if we used the word Superfund, but we knew it was a toxic site.”
Just across the freeway from the site are housing developments where about 3,000 people live, including one resident named Terry. He moved to the area as an adult and bought a house here without knowing it was across the street from a Superfund site.
“To me, I’m not thinking about it being close by,” Terry said. “I just didn’t really snap at the time.”
The EPA would not make anyone available for us to interview. But in one old government report we reviewed, it said an EPA investigation in 1984 found small amounts of contamination in a “potential drinking water aquifer” directly below the site.
In a new report published just this March, the EPA said underground contamination has now migrated 300 feet off the property.
But the report said the nearest drinking water well is 2,200 feet from the site. The new report says the EPA considers the migration of the pollution and the potential for human exposure to be “under control” but needing more monitoring.
Officially, the site is called the MOTCO Superfund site, named after a Minnesota company that once owned it.
It’s just one of 155 such sites across Texas now managed by both federal and state agencies. Many are like MOTCO: dump sites once run by small companies decades ago, companies that often went bankrupt, leaving the government to clean up the sites and try to collect money from those responsible.
Tracy Hester is a law professor at the University of Houston and has represented companies involved in the MOTCO site.
“Some of these sites were clearly being operated irresponsibly,” Hester said. “Some of them actually have led to subsequent criminal enforcement activity, but many others were operating legally, and using standards that, at the time, may not have been preferred but would have nonetheless been legal.”
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980. Many of the sites have been substantially cleaned up. But as with the MOTCO site, some remain a potential threat to the people who live near them.