Hurricane Harvey: EPA Finds Damage to Sites After Slamming AP Reporter for Toxic Waste Story

After criticizing an AP report, EPA finds damage and leak at a toxic waste site caused by Hurricane Harvey 

The Environmental Protection Agency, which slammed an Associated Press (AP) reporter's story on flooded Houston-area Superfund toxic waste sites as "yellow journalism" after Hurricane Harvey, now admits the dangerous spills occurred.

On Thursday, the EPA said it found damage and toxic material exposed at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, one of seven Superfund locations AP writer Michael Biesecker revealed was covered by floodwaters, in a report the agency had derided.

Samples showed dioxins at 70,000 nanograms per kilogram – more than 2,333 times the level that calls for a cleanup, according to the EPA. Superfund sites have been designated by the agency as some of the most contaminated places in the U.S., and homes sit blocks away from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

The EPA on Thursday said initial repairs had already been done at the damaged area where a protective rock was missing and ordered the International Paper and Industrial Maintenance Corporation to conduct supplemental sampling to ensure that the exposed waste material was isolated. The dioxin in the waste material does not dissolve easily in water but can migrate to surrounding sediments.

The announcement came 24 days after the agency accused Biesecker of an “incredibly misleading story” on the flooded sites. The reporter wrote about the toxic waste sites on September 3. 

EPA associate administrator Liz Bowman in a statement said that “the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts, as EPA is monitoring Superfund sites around Houston and we have a team of experts on the ground working with our state and local counterparts responding to Hurricane Harvey. Anything to the contrary is yellow journalism.”

Hours after the AP published its first story, EPA said its officials had reviewed aerial imagery confirming that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas had been flooded by Hurricane Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage.” Biesecker and co-author Jason Dearen used that as confirmation that the EPA had not yet physically visited the sites, whereas they as journalists went there by boat, vehicle and foot.

Nearly one-third of the reporters' story focused on the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, which they observed “was completely covered with floodwaters.” They added that “the flow from the raging river washing over the toxic site was so intense...”

“There was no way to immediately assess how much contaminated soil from the site might have been washed away. According to an EPA survey from last year, soil from the former waste pits contains dioxins and other long-lasting toxins linked to birth defects and cancer,” they wrote.

An EPA spokesperson told Newsweek in an email Friday that samples were taken, damage to the cap was addressed on September 15 and preliminary data was received in about two weeks, which showed damage to the cap had occurred.

"This watershed has been exposed to dioxin since before the hurricane, and a ban on fishing and consumption of fish has been in place at the site," the agency spokesperson said.

It is the second Superfund site where the EPA has found evidence of spills after the AP story. The first seepage discovery happened September 19 at U.S. Oil Recovery, a former petroleum industry waste processing plant contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.

"Our reporting speaks for itself," AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton told Newsweek in an email Friday.

The EPA said it will commission more visual dive operations to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits to check for displacement in the stone cover of the protective cap and more fully evaluate it for Hurricane Harvey damage, “if necessary.”

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