This Harris County Superfund site is ‘vulnerable’ to flooding

French Limited capped decades ago, but Crosby-area neighbors worried it’s not enough

HOUSTON – A 55-acre Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site near Crosby, where an estimated 90 million gallons of industrial waste was dumped between 1966 and 1972, has flooded repeatedly in the last five years, and neighbors are worried the chemicals are migrating away from the site.

There is no definitive evidence that is the case, but a 2017 EPA report showed that there was evidence that some “chemicals of concern” had gotten through a barrier containment wall within the property.

NBC News, the Texas Observer, and have partnered for an extensive investigation into the role climate change is playing with Superfund sites across the U.S.

“The prediction with climate change is that our storms will get bigger, we’ll see these huge rainfalls more and more often and it will affect these Superfund sites,” said professor Jim Blackburn, of Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Blackburn is an environmental lawyer by trade. He is convinced the EPA needs to revisit Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding, hurricanes and sea-level rise because these symptoms of climate change were never figured into Superfund site remediation plans.

“We just weren’t looking at these factors in the past," Blackburn said. “We’ve got to go back and re-evaluate these sites, in my opinion.”

In 2014, a regional EPA report noted: “Engineered caps may no longer be protective of human health and the environment if climate changes result in frequent, massive flooding ...”

The EPA’s most recent strategic plan, released in February 2018, makes no mention of climate change in the entire 51-page report.

The shift appears to be in lockstep with the change in presidential administrations.

MAP: Superfund sites in Houston area (courtesy: NBC News)

“All of that overflows and it comes all over the properties,” said John Barrett.

Barrett’s family has owned the same farm property on the opposite side of Highway 90 from French Limited since the 1870s. The town of Barrett is named after his grandfather, who settled the area shortly after emancipation. He said he is now concerned about the fate of the property for future generations of the family.

The joint investigation by NBC News, The Texas Observer and identified a dozen Superfund sites within the Houston Metropolitan area that are especially vulnerable to climate change.

Many of these Superfund sites are in working-class and industrial communities.

MAP: Superfund sites that are vulnerable to natural disasters (courtesy: NBC News)

EPA’s response

Joseph Hubbard, spokesman for EPA’s Region 6 released the following statement about the French Limited Superfund site:

Groundwater migration

The selected remedy considered the extent of groundwater contamination. The French Limited Task Group (FLTG) conducts annual groundwater monitoring to ensure that the groundwater is not migrating from the site and the results are consistent with previous sampling results. Samples from 2019, show that groundwater contamination is within a few thousand feet of the site and not migrating away from the site.

Surface water runoff

In 1995, the lagoon remediation was completed and since there has been no issues of aboveground contaminated sources or overflows of contaminants from the site.

Plan for major flooding events

The site has had a history of flooding; however, the site plans and selected remedy take those challenges into account. EPA evaluates the protectiveness of the remedy every five years and adjusts to site conditions as appropriate. Additionally, before any major-natural event such as tropical storms, hurricanes or flooding, EPA works with the FLTG to ensure the site is secure. Once the event has passed EPA works with the FLTG to assess site conditions. Reports are published on EPA’s website; this is done for all NPL sites.

In Sept. 2019, during a Tropical Storm Imelda flooding event, FLTG identified an inundation of monitoring wells and infiltration of flood water into the wells due to the well caps becoming loose or displaced. FLTG addressed the issues by purging the monitoring wells three times before sampling them for groundwater.

Congressman responds

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, who represents the district in which Crosby is situated, released the following statement about this story:

“It’s quite apparent that we’re experiencing climate change. I’m not familiar with this particular superfund site, but I have requested a briefing on it by the EPA.”

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