Is toxic water making neighbors sick?

Lawsuit claims contaminated river flooded east Harris County neighborhood

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Imagine living next to a toxic dumping ground for decades and you never knew it. Local 2 Investigates discovered that's what happened in an east Harris County neighborhood less than half a mile from an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

"It makes you angry," said Jennifer Harpster, a homeowner. "We never got a knock at the door saying, 'Hey we just wanted to let you know there's a dioxin dumpsite just down the road.'"

That dumpsite is called the San Jacinto Waste Pits -- a highly contaminated portion of the San Jacinto River running right under I-10 East. Large signs now warn people to stay out and to not eat fish caught in the area. The EPA placed the area on its National Priorities List in 2008.

Yet for almost 40 years, Jennifer Harpster and her husband, Jim, have lived right next door and said they were never told a thing.

"You think, 'Oh my gosh, I let the kids go down there and play in the river,'" Jennifer Harpster said.

"You worry about your kids and your wife and the people around you," said Jim Harpster.

The Harpsters now know dioxin, a highly-toxic chemical, is in the river. During storms like Hurricane Ike, the river flooded west into their entire neighborhood -- including in and around their home.

"The two waters (San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay) come together and where does it go? Right in our neighborhood," said Jim Harpster. "It can get 5 to 6 to even 10 feet deep. Then, you see a lot of weird stuff."

The Harpsters said after the floods, trees would die and grass would turn brown.

Knowing what they know now, they're worried about something much more. They're concerned their children's skin rashes, along with thyroid problems, could be linked to the contaminated river. At least 35 others in their neighborhood have similar concerns. They believe the tainted water may explain what they say are high concentrations of cancer, tumors, kidney disease and other ailments among them.

World War II veteran Jarold Frautschi has lived in the neighborhood for more than 35 years. He now battles breathing problems and cancer.

"I never thought anything in the world about it, until we heard about this," Frautschi said.

Others in the neighborhood have severe cases of chloracne, a skin disorder directly linked to dioxin.

"More testing needs to be done in regard to people who live in the area," said Dale Trimble, an attorney representing the neighborhood group. "They have been ignored."

The neighbors are now suing the companies they said are to blame for dumping the dioxin. A lawsuit filed by Trimble claims the toxic waste came from the Champion Paper mill in Pasadena in the 1960s. The lawsuit claims a group called McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation dumped the waste into pits near the river and eventually abandoned them. The suit also claims the toxic chemicals were allowed to seep into the river and the neighborhood for 40 years and counting.

"No one has been forthcoming to the neighbors about how it affects them," Trimble said.

The EPA project manager overseeing the San Jacinto Waste Pit Superfund site told Local 2 Investigates workers have capped the leaking waste pits and that soil tests in five spots in the neighborhood last year found no dangerous levels of dioxin.

But Jennifer Harpster is not convinced and worries about all the other years when no testing was done.

"It's not safe for people to be living here," Jennifer Harpster said. "Let's recognize that fact and let's fix it."

Beyond the possibility of serious health problems for people who live in the area, neighbors said there is also a financial strain of living near the Superfund site.

"In all good conscience, I could not sell my house up to someone else, knowing what's right down the street," Jennifer Harpster said. "We would not have moved here if we had known they were dumping dioxins right down the street from us."

International Paper and Waste Management are also named in the lawsuit. International Paper acquired Champion Paper in 2000. Waste Management eventually acquired McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation (MIMC).

International Paper issued the following statement regarding the lawsuit:

"We are aware of the lawsuit, which relates to a facility that was never owned or operated by International Paper. Champion Papers, which was acquired by International Paper in 2000, lawfully disposed of material at the site in the mid 1960s. International Paper, together with the other named corporations, is cooperating fully with the EPA to address the site."

Waste Management issued the following statement regarding the lawsuit:

"Neither Waste Management nor MIMC has been formally served with this lawsuit, so it is not possible to discuss as yet.

"MIMC is a corporation that no longer operates but more than four decades ago contracted with a nearby paper mill to dispose of paper mill waste for a period of nine months at the San Jacinto River site. Waste Management was not affiliated with MIMC during that period, never operated MIMC, never owned the San Jacinto River Waste Site property and was never involved in disposal there.

"Disposal operations that occurred at the San Jacinto River Waste pits historically - dating back to the mid-1960s - took place according to disposal practices common during that period and were conducted under appropriate governmental supervision at the time.

"Major remediation efforts at the site are currently under way via the U.S. EPA's Superfund process."

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