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GALVESTON, Texas (FOX 26) – It has been more than a year since FOX 26 News revealed what some now call “the most thoroughly toxic strip of land on the Texas Gulf Coast.”
Blocked from public view by a levee, just feet from the Intracoastal Waterway and Galveston Bay, a string of giant sludge pits, most more than a half century old, each filled to the brim with waste no living thing should ever touch.
“Right now as I am doing this interview, my kidneys are one point away from failure,” said Jennifer Guy, a Hitchcock resident and critic of the pits. “I am sterile and I am legally blind.”
For all of her 39 years, Guy has lived within a few miles of the McGinnis pits and she’s convinced the toxins stored there have destroyed her health.
“They needed to dispose of all the waste from the Houston Ship Channel and there was no other place to put it,” described Guy. “That was their argument. There was no other place to put it.”
Waste from the ship channel, much of it from paper mills, was first treated, then barged across West Bay to Halls Bayou and offloaded at a very private toxic dump.
For decades, McGinnis Industrial Waste Maintenance, a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management, claimed the sludge was no threat to humans or the environment.
But 2009 laboratory test results, uncovered from state records by FOX 26, tell a much different story.
The results reveal dangerous, potentially deadly levels of cancer causing Dioxin in the compartments closest to the Intracoastal Waterway — toxicity levels greater than those at the notorious San Jacinto River Waste Pits.
For Jennifer Guy and her now-departed mother Caroline, the alarming scientific evidence has validated their years of lonely activism.
“I think the McGinnis Pits of Hitchcock is probably the most polluted place in the state of Texas,” said Guy.
It turns out that every ounce of toxic waste dumped near Galveston Bay at the the McGinnis pits not only had government approval, it was actually funded by the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority.
Established by the Texas legislature in 1969, the GCA is overseen by a board of directors, some appointed by Harris, Chambers and Galveston counties, others by local mayors.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority’s primary mission was treating industrial waste and then getting rid of it.
Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn helped lead a successful fight to get the McGinnis pits closed to more dumping in 1992.
“This is what legacy pollution is all about,” said Blackburn. “This, you might say, has more governmental complicity, than the San Jacinto pits ever did.”
FOX 26 has obtained copies of the original contracts between the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation.
The deal, which spanned more than two decades, allowed the authority to ship 56,000 cubic yards of sludge each and every month and dump the waste in pits near the bay.
The contract also contains a critical provision on page 11 which reads “GCA represents to MIMC that the sludge generated at the Washburn Tunnel Facility and disposed of by MIMC is not and will not be inherently harmful, dangerous or hazardous.”
“I find it incredibly offensive that somebody would tell me this stuff was harmless when they knew it wasn’t,” said Mike Martin, a former state representative. Martin is deeply involved in the fight to stop dumping at the pits.
FOX 26 now knows that much of the sludge GCA represented as safe was not.
In addition to alarming levels of Dioxin, scientists have also detected a laundry list of deadly pollutants including lead, chromium, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, phenol and arsenic.
And it’s all still there, all except what may have been washed out over a half century of storms and floods, most recently during Hurricane Harvey.
Jackie Young of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance said that what we don’t know about the McGinnis pits should worry everyone.
“We have highly-toxic waste on one of our most precious waterways,” said Young.
“We’re talking about neurotoxins, carcinogens, things that we know are unsafe at very low levels,” added Young. “Today we know that a few of the 32 pits contain extremely high levels of Dioxin and furons and I don’t believe the due diligence has been done on this site. From all the materials I have reviewed, it looks like the ball has been dropped.”
Declining our invitation to discuss the issue on camera, the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority instead issued a statement that said the sludge disposal was legal, the dump permanently closed and the waste safely contained.
“We take the health and safety of our community seriously and we work tirelessly to ensure our standards and practices meet or exceed strict environmental health and safety requirements,” said the authority in its statement.
For its part, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it has inspected the site and is confident the tons of waste stored there pose no threat to human health or Galveston Bay.
They are official assurances that Jennifer Guy flatly rejects.
“I don’t think anybody should fish or eat a fish out of Galveston Bay,” said Guy.
A review of documents obtained from TCEQ confirms that the operators of McGinnis Pits have legally released millions of gallons of treated effluent from the dump into the Galveston Bay system. State regulators have consistently claimed the release is safe.