“Liberty County residents need to be prepared for a long fight.” That was the advice of former Liberty Mayor Sandy Pickett on Friday, March 19, as she appeared before commissioners court regarding a proposed dump site in Devers for dredged materials from the San Jacinto River.
Pickett likened the fight Liberty County now faces to one 40 years ago when Pickett and a group of Liberty County residents teamed up to challenge plans for three toxic waste dumps. The citizens formed People Against a Contaminated Environment (PACE) to raise awareness and funds needed to fight the companies hoping to dump the materials in Liberty County.
“It’s important for the people of Liberty County to rally and fight against this. It has the potential of being very dangerous. It has not been identified as hazardous waste, but we know it’s very close to a Superfund site and we know the flood conditions around the San Jacinto River,” Pickett said. “I want to applaud the commissioners and the media for getting a jump start on this. You may have to be organized for a long time to fight these folks.”
Over the span of 10 years, PACE volunteers rallied against plans to dump the hazardous waste in Liberty County, Pickett said.
“We were ultimately successful. We spent 40 days in this very courtroom fighting that battle,” said Pickett, referring to County Court at Law No. 1. “We had the case transferred to Liberty County so the people could come here and be a part of it. Forty days. It was the longest hearing in the history of the Texas Air Control Board. That agency no longer exists. It will be a fight. I just hope you keep up the good work and keep the flag flying.”
Just one week ago, Liberty County residents first learned that a Harris County company, Holtmar Land LLC, is seeking approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dump approximately 405,000 cubic feet of material taken from a 2.5-acre section of the San Jacinto River and redistribute it to a 5-acre tract of land just north of Devers in east Liberty County. The dredged spoil is near an area known as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, which was deemed a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency because it contains dioxins, a group of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer.
Devers Mayor Steve Horelica was among the first Liberty County residents to be alerted to the company’s plans. He then sought help from local media, which shared calls to action from county leaders as an important deadline to protest loomed on Friday, March 19. Without letters of opposition submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers from the community, the company might have been granted a letter for permission from the USACE. County officials are hoping that the opposition from county residents will trigger a full environmental study to determine how the company plans to safeguard the Devers community, particularly its water sources used for humans, crops, ranches and wildlife.
“My understanding at this point is there are two paths of permit applications with the Army Corps of Engineers on something like this. One involves a full environmental study and one does not. The path that this one is one appears to be the shorter path where the company says, ‘Hey, we don’t think there will be any problems or any public opposition. We can just do this.’ That is the kind of representation that is being made,” said County Attorney Matthew Poston. “I want to thank Commissioners Court and members of the public who are raising this matter and contacting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
County Judge Jay Knight chafed at the idea that County officials had any knowledge of this beforehand.
“We got notification pretty late and everyone rallied. Thank you all for doing so. It’s called teamwork. I am quite certain that a number of letters of opposition have been sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. We will await their findings,” said Knight, before reading a proposed resolution in opposition to the dump site to the three commissioners in attendance – Pct. 1 Commissioner Bruce Karbowski, Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur (by phone) and Pct. 4 Commissioner Leon Wilson (through Zoom). Pct. 3 Commissioner David Whitmire was not in attendance.
As the process of filing for a letter of permit to dump these materials only requires contiguous landowners to be notified, Knight said it is imperative that Liberty County residents know their neighbors and pay attention to properties when they are sold.
“Not any commissioner nor myself received notice until we raised an issue. Once again, I don’t want to get on my soapbox, but I am. Watch land transfers in your area. If someone sells a property, know them and find out what they are going to do with it. I can just imagine that most of the property that is contiguous to this site are absentee landowners or a hunting club,” he said.
Judge Knight said he wants answers about how the company plans to mitigate run-off from a cleared and graded site, if there will be a berm to contain the dredge spoil and how the off-site run-off will be managed.
Prior to voting in favor of the resolution, a drone video of the Devers property was played to commissioners and the audience. Pct. 2 Deputy Constable John Tucker shot the video with the help of Pct. 1 Commissioner Karbowski. The video was captured shortly after a storm dropped a modest amount of rain on the site. The video showed that the property and areas around it hold a significant amount of water, both on the land and in ditches, partly due to its soil type – East Texas black gumbo, which is a heavy clay soil that doesn’t drain quickly like sandy loam.
Donna Zecca, a resident of LaPorte in Harris County, is concerned about chemicals that may leech into neighboring properties. She and her husband just purchased a 72-acre tract that she says is adjacent to the Holtmar Land LLC property and are hoping to relocate to Liberty County in the future.
“There is no way to get water to our property except for through a well. There is no way that it’s not going to get into the groundwater,” said told Bluebonnet News after the meeting.
In public comments during the meeting, Zecca said the dredge materials were a “Harris County problem and Harris County needs to take care of it.”
“There is too much wildlife and too much at stake to have toxicity here. There is standing water out there all the time. At some point, it will leach into the water system and that is not okay,” she said.
Dredging company says testing shows only trace amounts of dioxins
In response to Bluebonnet News’ request for comment, Thomas P. Marian, general counsel and partner of Holtmar Land LLC, issued a statement to explain why the Devers site was chosen and what steps the company is taking to prevent the dredged soil from impacting other properties.
“This site was deemed suitable to receive the dredged material because it is remote, does not flood regularly, and there are no adjacent wetlands. It also is in an isolated area away from schools, hospitals, parks, and residential areas; an important consideration for the safety of the nearby community,” the statement reads.
Holtmar Land LLC says it has completed sediment testing in the proposed dredge location, per the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Regulatory Sampling Procedures for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site.
The findings reported concluded that of the 10 sampling locations on the dredging site, only one had any measurable dioxin present in the sample. While dioxins are known to cause toxicity in animals at a concentration of 100 parts per million (PPM) with daily exposure, the levels in the one detectable sample were 0.0000462 parts per million, more than 2.16 million times below the threshold.
If the site is approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Holtmar Land LLC says it plans to treat all dredged material as if they were contaminated. They plan to do so by using a containment berm and liner to prevent leeching of toxins into the groundwater and by applying a geosynthetic clay liner that is 20 times more impermeable than typical clay liners used in these types of projects. The liner is said to be self-healing around punctures and is less likely to be impacted by freeze-thaw or wet-dry cycles.
“Holtmar Land hired environmental scientists to review its property in Devers for wetlands, floodplain, and streams. Historically, the property has been used as a pine plantation and does not have wetlands located within the proposed dredged material placement area, or DMPA,” the statement reads.