Flooded toxic dumps pose threat to Texas communities hit by Harvey

People in a Texas community that borders dumping grounds for hazardous waste fear flooding by tropical storm Harvey could affect their water supply and livelihoods.

'I'm kind of concerned ... we have a water well, we use it for the animals, we bathe with it'

Toxic sites hit by Harvey threaten Texans

6 years ago
Duration 2:11
The flooding caused by Harvey has impacted sites in Texas where the Environmental Protection Agency has previously cleaned up hazardous chemicals, adding another potential danger to the thousands of returning Texans

For 10 years, Elizabeth Victorio has lived in a small community on the outskirts of Crosby, about 45 kilometres northeast of Houston. All that time, she had no idea she was living between two former toxic waste dumps — both of which were flooded by tropical storm Harvey

"I'm kind of concerned a little bit," said the 18-year-old. "We have a water well, we use it for the animals, we bathe with it." 

Victorio, her mother and her sisters live alongside several other families in a collection of recreational vehicles and makeshift shelters. 

Many people only speak Spanish. They keep goats, chickens and even horses. 

Almost everything in a community on the outskirts of Crosby, Texas, was destroyed by tropical storm Harvey. The collection of recreational vehicles and makeshift shelters borders toxic dumping sites, which were flooded. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

Almost everything was destroyed in the storm. A truck and a car were caught in a large sinkhole full of brown, murky water. 

One of the trailers Victorio shared with her mother and sisters washed right across the street, collapsing on its side. 

"There's nothing left," she said. "The water took everything."

Dozens of Superfund sites across Texas

The community is bordered by Sikes Disposal Pits, an illegal dumping ground for hazardous waste in the 1960s, and French Ltd., another disposal site.

Both are what's known as Superfund sites: polluted and hazardous places the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with cleaning up.

There's nothing left. The water took everything,' says Elizabeth Victorio, surveying the damage caused by Harvey. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

There are dozens of similar sites in Texas, 13 of them flooded so badly that inspectors were unable to immediately reach them — although they did do aerial surveillance.

After The Associated Press reported on the flooded sites, the agency put out an especially defensive statement with strong language for a government organization. 

It said the reporter "had the audacity to imply that agencies aren't being responsive to the divesting effects of Hurricane Harvey. Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and policizes that hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area." 

The role of the EPA is politically divisive. It's now headed by Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma's attorney general fought against the agency's regulations.

U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget would see funding for Superfund sites slashed by 30 per cent, although it's unlikely Congress would agree to it. 

Some not worried about pollution

On Sunday, when a CBC crew approached another Superfund site in Highlands, Texas, the force of the water had blown off the locks, leaving the gate open. 

Chuck Ganz owns the property next door. He called the EPA to tell them the gate needs to be fixed. 

"I'd like to keep everyone out, but because they're not supposed to be out on it." he said.

Chuck Ganz isn't worried about pollution, saying he has seen regular monitoring reports from the EPA and everything looks safe. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

Ganz isn't worried about pollution. He says he has seen regular monitoring reports from the EPA, and everything looks safe. He doesn't think the flood will change that. 

Besides, he says: "We got a couple of alligators around here — if it's good enough for them, I guess it's good enough for us." 

And for some Texans, that's safety enough. 


Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior reporter

Lyndsay Duncombe is a senior reporter with CBC national news, based in Vancouver. She's been at CBC for more than two decades, with postings in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Winnipeg and in her home province of Saskatchewan.