HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – Clean, cool water something we all take for granted.
Jackie Young sure did back when she started modeling, back when she was Miss Houston Rodeo, before she started having problems.
“I was having as many as seven seizures a week. I lost use of my hands a couple different times, typically lasting for a few months,” Young said.
Lesions broke out all over her body and it wasn’t just her. Her father developed a rare form of cancer.
Their animals had strange health problems like their dog’s tumors and kidney stones.
They all lived together at a house in Highlands.
Young was earning a degree in environmental geology, so she decided to test the drinking water from the family’s private well.
“One of the samples I collected, actually, you could see little flakes in it with the human eye. And I was trying to figure out, ‘what’s in this water?’ You know, what is this?” she said.
Their home stood just a short distance away from a site on the San Jacinto River where fences topped with barbed wire now keep people out of a toxic waste dump.
All of this traces back to a couple of old paper plants that used to dump very toxic waste into some pits along the San Jacinto River.
The paper plants closed long ago and the waste pits were pretty much forgotten – until state regulators rediscovered them in 2005 at what is now an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site.
“And they were partially submerged. And that was one of the reasons nobody paid a whole lot of attention,” said Rock Owens, Harris County attorney environmental chief. “The bad thing was they were in an area that was very popular for recreation – recreational fishing, boating, water skiing and all that kind of stuff.”
The Harris County Attorney’s Office is suing three companies it contends are now responsible for the site.
One of them, Waste Management, points out that the EPA concluded a cap placed over the dump site in 2011 is preventing dioxins from seeping into the water.
The company said in a statement, that the EPA’s own tests “confirm that wastes are effectively contained by the cap, dioxins have not migrated to the drinking water.”
The company also says state regulators basically concluded water from private wells was safe.
“And this is Highlands here. And this is the San Jacinto waste pit.”
Young doesn’t buy that. She and her mother put together a map showing where neighbors have developed serious health problems – clusters of everything from cancers to lupus.
She’s now working full-time with Texans Together, an environmental advocacy group. Her work recently caught high-profile attention when the Houston Chronicle ran an editorial cartoon telling her story.
Young still does some modeling, but now the former Miss Houston Rodeo spends most of her time fighting to get the toxic chemicals removed from the site on the San Jacinto.