Growing up, Marta Perez did not think much about the hills near her Galena Park neighborhood. Sometimes she would notice long tubes extending to the gradually growing mounds, but she didn’t know what they were or where they came from. They were just a part of the industrial scenery of Galena Park, a small, primarily Hispanic refinery town surrounded by the City of Houston. 

Today, Perez cannot stop thinking about those hills and what they are made of. 

The Port of Houston, a 52-mile complex along the Houston Ship Channel, has for more than a century scooped up millions of tons of soil and sediment from the bottom of the waterway as it widened and deepened the channel for ever-larger ships traveling between the region’s petrochemical plants and the Gulf of Mexico. The dredged materials then are deposited onto piles in Galena Park, Pleasantville and Channelview on Houston’s east side.

Over the years, six 20-foot high dredged sites have become mounds, then hills, covered in clay and grass and left in the communities. There are two in Galena Park adjacent to each other and another on the way. 

Marta Perez poses for a portrait
Marta Perez poses for a portrait, Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Galena Park. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Perez, 55, who serves as the office coordinator for Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park, has for the last couple years questioned what is in the dredged material. While the Army Corps of Engineers initially tested the sediment in the channel, no federal, state or local agency has tested the dump piles themselves.

Now, the Port of Houston is in the process of expanding the channel again through a six-year effort known as Project 11. The plan is to deepen the channel to 46.5 feet and widen it by 170 feet to accommodate larger vessels. The plan again calls for dumping the newly dredged material in Galena Park and Pleasantville. 

Local and state organizations and residents are asking for more testing of the existing hills and more information about what has been dumped there. The soils and sediments, they say, could include a variety of contaminants, among them dioxins, metals and other toxic, possibly cancer-causing materials.

“We didn’t know what it was growing up,” Perez said. “You know, a lot of people still don’t know, especially in this community, it’s first generation Hispanics. Mothers stay home, fathers are out working all the time. They aren’t always aware of their surroundings. They should know.”

Port Houston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency working on the project, say they have done everything required by law to proceed with the new dredging, including an environmental impact study approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Any further testing would require more funding and time, according to the Corps. 

  • Community members gather for a news conference on the Houston ship channel expansion project
  • Colonel Rhett Blackmon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Panel members Colonel Rhett Blackmon, left, Roger Guenther, center, and Dr. Earthea Nance, right,
  • Community members gather for a press conference to be given by representatives from the Army Corps, Port Houston, and the EPA regarding Project 11 for ship channel expansion
  • Dr. Earthea Nance, the Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 6

Continued expansion

Planning for Project 11 began not long after the previous port expansion – which deepened the ship channel to 45 feet and widened its banks to 530 feet under what was called Project 10 – ended in 2005. 

Almost from its beginning in 1914, the Port of Houston has undergone repeated expansions to accommodate increased shipping traffic as it developed into one of the busiest container ports in the United States. It also has been deepened to accommodate larger ships plying the Gulf.

For residents and environmental advocates, however, that expansion, along with the growth of the petrochemical industry along the Houston Ship Channel, has come at a cost. For years, much of the concern has centered on air pollution and emissions from ship channel refineries and plants.

Now, some residents of those port-adjacent communities are casting a wary eye toward the grass-covered hills that slowly have grown along with them.

Juan Flores, a Galena Park resident, said he used to play with his friends in the wet dredge as a child. These days, he and his daughter sometimes bike around it. 

“Kids are always going over there to play on them, I mean, it’s right by the baseball field,” he said. “Some of that dirt there goes back decades.”

Perez said many residents are unaware of the possibility of contaminants in the hills, which for years have served as a place for families to view July 4 fireworks.

Lupita Rodriguez, 60, and her husband live directly behind a hill. She said she had heard something once about the dredge being too slippery and wet to build on. No one had ever explained to her anything specific, however. She has lived in Galena Park for nearly 30 years. 

“I know something is going on there,” she said. “Those aren’t natural hills.” 

  • Dominique Flores Barraza, 7, plays on her phone
  • Juan Flores, Community Air Monitoring Program Manager for Air Alliance Houston, walks up to a dredging site

Longtime questions

Transparency and communication is part of Flores’ mission as the community air monitoring program manager for Air Alliance Houston, one of the environmental organizations in the fight to discover what is in the hills. The Environmental Defense Fund, Lone Star Legal Aid and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition also are leading the charge. The Coalition has pushed for years to understand the dredge piles. 

“We’ve been raising a lot of concerns since 2017, when the project went through the environmental review process,” said Amy Dinn, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid. “We still maintain now that the process that was done was deficient and it didn’t take into consideration the community concerns around these unregulated landfills.” 

The group’s main concern is that the Army Corps does not test the dredged material at the dump sites. Instead, it drills into the ship channel and tests the material there. If it considers the material to not be hazardous, it adds it to the dump hills in the community. 

Elena Craft, associate vice president for climate and health at Environmental Defense Fund, said the Corps’ environmental impact study, which it finalized in 2020, tested the dredged material for its potential impact on aquatic life, not humans.

The Environmental Impact Study also relied on rainfall intensity data from the 1960s and 1970s. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published new rainfall data in 2018 with decades of additional rainfall data after the Corps finished its impact study draft in 2017. 

In collaboration with NOAA, the EPA created an online screening tool to better understand flood risk. The areas near Ship Channel, particularly in Pleasantville, show a high risk of flooding. 

Craft said that is why the Army Corps should revise its impact study. 

A dredging site that serves as a dumping ground for the Port of Houston
A dredging site that serves as a dumping ground for the Port of Houston, Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Galena Park. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Neil Murphy, deputy public affairs chief for the Galveston District of the Army Corps, said the EPA and the other parties involved are looking into aquatic life concerns. The Port said it also is working with the Harris County Flood Control District to address flooding worries.

“There are federal standards, there are laws and thresholds,” Murphy said. “That’s what we use until somebody tells us otherwise.” 

Additional testing would push Project 11 past its projected completion date in 2026, Murphy said.

“Not every consideration can be taken into account and it’s not going to make everyone 100 percent happy,” he said. “But that’s the nature of the National Environmental Policy Act.” 

Even if the Corps supported more testing, it would be up to the non-federal entities of the ship channel, such as Port Houston, that would have to push for change. 

In a statement, Port Houston said it is working to schedule an opportunity for the Army Corps, EPA and the environmental organizations to work together to consolidate and simplify the testing data so it can be presented to the community in a transparent and accessible way. Last week, the groups met together for the first time in Pleasantville to discuss how to move forward. Another meeting for the community tentatively is set for July 10. 

In the meantime, EDF, Lone Star Legal Aid and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition spent $35,000 to hire a lab to test at the edge of the dredge sites. The groups expect to publish full data soon. 

For community members like Perez and Flores, the testing results will determine how to proceed: if the tests show the hills contain materials toxic to humans, they likely would seek remediation; if not, Flores said he would be happy to move on from the issue. He said the community has too many other things to worry about. 

“We’re not saying that anyone has done anything illegal or wrong or any of that,” Craft said. ‘It’s just that there’s more information and it should require them (the Corps) to revisit the plan.”

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...