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EPA: Houston Waste Pits Damaged by Hurricane, Leaching Chemicals Into River

The entrance to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site is seen, Sept. 29, 2017, in Channelview, Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that an unknown amount of dangerous chemicals may have washed downriver from a contaminated site near Houston, Texas, in the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in late August.

The EPA confirmed Thursday that the flooding damaged a protective cap at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. The cap, made of rock and fabric, was meant to keep sediments contaminated with dioxins from spreading. Dioxin has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects.

The EPA said its dive teams collected samples of river sediment that showed dioxin at concentrations 2,000 times higher than the level at which the EPA requires cleanup.

The waste pits, which house decades-old refuse from a paper mill, are among 13 designated Superfund sites hit by the hurricane in August. The Houston Chronicle reported that the Superfund sites, which are identified as posing an environmental risk, were submerged for days at the height of Houston's post-storm flooding.

The Chronicle also reported that more than 600 people who live nearby are suing the responsible parties — International Paper and Industrial Maintenance Corporation — claiming the pollutants at the site have harmed their health, property values and livelihoods.

A local television station reports the Harris County Attorney's Office has also filed lawsuits over the waste pits.

A hearing on the case is set for Monday.