Two decades after a Cy-Fair shopping center was declared a Superfund site, Environmental Protection Agency officials said nearby residents still relying on private well water should connect to the public water supply to reduce risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Superfund sites are locations where hazardous waste has been improperly disposed of, resulting in risks to human health and the environment.

Located at 11600 Jones Road, Houston, the shopping center was placed on the National Priorities List in 2003, giving the federal government authority to clean it up.

Bell Dry Cleaners operated at the site from 1988-2002. Officials discovered dry-cleaning solvents had leaked into storm drains in the early 2000s, contaminating the soil, indoor air and groundwater, according to the EPA.

“Instead of collecting the product or the waste in drums, it was going to the ground,” said Raji Josiam, a remedial project manager who oversees the site’s cleanup activity for the EPA.

Exposure to these chemicals can cause a range of symptoms—from headaches and organ damage to cancer or death. The EPA has implemented cleanup tactics over time.

Despite the efforts, a five-year review released by the EPA in September 2022 concluded cleanup goals were “not protective” because residents to the west in Edgewood Estates and Evergreen Woods continue to use private wells and therefore, could still be exposed to contaminated groundwater.

“The remedial action objective of preventing exposure to contaminated groundwater at unacceptable risk levels will not be achieved until the remaining affected private well users connect to the public water supply,” EPA Region 6 Press Officer Joe Robledo said in an email.

However, patronizing the 12 businesses in the shopping center—including restaurants, a book store, dog groomer and nail salon, among others—is safe following remediation, Josiam said at an EPA meeting Feb. 27.

But local advocacy nonprofit Texas Health and Environment Alliance, or THEA, is urging the EPA to take additional action. The group has worked since 2017 to increase awareness about this site among residents within 2 miles of the shopping center, Assistant Director Rachel Jordan said.

She said she was surprised that in the five-year review, the EPA’s first milestone date for future solutions was Dec. 31, 2024.

“For a site where they’re saying that the remedy in place is not protective of human health or the environment, ... [that] seemed very unreasonable,” Jordan said.

Reducing contamination

In 2008, the EPA connected 144 well users, including the shopping center, to the public water supply that is unaffected by the chemicals.

“The remaining property owners at that time, they said, ‘No, we don’t want to sign up. We are happy with our well water.’ So they did not sign up,” Josiam said. “And here we are again today; we are facing the same issue.

Robledo said at least 50 properties in the affected area still rely on private wells; 160 are connected to the water line; and 65 properties are vacant lots, share a water line connection with adjacent properties or have an unknown well status. As of press time, the EPA asked well users to sign up by March 31 to be connected to the water line through the White Oak Bend Municipal Utility District.

Initial capital costs would be covered by federal funding, but homeowners would be responsible for subsequent monthly water fees. Because these residents are out of the White Oak Bend district, they would be subject to 50% higher fees.

Robledo said few homeowners showed interest in the water line when the EPA reached out in 2019 and 2020 because of these higher costs and because some private wells showed no contaminants when tested.

In addition to connecting well users to public water, the EPA regularly tests contamination levels at and near the site. A vapor mitigation system brought indoor air back to safe levels in 2018 when samples at the shopping center showed cause for concern.

In 2016 and 2018, bioremediation injections of bacteria into the ground were 97%-99% effective in breaking down contaminants, Josiam said.

The EPA also installed a soil vapor extraction system in 2019 behind the shopping center, which Robledo said addresses the contamination source that is affecting the groundwater and prevents indoor air contamination.

Calls for further action

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey partnered with THEA earlier this year to call on the EPA to take further action at the site.

“I think it’s time that we move beyond studies and into the remedial action, and I know that that has been identified, but the one thing I think [is] missing ... is dates,” Ramsey said at the Feb. 27 meeting.

Pamela Bonta, the mother of THEA founder Jackie Medcalf, at the Feb. 27 meeting said she believes the plume, or contamination area, has moved due to the number of ill residents living outside the EPA’s jurisdiction.

Jordan said THEA has conducted health surveys to learn about the prevalence of illnesses in the neighborhoods, and the group is working with The University of Texas Medical Branch to sample 55 wells for contamination. THEA was unable to provide data from these health surveys or well testing results to Community Impact.

“As long as there’s still groundwater wells being used in this area, it’s going to create instability with the plume, and it’ll move,” Jordan said. “And it doesn’t move quickly, ... but you know, the site has been here for about 20 years now, and so that’s enough time for things to kind of fluctuate and move throughout the groundwater system.”

Josiam said she does not believe the plume has moved or expanded.

Jessie Rhea, who manages the shopping center and owns Jessie’s Country Cooking at the site, said Bonta has attempted to sell water filtration systems to one of his tenants and to customers who live in the area.

“It’s killed our business. My restaurant business has dropped two-thirds. Mekong—the little sandwich shop—their business has dropped below 75% of what they were doing. And I had one [Raja Mediterranean Food] move because of it,” he said.

While Jordan said she believes some systems can filter out the contaminants, she denied accusations that THEA representatives are pushing sales from a particular company or profiting off water filter sales.

Upcoming plans

Funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—which is investing $3.5 billion in remediation at Superfund sites—will be used for water line connections this summer. Robledo said the EPA also received $560,000 for the soil vapor extraction system’s operations and $300,000 for bioremediation injections.

The EPA has plans for additional injections in May with follow-up sampling this fall. From there, officials will determine next steps.

“I know all these steps take time. It’s taken us this long, but we are getting there. The one thing that’s uncertain in all of this is the endpoint ... because we don’t know how much is actually in the ground,” Josiam said.