EPA to clean up Donna superfund site

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. speaks of a new effort to clean up the Donna Reservoir — labeled a superfund site by the EPA — during a news conference in Donna Wednesday. Behind him, a member of the colonia advocacy group, ARISE, holds a sign that reads “We want healthy families, not contaminated” in Spanish.
(Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

DONNA — Nearly 30 years after carcinogens were first detected, and 12 years after the Environmental Protection Agency officially declared it a superfund site, the Donna Reservoir will soon undergo a massive cleanup effort that state officials hope will finally clear the lake and its related system of canals of contaminants.

And it’s all thanks to the collaboration of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, state lawmakers, the EPA and local colonia advocates, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. said during a lakeside news conference Wednesday morning.

“Today’s outlining of the remediation plan is the culmination of years of work by everyone, especially the perseverance of our colonia advocates from ARISE, LUPE, TexasHousers, and our local residents in getting agencies to do the right thing,” Lucio said.

The remediation of the 400-acre manmade lake, and its canals that stretch more than 5 miles to the east and west, will cost approximately $19 million, according to a statement Lucio released earlier this week.

TCEQ is providing the EPA just over $3.5 million to kick start the first phase of the cleanup efforts, which are slated to begin next month.

The reservoir and canal was constructed in the early 1920s to provide farmers with a source of water to irrigate their fields. It still serves that purpose today, as well as serving as a source of drinking water for the city of Donna.

The EPA first detected contaminants at the site in the form of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in 1991. Since then, the agency has banned the possession of fish from the lake and has removed more than 47,000 fish from its waters over the course of seven fish removals since 2008.

However, people still flock to the contaminated lake to fish its waters.

As TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka looks on, State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., right, reads prepared remarks about an upcoming joint effort between the TCEQ and EPA to remove contaminants at the Donna Reservoir. (Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

Lucio said it wasn’t until colonia advocates showed him the site during an impromptu tour four years ago that he realized the magnitude of the environmental catastrophe. “At the time, there were no warning signs posted cautioning people of the public health risk associated with the fish,” Lucio said. “To say we were shocked is an understatement.”

The resident advocates urged the state lawmaker to do something about it, while simultaneously trying to educate their neighbors about the dangers of the lake.

“This issue has been affecting (us) for a long time here in the area,” said Ramona Casas, one of ARISE’s community organizers who was present at Wednesday’s news conference.

“This is an environmental and water issue. And it’s very serious, because it’s not local, it’s regional because many people come here fishing,” she added a moment later.

TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka speaks of how the state environmental regulatory agency has teamed up with the EPA to help clean up the contamination of the Donna Reservoir.
(Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

But just where the contamination originates has remained unclear for decades. The source was unknown in 2008, when the EPA first declared the lake a superfund site; however, after conducting a remedial investigation and feasibility study more recently, the federal agency thinks it has finally homed in on the source of the PCBs — a concrete siphon installed in 1928.

The EPA plans to remove the siphon and dredge approximately 20 inches of soil surrounding it. “This area will include over 2,460 linear feet of canal starting at the siphon that carries water under the Arroyo Colorado,” reads a project summary on the EPA’s website.

“The preparation is underway to begin the dredging in the next month. And the siphon, which has been located as the primary source contamination, will be replaced in its entirety,” said TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka during the news conference.

The commissioner added he was looking forward to helping TCEQ work with the EPA “to see quick progress on this,” though he could not say how long the remediation project will take to complete.

For Casas, seeing Janecka and Lucio standing beside the lake was a welcome sight that proves the effectiveness of local advocacy. “In the last eight years, we’ve (been) working hard with the EPA, TCEQ and the other entities,” Casas said.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka, center, address the media during a news conference at the Donna Reservoir Wednesday morning. The two officials announced that the federal superfund site will soon undergo a remediation efforts led by the EPA.
Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com

“When we’re working together and looking for solutions, a lot of good things come out,” she said.