Toxic Leak?

Texas City petrochemical giants scramble to discover who released their secrets

None of the lawyers gathered in Judge Sharolyn Wood's courtroom after lunch on July 14 looked especially happy as they crowded around the bench. "You are satisfied you have all the documents back?" Wood half-asked, half-told attorney Elizabeth Burkhardt. "The next inquiry is to find out who released the sealed documents."

The judge was referring to a batch of internal reports and memos from Union Carbide Corporation and Sterling Chemical Company obtained by the Houston Press. The documents, central to an environmental racism case against several Texas City petrochemical giants, were sealed by the court, but were quoted in a recent Press story about life next to the city's many refineries and chemical plants ["Shadow over Texas City," May 29]. At the urging of the defense attorneys in the case, Wood held a hearing to get to the bottom of the leak.

It's not surprising that the companies would want to keep a lid on the information. The documents in question are among the most damaging in the case, shedding light on the strategy for creating buffer zones, or "greenbelts," to shield residents from the toxic effects of living next to the chemical plants. Instead of aggressively buying out nearby homeowners and relocating them, the companies were waiting for the residents to die or give up; the companies would then purchase the property on the cheap. In the case of Union Carbide, the documents show that the company did so after ignoring the strong advice of a consultant hired specifically to devise a greenbelt plan.

It's not clear why Wood sealed the documents in the first place, except that the companies asked her to. (The judge did not return a call from the Press, instead assigning intern Paul O'Connell to relay her disclaimer. "She can't talk about any pending litigation," said O'Connell. "It's an ethical thing.")

At the hearing, lawyers from Sterling, Carbide and Amoco filed smugly into the courtroom, apparently under the impression that Wood herself would grill the plaintiffs' attorneys and two expert witnesses who had been given copies of the documents. But the defense team was caught short when the judge instead instructed them to take depositions in the cramped jury assembly room.

Nor were they or the judge prepared for the wrath of the plaintiffs' lawyers, who were uniformly insulted by the presumption that one of them had violated a professional oath and handed the material to the Press. "I find it really, really disturbing," fumed Seth Cortigene, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Plaintiffs' attorney Matt Williamson also took umbrage, noting that although Carbide and Sterling had possession of the documents, no one was questioning people from the companies. "There seems to be no highway to investigate the defendants," Williamson told the judge. "It's my deposition being taken. Theirs aren't being taken."

Wood tried to appease the lawyers, first by suggesting that the depositions would be more like a friendly chat than an interrogation. "We're talking about pretty quick, straightforward questions," she said.

That reassurance didn't seem to satisfy the plaintiffs' side, so Wood took it a step further. Though no evidence existed as to the source of the leak, she practically absolved the lawyers in advance of the questioning. "I'm assuming that the lawyers had no part in it," she said smoothly. "It's just my confidence in lawyers."

That statement didn't sit well with the two non-lawyers at the hearing, community development specialist John Spear and real estate appraiser and analyst William Forrest. The two expert witnesses fidgeted in the gallery as Wood indirectly blamed them.

Even this extraordinary presumption of lawyerly innocence failed to assuage the attorneys' anger. Outside the courtroom, Cortigene confronted Union Carbide counsel Barbara Johnson, who backed away from responsibility for the affair. Johnson claimed she was "stunned" by Wood's decision to turn the hearing over to the defense (even though sources close to the case say that Carbide and Sterling pushed the issue with Wood in the first place). "I thought that the court would try and get to the bottom of it by asking questions," she said. "All we want is to figure out who had the documents."

But that didn't happen. The depositions lasted the better part of the afternoon, with Spear and Forrest taking most of the heat. Neither the companies nor Judge Wood got what they were after.

For a sampling of the documents in question, check out the Houston Press web site, www.houston-press.com.

 
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