When Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan joined up with the state to sue the companies technically responsible for creating the San Jacinto Waste Pits, it seemed likely the county would get a portion of any resulting settlement while the state would also get a hefty cut.
But that's not how the situation has worked out.
On Tuesday the Harris County Commissioners Court agreed to accept the state's portion of the settlement, which means Harris County is getting a $20 million payout for having to put up with the San Jacinto Waste Pits all these years. And it's all thanks to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits contain the toxic leftovers from a Pasadena paper mill that deposited its refuse along the banks of the San Jacinto more than 50 years ago. Since that time, officials have learned the chemicals that were used to whiten paper and were then subsequently dumped next to the San Jacinto River are highly toxic, can cause cancer and can screw up reproductive and immune systems. The EPA says there's no safe level of exposure to these chemicals, which include a large amount of dioxin.
Back in 2012, Harris County and the state filed a civil lawsuit against the companies responsible for creating the toxic sludge that fills these waste pits. They asked the court to order the three companies involved — International Paper Co., McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Waste Management Inc. — pay $25,000 per day for every day since the site opened in 1965. Ultimately, the parties made a deal, with two of the companies agreeing to pay about $29 million in civil penalties for dioxin contamination. (The third company was cleared of any responsibility by a split jury.)
Harris County and the State of Texas each received about $10 million as a result of the lawsuit. But this is where a true bit of fancy political footwork comes into play. Technically, the county and the state both sued, meaning they would split the money from a settlement. However, Mayor Turner, then a state representative with decades of experience and plenty of political connections in the Lege, arrived on the scene.
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Instead of simply handing half the money over to the state, Turner led a push in the state Legislature to appropriate the state's $10 million on behalf of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, specifically focused on projects and improvement for Harris County.
After the commissioners court meeting on Tuesday, Ryan, the county attorney, announced how the settlement money will actually be used, although his release avoided discussing any specific projects. The plan is to use the state portion of the funds to buy and improve parks and recreational facilities and to pay for educational opportunities. All of the projects are to be derived from ideas and input solicited from the local community, according to the release.
On top of that state cash, Harris County still has its own $10 million portion of the funds to disperse. The Harris County Commissioners Court intends to use the money awarded to the county for additional equipment and resources for Harris County Pollution Control and to fund projects focusing on the area within five miles of the pits.
Meanwhile, the waste pits are still there at the designated federal Superfund site in all their potentially leaky toxic glory. Ryan has called on the EPA to remove the waste pits entirely, but the feds have yet to holler back. A decision is expected soon, according to the release. Fingers crossed the EPA officials opt to move them.