New Bill Could Make It Harder For Harris County to Sue Over Pollution

A bill in the state legislature will make it nearly impossible for Harris County to file lawsuits like the one that led to plans to remove the San Jacinto Waste Pits, Rock Owens, of the Harris County Attorney's Office, says.
A bill in the state legislature will make it nearly impossible for Harris County to file lawsuits like the one that led to plans to remove the San Jacinto Waste Pits, Rock Owens, of the Harris County Attorney's Office, says.
Photo from the EPA
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Right now, plans are moving forward to finally remove most of the dioxin that has been stored in the San Jacinto Waste Pits for decades. But if a recently filed bill makes it through the 85th Biennial State Legislative Session it will become nearly impossible for the Harris County Attorney's Office to file such lawsuits in the future, Rock Owens says.

At a recent meeting of the San Jacinto River Coalition, Owens, the managing attorney for environment and infrastructure with the Harris County Attorney's Office, started talking about how Harris County is eager to work with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the dioxin waste pits on the edge of the San Jacinto River. He quickly changed course during his address, warning the audience and handing out information on how to oppose the legislation, House Bill 2533, the Baytown Sun reported.

HB 2533, recently filed by Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican, would allow the state Attorney General's Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to veto any civil lawsuit being brought over water, air and nuclear-related pollution, among other things.

"It's pretty much the worst bill I've ever seen," Owens says now. "It's designed to punish local governments, particularly Harris County."

Geren has been intent on curbing Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's Office of its ability to file these civil lawsuits against polluting companies for a while now, Owens says. (We've asked Geren for his take on this and will update as soon as we hear back from him.) He's had some success too.

Back in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1794 into law, enacting legislation that set a five-year statute of limitations and capped the payout at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have mucked up their water or air. That legislation, also cooked up by Geren, was pushed through the Lege without any difficulty. It was aimed directly at Harris County. Geren told the Texas Tribune at the time that Harris County attorneys were "abusing" the system.

During this year's legislative session, Geren is looking to go even further to keep Ryan's office in line. HB 2533 should do the trick, Owens says. “If this goes into place we'll be able to stop someone and make them clean it up but there's no way to assess a penalty to prevent future bad conduct. It will tie our hands.”

If it becomes law, HB 2533 would require that the state Attorney General's office and the director of the TCEQ be given written notification of each alleged violation, the facts backing up the claims and the specific form of relief they are planning to seek. Once this information has been submitted, the bill will mandate a 90-day waiting period before local governments, citizens affected by the pollution or an authorized representative in the lawsuit can actually file the suit.

But during that waiting period, the proposed lawsuit would get reviewed by both the AG's office and the TCEQ. If it turns out that the AG's office has just so happened to file its own civil lawsuit based on any of the same alleged violation during the 90-day wait period, the other entity won't get to file its own suit. The attorney general and the director of TCEQ also would be given a veto option where they could nix any proposed lawsuit at their discretion.

Geren has repeatedly maintained that preventing entities like Harris County from suing polluting companies makes sense because curbing civil penalties assessed by county attorneys on top of the fines paid to the TCEQ gives companies more economic certainty and allows the businesses to focus on using all of their resources to address the environmental issues.

Owens dismisses this idea.  Cases like the one over the San Jacinto Waste Pits and the lawsuit against Volkswagen would never have been filed if Harris County hadn't stepped up to the plate because Texas leans heavily in favor of business.

“The state just is not interested in penalizing industry. They don't want to do it," Owens says. "TCEQ's own history shows it. They only fine up to $25,000 per day for violations and their own history of issuing penalty amounts is really low. You'd think they'd be the ones to make examples of companies caught not following the rules, but that's not how it is.”

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