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Harris County Commissioners Vote to Sue ITC Over Costs From Its Plant Accident [UPDATED]

A plant fire that will be remembered for a very long time.
A plant fire that will be remembered for a very long time.
Photo by Kate McLean

Update 1:45 p.m. Wednesday: The U.S. Coast Guard was able to open the ship channel at 8 a.m. for two-way traffic and during daylight only as long as all vessels are inspected upon entry and departure said Petty Officer Edward Wargo.

“We are checking the hulls for contaminants, if they are clean they can go, if not they have personnel and equipment ready to clean them.”

Also Wednesday, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan announced he has sued ITC, charging that it "is responsible for burning and air emissions in violation of the state’s Clean Air Act, discharging industrial waste into nearby waters in violation of state law and county regulations, and violation of county floodplain regulations by not having development permits for structures at its facility."

The lawsuit also seeks a temporary restraining order which would keep ITC from re-opening "until a third-party expert appointed by the Court finds it is safe to resume operations. The order would also forbid the company from disposing of any wastes by opening tanks where it is stored and venting it into the atmosphere and it would require ITC to maintain all records and water, air and ground samples it has collected."

Original story:
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, played out before a packed room of onlookers, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to sue ITC for the fire and toxic chemical spill at its plant that shut down schools and the Houston Ship Channel, had nearby residents sheltering in place and will perhaps have environmental and financial repercussions for months or longer to come.

“We’ll be requesting the appointment of what’s called a third-party auditor, who will come in and review all the actions of ITC in what led up to this event,” Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney said.  “We will also be seeking recovery on behalf of the county for all the costs incurred by the county itself.”

The Coast Guard continued working to re-capture chemicals and fire-fighting foam that spilled into the upper Houston Ship Channel March 22. At Tuesday's ITC press conference, Coast Guard officials said  they will not re-open the channel until all oil pockets have been recovered. Tucker Bayou and the water closest to the ITC piers have the highest concentration of contaminants, though several other areas including the mouth of the San Jacinto River, and the oyster beds in Burnett Bay are being treated as well.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is recommending people not consume fish from the upper Houston Ship Channel, which has been pretty much a given since a fish consumption advisory that’s been in effect since 2013. Oyster harvesting in the upper ship channel is prohibited with the closest active beds being 17 miles away.

A map of approved and unapproved shellfish harvesting areas of Galveston Bay. Department of State Health Services Seafood and Aquatic Life Unit.EXPAND
A map of approved and unapproved shellfish harvesting areas of Galveston Bay. Department of State Health Services Seafood and Aquatic Life Unit.
Map courtesy of The Department of State Health Services

“We don’t expect an effect on the oyster beds that are available for harvesting from volatile organic compounds, so far. Any of those VOC’s would likely evaporate or become so dilute it wouldn’t be an issue for the oysters,” said Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for the DSHS. The department frequently opens and closes oyster bays and harvesting areas depending on environmental conditions if there is a concern for human health he explains.

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Water samples taken March 19 through March 21 by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality were published on Monday, and showed benzene levels exceeding TCEQ’s “Protective Concentration Level.” Water samples taken since the March 22 events where chemicals and fire-fighting foam poured into the ship channel, causing its closure, have not yet been released.

Harris County is seeking to recover the money it spent on tests run by the county's Office of Emergency Management as well as other costs. Last week the state of Texas announced it was suing ITC for violations of the Texas Clean Air Act.

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