San Jacinto Dioxin Case Kicks Off

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The trifecta of lawsuits filed against companies for allegedly dumping toxic paper waste into the San Jacinto River finally came to trial on Monday. Waste Management, International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation are accused of allowing dioxin, a "cancer-enhancer" chemical, to leak uninhibited into a river system where people have been swimming and fishing since the 1960s. They stand to pay damages worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Harris County and local residents if they are found liable.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued all three companies for $2 billion in penalties for failure to disclose and clean the waste. His move opened the floodgates for suits from dozens of Vietnamese fishermen who depend on contaminated San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay fisheries for their livelihood. Residents of Highlands filed a third lawsuit, claiming they never would have moved beside the river if they knew about the toxic waste dump underneath the surface.

The EPA named the waste pits a Superfund site in 2008, officially taking over remediation. It ordered the accused companies, Waste Management, International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance, to place a temporary cap over the waste pits, but Highlands residents fear that the cap won't hold up against a major flood. They say their properties and water supply are already contaminated by chemicals that are making them sick.

In court on Monday, attorneys with Smith and Hassler representing the Highlands residents asked for additional time to gather experts, but the companies' attorneys pressed for the trial to proceed. They said they had already settled with a number of Highlands residents to buy them out of their homes, and they want to resolve the remaining cases. Smith and Hassler argued that they need time to find a large variety of medical professionals to support a long list of clients with various health claims.

Judge Caroline Baker promised a minimum extension of 60 days for the residential suit. Opening arguments in the county lawsuit are scheduled for mid-October.

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