Harris County's years-long legal battle to wring billions of dollars out of companies the county says are responsible for the San Jacinto River's toxic legacy ended with whimper Thursday. Following a four-week trial, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office settled with two of three defendants just as the case was set to go to closing arguments. The two companies agreed to pay $29.2 million, which, after attorneys fees and expenses, amounts to just $20 million that will be split between the state and county -- a far cry from the $3.7 billion the county initially sought in its lawsuit.
Mix in the fact that after the settlement was reached a jury cleared the lone holdout company of any responsibility, and it's hard to chalk this up as a clear win for the county in its bold fight to make companies pay fouling the San Jacinto River.
In 2011 Ryan sued the three major companies -- Houston-based Waste Management, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., and International Paper Co. -- saying they were responsible for cancer-causing dioxins that seeped out of waste pits and into the river system for decades.
Waste Management and McGinnes struck a last-minute deal with the county Thursday, while International Paper opted for a jury verdict. The jury voted 10-2 in favor of the company. Ryan's office on Thursday said it would appeal the jury's decision.
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Regulators first stumbled upon the San Jacinto waste pits in 2005 while evaluating the river bottom for sand dredging. Officials later discovered that, throughout the 1960s, International Paper's predecessor company, Champion Paper, had contracted with McGinnes to carry industrial waste and paper-mill sludge to a 20-acre dump site on the river bank. Over time, clay impoundments meant to contain the toxic waste eroded, and eventually more than half the site was submerged.
EPA took over the waste pits in 2008, designating the area a Superfund site. A few years ago, as the county considered legal action, International paper and McGinnes put armored caps over the pits. The question now is over how to fully scrub the site and who will pay for it. The county in its lawsuit wanted the companies to pay the maximum fine of $25,000 a day, stretching back nearly half a century.
The EPA is expected to decide sometime next year what to do with the pits; the companies involved, which have denied any liability, prefer the cheaper option of just capping the pits and leaving them in place.
Some environmental scientists say that people living closest to the dump may be frequently exposed to dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen, as we reported earlier this month. Dr. Sam Brody of Texas A&M University-Galveston has called a temporary cap on the pits a "ticking time bomb" unlikely to withstand another hurricane.