Photo: Jaimie Meldrum/Handout via REUTERS
The physical fire is out but the legal one is just getting started.
The lawsuits against the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), responsible for the March 17 chemical fires in Deer Park, are piling up. Vince Ryan, Harris County Attorney, and multiple residents in the area of the fuel storage facility have filed lawsuits. The fire led to benzene leaks, shelter-in-place warnings, school closures, and, now in the aftermath, residents crowding into health clinics.
In a statement Thursday the Harris County Public Health Department reported “there continues to be an overall low health risk for the general public” from the fires and subsequent oil spill.
Still, according to the ITC’s March 27 statement, “product remains in the water.”
The full scope of the air and water concerns stemming from the days-long fire are not yet known. Health officials have warned residents not to eat fish or blue crab in the Houston Channel and other waters upstream.
ITC has violated the environmental laws at least nine times in recent years, including releasing cyanide into the San Jacinto River.
The company claims on the front page of its web site that it “has provided safe and reliable terminal services to the petrochemical industry for over four decades.” And it has “the highest safety standards in the industry.”
The State of Texas has filed a lawsuit charging ITC with violating the Clean Air Act – an unusual move. The state government hasn’t made environmental concerns (an understatement for the ages).
In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law making it difficult for local governments to sue companies that pollute by capping payouts at $2 million and a five-year statute of limitations.
“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office, told the Texas Tribune at the time of the law’s passage. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”
An analyst from the Environmental Defense Fund says chemical fires are “largely preventable.” But, she wrote, the “state agency responsible for ensuring chemical plant safety is missing in action — unable or unwilling to protect the health and well-being of Texas families.”
ITC has established a compensation fund for those who experienced damages or laws. But any victim who participates in this program must give up the right to sue down the road.
The Galveston Bay Foundation is collecting its own environmental samples of the affected area.
“We are very concerned with the lack of transparency that these agencies have been providing in where they are testing and what they are testing for,” said Sarah Gossett of the Galveston Bay Foundation.