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Protecting polluters

Ridiculous.

Ship Channel circa 1973

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

Here’s SB957. It’s not the only polluter-friendly bill out there.

Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.

But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119.

The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”

“The arrangement creates a variety of perverse incentives. A county faces no risk in bringing a suit and the outside, contingency-based counsel has no incentive to settle the suit,” said Brent Connett, communications director for the group.

The group argues that instead, contingency fee deals encourage private firms to enrich themselves at the expense of adequately funding the cleanup of toxic sites.

Harris County, which was the focus of the conservative group’s report, says contingency fee arranagements are vital to its efforts to litigate pollution cases.

“We don’t have money to go out and hire lawyers. You’re talking about, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars that we would have to spend up front just to go to court. With the contingency fee, we don’t have to do that. We only pay if we win,” said Terrence O’Rourke, special assistant to the Office of the Harris County Attorney.

[…]

[Harris County] points out that the big corporations fighting the suits often use very experienced, highly-paid attorneys.

“They’re spending millions on their lawyers and Harris County can’t afford that. We’ve got contingent fee lawyers,” says O’Rourke, the county’s special assistant.

The point of taking cases on contingency is that it only pays to take cases you think can win. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hours down the drain for nothing. One could argue that it’s the attorneys for the polluters that have no real incentive to settle, since they get paid by the hour. But maybe as a compromise, we could set up a public defender system for the businesses that find themselves plagued by these suits, to represent them free of charge. Think the polluters would go for that? Yeah, me neither.

Here’s the Chron on these two bills:

“It surprises me a little bit because there is no history of us settling cases in opposition to the attorney general or against the wishes of the attorney general,” said Rock Owens, who heads the environmental division in the Harris County Attorney’s office, which historically has filed the most civil environmental lawsuits in the state.

Owens said the legislation would diminish an authority local governments have had for decades to punish environmental offenders, and also make for an uneven playing field as governments cannot afford to pay private attorneys on an hourly basis like the companies they sue.

While the county has been filing environmental cases for a long time, it only recently began recruiting outside counsel. Six cases have been relegated to private firms.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county has not taken an official position on hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis, but that all counties “ought to be able to make those decisions on their own.”

Once again I note the irony of people who rant and rage about the federal government telling Texas what it can and can’t do but who are lining up to tell various local governments, often in localities far from their own home districts (Rep. Cindy Burkett, author of HB 3119, is from the suburbs of Dallas), what they can and can’t do. The good news is that SB957 likely won’t get past the Senate’s two-thirds rule, while HB3119 hasn’t yet been voted on in committee. If we’re lucky, it won’t have enough time to make it through, or it too will die from insufficient Senate support. But until they both do die, they’re menaces to be watched.

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