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San Jacinto River

Local control deathwatch: Environment

Unsurprisingly, the Denton fracking ban has provoked a strong reaction.

As policy dilemmas go, the one triggered when Denton voters decided last fall to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city looked like a whopper: The oil and gas industry versus local control — two things Texas holds dear — in intractable opposition. There seemed little doubt lawmakers would weigh in upon their return to Austin.

But four months after the North Texas city’s historic vote, top state lawmakers don’t appear to be scratching their heads. Petroleum is winning hands down, and local control appears headed for a beating.

Several legislative proposals so far leave less wiggle room for Texas cities to regulate oil and gas production. 

“We need to restate that principle that the state has responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. “I don’t know where people might have believed that the state was not going to assert fully its rights to regulate that.”

Texas lawmakers this session have filed at least 11 bills that would discourage local governments from enacting or amending certain drilling rules. Meanwhile, those watching legislation on the issue say they haven’t noticed one proposal to bolster – or even support – local control on petroleum development.

“We didn’t expect these to be just completely one-sided,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “Instead, they’re swinging for the fences, and it’s quite alarming.” 

The trend is part of a broader debate — touching on issues including plastic bag bans and sanctuary cities — that some Republicans have sought to reframe as a debate about the size of government.

Supporters of Denton’s fracking ban “accused me of violating my conservative principles, arguing that since a local government passed a measure, any attempt to overturn it would be using ‘big government’ to squash dissent,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They have it backwards, because ‘big government’ is happening at the local level.”

One of King’s bills would require cities to get the attorney general’s blessing before enacting or repealing any ordinance by voter initiative or referendum, the tool Denton activists used to push that city’s fracking ban. Another would require cities that tighten drilling regulations to reimburse the state for any lost tax revenue.

Other bills have addressed compensation for mineral rights owners harmed by a local ordinance, while legislation from state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, gets right to the point of the Denton debate: It would ban fracking bans.

Perhaps the most controversial proposals, however, are those most likely to pass. Identical bills from Darby and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would limit cities’ power to regulate the industry to “surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation, is commercially reasonable, does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation, and is not otherwise preempted by state or federal law.”

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power isn’t absolute. The Texas Railroad Commission oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.” 

See here for past coverage. I would have voted for the Denton ban, but I can understand the objections to it. Mineral rights are complex in Texas, and anyone who had such rights within Denton could reasonably complain that his or her property was taken away. It’s also generally better to have a uniform regulatory environment to facilitate business compliance. But that gets to the crux of the matter here, which is that the regulatory environment in Texas is a joke. The Railroad Commission is a complete lapdog for corporate interests. It’s precisely because activists in Denton felt they were being ignored and pushed aside that they sought out an alternate remedy. If we had a useful, functioning Railroad Commission, we would not have had this ballot referendum or interest in having such a referendum in other cities. This is not hard to understand, but the campaign coffers of people like Phil King and Konni Burton depend on them pretending to not understand it.

And speaking of the environment.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

[…]

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Indeed, the TCEQ is as useless as the Railroad Commission and as deeply in the pocket of the people and businesses they are supposed to regulate. What else is one to do but take the avenue that is available? If you don’t want the Harris County Attorney filing so many lawsuits against polluters, then provide a regulatory agency that will, you know, actually regulate. That includes going after the bad actors and levying punishments as needed. Again, this is not hard to understand. It should not be this hard to do.

“Environmental tort reform”

Oh, hell no.

After failing in their attempt to limit cities and counties’ ability to take industrial polluters to court, some Houston businesses and statewide lobbyists now want to limit how much local governments can collect in penalties, a sort of environmental tort reform effort aimed squarely at a Harris County Attorney’s office they say is seeking high-dollar payouts at the expense of cleanup efforts.

At a legislative committee hearing earlier this year, the powerful Texas Association of Business and attorneys for Waste Management Inc. and a wealthy Houston family being sued by Harris County told lawmakers that the County Attorney’s office has started seeking outrageous penalties unrelated to environmental clean-up costs from entities already cooperating with remediation requirements imposed by the state or federal government. If allowed to continue, they told members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, the lawsuits could have a “chilling effect” on development and erode property values.

“As a practicing lawyer who advises companies as to what liabilities they may face, like becoming involved with a contaminated property, I have to advise them – based on some of the recent cases – that there is a possibility, as remote as it might be … that you could be penalized for coming on to that site and seeking redevelopment because it is not precluded by the laws as they exist now,” said John Riley, a lawyer for Houston-based Waste Management.

The mega-company and two of its affiliates are facing nearly $2 billion in fines in a lawsuit brought by the county – set to go to trial next month – involving one of the state’s biggest pollution headaches: two industrial waste pits that leached paper mill sludge containing cancer-causing dioxins into the San Jacinto River for almost half a century.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. owned and operated the pits – now a federal Superfund site – in the 1960s, filling a 20-acre tract with waste from a now-closed paper mill near the Washburn Tunnel. The company later became part of Houston-based Waste Management.

The County Attorney’s office sued Waste Management, and International Paper Co., in 2011, asking the companies be fined as much as the law allows – $25,000 a day – all the way back to the site’s 1965 opening.

Last year, the companies supported legislation that would have diminished the power Texas cities and counties have had for decades to file such environmental enforcement lawsuits. Two bills that died in a House committee after being fought by Harris County lobbyists would have required the Texas attorney general to settle all such litigation filed by local governments and barred them from hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis.

[…]

At the May hearing, Harris County officials told committee members they were “not sure what the problem is,” emphasizing that the TCEQ typically is listed as a “necessary and indispensable party” in these cases and that they must be approved by Commissioners Court.

“These cases are not filed willy-nilly,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

Soard and other officials who testified, including a TCEQ employee, said such lawsuits are reserved only for the most egregious cases. The county, they said, simply is attempting to recuperate clean-up, legal and other costs associated with contaminated sites and has every legal right to do so.

“Every time we file a case against a large company now we now expect to see them run to Commissioners Court and the press screaming about how unfair we are,” said Rock Owens, who heads the County Attorney’s four-lawyer environmental division. “This never used to happen and now it’s par for the course. Maybe this is an indication that we are finally hitting where it hurts, even if it’s only a little ding.”

Hey, you know what these powerful business interests and wealthy families can do to stop getting sued over these ginormous environmental messes they’re responsible for? They can clean them up in a timely fashion, and they can take all necessary steps to ensure that they don’t create any more such toxic hazards. Until then, as far as I’m concerned, they can STFU.

County sues over dioxin

More like this, please.

Harris County has filed a lawsuit in state court to recover hundreds of millions of dollars from local waste management companies and a Pasadena paper factory responsible for storage of a human carcinogen that has leaked into the San Jacinto River.

Named as defendants in the action, which seeks penalties of up to $25,000 a day dating to 1965, are McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Co., Waste Management Inc., Waste Management of Texas and International Paper Co.

The lawsuit, announced Tuesday by County Attorney Vince Ryan, centers on riverside waste disposal pits near the Interstate 10-San Jacinto River crossing opened in 1965 to contain dioxin, a toxic byproduct of paper production.

Here’s a more detailed version of the story.

“The day of reckoning is here,” said Rock Owens, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s lead lawyer on the case. “These penalties are there to punish, to send a message. … We’re asking these companies to atone for what they’ve done.”

[…]

A byproduct of bleaching paper, dioxin is a human carcinogen so potent that it is measured in trillionths of a gram. Tests of river mud near the site have found dioxin concentrations in excess of 41,000 parts per trillion. Of the fish and crab samples collected near the dump, 95 percent found to be were dangerously contaminated.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. for nine months deposited waste from a Pasadena paper factory at the dump, which was swamped by the river as land subsided. The factory is no longer open.

The long-lived toxin, which also causes reproduction and immune system problems, is stored in body fat and increases in concentration as it moves up the food chain.

The EPA says no amount of exposure is safe.

[…]

Evelyn Merz, Houston Sierra Club conservation chairwoman, lauded the county lawsuit, saying that Ryan’s office – faced with little action taken by the state – had adopted an appropriately aggressive strategy.

She expressed concern, however, that the county might devote an inordinately large amount of its potential award to efforts to educate the public about dangers at the site. Rather, Merz suggested, such money should go toward financing attempts to stabilize and end erosion.

“It certainly hasn’t taken millions of dollars to put up signs,” she said. “It doesn’t take millions for a public ad campaign.”

I’d just like to note for the record that “Rock Owens” is a totally awesome name. You can see a copy of the suit here. As Hair Balls notes, this was designated a Superfund cleanup site three years ago, and has been considered a health hazard by state officials for years. Given how longstanding these problems are, I don’t know that it’s possible to properly redress the damage, but one hopes we’ll get something out of this. It’s long past time for the parties that have been imposing these costs on the public to be held accountable for them.

I’d like to point you to more information on this from the County Attorney’s office, but unfortunately the County Attorney webpage only has a link to the Chron story, while their underutilized Facebook page has nada. Consider this my gentle reminder to them to get with the program already.