Emergency crews were still containing a massive chemical fire in Deer Park last spring when the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against the company for environmental violations.
Five days later, Harris County officials brought their own lawsuit against Intercontinental Terminals Co., the owner of the chemical storage farm.
When fires broke out weeks later at plants at KMCO in Crosby and then Exxon Mobil in Baytown, the state and county each raced to file suit, even as the blaze continued to burn in one case.
As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.
The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.
“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.
But state officials maintain its legal strategy hasn’t changed.
The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.
Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue
County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.
“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”
In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”