A district court judge ruled Friday that a lawsuit brought by Harris County against Exxon Mobil can proceed, a win for county leaders who have stepped up environmental enforcement efforts.
“Overall, I think the court recognized that local governments have a role in these lawsuits and that needs to be maintained,” Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County Attorney for environmental matters, said after the ruling.
The office of Attorney General Ken Paxton could not be reached for comment, but Owens said the state’s attorneys will appeal.
The case was the first legal test for an April order by Commissioners Court that allows the county attorney’s office to file some environmental lawsuits without first having to get the approval of commissioners on a case-by-case basis.
Harris County filed a lawsuit against Exxon on Aug. 1, a day after a chemical fire at its Baytown facility injured 37.
The state’s attorney general filed its own lawsuit four days later, and in November took Harris County to court, arguing that its lawsuit should be dismissed because it needed to have explicit approval from county commissioners prior to being filed.
Roy Hernandez stood inside what was left of his home — shattered glass, roof insulation dropping from the ceiling, doors blasted off their hinges — and worried about what he’d wear to work Monday.
“All my uniforms are up there, underneath all this rubble,” he said in the middle of what used to be the living room.
Outside his broken window sit the remains of the Friday morning explosion at the Watson Grinding Manufacturing. The blast killed at least two workers, sent nearly 20 others to the hospital and damaged more than 200 homes in its vicinity, leaving a few dozen of them uninhabitable — including Hernandez’s.
Investigations are ongoing into what caused the fiery explosion at the plant, where authorities said propylene — a chemical used to produce films, fibers and plastic packaging – was leaking.
Residents in some of the most damaged homes returned Saturday to try to salvage as much of their belongings as they could and to board windows and place tarps on top of roofs. Everyone was working against the clock. The forecast called for a chance of rain by evening.
For Hernandez, the stillness on Saturday morning was eerie compared to the chaos on Friday.
“It feels weird,” said the 36-year-old, “it feels like the day after New Year’s Eve.”
The Trump administration has finalized a clean-water rule that it says strikes a balance between protecting the environment and the economy, but critics say the change will put Houstonians at greater risk for flooding and threaten the drinking water for more than 11.5 million Texans.
The rule announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eliminates Clean Water Act protections for up to half of the nation’s wetlands and one-fifth of the streams across the country under a narrower interpretation of which waterways qualify for federal protection.
“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a gathering of home builders in Las Vegas.
Court challenges had led to the Obama-era rule being put on hold in Texas and 27 other states. Still, Anna Farrell-Sherman, a clean water associate with Environment Texas, said the return to less-stringent rules will leave waterways from Barton Creek to Galveston Bay vulnerable to pollution and degradation.
“As unprotected wetlands become degraded or paved over, they will no longer help filter out pollution before it reaches our streams, springs, rivers and aquifers,” she said. “Galveston Bay is already facing dangerous oil spills and pollution from industry along the coast; degrading the streams and wetlands around it will only make that problem worse.”
The shift comes five years after the Obama administration expanded federal clean-water protections to smaller streams and wetlands, including intermittent streams and underground water passages. It was a move meant to bring uniformity, but instead led to several lawsuits, including one by Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana along with a coalition of farm and industry groups that called it federal overreach and overly broad.
The Trump administration’s final version — four months after it announced the repeal of the rule — represents a major rollback of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972. The change will have a major impact on southwestern states, allowing landowners and developers to potentially dump pollutants, including pesticides and fertilizers, into those waterways or fill in wetlands for construction projects.
In a win for residents, a concrete company will end its efforts to gain an environmental permit to build a concrete mixing plant in northwest Houston neighborhood — just one day before an administrative judge was set to hear arguments from the community against the plant.
Soto Ready Mix, a small Houston company, had planned to build the plant near homes and a park in Acres Homes, a historically black neighborhood. On Wednesday, however, the company’s lawyers filed a motion with the administrative judge to send the case back to the state’s environmental agency, so that the company could withdraw its application to build the plant.
Soto Ready Mix sought an air emissions permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency, to build a batch plant, where concrete is mixed. For nearly two years, residents fought the permit for the plant, which they said would release particulates harmful to human health into the air. The prospect of a concrete plant in the neighborhood had already hurt property values, residents said.
TCEQ granted a hearing to the residents, allowing them to argue their case before a state administrative judge. That hearing, scheduled for Thursday, was canceled.
The permit had become a test of the environmental permitting process in the state for advocates. Often, communities are unaware or unable to amass the resources needed to stop a company from obtaining one of the state’s environmental permits.
But in Acres Homes, residents have engaged in the permitting process, tirelessly rallying politicians and pressuring regulators to host several public meetings.
Every time Sean Rangel shuts his eyes, he can see his friend Frankie standing by the doorway to the coating building at work, clad in his black Tigres hoodie. It’s the same kind that Rangel owns, a gift from his friend to celebrate their shared love of the Monterrey soccer team.
Then everything’s gone. There’s no building, no Frankie.
Rangel was on his way to work at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing on Gessner Road when the coating building where they worked exploded, killing Frank Flores and Gerardo Castorena. The blast was felt miles away and damaged 450 homes, leaving some uninhabitable.
On Monday, Rangel filed a lawsuit against the company alleging it ignored known safety risks before the massive Jan. 24 explosion, specifically, that it failed to properly maintain and repair equipment and to adequately train or employ individuals.
He seeks more than $1 million in damages including for future and past medical expenses, pain, suffering and mental anguish, as well as past and future wage loss.
Investigations are ongoing, but initially Houston fire officials said they had spent hours shutting down a leak of propylene, a highly flammable gas that can react explosively when combined with other materials.
Watson needs to be held accountable, said Joel Simon, co-counsel for Rangel and partner at the Houston-based Fernilius Simon Mace Robertson Perdue law firm.