Politics & Government

Tarrant County bill ‘gives a hall pass to polluters,’ critics say

Jackie Young, Miss Rodeo Houston 2013
Jackie Young, Miss Rodeo Houston 2013 Houston Chronicle

A former Houston rodeo queen fears that a proposal by state Rep. Charlie Geren could endanger Texans by capping the civil damages that polluters have to pay.

Jackie Young, a model and former Miss Houston Rodeo, told state lawmakers Tuesday that she, her family and her neighbors suffer — eye tumors, cancer, reproductive issues and more — from living near the San Jacinto River waste pits for decades.

They didn’t know they were living near water contaminated by industrial dioxins, she said, and they face costly medical bills for the rest of their lives. She wonders why companies that own contaminated land should have a limit on what they pay to clean it up.

“The passage [of this bill] sends a worldwide message that Texas gives a hall pass to polluters,” said Young, who works with the San Jacinto River Coalition and testified before the House Environmental Regulation Committee. “I think we can do better than that.”

Young was among a dozen Texans, mostly opposed, who weighed in on House Bill 1794, proposed by Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Geren said he has worked with state environmental officials to create a new version of the bill, a committee substitute, that says a person can be fined $50 to $25,000 per day of a violation — up to $4.3 million.

But the person wouldn’t be fined once the state is notified of remediation or assessments underway. And lawsuits seeking civil penalties would have to be filed in five years.

Geren said his measure addresses lawsuit abuse and doesn’t penalize businesses working in good faith to clean up contamination.

“A lot of people signed up against this, and I don’t understand it,” he said jokingly. “It’s a perfect bill.”

Many said Geren has improved the bill, but they hope to work with him to make it that “perfect” bill.

The goal is to clean up sites and get them back in use, explained George Christian, an attorney with the Texas Civil Justice League.

“We have a lot of legacy problems in this state, and a lot of property gets sold,” he said. “We want to encourage people to remediate.”

This bill, which was left pending in committee Tuesday, would apply to any site in Texas with environmental violations.

Houston problems

Harris County attorneys settled a lawsuit last year geared toward compelling companies tied to the San Jacinto waste pits — polluted with dioxins, which are known to cause cancer — to clean up the contamination.

The $29.2 million settlement was against three companies, including Waste Management subsidiary McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corp.

Regulators determined that the pits were dug around 1965 to contain industrial waste from a nearby paper mill. Toxic waste seeped through barriers and into the river. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency took over the area, which was designated a Superfund site.

Young said children who live nearby have died from eye tumors and have been born with eye cancer. Her father has a rare form of cancer, and she has had countless medical problems.

“My father may never walk me down the aisle … and I may never have kids,” she said. “Because companies dumped in our environment.”

Different opinions

Christina Wisdom, speaking for the Texas Association of Manufacturers, said she believes Geren’s bill is necessary.

“We believe it provides some very necessary regulatory certainty,” she said. “It prevents the double-dipping of penalties.

“I’m very concerned if it doesn’t pass, the current law would have a chilling effect on economic development in the state.”

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said this law is rarely used.

One problem with the bill is that it sets a five-year statute of limitations, he said, and that’s not enough time in some cases to determine the depth of contamination.

If the damages cap stays in place and a company determines that cleanup could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it might pay the $4.3 million and not do the remediation, Smith said.

“We think it’s a bad bill for a number of reasons,” he said.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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