Harris County Sues Chemical Plant Over Carcinogen Release

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County attorney steps in where TCEQ won't
It's no secret that when it comes to penalizing industrial plants for violating their emissions permits and endangering public health, TCEQ (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) is not a very tough sheriff. The state regulatory agency rarely takes enforcement action and often reduces the fines when it does.

In light of this, citizen and advocacy groups have taken to filing lawsuits against some of the refinery and chemical plants, and have found success. Shell Oil, for instance, settled one lawsuit by agreeing to reduce emissions at its Deer Park facility and pay a nearly $6 million penalty for federal clean-air violations.

Harris County is also stepping up to the plate, and in the latest salvo, the county attorney's office has sued Equistar Chemicals over the illegal emission of carcinogens from the company's plant on Sheldon Road in Channelview.

According to the lawsuit, 448 pounds of 1,3 butadiene, a recognized carcinogen which is also linked to birth defects, was illegally unleashed into the air on December 16, 2009. More than 725 pounds of butenes, which contribute to ozone, were also released. Harris County claims that the emissions violated the facility's permit.

A gasket failure led to the emissions event. The facility apparently determined that a gasket had not been properly installed on an exchanger. However, the lawsuit states, "This explanation does not provide an adequate affirmative defense to the County's allegations sufficient as to excuse these acts of air pollution."

In addition to court costs, Harris County is seeking monetary penalties. County attorneys say that based on the number of contaminants released and the number of permit violations in this case, the penalty would be about $200,000.

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