Court Says County Attorney Vince Ryan Can Sue for San Jacinto River Dioxin Pollution

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Image from Environmental Protection Agency
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has got the go-ahead to continue his suit against a slew of companies for all the dioxin they allegedly dumped in the San Jacinto River back in the 1960s.

Ryan's office called in outside counsel when they decided to sue International Paper Company, Waste Management, Inc. and Waste Management of Texas in 2011 for more than $1 billion in civil penalties for polluting the San Jacinto. The suit was held up when the lawyers representing the companies said calling in extra lawyers was illegal. On Thursday, an appeals court said Ryan's office could use an outside legal team to proceed with the lawsuit.

In the 1960s, the companies were allegedly dumping large amounts of paper-mill waste containing dioxin, a chemical known to cause cancer and birth defects, into pits alongside the river. The lawsuit claims the companies failed to disclose the waste, so it was left there for 40 years, polluting the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay.

The dumping location is now an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, complete with signs in the area warning against eating the contaminated fish, according to StateImpact Texas. The Texas Department of State Health Services also warns women who are pregnant or nursing and kids under the age of 12 not to eat fish or blue crab in the area.

So, Ryan's office filed a lawsuit in 2011, and they called in the law firm Connelly Baker Wotring LLP to assist in the case. Lawyers representing the companies being sued argued that the County Attorney's office had no right to hire outside counsel, because these lawyers would be working on a contingency. The incentive of winning money if they won the case would remove the neutral status of the court, the company lawyers claimed, arguing the point before the First Court of Appeals.

The County Attorney's office countered, arguing that the companies, by virtue of being corporate entities, had access to experienced, high-paid lawyers. They also noted that contingency fees are capped and reviewed by the Texas State Comptroller (so the hired-on lawyers won't be collecting huge chunks of the money, should Harris County win.)

On Thursday, the appeals court sided with Harris County, stating that hiring extra counsel was allowed because the County Attorney's Office will stay in control of the suit.

"As advocates in an adversarial system, prosecutors are necessarily permitted, even required, to be zealous in their enforcement while being mindful of the public interest," Judge Harvey Brown wrote in the opinion.

Now Ryan's team can proceed with the lawsuit, seeking civil penalties for up to $25,000 a day for violating laws regulating the disposal of industrial waste, according to court documents. If the trial goes the county's way, the companies could be paying more than $1 billion in civil penalties.

"The ruling affirms the County's right and my duty to assemble the best team of public and private lawyers I can to protect the public health and safety of our community, especially when the defendants have virtually no limit on what they can spend to fight the people of Harris County," Ryan stated in a release.

Or, to translate, the County Attorney's Office won, and the corporate guys so did not.

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