Harris County, Industrial Companies Meet in Court Over Toxic Waste Dump

Photo from the EPA
An aerial photo shows the 20-acre San Jacinto River Waste Pits situated beside Channelview and Highlands.

On Thursday Harris County attorneys went head-to-head with Fortune 500 companies they blame for polluting the San Jacinto River nearly 50 years ago.

With $3.7 billion worth in penalties and attorneys' fees on the line, the county's opening statements in the long-awaited environmental enforcement trial hinged on the responsible companies' intentional abandonment of a former waste dump. The companies counterargument: environmental regulations weren't enforced until well after they started dumping.

The fact of the matter is there are currently 20 acres of toxic paper mill sludge sitting in the San Jacinto River, nicknamed the Waste Pits. They were created when the Pasadena-based Champion Paper contracted with McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to dispose of its industrial waste in a man-made enclosure inside the river, bounded by clay levees. After the Waste Pits filled, McGinnes elected to abandon them. Over time, carcinogenic chemicals leaked out into the river system.

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Warmer Gulf Waters Are Messing Things up for Texas Sea Turtles

Categories: Environment

Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife
Free the way a sea turtle was meant to be.

You'd think the warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico would be a good thing for sea turtles -- the turtle equivalent of excellent weather -- but the warmed-up waters may be causing problems for the creatures, according to researchers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

Every year there are sea turtles that need rescuing along the Texas coast, especially right after a sudden temperature change, but lately researchers have noticed an uptick in the number of sea turtles needing aid. Last fall, they helped out more than 500 sea turtles, many of whom had gone into shock because of the sudden cold snaps causing water temperatures to drop.

Traditionally, sea turtles migrate to warmer waters as the seasons shift but in recent years the Gulf waters have stayed pretty comfortable for longer periods of time, and many turtles didn't bother to migrate, which would have been fine if the weather had stayed all comfortable and warm. But it didn't, of course, and neither did the waters off the Texas coast, and that didn't go so well for the sea turtles caught in the climate-chang crossfire, according to Tony Amos, a Marine Science Institute fellow and director of Animal Rehabilitation Keep. Plummeting temperatures translated to sea turtles slipping into shock and the risk that they would develop pneumonia or be killed from the cold.

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San Jacinto Dioxin Case Kicks Off

Categories: Crime, Environment

Photo by Susan Du
Highlands residents still fish in the San Jacinto River despite the EPA advisories against eating fish and crab.

The trifecta of lawsuits filed against companies for allegedly dumping toxic paper waste into the San Jacinto River finally came to trial on Monday. Waste Management, International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation are accused of allowing dioxin, a "cancer-enhancer" chemical, to leak uninhibited into a river system where people have been swimming and fishing since the 1960s. They stand to pay damages worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Harris County and local residents if they are found liable.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued all three companies for $2 billion in penalties for failure to disclose and clean the waste. His move opened the floodgates for suits from dozens of Vietnamese fishermen who depend on contaminated San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay fisheries for their livelihood. Residents of Highlands filed a third lawsuit, claiming they never would have moved beside the river if they knew about the toxic waste dump underneath the surface.

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Red Tide Season Is Upon Us: Oysters and Fish Beware

Categories: Environment

Photo by Jules Morgan
Won't somebody think of the oysters? (Everybody is.)

Beware the red tide. That may sound like a pseudo-biblical warning, but the nasty algae that goes by that name is already popping up in Texas waters this season. And you know what this means: Oyster season, that magical time of the year when we can eat raw oysters fished out of Texas waters, is in danger.

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That Stinky Seaweed in Galveston Could Soon Be Edible

Categories: Environment

Jerald Jackson
Unless you're without a sense of smell (and thus lucky in this case) you've probably noticed that Galveston kind of smells like it's on the edge of the bowels of something unspeakably nasty these days because of the many tons of seaweed that have washed up on our hallowed shores.

Scientists have been working on a plan to deal with all of this disgusting seaweed -- it's actually called sargassum and the folks on Texas and Louisiana shores have been wrangling with it for months. You might have looked at all this seaweed and wondered what in the world would be done with it. Well, Tom Linton and Robert Webster, researchers at Texas A&M-Galveston, are working on a plan.

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Environmentalists Rally Around Lawsuit to Scrub San Jacinto Waste Pits

Categories: Environment

Photo by Susan Du
Environmental activist Jackie Young of Texans Together gathers protesters in front of the Waste Management headquarters. Pending an actual "solution for pollution," the county attorney will push on with his suit to collect billions in fines.

As Houston corporate lobbyists fight a county lawsuit seeking to penalize companies for carcinogens plaguing the San Jacinto River, environmental groups have pledged to keep hounding their headquarters with angry rhymes.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued Waste Management, International Paper, and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation for $2 billion in penalties for the cancer-causing dioxin that's leached out of the San Jacinto Waste Pits for nearly half a century. But Waste Management and International Paper say they only inherited the property after it had been polluted, so they're not liable to pay for full remediation.

Champion Paper and its contractor McGinnes Industrial Maintenance created the Waste Pits in the 1960s, when barges carrying with sludge from a paper mill in Pasadena dumped their contents in pits on the river's west bank. Over time, erosion, rising water and the companies' total abandonment caused part of the Waste Pits to submerge underwater, contaminating the San Jacinto River within a half-mile radius. The pits are currently covered by a temporary cap, which Waste Management and International Paper support leaving in place as a much cheaper alternative to a thorough scrubbing.

The pollution is so extensive that the EPA named the Waste Pits a Superfund site -- part of the federal government's program to repair the nation's concentrations of uncontrolled hazardous waste.

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Halliburton Totally Settling the BP Oil Spill

Categories: Environment

Photo by the U.S. Coast Guard
The beginnings of the whopper of an oil spill that Halliburton is paying for (a little.)

Halliburton has managed to dodge some of the notoriety that has dogged British Petroleum in the wake of the massive BP oil spill (partly because it was called the BP oil spill and all) but the Houston-based company has still been all wrapped up in lawsuits. Some of those lawsuits may soon be resolved since Halliburton has reached a settlement that -- if approved by the judge overseeing the case -- could clean up the bulk of Halliburton's lawsuits for about $1.1. billion.

For those with short memories, way back in 2010 BP was drilling a well out off the Louisiana coast when there was a massive blowout that killed 11 people and sent millions of barrels of crude oil gushing into the Gulf. It's the largest oil spill in U.S. history, no matter which way you slice it. And officials representing the three companies involved have tried their best to chop things up so they can shoulder the smallest amount of blame possible. BP owned the well, Transocean owned the rig and Halliburton was contracted to do the cement casing -- the one that BP reps in particular have blamed for the spill. Meanwhile, Halliburton folks have been busy blaming BP for the whole thing.

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EPA Finally Agrees to Clean Up CES Environmental's Mess

Categories: Environment

After nearly four years of public outcry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finally agreed clean up abandoned industrial waste left behind by CES Environmental Services in southeast Houston.

For years neighbors had complained about CES' Griggs Road facility, where the company cleaned tanker trucks for refineries and chemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel, recycling oil and packaging waste for disposal. CES filed for bankruptcy in 2010, shortly after federal regulators fined the company $1.5 million for a litany of safety violations onsite.

CES closed its doors for good later that year. But when the company closed up shop, it conveniently forgot to clean up its mess.

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Greg Abbott Threatens to Sue EPA...Again

Categories: Environment

Another win for rhetoric in the fight against nuance
The past several years of Greg Abbott's political career have been one long, drawn-out pissing match with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For an avowed tort-reformer, our Attorney General-turned GOP candidate for governor sure loves a good lawsuit when the feds are in the crosshairs, famously describing his job as AG this way: "I go into the office, I sue Barack Obama and I go home." Last month Abbott even considered suing Obama over the recent uptick in immigrant kids detained at the Texas/Mexico border, because, you know, why not?

But apparently lawsuits against the EPA are what really make Abbott's mouth water--17 of the more than two-dozen challenges Abbott has filed against the Obama Administration have targeted the EPA. So it should shock no one that early this week Abbott threatened to again sue the agency, this time over a proposed rule change clarifying that upstream water sources should be protected from pollution.

In his formal comments to the EPA Monday Abbott called the rule change an unlawful, unconstitutional land-grab that "would erode private property rights and have devastating effects on the landowners of Texas." He capped his comments telling the EPA to back down or else "the State of Texas will have no choice but to challenge the rule in federal court." Texas v. EPA, round 18?

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Chikungunya-Positive Mosquito Confirmed in Harris County

Photo from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Aedes aegypti, one of two types of mosquito that carry chikungunya, up close and personal.

The Houston area has always been impressively swampy, so of course the first Texas mosquito carrying chikungunya, a disease that causes high fever and severe joint pain, has been found right here in our very own mosquito-plagued backyard.

There have been rumblings about chikungunya in recent months, since the disease was confirmed in the Caribbean last year. Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services confirmed the first Houston-area case back on July 11, and there have been cases confirmed in almost every state of the country, but up until recently, the people with the disease were infected while traveling and then they brought the disease back, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there have been some locally transmitted cases in Florida, all the rest have been the fancy imported kind.

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