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Group Demands More Than 600 Firms |Pay Up for Superfund Cleanup

HOUSTON (CN) - The group charged with cleaning up a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas, sued more than 600 companies, demanding they contribute to the site's multimillion dollar remediation costs. The site is made up of 17 acres in Pasadena, Texas, where U.S. Oil Recovery ran an industrial waste recycling facility and wastewater treatment plant.

Pasadena, which got its name from the California city, is an industrial hub that is home to several refineries. It borders the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay. Some of the city's top employers are The Boeing Company and Shell.

The John Travolta flick "Urban Cowboy" was filmed at a now closed honkey-tonk bar in Pasadena owned by country music star Mickey Gilley.

At odds with the city's heavy industry is the annual Pasadena Strawberry Festival, an homage to an economy that took root when the American Red Cross bought 1.5 million strawberry plants and sent them to Pasadena to help victims of the 1900 hurricane and flooding in nearby Galveston, many of whom relocated to Pasadena, recover economically.

The U.S. Oil Recovery site is a more recent and ugly chapter in the city's history.

Federal regulators added the site to the National Priorities List in 2012 and the Environmental Protection Agency gave it Superfund status.

Waste is festering on the property in 225 roll-off containers; nearly 800 55-gallon drums; and 24 above-ground storage tanks, the lawsuit states. According to an EPA report, the agency found arsenic, barium, cobalt, manganese, mercury, silver and vanadium on the site and in the sediment of Vince Bayou, which runs through the property. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was also detected at high levels there.

"Onsite waste streams are in direct contact with the bayou during extreme rain events. Fishing for human consumption has been observed in Vince Bayou at the bridge near the site," the EPA said in its report.

The EPA undertook an emergency intervention at the site in 2010 to stop polluted storm water runoff from getting into the bayou.

"Containment actions included placement of booms and absorbent pads, use of pumps and vacuum trucks, and shipment of liquids for disposal," the complaint states.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is USOR Site PRP Group, which consists of 86 companies -- BP, Continental Airlines and Dow Chemical among them -- who have agreed to contribute to the site's cleanup costs as "potential responsible parties."

"To date, the USOR Site PRP Group has incurred at least $4,950,000 in response costs at the USOR Site ... including reimbursement of EPA response costs," according to the 495-page complaint.

The lawsuit's length stems from the large number of defendants who, except for the city of Pasadena, the plaintiff says each are "liable as an arranger or generator" of hazardous materials dumped at the site.

Other Texas cities named as defendants are Galveston, La Marque, Orange and Weatherford.

The group says it is entitled to ask the defendants to chip in on the cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act

It is represented by Gary Justis with the Justis Law Firm of Leawood, Kan.

"Certainly it's not unheard for a Superfund case to involve this many defendants," Justis told Courthouse News.

Justis said the PPR Group filed the case this week because of a July ruling by the 6th Circuit in Hobart Corporation v. Waste Management of Ohio Inc.

"That case dramatically changed the notion of the statute of limitations for this type of case. It used to be common practice that these types of cases had to be filed three years after completion of what is going on right now at the site, which is a removal action," Justis said.

"That case changed that notion dramatically by stating no this type of lawsuit has to be filed three years after the actual agreement is entered into with EPA to conduct the removal action ... So out of an abundance of caution the USOR Site PRP Group had to file this case now because they were coming up on the three-year anniversary of when they entered into that agreement with EPA."

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