Texas Caps Penalties for Environmental Polluters

     HOUSTON (CN) – Big industry got a big win in Texas on Tuesday as Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that limits the civil penalties counties can recover from polluters.
     House Bill 1794 will become law on Sept. 1. It caps the amount local governments can recover from companies or individuals that violate the state’s Water Code and Health and Safety Code to $2.15 million, and narrows the time counties can bring such lawsuits to five years after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gives notice of an alleged violation.
     Critics say the bill guts counties’ ability to hold accountable those who have fouled the environment and endangered public health, and that the TCEQ doesn’t have the resources to litigate the typically complex cases.
     “It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters. That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill,” Terry O’Rourke, prosecutor with the Harris County attorney’s office, told The Texas Tribune.
     All five of the bill’s authors are Republican, including Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth. Geren told the Tribune that Harris County prosecutors have been “abusing” the authority Texas gave counties nearly 50 years ago to sue companies for violating environmental laws.
     Harris County encompasses the Port of Houston, which according to the Port’s website “is home to a $15 billion petrochemical complex, the largest in the nation and second largest in the world.”
     Harris County has filed about 10 pollution lawsuits every year for the past five years, netting an average of $61,000 in penalties, the Tribune reported. The county employs four attorneys in its environmental enforcement division and they are kept busy with around 1,500 citizen complaints a year, the newspaper said.
     Every environmental lawsuit brought in Texas must include the TCEQ as a “necessary and indispensable party.” Harris County and state prosecutors recently negotiated a $29.2 million settlement with Waste Management Inc., of Houston, and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. for polluting the San Jacinto River with dioxin-laced wastewater. Dioxin is a known carcinogen.
     Bringing this kind of case may be off limits for Texas counties after Sept. 1 since the dioxin pollution dates back to the 1960s and the new law sets the statute of limitations at five years.
     Under the new law, the first $4.3 million in penalties will be split evenly between the county and state, and anything above $4.3 million will go to Texas.
     Supporters of the bill said it helps Texas’ sales pitch as an industry-friendly state, as it removes excessive penalties that could scare away companies.
     They also claim civil penalties don’t help the victims of pollution since they go into state and county coffers, and because they can be assessed in addition to clean-up costs, they detract from remediation efforts.
     Environmentalists say the new civil penalty limits could lead polluting companies to strategically eat those costs, rather than paying cleanup tabs that can escalate into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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