Editor's note: The video above aired in December 2019.
The large chemical fire led to a plume of smoke that spread across much of the Houston area. The chemicals released in the massive fire caused a Benzene scare, school closures and shelters-in-place. A manifold leak was blamed as the initial cause of the tank fire.
The lawsuit holds ITC accountable for the fire, specifically for violating Harris County development regulations and discharging pollutants into the county’s stormwater system. The Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against ITC for violating the state’s Clean Air Act.
County Attorney Chris Menefee said because of a recent state law that takes away Harris County’s right to bring cases under state environmental laws where the state has already intervened, the county was unable to bring the claims brought by the Attorney General.
“The Harris County Attorney’s Office will use any tools available to hold industry accountable at the local level,” Menefee said. “This is also a victory for taxpayers, almost $1,000,000 will be returned to the County. This is a sizeable settlement — one of the largest our office has achieved for this type of case. We will look at all angles to seek environmental justice and push these companies to follow proper preventative measures to avoid future disasters like this one.
“I also urge state legislators to revisit the law preventing Harris County from bringing environmental claims that affect its residents. Harris County should be allowed to pursue comprehensive actions against these polluters, and my office stands ready to do just that.”
ITC also released a statement about the settlement, saying, "“ITC appreciates the significant resources incurred by Harris County during the incident response. Thus, we are pleased to have been able to work cooperatively with the County to find an amicable resolution to resolve its claims.”
Earlier this year, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo outlined actions county officials have taken over the past two years to enhance environmental monitoring and enforcement since the ITC fire.
Hidalgo said since the ITC fire, the county has allocated more than $11 million towards improving its preparedness and response to chemical incidents. This includes adding emergency response workers, chemists and field investigators to the pollution control department.
The county has also doubled the size of the county HazMat team. And to hold polluters accountable, the county increased its capacity to pursue legal actions.
Also, following the findings of a gap analysis, Hidalgo directed agencies to improve monitoring and information sharing.
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