Texas county and petrochemical company settle lawsuit

A mid-March weekend two years ago was interrupted by a Saturday afternoon fire at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery. News reports stated that the blaze was extinguished after about four hours.

Details of that incident were forgotten by area residents less than 24 hours later when an eruption of flames and smoke shook the Intercontinental Terminals Company storage facility a little more than 10 miles west. The chemical fire in the Houston suburb of Deer Park burned for four days, sending up an enormous plume of dark smoke that spread over much of the metro area.

The chemicals released resulted in school closures and local officials urging residents to shelter in place, keep their air conditioners off and avoid going outside.

The Harris County Attorney’s office later filed a lawsuit to hold ITC accountable for expenses the county incurred in fighting the massive fire.

A win

County Attorney Chris Menefee recently announced that the ITC lawsuit had been settled for $900,000, a development he hailed as “a victory for taxpayers.”

“This is a sizeable settlement,” Menefee said. “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.”

However, Menefee chafes at a recent state law that prevents municipalities from filing lawsuits under Texas environmental laws when the state has already acted in the matter.

Ready to pursue

He urged “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.”

Unfortunately, in recent years there have been a number of fires, explosions and leaks at petrochemical and refinery facilities scattered across the state that posed an array of dangers to the environment and nearby residents. Nearby towns, cities and counties have taken legal actions for compensation for environmental damage and to recoup responder costs.