Highlands meeting eyes “Bring the Money Back”

Harris County attorney Rock Owen

HIGHLANDS – Concerned residents of this town met on Tuesday evening at the Community Center, to hear an update on the trial of alleged polluters in the San Jacinto river, that have endangered the health and economy of the townspeople.

Making presentations were Harris County attorney Rock Owen, and Environmental activist Jackie Young, representing TexansTogether and San Jacinto River Coalition.

Owen had been the lead attorney at the two month trial that ended in November, with the result that $29.2 million dollars in fines were assessed by the Harris County court against Waste Management and its predecessor disposal company, McGinnis. These companies settled with the county by agreement. However, Owen said that the third defendant company, International Paper, was acquitted by a jury on a 10-2 vote of any responsibility for the pollution. Owen said the County is planning to appeal this decision, because many facts were excluded from the deliberations by the presiding Judge Caroline Baker.

Owen and County Attorney Vince Ryan have said that the proceeds, $29.2 million, will be split between the legal fees, the state general fund, and the county general fund. However, the purpose of this meeting was to get public input on suggestions for a better use for the monies, with the idea that commissioners court, and perhaps the state, would return the monies to the community if worthwhile projects could be proposed. At present, the County Commissioners have discretion on how the money is used for their share.

A number of suggestions were made by the audience and some specialists that were present. These included:

1. Land conservation on the riverfront, a set-aside to buffer further pollution problem areas;

2. Water supply to Highlands, from a more trusted source such as the City of Houston;

3. Dissemination of health information, warnings, and educational outreach regarding the dangers of the pollution in the river;

4. Remediation of other areas in addition to the known waste pits;

5. Provide sell testing and monitoring of private wells, which cannot now be paid for by public monies;

6. Water supply to areas that now only have wells;

7. Health Surveys, such as a complete epidemiology study;

8. Further testing of sediment and water quality in the river, over a period of time, and after storms.

Owen pointed out that under current law, the county cannot pay expenses of individuals who have suffered health problems or injuries. However, he noted that several private lawsuits were being pursued with this goal. He noted that groups have a better chance than individuals to win this type of lawsuit.

Owen also said that county attorney Vince Ryan was committed to having the toxic materials removed completely from the river and the community. Besides the county lawsuit, there is also a federal EPA Superfund Site procedure, and private lawsuits still to be adjudicated, he said.

Owen noted that looking at a larger picture, it is possible that the state legislature will try to limit local authorities from being able to sue on environmental issues, which would not be in the best interests of area citizens.

Owen said that the county at present has no tools or authority to deal with people who are already sick or hurt by pollution. Only private suits can bring any type of relief or compensation at the present time.

Questioned on how long all of this will take to resolve, Owen said years or longer. The EPA is not planning to issue a final decision until September 2015. Resident Bud Hall stated that there is an urgency for a few people that are already sick, and who have been “significantly harmed.”

Municipal water in Highlands is currently piped by the HCWICD from Baytown Area Water Authority, which is supplied from the Trinity River. However, many homes are on wells, not the water system, and may be subject to polluted water in their wells.

Chara Bebee, who has a son Christopher that had cancer, said “we should never forget the people here who have suffered, and were injured or died.”

Bob Allen, who works for Harris County Pollution Control, told the group that the Texas Health Department was planning a study of the area, to survey birth defects and cancer rates. However, this is not a full epidimiology study, which would require additional funding.