County Attorney appeals court rulings in Waste Pits Case

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan today appealed trial court rulings in the case involving the contamination of the San Jacinto River.

County Attorney Ryan filed a Notice of Appeal in the case of Harris County and the State of Texas v. International Paper.

The case involves the contamination of the river by International Paper’s predecessor Champion Paper in the 1960s, when Champion’s Pasadena Mill disposed of dioxin-laced paper mill waste in pits dug on the river bank. The waste leaked into the river for more than four decades, where it has contaminated the water, the sediment and the fish.

The case was tried in October 2014, with a group of companies settling with Harris County and the State for $29.2 million before the jury returned its verdict.

The County is appealing on the grounds that the jury was not permitted to hear key evidence from experts and witnesses who live and work near the river. The trial court excluded reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Department of State Health Services about International Paper’s pollution of the San Jacinto River and endangerment of the people of Harris County with dioxin exposure. Harris County is also appealing the trial court’s instructions to the jury that took many of the factual issues out of the jury’s hands.

“Because of the numerous rulings at trial, Harris County did not get to present its case to the jury,” County Attorney Ryan said. “We respectfully disagree with those rulings, and will be appealing on behalf of the people of Harris County.”

Among other findings, the court ruled as a matter of law that once the waste was pumped into the pits, it was no longer Champion’s waste despite the fact that the company hired to dispose of the waste also disclaimed ownership of the waste as well. The court also held the jury could not hear evidence that Champion had done the same with another site in Texas.

“Under that theory, any polluter could escape punishment by giving waste away, and they would no longer be responsible for it,” Ryan said.

On April 6 the trial court overruled Harris County’s Motion for New Trial, clearing the way for the appeal.

Vince Ryan will ask the Harris County Commissioners Court to use the funds from the $29.2 million settlement for environmental projects that will benefit the people of Harris County who were most affected by the contamination.