Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously authorized the county attorney's office to file suit at a March 26 meeting. The ITC chemical fire sent a plume of smoke into the sky that lasted for days, resulting in the discharge of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby water sources, and the lawsuit accuses the company of violating regulations for clean air, water and solid waste disposal, among other regulations.
The suit will seek to recover all costs incurred by Harris County related to the fire, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said at the meeting. The court also approved bringing a third-party auditor on board to review ITC's response to the fire.
"We have to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened and enforce the regulations that are meant to keep us safe," Soard said.
The county's suit comes after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an environmental lawsuit against ITC March 22 on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The state suit seeks injunctive relief and civil penalties and alleges that the fire released air pollution in violation of the Texas Clean Air Act, according to a release from Paxton's office.
A spokesperson for ITC said the company does not comment on litigation issues.
Commissioners also used meeting time to bring attention to several state efforts—including several proposed bills in the current legislative session and a law that took effect in 2015—they said could undermine the county's efforts to hold ITC accountable.
A law that went into effect in 2015 sets a cap of $4.3 million on how much a local government can collect in a civil suit related to the state's water code, an amount Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo described as a "slap on the wrist."
A bill that has been filed this year would give the attorney general the ability to settle a lawsuit that falls under the jurisdiction of the TCEQ without consulting local government. Hidalgo said efforts to prevent the proposed bill from being signed into law and efforts to repeal the 2015 law would be added to the county's legislative priorities, and she called on Houston-area representatives to speak out against them.
More than 30 public speakers signed up to address the ITC fire at the March 26 meeting, calling on commissioners to take a range of actions, including developing a regional air toxins plan, improving coordination between chemical facilities, government and community members, and enforcing regulations more consistently. One speaker wondered why environmental violations are not addressed more seriously, referencing a line from Paxton's statement where Paxton acknowledges ITC's "history of environmental violations."
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not think meaningful change will take place unless people who are responsible face harsher punishment than fines and sanctions.
"The reality is until some of these people, that go out and put ... massive amounts of human beings at risk … start finding themselves placed in jail, you’re not going to see what you need to see," Radack said. "When you take a look at how many people could’ve been killed in this incident, and these people's track record, I think it’s a shame, and something drastic needs to be done and our state legislature needs to do it."
The court directed several county departments with tasks and studies to try to prevent future incidents and ensure better preparation. The Fire Marshal was directed to work with stakeholders to come up with a plan to better protect communities. Officials with the pollution control department are working to come up with a proposal for how air quality monitoring systems can be expanded and improved, which could entail purchasing a mobile monitoring unit.
Officials conducting a study on how to improve health care access in the county were tasked with looking specifically at what kinds improvements are needed to better serve communities in incidents like the fire. The county provided mobile clinics in Deer Park to provide free treatment to more than 1,000 residents in the aftermath of the fire. Hidalgo said the demand at the mobile clinics demonstrated the need for greater health care access in general.
"I think this highlighted the need for health care access, especially in this part of town," she said.