The lawsuit comes just two weeks after Harris County Commissioners Court authorized the county attorney’s office to file a similar lawsuit against Intercontinental Terminals Co. following a fire that broke out at its petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park on March 17.
In both incidences, the lawsuits allege the companies violated the Texas Clean Air Act. In the lawsuit against KMCO LLC, however, the county also alleges the company violated the state’s Solid Waste Disposal Act and Clean Water Act, in addition to county regulations.
The lawsuit reads:
Plaintiff, Harris County, Texas, files this Original Petition and Application for Temporary Restraining Order and Temporary and Permanent Injunctions in the environmental enforcement action that KMCO, LLC (KMCO or Defendant) caused, suffered, allowed, or permitted unauthorized outdoor burning and air emissions in Harris County in violation of the Texas Clean Air Act, discharged industrial waste into waters in the State of Texas in violation of the Texas Water Code, Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, Harris County Floodplain Regulations, and Harris County Stormwater Regulations. Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties, costs, and attorney’s fees.
While County Attorney Vince Ryan filed the lawsuit April 3—amending an ongoing lawsuit the county already had with the company—the commissioners unanimously authorized the office to file the lawsuit and allocated funding for the case April 9.
“The way the statutes are written, for Harris County to bring an environmental enforcement lawsuit for violations of state law Chapter 7, which is the Clean Air Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Clean Water Act, we have to come to [Commissioners Court] first to get permission,” said Rock Owens, Harris County managing attorney for environmental and infrastructure.
Preparing for future fires
Following the ITC disaster, the court directed the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office to work with stakeholders to come up with a plan to better protect communities at the March 26 meeting.
“We’re vulnerable to the types of incidences. We live close to industry; that’s the reality of it,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the meeting. “So how can we protect our people and our environment? It’s become clear that we have to think cohesively about air monitoring, about warning systems—essentially what the gaps are between what the county is currently doing and what it needs to do.”
Following a second similar instance with KMCO in early April, the plan was further discussed April 9, and the court unanimously executed a $750,000 agreement with Penta Consortium LLC for a multiagency coordinating gap analysis for the county.
“[Penta Consortium LLC] is led by somebody that we have worked with in the past—Lt. Commander Joe Leonard—and he and his team have worked on other incidences, such as the BP incident,” Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said. “They’re very well-versed in not only gap analysis [and] risk analysis, but [also] that fire and life safety, hazardous materials and process analysis within chemical facilities.”
Christensen added that while the original request was to turn around the initial assessment within 45 days, she was unsure if that would be feasible based on what complications they could run into throughout the study.
“We have [hazardous occupancies] all throughout Harris County,” she said. “When we think about these places along the ship channel, we think of large industrial complexes, [but] there are small complexes within certain areas of Harris County that could be within a neighborhood. [That] doesn’t mean they’re bad people … or it’s bad work being performed, but it needs to be known where they are located, what chemicals they have and [if] they’re operating safely.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle added that part of the plan will also help the county and first responders prepare for the next incident involving hazardous materials. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia seconded Cagle, adding that first responders need to know what they are getting themselves into when responding to similar calls.
“I understand the need for protection on some information on a homeland security basis, but on an immediate emergency response level I think a lot of that goes out the door,” Garcia said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said striking the ideal balance between job creation and public safety will be key as the county moves forward.
“It’s probably a good time to have dialogue with the industry as part of the stakeholder group and environmental activists to find out what’s the sweet spot for Texas and for Harris County because we do rely on that petrochemical industry, but it should not be at our peril.”