Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.


Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

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2 Responses to Prosecuting polluters

  1. Don Coffey says:

    I came up with the idea to create what eventually became the TCEQ in the summer of 1990. I was doing a 6 week internship in the environmental enforcement department of the Harris County Attorney’s office. I was working with Terry O’rourke who had worked for the Air Control Board. At the time I also worked for then State Senator Gene Green. In 1990 there were 3 different agencies that regulated Texas emissions. I said that’s nuts let’s create a Texas EPA. So I convinced a professor at UH law school, I started my second year in 1990, to give me 4 hours credit to get it done in the 1991 legislative session. I wrote the law but Bullock told me we are not going to call it Texas EPA. So he named it TNRCC. Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. Later to become TCEQ. Half way through the session Bullock gave my bill to Carl Parker because of a deal Bullock had cut with him over Parker’s agreement to once again chair the Education committee. My vision had always been an agency to protect our environment but it became a one stop shop to get a permit to pollute. I’m still proud of what I created but more in the vein of Frankenstein than Pasteur.

  2. Pingback: County brings charges related to ITC fire – Off the Kuff

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