How Harris County’s top lawyer keeps polluters in check

by | Jul 30, 2021 | Environment, Policy

In July alone, the Houston area suffered at least three chemical disasters.

Most recently, a deadly leak at a LyondellBasell chemical plant in La Porte released 100,000 pounds of acetic acid, killing two workers and sending thirty people to the hospital. 

Less than a week earlier a La Porte Dow Chemical plant leaked hydroxyethyl acrylate, a chemical that causes skin and eye irritation, and forced officials to issue an evacuation and shelter-in-place order.

And a week before that another LyondellBasell chemical plant in Galena Park leaked a cocktail of foul-smelling chemicals that cause respiratory and digestive system problems, which residents reported smelling in their homes.

Days before the string of back-to-back toxic releases occurred, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee testified at a virtual public comment session hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where he advocated for the return of chemical disaster rules that were rolled back by the Trump administration. 

The chemical disaster rules were issued in the final days of the Obama administration as a response to deadly chemical disasters, namely the 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people. 

“People die. Homes are destroyed,” Menefee said at the meeting. “Communities are forced to evacuate because toxic chemicals are in the air. The EPA must enact rules strong enough to ensure that industry is doing its part to prevent these events, and that when the smoke is in the air, emergency responders have all the information they need to mitigate the damage and save lives.”

The chemical disaster rules sought by the Obama administration required companies to analyze the source of disasters, give safety training to chemical plant supervisors, and provide the public and first responders with details about chemicals stored in facilities. The rules were set to go into effect in 2017, but Trump moved to cancel them upon taking office. He succeeded two years later.

Menefee told the Signal the return of the safety rules would help prevent chemical disasters in Harris County and mitigate the effects of disasters when they occur. 

“We have the largest petrochemical complex in the United States,” Menefee said of Harris County. “We also have at the same time a history of severe weather events. It has become normal life out here to see a plant explosion or a refinery explosion. It’s become normal life to hear about benzine being emitted from a plant and having to evacuate entire schools and neighborhoods.”

A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found the Houston area suffers a hazardous material-related disaster — either toxic releases, fires, or explosions — every six weeks. 

During these chemical disasters, while Pollution Control Services and the Fire Marshal’s Office investigates and secures the scene, the attorney’s office serves as a watchdog to keep a careful eye on how petrochemical companies respond. If a company can’t control a disaster immediately, the office can seek a court mandate to require the company to take certain remediation measures to comply with environmental laws. If any law violations occur, the office can bring out the big civil enforcement guns in the form of compliance cases that seek penalties to cover costs made by the county fighting the disaster. 

In April for example, Menefee settled a lawsuit with Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) for $900,000 over the company’s 2019 Deer Park explosion and fire. These enforcement actions, win or lose, are a regular appearance in the energy capital. In fact, they’ve long drawn the ire of Texas Republicans in Austin who have passed laws limiting how much money local governments can sue polluters for.

Menefee suspects the Biden administration will at the very least bring back the Obama-era rules and add some more enhanced regulations, hopefully, some recommended by his own office, such as requiring facilities to evaluate their risk to extreme weather events.

Without the rules in place, Menefee said petrochemical companies haven’t necessarily been more brazen with the relaxed safety standards but there is ample evidence they’ve enjoyed them.

“Industry is always going to do what’s required of them,” Menefee said. “They’re typically not going to be in the business of going above and beyond on every single measure.”

“What’s most telling, when the rules got rolled back, they complied with the rules, which is the minimum standard,” he said.

During the EPA public comment session, Menefee said he saw several industry lobbyists, from major petrochemical companies or law firms that represent them, advocating for mild to no rule changes at all. 

Now almost eight months into the job, the county’s top civil lawyer has not been shy about saber-rattling with petrochemical industries that have turned too many of the county’s neighborhoods into sacrifice zones — a grim but accurate term to describe elevated levels of pollution and cancer in low-income neighborhoods, often communities of color, who live near facilities that contain or emit hazardous materials. 

Praising his predecessor Vince Ryan on environmental protection, Menefee said the new attorney’s office aims to be more aggressive when it comes to environmental matters. 

One of his first actions as county attorney was successfully challenging the permit of a Valero petroleum refinery that previously allowed it to spew 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide per year into the air of east Houston’s Manchester neighborhood. “You can expect more where this came from,” Menefee told the Signal at the time.

In March, the Harris County Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation arguing that the agency failed to consider how a proposal to expand I-45 would impact the environment and quality of life of residents. And in June, Menefee scrutinized a plan by Union Pacific to clean up a contaminated site in the Fith Ward where one of the company’s former facilities operated. 

“I think we’ve made clear that we have no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to protect residents in underserved communities when industry crosses the line or has a major emissions event,” Menefee said.

What about suing major fossil fuel companies for climate change? 

Menefee said his office was monitoring cases in California where local governments were doing exactly that. It could be challenging to prove in court, he said, and those legal actions were still in their infancy.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point,” Menefee said.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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