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Settlements, Split Verdict Yield Murky Result in Waste Pit Case

By Matthew Tresaugue
 
November 13, 2014 | Updated: November 13, 2014 10:07pm
 
Harris County officials claimed pollution prevented Channelview-area residents from using the San Jacinto River for recreation and commercial fishing.
 
Harris County's effort to fine businesses for the poisonous paper-mill waste that had polluted the San Jacinto River for decades was a bold move that caught the attention of environmentalists here and across the country. Rarely, if ever, had government tried to enforce violation of state law over so many years.
 
The legal fight, however, produced a murky result Thursday with two of the county's three targets agreeing to pay nearly $30 million in damages before a split jury cleared the remaining defendant of any responsibility for the toxic pollution.
 
The county said a last-minute deal, announced Thursday by state District Judge Caroline Baker before closing arguments were set to begin in the 4-week-old trial, resolved its claims against McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Houston-based Waste Management Inc.
 
But lawyers for the holdout, International Paper Co., said the Memphis-based company refused to settle the case because it had done nothing wrong. "This isn't even a close call," Winstol "Winn" Carter, a Houston attorney representing International Paper, told the jury. "That's why I have the confidence to stand before you and against the government." The jury agreed, voting 10-2 in favor of the paper company.
 
The case had implications for future environmental protection efforts because it involved paper mill operations from nearly half a century ago, and companies that have since closed or merged with other businesses.
 
In closing arguments Harris County asked the jury to force International Paper to pay as much as $25,000 a day from February 1973 to March 2008 for allowing the release of cancer-causing dioxins into the river from three abandoned disposal pits, located on the banks of the river.
 
The waste in the pits was produced by Champion Paper, which merged with International Paper in 2000. In the process to whiten paper, the company's now-closed mill near the Washburn Tunnel produced large amounts of dioxins - compounds so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency says there is no safe level of exposure.
 
Obligations not handled
 
The pollution prevented Harris County residents from using the river for recreation and commercial fishing where the river flows beneath Interstate 10 near Channelview, the county claimed, though it could not show that anyone died or was stricken with cancer because of the dioxins.
 
"This is about a company that did not handle its obligations under the law, and it should pay a penalty," said Earnest Wotring, an attorney representing Harris County. "If they don't have to pay, companies will do nothing about their pollution problems."
 
But Carter said it was unfair to hold the paper company responsible for waste that was no longer under its control; McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. had hauled it away and buried it alongside the river in 1966. The now-defunct McGinnes, which owned and operated those pits, became part of Waste Management in 2005.
 
International Paper's attorneys also said Harris County and the state could not prove that dioxins leaked from the pits and into the river every day over four decades.
 
"This case isn't about protecting the environment," Carter said. "It's about penalties. They're accusing us of something we didn't do."
 
The trial unfolded as the EPA continued to weigh the best long-term remedy for the site, which earned a Superfund designation in 2008. The companies installed a $9 million armored cap on the submerged pits to contain the sludge three years ago.
 
Any jury award would have been in addition to the amount the companies are required to pay to clean up the site under the federal Superfund law.
 
Rock Owens, who manages the environmental division of the Harris County Attorney's Office, said the decision wasn't surprising because the jury wasn't allowed to see evidence that showed the depth of the pollution problem, as well as International Paper's earlier admissions of responsibility to the EPA.
 
"We're not going to take this lying down," Owens said, adding that the county may appeal the decision or file a new lawsuit over other pollution linked to International Paper.
 
Still, Owens said he viewed the legal fight as a victory because of the $29.2 million settlement with Waste Management and McGinnes. The county and the state will split the money.
 
"It does, at least to us, show that we were right in what we were doing," he said. "It also goes to show the difference in the defendants. One is a member of the community and wants to make its peace. The other isn't a member of the community. And you saw what happened. It's a difference between night and day."
 
Cleanup efforts
 
Toni Beck, a Waste Management spokeswoman, said the company was pleased to reach an agreement. "Our focus remains, as it always has, on fully participating in the very structured and well-defined EPA process, established to evaluate and determine the appropriate remedy for the site," she said.
 
Jacquelyn Young, a community activist, said Harris County officials did the right thing in pursuing penalties. She said she hopes the county will use the settlement money on cleanup efforts and a health-related study of the people who live and work near the pits.
 
"I trust the county's judgment that they've settled for what is right and just," she said. "Unfortunately, residents of Harris County passed on the opportunity to hold environmental polluters accountable. The battle isn't over."

 



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