Elected officials, community leaders call on Paxton to aggressively resolve pollution cases

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AUSTIN, Texas —  Three years is too long, says Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, Texas environmental leaders, legislators and community members who today called on Attorney General Ken Paxton to move with greater urgency on several high-profile pollution cases. 

“These actions by the state of Texas prevent local officials from being able to fully advocate for their communities,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D Menefee. “These companies violated the law and polluted our air and water, and put the people who live nearby at risk. Accountability helps us protect our neighborhoods in the future.”

In 2019 and early 2020, Paxton filed lawsuits against Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), TPC Group, ExxonMobil and Valero for illegal air pollution at petrochemical facilities in Harris and Jefferson counties, which restricted the ability of county officials and nonprofit groups to do so. Since the Attorney General filed those lawsuits, these same four companies have released 639,000 more pounds of illegal pollution. 

On May 22, 2019, Environment Texas, the Sierra Club and the Port Arthur Community Action Network notified Valero of plans to sue for more than 600 violations of numerous hourly and annual limits on emissions at the company’s Port Arthur refinery during the previous five years, as well as dozens of violations relating to improper operation of the refinery’s large industrial flares. Shortly before the expiration of a mandated 60-day waiting period, Paxton filed his own suit, preventing Environment Texas, the Sierra Club and PACAN from moving forward with their own lawsuit.

Recent laws passed by the Texas Legislature allow the Attorney General and TCEQ to preempt pollution lawsuits for civil penalties filed by local governments. As a result, Harris County Attorney Menefee has been limited in involvement in the full scope of multiple settlements. In incidents involving various facilities the state has stepped in and settled for a small fraction of what they could be charged for pollution and emission violations.

On March 17, 2019, tanks containing toxic chemicals at the ITC facility in Deer Park caught fire. The fire created a plume over the Houston area and caused residents to shelter in place. County Attorney Menefee filed suit, only to be trumped by Paxton, seriously limiting what Menefee was able to do. Though he was able later to reach a settlement with ITC for $900,000, he was prevented from securing more substantial penalties or changes to plant operations. 

On July 31, 2019, an explosion occurred at ExxonMobil’s Baytown chemical plant, igniting a fire that released 220,000 pounds of emissions and created a thick, dark cloud of smoke visible for miles. At least 37 people sustained injuries. 

On November 27, 2019, an explosion at TPC’s Port Neches plant injured several workers and led to the evacuation of nearly 60,000 people in the surrounding area just a day before the Thanksgiving holiday. Community leaders, including members of PACAN, Environment Texas and Sierra Club testified before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to urge the agency to refer the company’s environmental violations to the Attorney General. This case too is still unresolved.

“I don’t understand why Attorney General Paxton is taking so long,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas. “Not a single one of these four cases seems anywhere close to resolution. Texans need the state’s top law enforcement officer to stop playing with their health and safety and enforce the laws we have.”

“We call on the state’s Attorney General Ken Paxton to do his job and take swift and substantial action to hold ITC, TPC, Valero and Exxon accountable for polluting frontline communities,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We also call on the legislature to reform our broken regulator –  the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – through sunset legislation to require a beefed up enforcement regime that prioritizes communities over pollution.”

“Mr. Paxton, I invite you to visit these affected communities like my hometown of Port Arthur; to trade places, breathe our air and speak with folks who suffer from lung disease, cancer and heart disease,” said John Beard of the Port Arthur Community Action Network. While you do nothing, these facilities continue to release toxicpollution into the air, and Texans’ lives and health are at risk.”