Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the cause of last month’s chemical fire in Deer Park – the one that sent a giant plume of dark smoke into the air above Houston. But before the fire was extinguished, the state of Texas did something almost unheard of: it sued the company that operates the site, and it did the same thing when another chemical fire broke out a few days later at a plant in Crosby.
Kiah Collier, an environment and energy reporter for The Texas Tribune, says the state often waits years to sue companies for environmental damage. In some cases, it never seeks compensation at all, which happened after a fertilizer plant in West exploded in 2013.
“There are suspicions about [the state’s] motivations this time,” Collier says. “For one, they don’t fine very many rogue air emissions events at all, even ones that could lead to fires.”
Collier says state officials often meet with alleged polluters after an accident, negotiating lower penalties than they might face if they lost a court judgment. But in these recent cases, she suspects that officials have responded with more overt public rebukes because the fires themselves were so visually dramatic and hard to ignore.
“It was a bit of a public relations nightmare,” Collier says. “I think some pretty damning details are going to come out.”
A lawsuit against KMCO, the company that owns the Crosby plant, alleges that the company was aware of safety risks before the accident.
Collier says Republican lawmakers are as angry as Democrats about the incidents, and that Democrats are hopeful that they will have a chance to pass legislation that would tighten regulations on industrial polluters.
“Environmental groups were very happy about this, and applauded the state,” Collier says.
But they worry that the state’s actions could be a way to pre-empt local suits that might seek even greater damages from the companies. After the state filed its suit, Harris County filed lawsuits against the owners of the Deer Park and Crosby plants.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.