Billion-dollar trial over Harris County waste pits set to begin

October 7, 2014

A highly anticipated civil trial in Texas' 295th state District Court will decide responsibility for contamination emanating from a waste burial site along the San Jacinto River. The state is seeking the maximum possible penalty, or $25,000 a day, for the companies involved, dating back to the site's origin in 1965. If granted, the total penalties could amount to more than $1 billion. 

Beginning in the 1960s, a Pasadena paper company routinely sent its waste to be buried at a designated site along the San Jacinto River. Many of the chemicals involved have been proven to cause increased risk of cancer, and have leaked out from the burial site over time, eventually turning the river and surrounding area into one of the nation's most populated locations, according to the Houston Chronicle. 

Judge Caroline Baker will decide whether the three defendants, International Paper Co., McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Waste Management Inc. were both knowledgeable about the harmful effects of the contamination, and they knowingly left the poisonous sludge to leak out of its containment over the past half-century. 

Dioxins are chlorinated compounds that are formed in the paper bleaching process when chlorine chemicals are used. The source reports that these compounds are exceedingly toxic, and that the tons of wasted buried in the pits was contaminated with significant levels of the compound, which was allowed to seep into the river over the years.

To underline the severity of the contamination, the EPA has stated that there is no safe level of exposure to the dioxins buried in the three pits, which have been proven to lead to cancer and negatively affect both the reproductive and immune systems of those exposed.

"Unbelievably, the responsible companies purposefully walked away from their poisonous waste without a backward glance and remained silent for decades – content to let it become someone else's problem," Harris County's attorneys wrote in a 73-page petition. "And it did."

Although the three defendants installed an armored cap on the submerged pits as a containment effort in 2011, experts explain that the move is too little, too late. John Pardue, professor of environmental engineering at Louisiana State University, testified that the burial sites released the toxic compounds daily into the San Jacinto River from 1967 to 2008. The compounds found their way through levees, and flooding and tidal action moved the course of the river to flow directly under and through the pits. 

Texas has never before sought such extensive damage over so many years. The three companies have argued that its "fundamentally unfair" that current laws should apply to the sites prior history. The organizations have also undergone dramatic change since their status in the 1960s, after several mergers and acquisitions.

While the extent of damages will have to be determined, the companies have obviously learned an expensive lesson already. Waiting to address environmental remediation can have serious financial consequences. Environmental consultants can help organizations limit damages and help outline strategies to reduce the cost of remediation.