Report: Polluters Dirty Harris County Waters

A new report says industrial and municipal facilities in Harris County are some of the worst violators of the Federal Clean Water Act, polluting rivers, lakes, bayous and the ship channel at record pace. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports

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The report, titled Troubled Waters, an Analysis of Clean Water Act Compliance, was released by Austin-based Environment Texas. It says hundreds of Texas companies and municipalities exceeded their permit limits between July of 2003 and December of 2004. More than 100 reported instances where they exceeded their permits by at least 500 percent. Luke Metzger is with Environment Texas and says polluters are using waters in Harris County as their own dumping grounds.

"Harris County is actually number one in the nation in our report for Clean Water Act exceedances. 99 oil refineries and chemical plants and other facilities discharged toxic chemicals like cyanide and copper into our waterways greater than their own permits allow."

Metzger says penalties for clean water violations have very little bite and that ignoring the guidelines often makes more economic sense to companies and municipalities than following the rules does.

"You could just do the math. The fines are so low it's cheaper to just pay a fine occasionally than actually take the steps to comply with the law. So actually it's just a perverse incentive to break the law because out state is failing to adequately enforce them."

According to the report, 348 polluters in Texas exceeded the guidelines more than 2000 times between 2003 and 2004. The City of Houston was fined almost a million dollars last year for violations at a wastewater treatment plant. Terry Clawson is with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and says the agency does what it can to punish water polluters.

"We conducted more than 80,000 investigations last year. We collected the highest amount of penalties and supplemental environmental projects in TCEQ's history, over $12.4 million. We do go out and enforce on people."

Clawson says the TCEQ is considering increasing the penalties for violators who get an economic benefit from breaking the rules, an issue that will be examined later this week in Austin. Victor Flatt is an environmental law professor at University of Houston Law Center and says the state needs to send a strong message.

"If the state indicates through its own policies that it's not that big of a deal, if they don't penalize it that much, of course the corporations are going to think, well, I'm not being that bad, the state's not really fining me so it's not that bad. So the state has to step-up and take a leadership position to show the corporations what they should do as a good corporate citizen."

You can find the full Troubled Waters report through a link on our website, KUHF.org.

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