Energy & Environment

Verdict In Waste Pits Trial Rejects County, But One Defendant To Pay $29.2 Million

A civil court jury has rejected the attempt by Harris County to make companies pay for pollution from decades-old toxic waste sites.

San-Jacinto-River
Harris County officials visiting dioxin-contaminated site along San Jacinto River, east of Houston, in 2013. Photo taken by Dave Fehling

 

The trial lasted nearly a month but jurors took just two hours to reach a verdict. 

At issue: the waste pits that lie along the San Jacinto River where it crosses under I-10 East. 

Harris County blamed companies that put tons of paper mill waste in the pits nearly 50 years ago, then failed to maintain them, leading to dioxin contamination of the river.

But lawyers for International Paper and the company it had acquired, Champion Paper which had generated the waste, told jurors that Harris County was quote, “trying to punish us for something we did not do.” 

The companies contended they obeyed existing environmental law of the 1960s and did not have responsibility when other companies dug up the waste pits.

The jury apparently agreed, finding the companies not liable. 

They county says it will appeal.

It’s head of environmental litigation, Rock Owens, says that the judge kept out what could have been persuasive testimony from people who live in the area. “I think it would have personalized this for the jury, made it less of a matter of fact thing, where you just answer the questions yes and no,” says Owens. 

But the county didn’t leave the courthouse entirely empty handed.

Just before the case went to the jury, another defendant, Waste Management that had acquired a company involved in the decades-old site, agreed to settle for $29.2 million.

A substantial sum, but far short of the over one billion dollars the county had originally sought.  

 

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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