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Legal action by Harris County against ITC approved by commissioners

DEER PARK, Texas – The Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday unanimously approved to let the county attorney take legal action against the Intercontinental Terminals Co., which owns the facility at the center of the Deer Park chemical fire.

Commissioners discussed hiring a third-party auditor to review ITC. Any legal action would be filed to seek recovery on behalf of Harris County for all costs incurred by the county.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Twitter that the safety of the people and environment remains the top priority.

"We just voted unanimously to have the Harris County Attorney pursue any and all legal avenues against #ITC for the #DeerParkFire. The safety of our residents and environment remains our utmost priority," Hidalgo's tweet read. 

Commissioners said they will demand ITC cover all costs incurred during the response to put out the massive fire at Deer Park and promised to hold the storage facility accountable.

“The reality is: Until some of these people who go out and put humans, massive amounts of human beings, at risk, until we see those people start finding themselves placed in jail, we won’t see what we need to see for communities being protected,” said Commissioner Steve Raddack.

SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM OF THE ARTICLE FOR AN INTERACTIVE TIMELINE OF EVENTS

If the county moves forward with legal action, it would be at least the fourth lawsuit filed against ITC.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an environmental lawsuit Friday against Intercontinental Terminals Co. for violations of the Texas Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit claims the facility fire released several air contaminants, like benzene. 

"The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment," Paxton said. "ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk."

RELATED: ITC's economic impact: Local business owners hope Ship Channel to reopen soon

The state requested that the court grants the following relief as followed by law: 

  • A permanent injunction
  • Civil penalties and reasonable attorney fees
  • Court costs
  • Investigative costs

Four La Porte residents filed a lawsuit Friday seeking punitive damages against ITC in the amount of $2 million.

The lawsuit claims that ITC's negligence led to the plaintiffs being "severely harmed and made sick by ITC's conduct and have sought medical attention for the injuries they suffered from the incident." The lawsuit also claims they "were exposed to toxic chemicals from the release and had physical symptoms due to this release."

RELATED: Health worries linger after massive fire at ITC Deer Park facility

Another lawsuit, along with a temporary restraining order, was filed against ITC on behalf of seven Harris County residents. The lawsuit seeks monetary relief of $1 million.

Attorneys claim the chemical fire and subsequent flare-ups over a period of five days "caused and continues to cause physical injuries and extreme mental anguish to the residents of the communities within Harris County.

Cleanup continues

The fire started Sunday, March 17, and spread throughout the facility, engulfing nine of the 15 tanks in the area. It was put out around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Nearly 12 hours later, the fire reignited, sending a fireball into the air. Crews were able to put the fire out quickly, but the incident was far from over. 

On Thursday, after the fire had been out and crews had started pumping the chemicals out of the remaining tanks, benzene – a known carcinogen – was detected in the air, prompting more school closures and another shelter-in-place order.

Though the shelter-in-place order was lifted, schools remained closed for the rest of the week. 
On Friday, just as ITC officials were starting to seem hopeful the situation was going in the right direction, the facility suffered a break in a dike wall near the incinerated tanks. 

RELATED: What you need to know about benzene

Hours after the break, two tanks and chemical runoff in a ditch caught fire, sending yet another plume of smoke over the Deer Park area.

On Saturday, reports of several toxins found in the water near ITC prompted officials to close the ship channel.

The Coast Guard deployed a total of 8,500 feet of boom to try to trap as much of the chemical waste as possible, but some chemicals still made it into the ship channel’s waters.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard tripled the length of booms, totaling 27,000 feet, hoping to contain more of the toxins that had been released into the Houston Shop Channel.

As of Tuesday, the Houston Ship Channel was still not fully open.

Check out the timeline of events below: