Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park chemical fire

By Matt Aufdenspring - Digital Managing Editor, Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Editor, Syan Rhodes - Anchor/Reporter

DEER PARK, Texas - On Wednesday, Harris County filed a lawsuit against Intercontinental Terminals Co., which owns the facility at the center of the Deer Park chemical fire.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and temporary and permanent injunctions in an environmental enforcement action, according to the office of Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

"This company put the health of Harris County residents in danger in many ways for several days," Ryan said. "We will hold them responsible for their actions."

The lawsuit claims "ITC is responsible for burning and air emissions in violation of the state’s Clean Air Act, discharging industrial waste into nearby waters in violation of state law and county regulations, and violation of county floodplain regulations by not having development permits for structures at its facility."

READ the lawsuit here

Under the temporary restraining order, ITC would not be able to reopen until a third-party review by the court deems the company safe to resume operations. 

The TRO would prevent ITC from disposing of any waste and require the company to maintain all records of samples it has collected from the ground, water and air.

"When we allow companies like ITC to locate in our community, they have a responsibility to operate in a safe manner," Ryan said. "That’s why we have local and state regulations and laws to ensure that our residents are protected. Violations of those laws are unacceptable and we will work to ensure that they are enforced."

The lawsuit asks for civil penalties due to any violations of regulations, as well as reimbursement for fees the county incurred.

A judge ruled that ITC must preserve evidence in the case.

"My firm, along with a couple of other firms in this town, have hundreds of cases that are coming forward. We're just making sure that the evidence can be preserved so that all of them moving forward can be protected," said Bill Odgen who represents a 75-year-old Deer Park man who filed suit against ITC on Friday.

Lawyers from high profile firm Baker Botts were in the courtroom representing ITC and arguing the company was already operating under a preservation agreement with federal agencies investigating the incident.

"Not the concept of the preservation order, just the timing of it right now. We're trying to make sure everything gets taking care of and it's the government that's in control and we want to give them time to do what they are," said Michael Goldberg, one of the Baker Botts attorneys hired by ITC.

The judge decided the order would be put in place as long as it did not interfere with federal, state or local investigations. He gave all parties until Friday to come up with language for the order that they could all agree on.

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

The legal action is at least the fifth 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.

A Deer Park resident also filed a lawsuit against the company for monetary relief of $75,000 or less and nonmonetary relief, claiming the man feared for his life during multiple shelter-in-place orders and that he suffered injuries and damages due to the fire.

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 Wednesday, the Houston Ship Channel was still not fully open.

Check out the timeline of events below:

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