Late last week, the Harris County District Attorney’s office requested $850,000 to hire four prosecutors and four staff members to join its Environmental Crimes division, which currently employs two attorneys and a paralegal. The division plans to dedicate two of its new attorneys to evaluating cases for trial and identifying smaller cases that can be resolved with less punitive measures and without the need for drawn-out litigation. The Commissioners’ Court will hold a vote on the request this morning.
The under-enforcement of environmental laws along the Houston Ship Channel, and the bayous that flow into it, has led to avoidably repetitive legal violations in Harris County. The EPA’s publicly available data shows that 144 entities in Harris County, including ITC and KMCO, violated the Clean Water Act in at least six of the last 12 quarters since January 2016 — of these, only 25 faced a formal enforcement action even once for their repeated legal violations. Countless other entities, without any permits to allow violations to be tracked in the first place, also violated the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code over that same time period.
Bayou City Waterkeeper supports the request for more funding and urges the DA’s office to use its increased capacity to pursue our county’s worst environmental offenders, like Arkema, ITC, and KMCO, and prevent disasters from happening. We urge the county to view this request as one step of many which must be adopted to improve environmental investigation and enforcement across the county.
Statement from Kristen Schlemmer, Legal Director
Our environmental laws mean nothing without enforcement. Unpunished repetitive violations lead to disasters, like those caused by ITC and KMCO earlier this year. They leave us with dirty water and air, and they affect our health and quality of life. The DA’s request represents an opportunity for Harris County to give its residents cleaner water and air and prevent repeat offenders from creating costly disasters that could have been prevented through earlier vigorous enforcement. The DA’s office must use its increased manpower to target the worst offenders in Harris County, like ITC and KMCO, which have the resources to invest in pollution controls, elect not to, and create disasters that dirty our water and air — and sometimes, like in the case of KMCO, cause the death of an employee.
With additional funding to increase investigation, the DA’s office may also identify polluters with cases that could be better handled through the office’s well-established pretrial diversion program, which will require first-time and low-level offenders to give back time or money to local environmental organizations. Using alternatives to full-blown criminal prosecution of first-time and low-level polluters will make sure environmental violations do not go unpunished, as well as strengthen environmental protections across the region, without imposing unfair burdens on the low-income communities of color that already are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards in our county.