At a conference hosted by County Attorney Vince Ryan last week, experts described the environmental challenges facing Harris County when storms like Hurricane Harvey strike the Texas coast, the home of hundreds of chemical companies and oil refineries.
The symposium titled “Environmental Disasters in Harris County,” held on Oct. 10 featured scientists, lawyers, and other experts who discussed what government and industry were doing and could do to prevent the loss to life and property from flooding and severe weather events.
“Our office is willing to take the lead in protecting our community with respect to the environment,” said County Attorney Ryan. “This symposium was a great effort to keep all parties focused, engaged, and up-to-date with the latest information and efforts by our office and other agencies.”
Attorney Charles Irvine, lead counsel in a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, for flood damage to hundreds of homes located upstream of the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs in west Harris County, said the Corps knew that torrential rain storms regularly occurred in Harris County and that the areas upstream from the dams would flood. He described the devastating impact of flooding to homeowners.
Jim Blackburn, Co-Director of the SSPEED Center, Rice University, showed the catastrophic impact of a Hurricane Ike-type storm moving up the Ship Channel. He said it would be one of the worst environmental disasters ever to occur in the United States, jeopardizing over 200 chemical plants, shutting down refining capacity for six to 12 months, and placing the lives of 800,000 people at risk. He called for the construction of the Galveston Bay Park, a series of islands extending from Houston Point down the ship channel to Texas City, to provide protection from storm surge.
Arturo Blanco, Director, Office of Communities, Tribes and Environmental Assessment, EPA Region 6, shared the EPA’s environmental justice outreach and emergency response initiatives. Rodrigo Cantú, Environmental Justice Team, Lone Star Legal Aid, discussed protecting communities from environmental hazards – especially low-income, marginalized communities. Randy Palachek, Senior Technical Expert, and Kirk Dean, Ph.D., Principal Scientists, Parsons, discussed dioxin contamination at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.
Other presenters included Dr. Latrice Babin, Interim Director of Harris County Pollution Control Services, Anne Hutson, Assistant District Attorney, and Bethany Dwyer, Assistant County Attorney.
The symposium is part of the County Attorney’s continued environmental protection efforts. Last week, County Attorney Ryan swore-in environmental attorney Clarissa Kay Bauer as an assistant county attorney to help with environmental cases against several large corporations, including ITC, KMCO, Valero and ExxonMobil.
“We can only effect the change necessary to protect our environment if we work together,” said County Attorney Ryan. “We had a great turnout today, and we will continue to work with all interested agencies and organizations to keep the focus on our environment.”