(AP) — Two of three businesses targeted by Harris County prosecutors in a lawsuit over polluting the San Jacinto River in Texas with poisonous paper-mill waste have agreed to pay $29 million to the county and state. The county resolved its claims against McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. and Houston-based Waste Management Inc., the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1qH3WRe) reported. The last-minute deal was announced the day closing arguments were set to begin in the four-week-old trial.
Prosecutors have argued the businesses were responsible for the release of carcinogenic chemicals from three paper-mill disposal pits near the river between 1973 and 2008. A split jury cleared Memphis-based International Paper Co. of any responsibility for the toxic pollution. The waste in the pits was produced by Champion Paper, which merged with International Paper in 2000. The company used the chemicals at its now-closed mill to whiten paper. The Environmental Protection Agency says the compound is so toxic that there is no safe level of exposure.
"This case isn't about protecting the environment, Winstol "Winn" Carter, a Houston attorney representing International Paper, told the jury. "It's about penalties. They're accusing us of something we didn't do." Prosecutors said the pollution prevented Harris County residents from using parts of the river for recreation or commercial fishing, but didn't show anyone got cancer because of the waste. "This is about a company that did not handle its obligations under the law, and it should pay a penalty," said Earnest Wotring, an attorney representing Harris County. "If they don't have to pay, companies will do nothing about their pollution problems."
The companies installed a $9 million armored cap on the submerged pits three years ago to contain the waste. Rock Owens, who manages the environmental division of the Harris County Attorney's Office, says the county may appeal the verdict or file another lawsuit against International Paper.
"We're not going to take this lying down," Owens said.