Attorney Brent Coon comments on Jefferson County seeking other remedies on TPC Group

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Attorney Brent Coon comments on Jefferson County seeking other remedies on TPC Group

The next Town Hall meeting will take place on Tuesday, March 10th at 5:30PM. It will be held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Port Neches, located at 700 Central Drive, Port Neches, TX 77651.

Thursday, February 27, 2020: As much as half the fines expected to be collected from TPC Group for eight air quality violations, the pre-Thanksgiving explosions and other alleged violations of state clean air and water laws could ultimately end up back in Southeast Texas.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said he hasn’t written off the potential for the county to sue TPC for the explosions and subsequent fires that forced residents within a four-mile radius of the plant out of their homes, but it doesn’t make financial sense for both the county and the Texas Attorney General’s Office to sue the company because of the relatively minuscule fines.

“If you look at the amount of some of the fines, like German Pellets in Port Arthur, which went on for months, the fine was $20,000,” he said. “I’m not going to spend $100,000 on attorney’s fees to get half of $20,000. It’s more financially responsible for us to allow the AG to do it representing TCEQ.”

The Attorney General’s Office last week officially filed its lawsuit against TPC. When asked about TCEQ’s role in punishing TPC for some four years of violations and requiring the plant to take steps to rectify the situation, the agency declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Instead of filing a lawsuit of its own, the county is gearing up to ask in the next legislative session that the fines resulting from the alleged violations of the clean air act be used for supplemental environmental projects in Jefferson County and Port Neches, Branick said.

Typically, government agencies can get about 50% of the fines to be used, in the case of air violations, for projects that would improve air quality, such as buying propane vehicles or retrofitting gas engines.

Branick said the county has gotten money from the program previously, in part paying for the county’s Toyota Prius fleet. Port Neches does not yet have any projects identified, but Branick said the county would work with the city to identify potential uses should the request for the fine money be approved.

TPC last week reimbursed Jefferson County almost $70,000 for overtime and other expenses incurred by the county during the emergency response. The city of Port Neches has not yet been reimbursed and is still working on its list of expenses and damage to buildings, said City Manager André Wimer.

Despite the seemingly strong language in the attorney general’s lawsuit, which blames poor operational, maintenance and design practices for TPC’s years of unauthorized emissions, local attorney Brent Coon said it looks almost “identical” to others he’s seen filed by the attorney general in similar situations.

Coon’s law firm, Brent Coon &Associates, is leading many of the pending civil lawsuits against TPC for the Port Neches plant’s explosions. The firm has extensive experience with lawsuits involving petrochemical plants.

He said lawsuits like the ones filed largely punish the “outliers” — particularly egregious violations of air and water quality standards — but allows more run of the mill violations to continue.

“There will likely be some amount of admission of wrongdoing and payment of fines,” he said. “The question is going to be is it severe enough to be a deterrent to TPC or other plants in the future? Probably not.”

It’s often more profitable for plants to forgo maintenance and operations best practices than undertake a full shutdown that would allow workers time to survey and repair equipment.

More effective deterrents than these lawsuits, Coon said, would be legislation that would, among other remedies:

 decrease or disallow bonuses for plant managers he says are given incentives to run plants to failure;

 and establish consequences, potentially including jail time, for upper-level management.

He’s not optimistic any of those changes are on the horizon, as Texas puts a high value on oil and gas.

However, he was impressed by recent strong words from state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who called on the Legislature to do more to protect plant workers and residents from industrial disasters and dangerous chemical pollutants.

“I’m making a point this week to reach out to him,” Coon said. “Frankly, it’s surprising to see someone from the Republican Party come out so strongly on this issue.”

Branick said he doesn’t think the state should adopt new legislation too soon, something he said he thinks Phelan agrees with, but instead wait for the release of information about the cause of the TPC explosions, as well as five others in Harris County last year.

“I think what (Phelan’s) going to do is look at what caused these events, what do they have in common and what do we need to do to ensure this doesn’t happen again, whether it’s required maintenance schedules, even saying what type of ownership a chemical plant can have,” he said.

Jefferson County seeks other remedies on TPC Group, Kaitlin Bain, Beaumont Enterprise. 

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