Katy News: Statement of Harris County Attorney Ryan on beginning of San Jacinto River Waste Pits Cleanup

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan praised the announcement today that the design for cleaning up the San Jacinto River Waste Pits will begin.  Ryan said that Harris County will review and comment on the plans as they proceed.

“We are grateful to see this process start,” said Ryan.  “Our memorandum of understanding with the Environmental Protection Agency allows the County Attorney’s Office to remain involved with the cleanup process, which we have pursued for many years.”

The EPA announced today that the agency has reached an agreement with International Paper Company and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to design the cleanup of the Superfund site.  Those companies are the ones responsible for putting over 200,000 cubic yards of dangerous waste chemicals in pits near the San Jacinto River.  They will pay for the cleanup.

Read the EPA news release here:  https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-san-jacinto-river-waste-pits-cleanup-action

Houston Chronicle: Clean up of San Jacinto Waste Pits moving forward

Clean up of San Jacinto Waste Pits moving forward

Chronicle Article by Alex Stuckey

A plan for designing the cleanup of the San Jacinto Waste Pits has been agreed upon by the Environmental Protection Agency and the companies responsible for the contamination, which means it likely will happen sooner rather than later.

The EPA on Monday announced the agreement, the next step toward removing about 212,000 cubic yards of material contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin from the pits. The work is estimated to cost $115 million.

Monday’s announcement “is a big deal for us and the community,” said Rock Owens, an environmental attorney for Harris County. “This is a very important step - now we’re officially on to the step where the (companies) are cooperating.”

The EPA, along with The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, will oversee the design work for the cleanup, which will be completed over the course of 29 months by the responsible companies — International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., the release said.

“Let’s lay down the sword, pick up the shovel and start digging,” Owens said.


Stat: Harris County seeks to keep opioid litigation in Texas

Assistant County Attorney Pegi Block spoke to Stat about the County's efforts to keep its litigation against opioid companies in Texas.

Harris County, where Block is an assistant county attorney, sued opioid manufacturers and drug distributors in December, alleging — like other plaintiffs around the country — that they flooded communities with addictive painkillers while downplaying the risk of the medications. But the county, the country’s third largest, is fighting to keep its case in state court and separate from the so-called multidistrict litigation being overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland.

“The damages were incurred here,” Block said in an interview at the county attorney’s Houston offices. “We believe that our judge, our county, our juries in Harris County not only have the right, but that they should be the ones to decide the fate of this lawsuit. This is where it happened.”

Houston Chronicle: Harris County could take over Aldine cemetery where grave markers destroyed

By Mike Snyder

February 27, 2018 

State regulators have refused to renew a license held by the caretaker of a small northeast Harris County cemetery -- the first official finding that workers destroyed grave markers while clearing the site in 2016.

The order signed Monday by the state banking commissioner, Charles G. Cooper, could pave the way for Harris County to take over care of the cemetery, where members of several generations of Aldine-area residents are buried. The banking commission regulates "perpetual care" cemeteries in Texas.

Foresthaven Cemetery Corp., which has held the perpetual care license for about 30 years, has until March 29 to appeal the decision by requesting a hearing overseen by an administrative law judge. The banking department's action does not affect Foresthaven's ownership of the property, only its authority to operate the cemetery.

The company's president, Sugar Land attorney Corwin Teltschik, did not respond to a request for comment. Cooper's order said Teltschik maintained that no headstones were destroyed.

The order states that Foresthaven's agents destroyed "two or more" headstones in the fall of 2016, adding that "the manner in which (Foresthaven) allowed its agents to clear the cemetery was not undertaken with the care due to the persons interred in the cemetery and does not demonstrate a character that warrants the public's confidence."

Cooper also found that Foresthaven had not adequately maintained the cemetery — family members have handled mowing and other upkeep for years — and that Harris County was willing to maintain the cemetery if Foresthaven's license were not renewed.

Tammie West Wall, a family member who has led the effort to restore the damaged headstones and protect the cemetery, said she was grateful for Cooper's decision.

"This has been a long road, and to get anything positive out of it, to me, it's a true blessing," Wall said. "Everywhere else we've turned, we've gotten nowhere."

Harris County prosecutors looked into the case at the families' request and presented evidence to a grand jury last year, but no charges were filed. Assistant District Attorney Valerie Turner said her review concluded that at least four or five markers, and "probably more," had been removed by workers clearing the site.

More at Chron.com

County Attorney Vince Ryan says opioid lawsuit should stay in Texas court

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan is fighting to keep the opioid lawsuit filed on behalf of Harris County in a state district court.

Ryan is opposing an effort by opioid drug distributors to move the lawsuit to federal court.  He has filed a motion seeking to have the case returned to state district court.

Three distributors—McKesson Corporation, Amerisource Bergen and Cardinal—moved Harris County’s lawsuit to federal court. They are also seeking to have the lawsuit transferred to a federal court in Cleveland, Ohio. If they are successful, Harris County’s motion to return the case to state district court will be ruled on in Ohio, not Houston, and the case will remain in Cleveland, Ryan said, resulting in a substantial delay in proceedings.

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County Attorney Ryan Sues Southwest Freeway Strip Club Promoting Prostitution and Human Trafficking

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has filed suit to shut down a Southwest Houston strip club promoting prostitution and human trafficking.

The lawsuit against the owners and operators of the Chicas Locas club at 6440 Southwest Freeway was filed Tuesday following a lengthy investigation by the Houston Police Department’s Vice Division-Human Trafficking Unit. Investigators discovered women were being recruited from Cuba and Colombia under the guise of a casting call for models and dancers. Instead of providing work as promised, the victims were forced to dance as strippers and engage in commercial sex at Chicas Locas to pay off their debts to their traffickers. 

The investigation also confirmed that prostitution was occurring frequently inside Chicas Locas and was being facilitated by the club’s managers. During a 16-month period, undercover officers made over 40 prostitution cases and promotion of prostitution cases at Chicas Locas. 

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County Attorney Ryan Obtains A $2.5 Million-Plus Fine Against Montrose Smoke Shop For Selling Kush

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, joined by the Texas Attorney General and City of Houston, obtained a judgment for more than $2.5 million in civil fines and penalties against Fantasy Smoking & Accessories for selling synthetic marijuana.

Synthetic marijuana, also known as kush, is a designer drug, typically manufactured overseas, that is marketed as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is not marijuana at all but instead is a dried leafy substance that is sprayed with powerful hallucinogenic chemicals that are dangerous and highly addictive to the user. It is often sold in colorful packets, with names such as Spongebob and Zilla to appeal to children and teenagers, and is the second most abused drug by high school students, after marijuana itself. It is also illegal in Texas. In June 2017, 16 people were hospitalized after overdosing on kush in Hermann Park.

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County Attorney Ryan Wins Court Orders Against Two Illicit Spas In Fight Against Human Trafficking

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan obtained temporary restraining orders against the landlords for a pair of illicit massage businesses in the County’s continuing fight to put a stop to human trafficking and prostitution.

On January 24, 2018, Vince Ryan sued the property owners of 4444 FM 1960 W and 14437 Bammel N. Houston and their tenants, Flushing Spa and 14437 Massage Spa, for harboring prostitution at these unlicensed massage establishments in Northwest Harris County.  These locations are well-known by law enforcement for prostitution and investigations into human trafficking.

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County Attorney Ryan wins Court Order Topping Hazardous Waste Dumping

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan won a court order on Monday stopping a Houston company from dumping hazardous waste into the city’s storm sewer system.

The temporary restraining order prevents Wright Containers, LLC, 6633 Lindberg in southeast Houston, from accepting more waste and disposing of the waste into the city’s system.  Judge Jeff Shadwick of the 55th State District Court ordered Wright Containers to return for a hearing on January 19.

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County not liable for Tasering man using LSD

Judge Lynn Hughes  granted summary judgment on December 7, 2017 in favor of Harris County in a law suit filed by a man who claimed deputy constables used excessive force when they Tased him four times in an effort to restrain him. Jared Allen White was walking in a highway's access road after taking LSD. Several deputy constables tried to restrain him to keep him from wandering  among the cars. He pulled  away from them  and darted  across the grass toward  the  highway. The  officers chased him,  and one hit  him  with a Taser. Subdued, the man lay on the ground  while the officers handcuffed him. The officers told him to stay on the ground, but he stood - twice. Each time, an officer zapped him with a Taser, not knowing if the man would try to harm  an officer or bolt away. The officers then tried to walk the man to a car, but on the way, he fell. From the ground, he began kicking, hitting  one officer's face and neck. An  officer Tasered him.  White sued Harris  County claimming that the second, third, and fourth times that deputies used a Taser against him were constitutionally excessive.

The court found the deputies use of the Taser in these circumstances did not amount to an excessive use of force. White repeatedly disregarded deputies orders to stay on the ground and tried to stand. Judge Hughes also found that Plaintiff produced no evidence to establish his claim that Harris County had a policy of excessive use of force or that the County had failed to train deputies on the use of Tasers. 

The case is White vs Harris County and the opinion can be read here.

County Attorney Ryan Sues Drug Companies For Damages to Harris County from Opioid Abuse

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan today filed suit against drug manufacturers and distributors, doctors and a pharmacist for their roles in promoting the opioid epidemic that has cost Harris County residents their health and even their lives and cost taxpayers millions to pay for healthcare and law enforcement.

The lawsuit names pharmaceutical companies that manufacture, promote, sell and/or distribute opioids in Texas and Harris County, doctors and a pharmacist.  The suit accuses the defendants of creating a public nuisance, conspiracy and neglect.  Four local doctors and a pharmacist were named as co-defendants because they participated in the conspiracy and profited from it.

“These defendants placed their quest for profits above the public good,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “Unfortunately, Harris County has found itself in a battle against opioids and the crushing financial effect of this epidemic.”

Ryan’s lawsuit maintains that the defendants knew that the use of opioids had the potential to cause addiction and other health maladies.  Driven by profit, the suit says the defendants engaged in a campaign of lies, half-truths and deceptions to create a market that encouraged the over-prescribing and long-term use of opioids, even though there was no scientific basis to support such use.  Unfortunately, the suit says, the campaign worked and resulted in an exponential increase in opioid abuse, addiction, and death.  That increase required Harris County to expend its limited resources to help those affected by this crisis and protect the community from harms associated with the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit lays out the damages that resulted, directly and indirectly, from the behavior of the defendants: 

·       The cost of opioid medications that would not otherwise have been prescribed, i.e., unnecessary or excessive opioid prescriptions

·       Work loss expense attributable to individuals who are addicted to opioids or who suffer adverse health effects due to use of opioids

·       Time and expenses incurred by county criminal justice agencies related to handling matters arising from opioid use

·       Law enforcement time and expenses incurred by county agencies related to handling matters arising from the opioid epidemic

·       Hospital and medical costs associated with adverse health effects from opioid addiction

·       Costs and expenses incurred by social services agencies due to the opioid epidemic

·       Costs and expenses to third parties due to the conduct of addicts

Ryan is asking that the court order the defendants to abate the public nuisance they created.  He is seeking actual and punitive damages, penalties and fines, and attorneys’ fees and the costs of litigation.

“These defendants successfully created and nurtured an environment in which opioid abuse was a virtual certainty,” said Ryan.  “By spending millions of dollars to convince people that they needed opioid drugs, these defendants produced a network of drug distributors, dispensers and prescribers who preyed upon a generation of dependent drug users and abusers.  The defendants constructed a population of citizens whose initial use of opioids was legal and legitimate, but was transformed into an addition that could be fulfilled only by the use of illegal street drugs.”

Research shows that approximately 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.  Nationally, the number of deaths due to opioid overdose have quadrupled since 1999 with 91 Americans now dying every day from opioid overdose.  In 2015, 2588 people died in Texas from opioid overdose with Harris County accounting for 318 deaths.

“Prescription opioids are big business for pharmaceutical companies, who make upwards of $10 billion a year on them,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “The number of opioid prescriptions has risen from 112 million in 1992 to nearly 249 million in 2015.  Americans now consume four-fifths of the global supply of opioids.  Harris County and its residents have suffered enough.  We must stop this obscene scheme to hook people on opioids with the disastrous consequences that follow.”

Click here for a copy of the petition.


Harris County files nuisance property lawsuit against Motel 6 in Spring

The Harris County Attorney’s Office has filed a lawsuit against the Motel 6 at 19606 Cypresswood Court—located near Cypresswood Drive and I-45—labeling the property a nuisance building and claiming it harbors habitual crime.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 18, states the motel’s owner—who could not be reached for comment—has failed to make reasonable efforts to reduce the number of prostitution and drug crimes that allegedly take place at the motel.

The lawsuit also states, between Oct. 17, 2016 and Oct. 17, 2017, law enforcement—including Harris County Precinct 4 constable’s office and Harris County sheriff’s office—received more than 320 calls for service at the motel.

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Waste pits cleanup still could be a year away from starting

The EPA estimates it could be a year before cleanup of the San Jacinto Waste Pits begins, as officials negotiate a plan with the potential responsible parties to tackle the $115 million project.

Such a plan is "obviously a significant piece of work and we need to work out all the details with the parties before signing an agreement," said John Meyer, EPA Region 6 Superfund Branch chief, at a Monday night meeting in The Highlands.

The meeting was the first held since the Environmental Protection Agency announced in October the removal of tons of toxins from the waste pits, which came about two weeks after the agency confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Hurricane Harvey's floods.

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Harris County Attorney Ryan Sues Arkema Over Chemical Release during Harvey

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan today sued Arkema, Inc., whose Crosby plant released toxic substances into the air when chemicals stored at the site burned during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Ryan is asking a state district court to hold the company legally responsible for violations of Texas environmental laws and to recover the County’s costs for responding to the week-long incident. Dozens of first responders were tied up at the scene for days as organic peroxides ignited when the company’s back-up refrigeration units failed during the days following the storm.

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County Attorney Vince Ryan wins court order shutting down illegal warehouse bar

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has obtained a restraining order closing a warehouse operating as an unlicensed bar in south Houston near the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, Judge Kyle Carter of the 125th District Court of Harris County ordered the Dixie Warehouse bar at 3365 Dixie Drive closed immediately and to remain closed until a valid liquor license is obtained. 

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EPA Administrator Pruitt Commits to Dioxin Cleanup in meeting with County Attorney Vince Ryan

At a meeting hosted by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt committed to using the full authority of the EPA to remove dioxin from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

Ryan, members of the County Attorney’s Office, and other stakeholders met Thursday with Pruitt to discuss the cleanup. Last week Pruitt signed a Record of Decision that approved a $115 million cleanup plan of the toxic site that will remove highly contaminated material and secure the less contaminated areas.

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Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan and Commissioner Jack Morman Praise EPA For Decision to Remove Waste Pits

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan and Commissioner Jack Morman  praised Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to order the removal of the dangerous material in the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday approved a plan to permanently remove dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man, from the San Jacinto Waste Pits - a Superfund site that was heavily flooded after Hurricane Harvey.

“I want to thank EPA Administrator Pruitt for this decision,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “We appreciate that he visited the San Jacinto site personally and that he had EPA personnel checking it out to discover the dioxin exposure after the hurricane.”

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EPA approves plan to remove San Jacinto Waste pits from river

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday approved a plan to permanently remove tons of toxics from the San Jacinto Waste Pits - a Superfund site that was heavily flooded and began to leak cancer-causing dioxin into the river after Hurricane Harvey.

The plan, which comes after years of litigation and citizen activism that built public support for permanently removing the pits from the San Jacinto River, includes installing cofferdams to prevent release of the pollutants before excavating and removing an estimated 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated material.

The decision comes only two weeks after the EPA confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Harvey's floods. An EPA dive team found dioxin in sediment near the pit in a concentration of more than 70,000 nanograms of dioxin per kilogram of soil - more than 2,300 times the EPA standard for clean-up.

The extent of damage caused by that release remains unknown. But flooding of the Superfund site prompted the EPA's Scott Pruitt to visit the area and move up a decision on the proposed clean-up plan that had been pending for about a year. The estimated cost is $115 million, the EPA announced. 

Click here to read the Houston Chronicle's account.

County Attorney Vince Ryan Wins Court Order to Close Richmond Avenue After-Hours Bar

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan obtained a court order to close ALAA, an unlicensed club located at 9275 Richmond in southwest Houston where a 26 year old man was shot and killed on Sunday morning, September 24.

Judge Ursula Hall of the 165th District Court signed a temporary restraining order on Thursday, September 28, closing the club which has also used the names Blush Lounge, Blush Lounge 365, Willy Blush, Allure, and Village Gang Nightclub.

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