'The Darth Vader of clean air' tweaks pollution bill, stifling public right to sue

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Clean air advocates are calling a bill passed yesterday by the House a virtual coup for industry polluters, saying a last-minute tweak could give companies the power to pollute at will.

Environmental groups worry a late-night amendment made by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, on Tuesday to Senate Bill 875 would free up companies to dump and emit pollutants without fear of lawsuits from citizens and nearby property owners. Karen Hadden, SEED Coalition director, said the current version of the bill would, in effect, strip away citizens’ rights to sue over personal or property damage from industry pollution.

Hadden remarked that environmental groups have long had a combative relationship with Bonnen and dubbed him "the Darth Vader of clean air" in Texas, saying he consistently swats down pollution safeguards in the state.

Industry supporters of the original version of the bill, by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, claimed it would protect businesses from greenhouse gas nuisance and trespass lawsuits that stem from the EPA’s “unilateral and flawed proposed regulation of greenhouse gases,” according to analysis by the House Research Organization. While environmentalists already had deep concerns with the measure, Bonnen’s amendment sent them into a panic.

“This is a vast expansion that I don’t think anyone saw coming,” Hadden insisted. “Trial lawyers even, among others, are very concerned because this applies to citizens’ rights to sue for damage from almost any kind of pollution

Any pollutant, like coal plant pollution, air pollution, water pollution, lead, arsenic, sulfur, mercury – you name it.”

Debating the measure on the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, insisted, “This is, in essence, a green light to any polluter on air-pollution issues, water-pollution issues. There is no legal safeguard in the state of Texas to have any sort of enforcement mechanism by private cause of action to protect the breathers and people who drink water in this state.”

Though 82 House members voted to undo Bonnen’s amendment, it sailed through because, as an amendment on the third reading of a bill, only a two-thirds majority could quash it.

Tom “Smitty” Smith of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen said the amendment “shuts the courthouse door” to citizens who believe their property has suffered damage from nearby industry pollution. “Imagine that you’re running a pecan grove close to a power plant and the sulfur kills your trees. What this bill would do is say you couldn’t sue for that.”

“The only people who think these types of lawsuits are outlandish are the people who think they might be penalized because of their pollution,” he said. “Everybody else thinks it’s a basic constitutional right.”

The bill now heads to a conference committee where lawmakers will sync the House and Senate versions.

- By Michael Barajas, mbarajas@sacurrent.com

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