CAPITAL HIGHLIGHTS: Air pollution from tank fire sparks lawsuit

AUSTIN — Images of a stream of billowing dark smoke drew the nation’s attention last week to a fire that engulfed 11 petrochemical storage tanks at the Intercontinental Terminals Company about 15 miles southeast of Houston in Deer Park.

On March 17, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that all state resources be made available to local and industry officials and urged residents to heed the warnings of local officials. Governmental bodies in nearby affected areas ordered residents to shelter in place because of concerns about unhealthy air quality. Deer Park Independent School District and other districts canceled classes for several days.

The fire was extinguished on March 20. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on March 22 announced that his office, acting on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, had filed a lawsuit naming the tank storage company as the defendant. The lawsuit alleges that the fire caused air pollution from benzene, xylene, toluene and other contaminants, in violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

In a statement accompanying the lawsuit, Paxton said, “No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, announced March 21 that an investigation into the fire would be opened.

Jobless rate stays low

Texas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate held at 3.8 percent in February, according a March 22 news release by the Texas Workforce Commission.

The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area recorded February’s lowest unemployment rate with a non-seasonally adjusted rate of 2.2 percent, followed by the Odessa at 2.7 percent and Amarillo at 2.9 percent.

Growth in the Texas economy continued in February, with 17,700 seasonally adjusted non-farm positions added over the month.

TWC Chair and Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs said her agency “is committed to engaging with all employers across Texas to strengthen our economy and to create and expand opportunities for all.”

TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez added, “To ensure positive growth, we must continue to invest in necessary training and education for subsequent generations.”

Ticketing system targeted

Photographic traffic signal enforcement systems would be banned under Senate Bill 653 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood.

Hall seeks to prohibit municipalities and other local jurisdictions from using red-light cameras as a means of issuing traffic tickets.

In laying out his bill before the Senate Transportation Committee, Hall said that under the red light camera enforcement,  “the innocent owner has then the burden of proof and often great expense of proving that they did not commit the alleged violation. This turns our judicial system completely and utterly upside down by requiring the accused to prove their innocence.”

More than two dozen people testified for or against the bill in a March 20 Senate Transportation Committee hearing.

Regents to examine policies

Gov. Abbott on March 18 sent a letter to all Texas public university boards of regents following the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into an alleged college admissions bribery scheme.

In his letter, Abbott called for governing boards of Texas’ institutions of higher education “to examine and investigate admissions policies and procedures to ensure that no university employee engages in fraudulent schemes, quid pro quo arrangements or improprieties of any sort.” He added that Texas parents and students “must have confidence that the system is not rigged.”

Busby joins high court

Brett Busby of Houston on March 20 was confirmed by the Texas Senate and sworn in as the newest member of the Supreme Court of Texas for a term set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020.

Gov. Abbott nominated Busby on Feb. 21 to fill the opening left by Justice Phil Johnson of Amarillo, who retired at the end of December.

Busby is a former justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, having served from June 2012 through December 2018. He previously was a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, an adjunct professor at The University of Texas School of Law and a U.S. Supreme Court law clerk.

New lawmaker sworn in

State. Rep. Christina Morales, D-Houston, was administered the oath of office on March 17. Morales won a March 5 special election runoff to fill the vacancy created when former longtime Texas House District 145 Rep. Carol Alvarado was elected to the Texas Senate to succeed Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

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