A Harris County grand jury indicted the owner and manager of a local company Thursday for felonies for improperly storing hazardous waste and purposely pouring hazardous chemicals into Houston’s storm-drain system, officials announced Friday.
“We embrace the opportunity to hold people and companies accountable when it comes to protecting our air, land and water,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said.
“Polluters who intentionally poison our environment with toxic and corrosive substances, who disregard the health of our people, and who cut corners on the handling of hazardous waste to make an extra buck are on notice – we will prosecute aggressively and resolutely when the evidence justifies it.”
said the indictments come as the result of a joint investigation with the Houston Police Department’s Environmental Crimes Unit and mark a new era in accountability for environmental crime.
The grand jury indicted the majority partner of Wright Containers, Ronald F. Wright, as well as a general manager, Gregory B. Hance, and the company itself for actions in 2017 and 2018.
Wright Containers is located in southeast Houston, in the 6300 block of Lindbergh Street, in a mixed-residential-industrial commercial neighborhood within a mile of Gregg Elementary School and Hartman Middle School.
“Some of the chemicals would burn the skin off your bones,” said Assistant District Attorney Alex Forrest of the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“This is about protecting our waterways, our bayous and our community,” Forrest said. “There are strict rules for how these chemicals, this toxic sludge, should be handled, including storage and disposal, from the cradle to the grave.”
Each of the defendants are charged with two counts of intentional water pollution, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison per count.
They were also charged with one count each of improper disposal and storage of hazardous materials, which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison.
Wright, 50, and Hance, 41, face fines of up to $100,000 a piece for each water-pollution violation and up to five years in jail. The company faces a fine of up to $250,000 per violation.
Wright Containers deals in hefty industrial-strength containers, which are made of plastic as thick as one inch thick, hold up to 330 gallons of liquid, and are mounted on pallets and encased in metal cages.
Wright Containers advertised to companies that use the standardized containers, known as “totes” or “bottles,” and received them from companies that operate in the oil and gas industry, among others.
These companies disposed of containers and waste by trucking them to Wright Containers.
They drew dozens of customers from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and elsewhere.
Wright Containers would then pour the contents of the containers into the drainage system, which ultimately leads to Simms Bayou and then Galveston Bay.
The company would have its employees cut the containers into pieces to be thrown away, and then re-outfit the metal cages with new or refurbished containers that could be sold.
The chemicals dumped into the drainage system included Benzene, Ethylbenzene, Butylbenzene, Dichloromethane, Ethylbenzene and Toluene, among others. Some of these chemicals are easily ignitable, toxic to bodily organs, and suspected of causing cancer.
The exact health impact of human exposure to these chemicals depends on the concentration of the chemical at the time of exposure, the length and manner of contact, and the degree to which a person is repeatedly exposed over time.
“Environmental crimes are often unseen and unheard, usually because we don’t have the eyes and ears behind the steel gates of companies like this one, who operate without a license,” Forrest said.
“We depend on our law-enforcement agencies, concerned citizens, and whistleblowers to develop and communicate the intelligence and information we need to shut down these hazardous operations,” he continued. “The community truly is our eyes and ears, and we want the public to know we are here.”
Harris County combined its civil and criminal resources to ensure a temporary injunction was recently filed by the Harris County Attorney’s Office to prevent Wright Containers from conducting certain operations at its Lindbergh location.
To contact HPD’s Environmental Investigations Unit, to report acts of pollution to air, water or land, call 713-525-2728.