Vietnamese fishermen suing over alleged toxin in San Jacinto River, potentially contaminated fish

October 29, 2012 10:00:00 PM PDT
Fishermen have filed a lawsuit over pollution in the San Jacinto River. It's the second of its kind, but this one claims fish caught and sold for decades could have contained a toxic chemical.

Dioxin can cause cancer, birth defects and a skin disease.

Attorneys for about 200 Vietnamese American fishermen say they were never told about poison in the San Jacinto River, although KTRK first brought you the story of a lawsuit filed by Harris County Attorney over dioxin in the San Jacinto River last December. The site was declared an EPA Superfund site in 2008.

But now, the fishermen's attorneys say the fish they caught may have made it onto the dinner table. Now they're taking action against the companies that were did business there.

The San Jacinto River at Interstate 10 is fenced off.

"Dioxin is the most toxic substance ever made by human beings," First Assistant Harris County Attorney Terry O'Rouke said.

There are warning signs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. It became an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site in 2008.

The problem now is fish from the site may have made it onto the dinner plate.

"That seafood has been sold to commercial fish houses and therefore gone into the food chain," O'Rourke said.

In the 1960s, a mill owned by Champion Papers stood at the site. It was leaking dioxin into the river, which flows into Galveston Bay.

"The Vietnamese community did not know. We did not know," said Tammy Tran, an attorney for the fishermen.

About 200 Vietnamese American professional fishermen have now filed a lawsuit against International Paper Company, McGinnis Industrial Maintenance and Waste Management, alleging the release of dioxin into the river, or failure to clean it up for decades.

"There are children eating the fish. You eat the fish. I eat the fish. My granddaughter eat the fish," Tran said.

But the defendants say they did nothing wrong:

From International Paper: "Champion Papers, which was acquired by International Paper in 2000, lawfully disposed of material at the site in the mid 1960s. International Paper, together with the other named corporations, is cooperating fully with the EPA to address the site."

And from Waste Management "WM and MIMC consider these allegations to be without merit and will defend against them."

Last year, the Harris County attorney filed a similar lawsuit. On Tuesday, he met with the fishermen.

"They're basically alleging the same thing, this dioxin has been oozing out since 1965," Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan said.

Meanwhile, the EPA and McGinnis on Tuesday morning were at the river, where a cap has been built to stop the dioxin.

"We placed this protective cap until we can do further investigation," said Valmichael Leos with the EPA.

The EPA erected the fence around the site and posted the tri-lingual warnings more than two and a half years ago. They also say other people who may have fished there or gone swimming in that part of river may have been exposed to dioxin as well.


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