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Airline Drive polluter jailed for not cleaning up property

According to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Kingwood businessman Luis Ortiz recently spent time in the Harris County Jail, becoming the first person in more than ten years to go to jail in the county for failing to clean up pollution at his business.

Ortiz was ordered to spend five days in jail for contempt of court for his failure to obey two agreed orders signed by District Court Judge Tony Lindsay in 2008. The court’s orders required Ortiz to clean up contaminated soil at his auto parts salvage business at 8401 Airline Drive.

At the contempt-of-court hearing on June 17, Ortiz agreed to serve five days in jail but Judge Lindsay agreed to allow Ortiz to delay going to jail until Monday, June 29, so Ortiz could begin to get the property cleaned up.

When Ortiz appeared in Judge Lindsay’s court yesterday morning for commitment to the jail, his attorney asked Judge Lindsay to reconsider or reduce the jail sentence, claiming that Ortiz was now in substantial compliance with the court’s order.

County Attorney Vince Ryan argued that Ortiz should be sent to jail. “We need to let Mr. Ortiz fulfill the terms of the agreement he made and be an example to other individuals and businesses that Harris County is serious about enforcing laws and court orders that protect public heath,” he said. “We regret having to put anyone in jail, but Mr. Ortiz promised to clean up this property a long time ago and he didn’t do it.”

Lindsay rejected proposals that Ortiz be allowed to serve his time on weekends only and ordered Ortiz be taken from her courtroom to the Harris County Jail.

“Mr. Ortiz had more than enough time to clean up the property before the second contempt hearing,” she said.

Rock Owens, chief of the County Attorney’s Environmental Division, filed the case in 2006. He said, “We all need a clean environment and individuals like Mr. Ortiz must pay for being irresponsible.”

According to Ryan, Ortiz is in the auto parts salvage business. One of his lots was at 8401 Airline Drive in unincorporated Harris County. “Automotive fluids may contain arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium, or zinc, among other chemicals. When cars are dismantled, all the fluids, fuels, and lubricants that were in the car drain out,” Ryan said.

Complaints filed against Ortiz said that at his lot on Airline, these liquids were spilled onto bare ground or concrete slabs. When it rains, the fluids flow into the open ditches alongside Airline Drive. These ditches eventually drain into Halls and Greens Bayous, and then the Houston Ship Channel.

In 2006, Harris County sued Ortiz for violations of the Texas Water Code, the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, and Harris County’s Regulations for Storm Water Quality Management at his auto parts salvage business at 8401 Airline Drive. These statutes apply to all businesses in the state.

In January 2008, to avoid a trial on the suit, Ortiz agreed to a court order that required him to close the auto salvage yard at 8401 Airline, remove all the cars and solid waste, and remove the poisoned soil, and pay fines. He allegedly did nothing to comply with the order.

In October 2008, the county filed a motion for contempt against Ortiz for violating the order Lindsay signed in January. Once again, Ortiz agreed to close the business and remove the contaminated soil.

In June 2009, because Ortiz still had not complied with the conditions of Lindsay’s orders about removing the contaminated soil, preventing runoff from the property, and paying fines, the County filed a Second Motion for Contempt, this time asking that the judge consider sending Ortiz to jail.

At a hearing on the second contempt motion on June 17, Ortiz agreed to serve five days in jail and take specific steps to clean up the property.