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In Legislature's Final Days, Lawmakers Extend Court Protections for Polluters

Update at 3:37 p.m. Friday: Looks as though the bill's author in the Senate plans to strip Bonnen's amendment out of the bill before it goes to the governor's desk.

Amid these "late nights and high feelings" of the tail end of the 82nd Texas Legislature, House lawmakers took a little time to pay the bills yesterday, tying up one last niggling loophole that was letting property owners sue polluters that were contaminating their land.

As it crawled through the Legislature, a bill by state Sen. Troy Fraser would let businesses defend themselves in public nuisance suits over their greenhouse gas emissions, if they can show they were complying with a state or federal permit. Plenty of environmentalists were already against the bill, and fought to soften it up before the Senate approved it.

But on Tuesday, an amendment by Angleton Rep. Dennis Bonnen expanded the bill to cover any sort of pollution at all. Companies responsible for mercury, fracking fluid, or other hazardous waste would get a blanket cover from nuisance or trespass suits, so long as they have a permit and they didn't lie somehow to get it.

Bonnen, a former Environmental Committee chair, is notoriously pro-industry and tough on environmentalists.

After Bonnen's amendment was approved, the reality of what the bill meant began to sink in. Yesterday Rep. Craig Eiland led a charge to get it stripped back out. Eiland called the bill "a huge change in policy," according to the Austin American-Statesman. "I'm very disappointed with our business and industry that supported the Bonnen amendment." He got a healthy majority of the House to support pulling the amendment down, but because of a procedural rule, that wasn't enough.

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Because the bill was being read for the third and last time, it would've taken two-thirds of the House to pass another amendment, and the effort to pull Bonnen's amendment went down 82-63.

Nuisance and trespass have been among the claims listed in suits against gas drillers in the Barnett Shale, like Bob and Lisa Parr's suit against Aruba Petroleum, Halliburton and others back in March.

Downwinders At Risk's Jim Schermbeck says the bill, as it stands now, would tighten up Texas's widespread tort reform effort from 2003, cutting off one of the last remaining avenues to challenge polluters in court. "For a group of people who seem to be so concerned with their rights as citizens," he tells Unfair Park, "people like Dennis Bonnen spend so much of their time taking away those rights."

Next, the bill is headed to a conference committee, where House and Senate members work out differences between their versions of the bill -- Bonnen's amendment among them.

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