SWEENY — The legal back-and-forth between hundreds of Sweeny-area residents and the area’s major employers — Phillips 66 and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. — continued Tuesday when the law firm representing the plaintiffs filed a new petition with the 23rd District Court in Angleton.
The new petition, the fourth filed so far by Josh Bowlin of the Houston firm Walston Bowlin, comes a month after the refinery and petrochemical plant operators submitted a formal denial of wrongdoing to the court.
While plaintiffs’ allegations remain the same, the number of plaintiffs has grown and experts hired by Bowlin have gathered more evidence to support the lawsuit’s central claim that the companies caused damage to persons and property in the Sweeny area when they blocked a bayou system, causing Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters to rise rather than drain.
The plaintiffs numbered 472 in the new petition, up from 324 in the lawsuit in September. Bowlin said he is in contact with dozens more residents and business owners who may join the lawsuit at a later time.
Because the litigation is a mass-action lawsuit, each of the plaintiff’s claims have to be assessed individually, and only people who have joined the suit will be eligible to receive compensation through a settlement or a court action, Bowlin said.
“There are 500 plaintiffs with different damages, from pecan orchards to personal effects,” Bowlin said.
To assess those damages, Bowlin said he has hired hydrologists to assess whether the bayou blockages alleged in the petition could have caused the flooding that area residents experienced.
“There is a huge watershed area in that area, and remarkably the Linville Bayou acts as a drainage source for that entire area,” he said. “We are looking into mapping the entire impact of what would happen in a rainfall event such as this and how the water would be dispersed.”
In a September statement, Phillips 66 acknowledged it took actions at its Old Ocean refinery to prevent spills during the flooding.
“While we still experienced significant flooding in the refinery, our actions prevented the release of feedstocks and products into the community and environment,” according to that statement.
Plaintiffs’ stories about the flooding have been “remarkably consistent,” Bowlin said.
“I have three teams of people down there and appraising homes, and they have probably been to 125 homes,” he said. “Everyone got a little water on their property, then everything started to recede, and then overnight everyone experienced a flash flood incident.”
That flooding, Bowlin said, is “consistent with damming the Linville Bayou and its tributaries around there.”
Bowlin said he will request the 23rd District Court issue a trial setting in October, although he heard plaintiffs want a quicker resolution.
“Residents are antsy. I’ve got people completely displaced from their homes, without any place to live and trying to figure out what tomorrow looks like,” he said. “I wish we could effect a quick settlement, but it takes a long time.”
Bowlin said he could not yet estimate the costs of the plaintiffs’ damages.
Phillips 66 did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and Chevron Phillips Chemical declined to comment because the matter is still under litigation.