Back in the 1950s, LeRoy Melcher opened his first shopping center on San Felipe Road in the River Oaks neighborhood. His tenants were a convenience store, a shoe repair shop, and River Oaks Cleaners which is owned by the Momin family to this day. About four years ago, that little family-owned dry cleaner found itself at the center of a contentious environmental state law debate.
Houston City blamed the Melcher family and Momin’s River Oaks Cleaners for a mess of toxic chemicals found beneath the property. The City sued them for penalties between $50 and $25,000 per day going back nearly twenty years. All in all, it added up to roughly $173 million.
LeRoy and his wife are well known philanthropists, having donated millions of dollars to local charities and the University of Houston, which has three buildings bearing the family’s name. LeRoy passed away in 1999. His heirs refuse to pay the City of Houston’s fines.
It should also be noted that River Oaks Cleaners is charitable in its own right, having donated to the Houston Police Department, local baseball and softball teams, golf tournaments for Houston area charities, and the Aga Khan Foundation.
Trey Melcher, LeRoy’s grandson, says Houston City never notified the family or River Oaks Cleaners that they were suspected of being responsible for the pollution. Instead, the City just slapped them with a ginormous bill.
“If they had said, ‘Hey, we did this investigation and we found some problems and we need to work together to fix it,’ we would have done the right thing and cooperated,” Trey explained.
TCEQ spokesperson Lisa Wheeler stated that River Oaks Cleaners has no violations on record, and the Melcher family as well as River Oaks Cleaners suggests that a now debunked dry cleaner that used to operate across the street (and which once settled a $2 million environmental lawsuit with Harris County) could be the real culprit behind the chemical waste beneath their shop.
“I don’t know where the nastiness is coming from, but it definitely feels like a shakedown,” Trey said, adding that the lawsuit felt like a form of “extortion.”
Republican lawmakers and Texas business leaders have pointed out that local governments should not be prosecuting business owners over violations of state law. In such cases, the state must act as plaintiff. Texas Governor Greg Abbott tends to agree.
Yesterday, after a four year long legal battle, Governor Abbott filed an amicus brief in support of Houston businesses, including River Oaks Cleaners, who had sued Houston City Council to stop them from imposing financially devastating environmental fines on businesses.
Governor Abbott released the following statement:
“The Texas Constitution and Texas statutes prohibit city officials from interfering with the State’s enforcement of environmental regulations. I am committed to promoting economic development and job growth in the state of Texas by reducing the regulatory burden that drives up the cost of doing business. The City of Houston’s unlawful ordinance imposes devastating consequences on Houston’s small businesses in particular, like auto repair shops, gas stations, and dry cleaners, who provide many of the city’s jobs.”
He continued, “Houston’s ordinance is unlawful because it conflicts with state law. State investigators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality work closely with industrial polluters, big and small, to achieve lasting remediation and meaningful compliance with state environmental protection laws. As my office’s brief to the Supreme Court explains, the additional layer of regulatory oversight imposed by the City of Houston unfairly penalizes small businesses and is not the most effective way to promote compliance with the State’s environmental laws.”
A portion of the brief explains that there are “devastating consequences that the ordinance will impose on Houston’s small businesses, such as auto repair shops, gas stations, and dry cleaners, if the City is allowed to pursue its aggressive approach to environmental regulation.”