Brownsville sues industrial firm as dust and noise plagues nearby residents

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Milwhite Industries Inc. is seen in Brownsville. (Courtesy: City of Brownsville/Facebook)

The city of Brownsville is suing a 100-year-old local heavy industrial firm after a failed six-month effort to prod the company into compliance with the city’s code of ordinances and Unified Development Code.

The city announced Tuesday that it had filed a Chapter 54 lawsuit against Milwhite Inc., 5487 South Padre Island Highway, over public health and safety concerns. Residents of the nearby Rey Jaime neighborhood have complained of “pervasive dust, constant loud noise, declining health, illnesses, discomfort and fear” stemming from the company’s operations.

Milwhite, founded in 1923, mixes specialty minerals for commercial applications such as drilling exploration, cosmetics, pharmaceutics and animal feed additives.

Section 54.012 of the Texas Local Government Code authorizes municipalities to enforce ordinances in the interest of public health and safety and compliance with zoning regulations. The city said it has tried “through various means” to address concerns over the company’s operations, particularly “materials and methods used in construction, fire safety, zoning and land subdivision criteria.”

Under Chapter 54, the city can seek a temporary restraining order, temporary injunction and/or permanent injunction against a company.

“On a showing of substantial danger of injury or an adverse health impact to any person or to the property of any person other than the defendant, the municipality may obtain against the owner or owner’s representative with control over the premises an injunction that: (1) prohibits specific conduct that violates the ordinance; and (2) requires specific conduct that is necessary for compliance with the ordinance,” reads the state statute.

Chapter 54 also empowers municipalities to “compel the repair or demolition of structures and recover removal costs,” seek civil penalties and an “action in rem” — a lawsuit or other legal action against a property rather than an individual.

“Given the proximity of Milwhite Inc.’s property to a residential neighborhood and its location along a busy highway, adherence to governing ordinances is crucial for the health and safety of the community,” the city said.

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Jr. said the decision to pursue legal action was “not taken lightly.” Milwhite is conducting heavy industrial operations in an area zoned for light industrial, he added, noting that the city has cited the company for violations 14 times in recent months, and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has levied several fines against it.

John Cowen Jr.

Since the city began talking to Milwhite the middle of last year about addressing the dust and noise issues, the situation has only gotten worse, with the company appearing to have ramped up production, impacting nearby residents “almost on a 24/7 basis,” Cowen said.

“That’s who we’re advocating for,” he said. “We want to make sure that they return to a normal quality of life, that the kids in that neighborhood can play outside and not have to breathe in those contaminants. That’s a real concern for the commission.”

Cowen said the city had hoped from the start to work with the company, but that “there hasn’t been any real progress on the issue.”

“It doesn’t seem like they’re operating in good faith here with the city in resolving this issue,” he said. “We are committed to doing what’s right to protect our residents. … I’m not sure how it’s going to get resolved. From the city’s perspective we just need them to come into compliance with city regulations. That’s ultimately the purpose of the lawsuit.”

District 2 City Commissioner Linda Macias said she’s disheartened to see the serious impact on residents.

“I, along with the city commission and the city of Brownsville, remain steadfast in helping residents move past this in the most efficient and precise manner,” Macias said.

City Manager Helen Ramirez noted that “the city of Brownsville, through its city attorney’s office, is taking the necessary steps to ensure compliance with our ordinances that protect the health, safety and welfare of our families and future generations to come.”

Efforts to reach Milwhite for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.