An eye opening story from KHOU earlier this week gave more insight into what’s the matter at TCEQ. It’s worth your 5 minutes to watch the entire thing but here are the highlights:
Valero installed a pollution scrubber to create lower sulphur fuels in one of their Houston refineries. The problem? According to TCEQ staff, the scrubbers actually create MORE local pollution, and to add insult to injury, the vast majority of the lower polluting fuel gets sold in California and New Jersey.
But Valero still wants a tax break specially designed for technology that lowers LOCAL pollution for installing this scrubber. Because the tax cut would be retroactive, this would mean Houston area taxpayers would be on the hook to make up the deficit. That means either a tax hike or layoffs for teachers, firefighters, and police.
TCEQ staff looked at this and said “No way.” But for some reason the TCEQ Commissioners had a different idea. KHOU continues their report:
That brings us back to that TCEQ hearing in Austin. Before security closed the doors on 11 News cameras, we tracked down TCEQ commissioner Carlos Rubinstein.
11 News: ”Are you protecting big business over protecting the environment?”
Rubinstein: “Again, I take issue with the question because I think you’re mis-characterizing what the intent of the discussion was.”
But when we wanted to talk to Bryan Shaw, the Chairman of the TCEQ:
TCEQ Security: “Please conduct your meeting out here, please let me close this door.”
11 News: ”No, you’re not going to close the doors on us sir, this is a public meeting, we have every right to be in here and question public officials about public business.”
TCEQ Security: ‘I understand.”
11 News: “Well then keep the door open.”
And when we later approached Chairman Shaw during a recess in the hearing, we were blocked again. Andrea Morrow, TCEQ Spokesperson, grabbed this reporter’s arm while Chairman Shaw slipped out a side door.
Apart from the blatant violation of the spirit of the 1st Amendment and Texas Open Meetings laws, Commissioner Rubenstein has a point. He doesn’t like the frame of business vs. the environment (well, if the shoe fits…) but he’s partially correct.
To a certain extent, the TCEQ has no choice but to do the bidding of big business. From TCEQ’s Mission Statement: “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strives to protect our state’s human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.” (emphasis added)
Wh-WHAT? Ok, so we only need to protect health and natural resources just enough to make sure we don’t impede business. Is the TCEQ just a rubber stamp for business? Is that why the EPA has been increasingly critical of their operations, saying they don’t follow the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts?
Some alternative explanations from within the KHOU story:
“You know, there’s really no logical reason why this is in the best interest of Texas,” said Matthew Tejada of GHASP, the Greater Houston Association for Smog Prevention. He believes something else is going on with the TCEQ’s actions—marching orders from above.
“I absolutely think that these are coming from the governor’s office, those commissioners are hand-picked by the governor,” Tejada said.
Hand-picked to carry out a mission—”pro-business, pro-business,” Tejada said.
Valero, the largest refinery in North America, is annually one of the biggest campaign contributors to Governor Rick Perry, according to the non-profit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Matt, aside from being one of the best looking environmentalists in the state, is absolutely correct. So is Texans for Public Justice. “Follow the money” indeed.
But the problem is not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in us. We can’t expect TCEQ to NOT rubber stamp every giveaway to big polluters, every nuclear waste dump that might seep into the Ogalalla Aquifer, or every copper smelter that turned parts of El Paso and surrounding cities into a toxic Superfund site, because their mission is to promote business.
Let the Sunshine In
During this next 2 years, TCEQ will undergo a mandated “Sunset” process, which allows lawmakers to make substantive changes to how the agency does their work. Part of what needs to be changed is to reset the mission statement of the agency so that human health, the public good, and our limited natural resources are more important than another huge corporation or billionaire making a few more bucks.
A coalition of Texas do-gooders has teamed up to help citizens get involved in the sunset process and provide important public input into this process. For more information, continue reading here at TexasVox but also visit ActTexas.org.
By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.