TCEQ gets an earful from citizens at the Sunset hearing

A Texas Sunset Advisory Commission hearing, which was part of the first legislative review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 12 years, drew hundreds of regular citizens from around the state, with most of them saying the agency had failed to protect them from pollution. Dozens of people, including doctors, school teachers, church-going grandmothers and a rabbi, who were able to stick it out until well after 5pm before the Sunset Commissioners got around to taking their testimony, asked Texas lawmakers to make the state’s environmental agency tougher on polluters.

The Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission evaluates and considers potential reforms at state agencies every 12 years, and its findings have the potential to lead to significant changes in the TCEQ’s operations during the legislative session that begins next month, if the Sunset Commissioners so recommends.

The Sunset commission’s staff, in response to complaints that TCEQ is too lenient on polluters, has recommended that the Legislature increase the statutory cap on penalties from $10,000 to $25,000, as well as change the way the agency calculates fines.  In fact, TCEQ agreed with the two dozen recommendations made by the Sunset commission’s staff, but TCEQ critics are asking for even more changes.  They accused the agency of being too cozy with industry and ignoring public concerns. They expressed frustration over the recent approval of air pollution permits for coal-fired power plants near Abilene and Bay City, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, even though State Office of Administrative Hearings administrative law judges recommended denying both permits.

Texas Sunset Commissioner, State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) asked TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw whether the agency has the authority to deny a permit application. Shaw said yes, and it had done so 14 percent of the time.  However, no one pursued how many had been denied in the past four years or if any of them had been for large industrial projects since TCEQ’s permitting process ranges from permits for auto repair and lube service shops to dry cleaning facilities to waste water treatment plants to billion dollar coal-fired electric plants. 

Wesley Stafford, an asthma and allergy specialist in Corpus Christi who opposes a proposed petroleum coke-fired plant in Corpus Christi because of the potential public health effects, asked lawmakers to require that one of the TCEQ commissioners be a physician to “bring more balance to the commission than we’ve seen in recent years.”   In the face of these criticisms, TCEQ Commissioner Buddy Garcia defended the agency’s performance, saying that it protects public health by “following the law”.

The Sunset staff’s 124-page analysis does not address the heated dispute between the federal government and Texas over the way the state regulates industrial air pollution that resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently rejecting some of the state’s permitting rules, saying they fall short of federal Clean Air Act requirements.  Texas has challenged the decision in court, even though the problems were first brought to the TCEQ’s attention shortly after the Texas rules were implemented, as far back as the Bush administration.  It is unlikely that the Sunset Commission will address these issues, and they will probably leave it to the courts to sort out that conflict.  But the Sunset Commissioners do have the opportunity to address the issues put to them by the citizen’s of Texas who pleaded with them yesterday for change.  Their recommendations will be released on January 11th, the day the 82nd legislature convenes.

Cross your fingers and hope they take up that mantle.