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Archive for February, 2019

HBPublic Citizen Director Adrian Shelley wrote to members of the House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety today asking them to support HB 91, which would establish a disaster identification system for a declared state of disaster.

You can read the letter below.

Flashing Warning Light

HB 91 creates a standard system to convey that message: an illuminated display that uses a standard color scheme to communicate to first responders the needs of people and domestic animals.

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House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety. P.O. Box 2910 Austin, TX 78768

February 27, 2019

Re: HB 91, supporting testimony by Public Citizen

Dear Chairman Nevárez and members of the committee:

Public Citizen appreciates the opportunity to testify in favor of HB 91, relating to establishment of the disaster identification system for a declared state of disaster.

We support this bill because it will provide a means for emergency responders to locate victims in need of assistance during a disaster. Public Citizen has advocated for many years on behalf of communities and their needs during disasters.

We participated in two meetings called by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with public health and environmental advocates to discuss the response to Hurricane Harvey. These meetings, held on September 12, 2017 and December 11, 2017, consisted of wide ranging discussions about Texas’ response to the public health and safety emergencies presented by Harvey. Through these meetings and our advocacy on this issue, we are well acquainted with the emergency response to Harvey, including areas where it could have been improved. In the midst of the Hurricane Harvey response, Texas Emergency

Management Chief Nim Kidd implored Texans in need of assistance “to make sure you put a signal out there, that you are still there, and you still need help, convey that message to first responders.” HB 91 creates a standard system to convey that message: an illuminated display that uses a standard color scheme to communicate to first responders the needs of people and domestic animals.

Because we want first responders to have every available tool to respond to people in need, and because we believe that HB 91 provides one such tool, we support the bill.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this testimony, if you wish to discuss our position further, I can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 512-477-1155.

Respectfully,

Adrian Shelley, Texas Office Director, Public Citizen

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TCEQ and Social Media

Do you follow the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Twitter? How about Facebook? Did you know they have an Instagram page? LinkedIn? YouTube?

The TCEQ has about 18,000 followers across those platforms, with 10,000 of those on LinkedIn and 6,000 on Twitter. They also maintain the website and social media for “Take Care of Texas,” the less-successful younger brother of TxDOT’s “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

Last week, at the first meeting of the House Environmental Regulations Committee during the 86th legislature, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker told committee members that he hoped the TCEQ could use social media more effectively in the future. We agreed at the time, and now we’d like to take this opportunity to identify three things the TCEQ does well on social media and three things it could do better.

1. Air Quality Forecasts

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality uses its Twitter page to post daily air quality forecasts. The air quality forecasts might look familiar to you if you know of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index and AirNow.gov website. Many people use these tools to get information about air quality and air pollution near them, including people who suffer from asthma and people who work outdoors. When elevated ozone levels are the difference between a safe run or an asthma attack, you can imagine why some people rely on these resources. The TCEQ provides an email option for air quality forecasts, but posting them on social media is a great way to build the audience.

TCEQ began posting air quality forecasts back to 2015, when they were still using the @TCEQNews twitter handle. This happened in response to criticism from Air Alliance Houston (where I worked at the time), which had been calling attention to TCEQ’s total lack of an online presence. TCEQ never directly acknowledged our criticism, but to their credit, they did start posting daily air quality forecasts. In my research for this post, I found an archived Air Alliance Houston blog post from 2015 in which I (immodestly) took credit for prompting TCEQ to action.

2. Drought Maps

Some time after the TCEQ started posting daily air quality forecasts on Twitter, they added regularly updated drought maps. This is another example of actionable content about environmental quality. People across Texas can use the drought maps to adjust their water use or decide which of Texas’ many lakes, rivers, and streams to visit. Seeing periodic drought maps is also a good reminder that Texas often faces water shortages. We hope that this fact will prompt people to speak up about the need to use water more wisely in Texas by, for example, limiting the use of water in hydraulic fracturing or investing in urban water infrastructure to minimize transmission losses.

3. Notice of Public Hearings

This is another example where public criticism caused TCEQ to respond and change its practices for the better. Perhaps three years ago, the old @TCEQNews Twitter account posted to announce the close of a public comment period with no comments received. I responded (again from the Air Alliance Houston Twitter account) that receiving zero public comments was nothing to celebrate, and that perhaps TCEQ should post notice of public opportunities when they begin, not when they end without participation. Again I didn’t get a direct acknowledgement of my criticism, but again TCEQ responded, this time by beginning to post notice of public hearings. The public hearing is an essential opportunity for members of the public to weigh on permits and other decisions that affect our environment, so TCEQ should do everything it can to encourage public involvement.

A recent public meeting in Houston.

Pointing out these past exchanges with TCEQ isn’t about any desire for credit, but rather to show that the TCEQ does sometimes respond to publicly raised concerns. These may be a few modest changes by the agency, but they are typical of what we see from TCEQ. There are many, many hardworking, conscientious staffers at the Commission. Much of the good work that TCEQ does happens among these staffers, quietly and by degrees. These are the people who are listening when we make recommendations to the TCEQ. They may not announce changes with fanfare, but they can often nudge the Commission in the right direction. With that in mind, here are three things the TCEQ could do better on social media.

1. Focus on the Public

Do you know who TCEQ’s customers are? You might think it’s the 28 million Texans who breathe air, drink water, and enjoy unspoiled natural land. In fact, in TCEQ parlance, a “customer” is a company that has a permit with the Commission. What we might call a “polluter.”

This focus of attention on polluters is evident in TCEQ’s messaging on their website, social media, and elsewhere. So, for example, you will find social media announcements for the Environmental Trade Fair and Conference, but you aren’t likely to see any announcements for a workshop about, say, filing an environmental complaint. (As an aside, if you want to know how un-user friendly TCEQ’s complaint process is, consider that the actual email address they use is [email protected])

2. Post permit notices and information Online

The TCEQ could promote public engagement by making more information available online. There is actually a bill filed in this legislative session by Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, HB 245, that would require TCEQ to post certain environmental and water use permit applications online.

The TCEQ could do this by choice if it wanted to. If online posting required more resources, the TCEQ could request those resources in its budget proposal to the legislature. Furthermore, posting permits online would free TCEQ resources in the filing rooms across the state, where records are required to be kept for public viewing. Online posting wouldn’t eliminate the need for public maintenance of records, but it would drastically reduce the number of members of the public who came to view records, thus relieving an administrative burden on TCEQ. Details aside, there is little question that moving toward storing information online will save resources in the long run. TCEQ has, to its credit, done a lot of work in recent years to combine and update its online databases. Posting permits online is a next logical step.

3. Engage!

To recap, much of the story I have told here is one of advocates such as myself calling out TCEQ, and TCEQ quietly responding. At times the Commission seems singleminded about not engaging with the people. Perhaps they are concerned about creating liability or upsetting their customers. Whatever the reason, probably the biggest flaw in TCEQ’s social media strategy is the unwillingness to engage people where they are. To enter into frank exchanges about the hazards Texans face and what they can do about them. Nowhere is this more evident than during a natural disaster or an accident such as a fire or chemical release. These incidents often lead to robust discussions on social media, including people looking for information about risks and how to avoid them. In these up-to-the-minute conversations, the TCEQ is nowhere to be found. I suspect we could get an answer from some lawyers about why TCEQ cannot weigh in on a disaster as it is unfolding, but from our perspective that answer will simply be a justification to continue to not engage a willing public.

If the Commission is serious about improving its social media presence, our last suggestion is to loosen up, engage with people, and pull back the veil a bit. If people see the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality willing to engage with them, then perhaps they will be more willing to make that complaint, attend that workshop, or file those public comments. We have to believe that this is what TCEQ actually wants from average Texans, and social media is one way to encourage it.

Honorable Mention: TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker

In conclusion, we have to applaud TCEQ’s Executive Director Toby Baker for having his own twitter account, @ctobybaker, since 2012. Mr. Baker has shared some fun tweets over the years, though at some point there was an addition to his twitter profile that is quite revelatory about the TCEQ’s current approach to social media. It reads, “Due to TX laws, I can’t receive certain communications– all ‘mentions’ are screened”

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The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) examined the 16 Texas power plants that are required to monitor groundwater under the Federal Coal Ash Rule, and found that 100 percent of the coal plants (16 out of 16) are leaking contaminants, including arsenic, boron, cobalt, and lithium, into groundwater at levels that would be unsafe for human consumption. For a detailed discussion of our study’s methods, see page 17. Some of the main findings include:

•   Thirteen of the sixteen coal plants have unsafe levels of arsenic in groundwater, with concentrations sometimes exceeding 100 micrograms per liter – ten times higher than the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level for arsenic.

•   Ten plants have unsafe levels of boron, which is toxic to both humans and aquatic life. Multiple wells at the San Miguel plant south of San Antonio have boron concentrations of more than thirty milligrams per liter, exceeding EPA’s health advisory by ten-fold.

•   Fourteen plants appear to be leaking unsafe levels of cobalt, which can harm the heart, blood, and other organs. The groundwater protection standard for cobalt is six micrograms per liter. At the San Miguel plant, Gibbons Creek facility northwest of Houston, and Welsh plant east of Dallas, cobalt in groundwater reaches more than 600 micrograms per liter, which is more than 100 times higher than safe levels.

· Lithium is associated with neurological effects and other health risks. Eleven Texas coal plants have unsafe levels of lithium in groundwater, with concentrations frequently exceeding 1,000 micrograms per liter, 25 times the health-based groundwater protection standard of 40 micrograms per liter.

In addition, with one or two exceptions, none of the coal ash ponds in Texas meet EPA requirements for liners, meaning that they lack underground barriers made of plastic or other waterproof materials that prevent them from leaking. 

The plants in the study are Oak Grove and Twin Oaks coal plants in Roberson County, Sandy Creek coal plant in McLennan County, Limestone coal plant in Limestone County, Sandow coal plant in Milam County, Fayette coal plant in Fayette County, Monticello and Welsh coal plants in Titus County, Pirkey coal plant in Harrison County, Martin Lake coal plant in Rusk County, Big Brown coal plant in Freestone County, Gibbons Creek coal plant in Grimes County, Calaveras coal plant in Bexar County, San Miguel coal plant in Atascosa County, Parish coal plant in Fort Bend County, and Coleto Creek coal plant in Fannin County.

The report goes on to say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) can address the coal ash threat in the following ways:

•         Require coal-fired power plants to remediate coal ash contamination from any onsite ash dumps, regardless of whether these dumps are active or inactive.

•         Prohibit the dumping or burying of coal ash in places where it remains in contact with groundwater. The only way to prevent contamination from coal ash is to keep the coal ash contained and dry. Ash ponds at the Monticello and Welsh plants east of Dallas are in contact with groundwater, and the owners of these plants are planning to close the ponds in place. Leaving ash in these ponds will result in ongoing, long-term contamination of groundwater.

•         Require owners to post all groundwater monitoring data as soon as the data are collected, and require owners to follow the assessment monitoring schedule laid out in the Coal Ash Rule, not the creative interpretation suggested by industry groups and sanctioned by the Trump EPA. Assessment monitoring should begin no later than 90 days after finding statistically significant increases in detection monitoring, and the assessment monitoring data should be analyzed for significant increases within 90 days of initiating assessment monitoring.

•         Require owners to select background monitoring wells that are unaffected by coal ash from any coal ash unit, regulated or unregulated. This is what the federal Coal Ash Rule requires, and EPA and Texas should strictly enforce this provision of the rule.

•         Require testing of any residential or municipal drinking water wells within one-half mile of coal ash ponds and landfills.

•         Consider environmental justice and avoid disproportionate impacts of coal ash disposal on low-income communities and communities of color.

To read the entire report, Groundwater Contamination from Texas Coal Ash Dumps

http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Texas-Coal-Ash-Report.pdf

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Texas press must Cover Climate

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. Public Citizen believes that journalists and media outlets should give climate change the media coverage it deserves. Seven in ten Americans agree that they are interested in climate change and that the media should cover it more. Our “Cover Climate” campaign was launched to call attention to media outlets that are not adequately covering climate change.

A new report by Public Citizen’s Cover Climate campaign shows that media outlets typically do not discuss climate change when covering extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes. The report, Carbon Omission: How the U.S. Media Failed to Connect Extreme Weather to Climate Change in 2018, shows that media outlets only mention climate change in conjunction with heat waves 34 per cent of the time, for droughts only 34 per cent of the time, and for last years hurricanes Florence and Michael, only 10 per cent of the time.

Interestingly, papers in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas–all states affected by hurricanes in 2017 or 2018–are actually worse than their peers in other states at mentioning climate change in conjunction with natural disasters.

This is especially concerning in Texas, which is more vulnerable to natural disasters than any other state. In fact, based on an analysis by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas has experienced 44% of all billion dollar disasters in the United States since 1980.

The United States has experienced 238 billion dollar disasters since 1980, with 105 of those occurring in Texas. Meaning our state is second to none in its vulnerability to natural disasters and should be very concerned about the relationship between these disasters and climate change.

Despite this, Texas Governor Greg Abbott remains defiant on the question of climate science. Earlier this month, Governor Abbott was presented with a letter from climate scientists explaining that there is a scientific consensus on climate change and that we can expect to see increasing consequences for our failure to act.

Abbott’s response? He can’t weigh in on the question of climate change because he is not a scientist.

This is not an adequate response. Nevertheless, it is a favored talking point by climate deniers. The argument that one must be an expert to make policy decisions is simply absurd. One can imagine the reaction if Governor Abbott, after a briefing by Texas teachers, asserted that he couldn’t make decisions about school finance because he isn’t a teacher. Or how about a Governor Abbott who wouldn’t weigh on the the abortion question because he isn’t a doctor?

In these areas, our Governor believes he is qualified to make policy pronouncements–as indeed any capable leader would. We rely on our elected officials not to be experts in each and every field, but to have the wherewithal to consult the experts and make policy decisions based on their recommendations.

This is all we ask of Governor Greg Abbott. No one expects him to become a climate scientist. His protestations that he cannot weigh in on the issue without personally possessing the expertise are a dodge, nothing more. If he refuses to answer important policy questions for the state, it is only because he knows he is out of step with mainstream science and public opinion on the issue.

This is why climate coverage by our state’s news media is so important. We cannot let our lawmakers dodge the issue any more. They need to know that when we discuss droughts, flood, heat waves, hurricanes, and yes, even polar vortexes, we will also be having a conversation about climate change. If the media continues the conversation, our policymakers will fall in line.

We aren’t asking them to be experts. We’re just asking them to listen to the experts.

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