Texans have an opening to envision an environmental agency that works for everyone
Texans, from Port Arthur to the Permian Basin, are taking action to protect their health and safety from corporate polluters. In south Harris County, Brunswick Lakes residents are fighting a permit for a lung-damaging concrete batch plant. In Orange Grove, 40 miles west of Corpus Christi, residents are opposing a permit for a waste disposal company one high school student says made her “dizzy and almost fall over.”
And in Port Arthur in Jefferson County, civil rights activists are urging a federal investigation of a petrochemical plant they say is smothering their predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood with out-of-control pollution.
What they need is a government that prioritizes their rights and well-being over corporate interests. But the state agency that’s supposed to be doing that, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), appointed by the governor and funded by the Legislature, has been unwilling or unable.
Between 2010 and 2020, a Grist investigation found that the agency’s oversight of large polluting facilities in Texas declined sharply, dropping to barely 2,000 inspections from 7,500. At the same time, they issued fines on illegal releases of pollution only about 3 percent of the time.Instead of finding ways to protect communities, the agency routinely approves permits over objections, claiming their hands are tied by the state’s already lax environmental codes. “TCEQ is basically an agency that rubber stamps permits,” says Robin Schneider, the executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, “and it is very weak on enforcing the rules and laws we have on the books.”
Texas can do better. Here's how, together, we can reimagine TCEQ for the benefit of everyone.
What is a "sunset review"?
TCEQ is one of 21 state agencies scheduled over the next year or so for a comprehensive assessment known as sunset review. It is a state-mandated process that each agency undergoes every 12 years with the stated goal of making them more efficient and effective.
Each review begins with a required agency self-evaluation that serves as a starting point for a yearslong reform process. TCEQ published theirs in September 2021. From here, the process thickens with layers and layers of bureaucracy. TCEQ’s self-evaluation, for example, runs to 684 pages.
But there are ways to stay involved and have influence. Here are the steps.
- Two public meetings will be held in Austin in to give the public a chance to comment on the sunset report
- The Sunset Advisory Commission, mostly comprising state lawmakers, will issue its own report on TCEQ
- There will be two more meetings in Austin for community members, advocates and experts to speak up on that report
- The commission then sends the report to the 88th Texas Legislature, which begins in January 2023, for consideration
- A member of the legislature will sponsor a bill to direct change at TCEQ based on findings from this process and other legislative prerogatives. The Texas House and Senate will vote on the bill in the summer of 2023
Though the process takes the better part of two years, past sunset reviews have resulted in important changes to environmental protections in Texas. In 2011, advocates and community members were instrumental in convincing the Sunset Advisory Commission, and ultimately the Texas Legislature, to increase the maximum fine to $25,000 per day per violation when polluters break the law.
Before that, in 2002, a new system was adopted that allows everyone to see when polluters report violations to the state.
“People should be communicating that they want a much stricter environmental permitting process and much stricter laws,” says Schneider. “If you are a frequent breather, this affects you.”
This is where you come in
The Sunset Advisory Commission is holding only two meetings, both in Austin this spring, which is a barrier for those Texans living farther away in the very communities, among many others, mentioned above. That’s why a coalition of environmental groups will conduct informal “people’s hearings” statewide to gather comments.
These hearings, which will be held online and in person across Texas, respond to concerns that Texans’ voices do not figure strongly in the bureaucratic process. All the comments received during these people’s hearings will be submitted to the commission for staff to review ahead of their report on TCEQ.
There will be plenty of suggestions. Among the likely reform proposals:
- making permit applications viewable online (they’re not now)
- restructuring fines to allow the amount to be scaled up when a pollution event drags on for days, even weeks or months (they’re capped now)
- adopting measures that force the agency to consider the climate crisis in the execution of their mission (they don’t)
The coalition will also strongly encourage granting TCEQ commissioners the authority to deny permits for reasons of equity or environmental justice.
But convincing the commission, and state lawmakers, to act on our suggestions will take political pressure. Texans must come together to contact state lawmakers and demand they take the review seriously. “Texas reels from one disaster to the next and fails to address one crisis even as the next occurs,” says Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “We’re tired. We've had enough of the state protecting polluters while we pay the price. It’s time to put Texans’ health and safety first.”
Coleman is a writer in Public Citizen’s Texas office.
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