Texas environmental agencies need to crack down on polluters, say group of lawmakers – The Gilmer Mirror

Erin Douglas and Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune

“Texas environmental agencies need to crack down on polluters, says group of lawmakers,” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates — and collaborates with — Texans on public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Environmental Quality Commission needs to improve how it holds common polluters accountable, a state review of the agency’s effectiveness found.

A commission examining how state agencies carry out their duties recommended Thursday that lawmakers ask TCEQ to focus enforcement procedures on repeat offenders and big offenders. That recommendation – and others – came after a state report earlier this year concluded that TCEQ executives have become “reluctant” to regulate the industry, often delegating decisions to agency officials or “industry members to self-govern and self-police.” encourage”.

These recommendations and findings come from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a group of 10 state legislators and two members of the public who regularly review all state agencies. It has been more than a decade since the Commission last reviewed how TCEQ works.

TCEQ regulates air, water and soil pollution and had a budget of $429 million in 2021; It oversees more than 250,000 permits ranging from small landscape irrigation to large petrochemical plants.

The Sunset Commission also recommended TCEQ review and potentially the suspension of a regulated entity’s compliance history assessment in the event that an emergency event results in death or injury. This would create additional obstacles to obtaining permits for companies that have suffered fires or explosions.

The Sunset Commission called on state lawmakers to pass legislation in the next session to increase penalties for industrial plants that fail to comply with state regulations from $25,000 a day to $40,000 a day. Commissioner Nathan Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Dallas, unsuccessfully pushed for a $50,000-per-day fine.

“I think people wanted to send a message that we are aware of the strain on the industry while acknowledging the importance of increasing the penalty after this period so that TCEQ has the power and tools to address the.” actually enforce compliance with their rules. ‘ Johnson said.

The Sunset Commission’s report earlier this year also mentioned several transparency issues that have contributed to general public distrust of the agency.

Sunset commissioners on Thursday also recommended TCEQ increase public notice of its meetings and extend the period for people to comment on agency matters to 36 hours after the end of a public meeting.

“One thing we’ve found working with community members is that they often don’t know anything about the facility until they get there [TCEQ] meeting,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas director of state watchdog group Public Citizen. “And when they do, it’s too late [to share input]. Even giving the audience 36 extra hours – that’s a big step.”

For years, TCEQ has been criticized by Democrats and environmentalists for being too pro-industry. Since 2021, TCEQ has been embroiled in three separate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency civil rights investigations after environmental groups alleged that Texas discriminated on the basis of race when approving industrial pollution.

Recently, the EPA opened a civil rights investigation into permitting concrete batching plants in Texas after the Harris County Attorney and a legal aid group alleged that TCEQ discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English skills.

In June, about 100 Houston residents traveled to the Texas Capitol to protest TCEQ’s decision to open industrial plants, particularly concrete batching plants, in their predominantly black and Hispanic communities. The EPA has found that batch plants pollute the air with particulate matter, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and cardiac arrest if too much is inhaled.

Residents near such facilities — which are often built in areas populated by communities of color — also complain about the noise and traffic from heavy trucks driving through their neighborhoods.

TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann said the agency’s permitting decisions could not be racist because TCEQ does not choose the location of industrial facilities.

TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker wrote in a June letter that the agency “challenges some of the language and opinions” in the Sunset staffer’s report, but said TCEQ agrees with the call to improve the agency’s transparency, particularly on the improvement of their website.

The Sunset Commission also recommended virtual and in-person meetings for TCEQ meetings. And it directed TCEQ to submit a report to the Legislature detailing how it will improve public participation and language access and develop Spanish-language versions of its online form for individuals to submit a complaint.

Environmental groups across the state, including the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Air Alliance Houston, have said people distrust TCEQ because of “its poor transparency, lack of meaningful public input, and patchy environmental enforcement record.”

They said in an email that “Sunset’s staff and commissioners missed an opportunity to make bold recommendations and changes that would regain public confidence and improve community protection,” but most “of the relatively modest recommendations.” “ would support.

During the next legislative session, beginning in January, state legislators will consider the Sunset Commission’s recommendations and propose bills to address the issues identified during the review.

Disclosure: Air Alliance Houston was a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list can be found here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/10/texas-commission-environmental-quality-sunset-review/.

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