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Houston’s ‘Pollution Police’ Challenged By Oil And Gas, Petrochemical Industries

The squad of three dozen investigators, chemists and researchers handle some 700 complaints a year. And just like the cops who wear badges, Houston’s pollution police enforce both city ordinances and state laws. But some energy producers have a problem with that and are trying to shut them down.

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Darryl Tate is following his nose down a dead end street in a mostly industrial area in northwest Houston.

“I know the winds are out of the north today,” Tate said.

What’s blowing in the wind is important because Tate investigates environmental complaints for Houston’s Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention. He came here to see what stinks.

“This is the facility here, we are on the backside. They recycle grease from restaurant grease,” the investigator said. “It smells…hard to describe…old, rank grease.”

Tate said the company has been trying to mitigate the odors by using misters to dilute it and by burning hickory wood to mask it.

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Darryl Tate investigates pollution complaints for the City of Houston. He’s holding a device to detect chemical fumes.

He likes his job because he never knows where it will take him.

“We go from petrochemical plants down to a neighbor painting a fence,” Tate said.

People file complaints; the city then investigates and then can cite violators under state and local pollution regulations.

“We follow state guidelines,” Tate said.

But big chemical plants and oil refineries are now taking issue with the work of Houston’s pollution police. In a case scheduled to be heard later this year before the Texas Supreme Court, a group of big energy companies will argue that the City of Houston is breaking Texas law.

The big companies – which include ExxonMobil and Conoco Phillips – say only the state can legally enforce Texas environmental laws. Lawyers for the industry did not make themselves available for an interview. But in briefs filed with the court, they argue that Houston is going rogue, enforcing state pollution laws because: “Houston disagrees with the TCEQ’s enforcement actions.”  TCEQ is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

It’s no secret that Houston and Harris County officials have for years complained that the TCEQ isn’t nearly aggressive enough in monitoring plants and pursuing polluters. In briefs submitted by environmental groups, they call the TCEQ “severely underfunded” and say that’s why it’s critical the city help out by having its own pollution police.

Which, according to the city’s pollution control bureau, is exactly what the state’s TCEQ has been asking Houston to do for years.

“We receive complaints from TCEQ weekly, “said Daisy James, acting chief of the Houston Pollution Bureau. “We used to have a contract with TCEQ.”

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Daisy James is acting chief of Houston’s Bureau of Pollution Control.

A contract to do environmental enforcement for the state, a formal arrangement that went away some years ago. But James says the TCEQ continues to refer cases to her investigators.

James cites one case as an example of how her team makes a difference. It’s something we reported on last year.

“Oh, the smell, I can’t stand it, it gives me headaches and stuff,” Deseree Bellazar told News 88.7 in October. She was talking about a bankrupt chemical recycling company smack dab in the middle of her south central Houston neighborhood.

“Through our investigations and surveillance…..we were able to provide information to TCEQ and EPA to clean up the area,” James said.

In an emailed response, the TCEQ said that sure, it refers things like odor complaints to the City of Houston. Otherwise, the state agency responds on its own to “complaints that are beyond the jurisdiction or capability of the city.” That assertion meshes well with what the industry is expected to argue before the Texas Supreme Court: state pollution laws are complicated and were never intended to be enforced by local pollution bureaus.

Daisy James told us to not have her team on the streets would not be good.

“We’re able to get there quicker, we have a closer relationship with the citizens of Houston and I think it would be a big loss,” James said.

It will be up to the state’s high court to eventually decide whether city investigators are protecting the residents or are an undue burden on the industry.

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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