Energy & Environment

Is Texas’ ‘Small Army’ Of Pollution Enforcers Big Enough For The Job?

Millions of tax dollars are being restored to the state agency that regulates pollution from big industry – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or the TCEQ. But at the same time, big cuts have been made to the budget of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA. So what’s it all mean for keeping our air and water clean in Houston?


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Cleaning up this toxic site in Houston was managed by the US EPA
Cleaning up this toxic site in Houston was managed by the US EPA

First, we looked at what's happening at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the TCEQ. A few years ago, Texas lawmakers slashed a couple hundred employees and a third of the TCEQ's nearly $1 billion 2-year budget. But with an improving economy, lawmakers restored 19 of the workers and big chunk of that money beginning this year (about $465 million for 2016 compared to just $351 million appropriated in 2011).

In a slickly-produced video on the TCEQ's website, TCEQ officials say Texas has become a national leader in policing polluters. The 2013 video shows inspectors using the latest technology like infrared cameras that spot invisible chemical vapors pouring off industrial sites.

"We also have what amounts to a small army that goes out and helps protect the environment ...we have over 2,700 employees," says Toby Baker, a TCEQ commissioner, in the video.

"They go out and do literally thousands of investigations each year at facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations," says Bryan Shaw, TCEQ chairman.

So the TCEQ is doing its job?

"In Texas, we have a state environmental agency that doesn't have the political will to regulate the way it should," Ilan Levin, an environmental attorney who has worked for the Texas Legislature and is now with the group the Environmental Integrity Project.

Last month, his and three other environmental groups sued the TCEQ, alleging it has allowed air pollution permit applications to sit for years without taking any action to approve or reject them. The TCEQ has not responded, but the lawsuit says the permits are for some of the biggest industrial plants in the state, including refineries in the Houston area.

"It has nothing to do with lack of resources. In fact, TCEQ has the resources it needs to issue these permits, to do its job not just on permitting but enforcement as well," says Levin.

Critics say Texas stands out for having chemical manufacturing plants with the nation's highest rates of serious environmental and safety violations, twice the rate as California that has more such plants than Texas according to the Center for Effective Government.

California is more aggressive in regulating industries according to the group's Ron White.

"Texas has long had a reputation of being extremely lenient and bending over backwards to accommodate industries and industry's perspectives," White told News 88.7.

The TCEQ had no comment on the comparison with California; spokesperson Terry Clawson emailed that he wasn't familiar with the report.

Of particular concern to the group is not just what it said it found going on at state agencies, but instead what it found happening with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA often ends-up handling cases involving some of the worst polluters. But Congress has been cutting the EPA's budget. It's lost a sixth of its workforce in recent years.

"We've seen a dramatic drop," says White. "The drop has been about one-third in enforcement actions taken against polluters."

The Center for Effective Government points to what happened a year ago when four workers died after poisonous vapors leaked at DuPont's chemical plant in La Porte. No one outside the plant was injured. State inspections had found similar, though smaller, leaks in previous years, but reportedly there was no follow-up by federal workplace safety enforcers.

A lack of federal and state cooperation increases the risks for everyone in or outside plants handling poisonous chemicals says Brian Gumm, also with the Center for Effective Government.

"The next time that this happens, whether it's in Houston or somewhere else in the country is the community going to be so lucky or is there going to be a toxic release that gets out and impacts people's homes or schools or other businesses nearby," Gumm told Houston Public Media.

The EPA has warned Congress of just such a risk, but politicians who support cutting EPA's budget even further say the agency has been too aggressive and has over-reached in its efforts to reduce pollution.


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