Energy & Environment

Texas To Make Environmental Proceedings More Accessible To Non-English Speakers, Following Civil Rights Complaint

Air and water permits for industrial facilities are often granted in predominantly Latino communities, but environmental justice advocates say language barriers often make it hard for community members to participate in the public process.

A Valero refinery sits directly across the street from the entrance to Hartman Park in Manchester, in east Houston.

A new proposal from the state’s environmental agency would make it easier for community members who don't speak English to participate in the public permitting process for refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities.

The proposed rule follows a civil rights complaint filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2019.

Air and water permits for petrochemical facilities in Texas are frequently granted in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, like Manchester, a low-income, majority Latino community in east Houston that is home to more than 30 industrial polluters.

But environmental justice advocates say language barriers often make it hard for everyone to participate or understand what's being proposed in their neighborhoods.

"Community members are often having to lean on smaller organizations or even their family members to understand what is happening in these public processes," said Nalleli Hidalgo, community outreach coordinator for the Houston-based group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS. "It's very important for them to know, especially if they're going to be affected by it — if there's going to be an increase in a specific toxin, or a new development that will affect their community and also the quality of their air, water, soil and overall environment."

In 2019, environmental nonprofit Earthjustice filed a Title VI civil rights complaint against the TCEQ on behalf of TEJAS and the Sierra Club, alleging that the agency was in violation of federal law by denying non-English speakers the opportunity to participate in the process.

"They’re pretty much discriminating against people based on their national origin and the language that they speak," Hidalgo said. "In the end, in environmental justice, people are entitled to clean air and water, regardless of what language they speak, or what country they come from."

The proposed language access rule follows an agreement the TCEQ reached with the EPA over the complaint. The proposed rule would require translation of key documents, such as public meeting notices and summaries of the proposed projects. It would also require real-time interpretation at certain public meetings.

The requirements would go into effect when the elementary or middle school closest to the proposed facility offers bilingual education.

"The rulemaking should improve processes that the agency already has in place to ensure that all communities and individuals can participate in the agency's public participation process on permit applications, regardless of any language access issues," read a statement from TCEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Young.

Beyond the rule proposal, the commission is working on several other plans to improve public participation as part of its agreement reached with the EPA, Young added.

Public comment is being accepted on the proposed rule through Monday. The rule is expected to be implemented at the end of July.

At one public meeting to submit oral comments for the rule proposal, environmental advocates, public officials and community members called it a step in the right direction.

Isabel Segarra Trevino, an assistant county attorney with the Harris County Attorney's Office, said about 20% of residents in the county speak little or no English.

"This rule is very important to us, not just for those reasons, but we’re also home to the petrochemical capital of the nation," she said. "And those facilities get many, many types of TCEQ permits that are and will continue to be subject to these public participation rules."

Trevino said when adequate translation isn't provided the burden often falls on family members.

"I too had those experiences as a child, like so many of us children of immigrants, having to translate and seeing our families being discriminated against, because as children we lacked the technical and worldly knowledge to be competent translators," she said.

Still, many speakers pushed for the rule to go further, calling for additional translation of key information, such as translating the entire permit itself or including a translation of the health impacts of the proposed projects.

"They should include toxicological information about the pollutants that may be emitted from the facility, and they should also include applicant compliance histories," said Nicholas Ray, a University of Texas law student. "Both of those things will help those communities intelligently and effectively understand what they’re having come into their communities."

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