Southeast Texans participate in Environmental Town Hall

BEAUMONT — A state representative, joking that his remarks might put him in imminent harm from his colleagues, said Monday he expects the mission of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will remain focused primarily on protecting economic interests more than the environment after next year’s legislative session.

“This might get me shot, but I think the majority (of state lawmakers) think everything’s peachy,” Texas Rep. Allan Ritter told a small but engaged group of community members at an Environmental Town Hall held in an auditorium of the Dishman Art Museum at Lamar University.

The meeting was the latest in a series being held throughout the state in anticipation of the TCEQ’s Sunset Review, a once-per-decade, top-to-bottom review by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which will make a report to the Texas Legislature on how well the agency is operating and whether it is still needed. Members of the public can make comments on the report until Nov., 30, and the Sunset Commission will hold a public hearing in Austin on Dec. 15 and 16. On Jan. 12, 2011, the commission will adopt recommendations to be considered by the Legislature in the upcoming session.

Ritter, chair of the House’s Natural Resources Committee, was one of four panelists at the town hall moderated by state District Judge John Stevens, Jr. The others were Heather Feldman, director of TCEQ’s Region 10, which encompasses 15 counties in Southeast Texas; Richard Harrel, a Lamar biology professor and president of Clean Air and Water, Inc., a citizens environmental group; and Lize Burr, a coordinator with the Austin-based Alliance for a Clean Texas.

Harrel, a longtime outspoken environmental activist in the Golden Triangle area, said one of the primary problems with TCEQ, the second-largest environmental regulatory agency in the world after the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is that it’s underfunded and understaffed at the local level.

He said the regional offices “cannot inspect all of the facilities permitted, not even the major ones” adequately. Some facilities go years without an inspection, he said. That is exacerbated by the fact that there is a 2:1 ratio of TCEQ staff members in Austin compared to those in the agency’s regional offices.

Harrel said another problem is that the commission’s three members are appointed by the governor, not elected. He said Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s polices “aren’t about environmental protection. He believes in pollution and money.”

“We need elected commissioners that answer to the public,” he said. “Then we might have a clean environment in this state, or at least a cleaner environment.”

After brief remarks from the panelists, Stevens opened the floor to questions. The first person to speak was Port Arthur resident Hilton Kelley, who heads the nonprofit Communities In-Power and Development Association Inc. (C.I.D.A.), which focuses on environmental justice issues.

Kelley asked the panelists, particularly Feldman, how TCEQ plans to become more responsive to citizens’ concerns.

Feldman said that at the regional level, the agency has an increased focus on getting its staff out into the field to investigate problems and concerns. In the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, she said, the agency has also increased the use of fenceline monitoring near petrochemical plants.

Feldman said her office has been working with the Houston field office on new programs. “We’ve had a lot of turnover in the agency, but with new people you get new ideas,” she said.

Bruce Walker, chair of the Sierra Club’s Golden Triangle Group, brought up the ongoing brouhaha between TCEQ and EPA over the state’s agency’s use of “flexible permits” for large industrial facilities, which the federal agency says is not in compliance with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

“It’s been an interesting process,” Feldman allowed, saying that there have been ongoing discussions between TCEQ’s Austin headquarters and EPA officials in Dallas and Washington. She said that as a result of the public participation during the Sunset Review process, she expected that TCEQ and EPA woud “form a solution that everyone can agree upon.”

“It’s been a weird time, but it needs to get done,” Ritter added. “Enough’s enough.”

Burr referred to Larry Soward, a former TCEQ commissioner who spoke in previous town halls in Houston and Victoria [see this blog's coverage of the Sept. 15 Houston meeting here]. She said Soward made two key points: that under its current legislative framework, TCEQ does not have the authority to deny a permit, but merely keep working on one until it’s approved; and that the monetary penalties to major polluters aren’t high enough to be a disincentive.

Touching on the first point, Harrel asked, “If they can’t (deny permits), what do we have them for?”

At the close of the two-hour meeting, Ritter encouraged the audience to stay involved in the process.

“You should preach your gospel and educate your elected officials,” Ritter said. “It never end’s, ya’ll. Our children’s children are going to be in this very room talking about these issues. But that’s a good thing, that’s how it works.”

UPDATE: On Nov. 18, the Sunset Commission staff released its report on TCEQ. Read about it here.

Read coverage of a Nov. 4 Houston speech by TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw here and coverage of a January 2011 Houston radio event featuring EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz here. The watchdog group Public Citizen has posted a video of the Environmental Town Hall meeting held in Victoria here.

CORRECTION: The last names of Richard Harrel and Hilton Kelley were mispelled in the orignal version of this post.

Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer based in Houston. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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