Houston audience has its say at Environmental Town Hall

A former commissioner of Texas’s environmental regulatory agency told a Houston audience Wednesday that the state’s permitting process all but assures that even the most controversial industrial facilities will ultimately receive a permit.

Larry Soward, who recently completed a six-year term as one of three members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, was one of  the panelists at an Environmental Town Hall hosted by several local and state environmental groups.

Several hundred people filled a large ballroom at the University of Houston-Downtown for a rare opportunity to speak directly to Mark Vickery, TCEQ’s executive director since June 2008. The event had increased importance since TCEQ is undergoing a once-per-decade, top-to-bottom “sunset review,” by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, during which the Texas Legislature determines how well an agency is operating and whether it is still needed.

Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, the lead sponsor organization of the event, led off by posing several questions to the panelists, who also included Texas Rep. Jessica Farrar and Stephen Linder, a professor and associate director of the Institute for Health Policy at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Tejada asked Vickery what was the single change he could think of that would have the most positive impact on improving the air quality in the Houston area. Rather than answer that directly, Vickery touted the development in recent years of infrared camera technology which he said has helped reduce the amount of emissions.

But Farrar, a Democrat whose district encompasses east Houston and the Houston Ship Channel area and is a member of the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulations, was less circumspect.

“I’d say the single most important change would be a statewide plan that would consider the health needs (of residents),” Farrar said. “We need to change the mindset of it being jobs versus health. We need set standards and to comply with those standards.”

In answer to another question, Soward, the former TCEQ commissioner who is now a private consultant, said there needs to be more structured coordination between the TCEQ and federal and local environmental agencies to determine which agency is responsible for what, particularly in the area of enforcement.

Tejada asked Linder to what he attributed the measurable improvement in air quality in the Houston region in the past few years. Linder said that was largely due to the “vigilance of nonprofit groups that have brought these issues to the public.” He said that the state of  California was able to make signficant gains against polluters through the “threat of public disclosure.”

After Tejada finished with his questions, the floor was open to the public, and lines quickly formed at two microphones near the front of the standing-room only audience.

Lucy Randel, representing the group Industry Professionals for Clean Air, told the panelists that one problem is that the cost to industrial polluters to pay fines levied by TCEQ is often less than the cost to make the changes necessary to fix the particular problem.

Soward, the former commissioner, agreed.

“The problem is that the TCEQ is signficantly limited by the statutory provisions from the Legislature. The $10,000 per day limit is not reflective of the harm or potential harm,” he said. State legislators not only need to increase those caps, but also provide for the imposition of more corrective action, he added.

Several Montgomery County residents who have been fighting against the permitting of injection wells in a “contested case hearing” before an administrative law judge complained that they felt that Vickery’s office had entered the case as a party to the litigation, not as a neutral agency.

Vickery politely went to great lengths to explain that since in contested case hearings the TCEQ has already reviewed a permit application and found that it meets existing regulations, the agency’s personnel are called upon to provide testimony about that.

“We do appear to defend the application. But we’re not there to defend the applicant; that’s not our job,” he said.

But Soward said that process had been discussed during a previous sunset review of the agency. “It’s a good concern. The executive director should not be a formal party (to a case), but more in a technical resource role,” he said.

Dr. Anthony George, a resident of The Woodlands, forcefully spoke out against the plan of a company called TexCom to dump what he said were toxic wastes in that community, which residents have been fighting for years. He asked why TCEQ had allowed the company to continue with its application process after several instances when it had failed to meet certain standards.

“I would plead not to prolong this any further,” George said, to loud applause.

Soward replied that in the beginning, the contested case hearing process had been conceived to be a “fair, unbiased, quasi-legal process” that would put permit applicants and concerned citizens on an equal footing. But in the ensuing decades, he said, the process has evolved such that people protesting a permit application are required to meet a burden of proof that the applicant is not.

“The process is designed, unfortunately, to end with a permit being issued,” Soward said. “Horrible, horrible,” responded George.

Several other people, including a group of students from St. Catherine’s Montessori school, spoke out against the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed coal-fired electric plant near Bay City in Matagorda County. Environmental groups maintain that the plant will be extremely harmful to the area’s wetlands and bring the greater Houston area out of compliance with federal air quality standards.

Farrar, the state legislator, impressed upon the audience that it has long been very difficult to get environmental bills passed in the Legislature. She implored residents to bring to take their concerns directly to their representatives.

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

Read coverage of the Nov. 1 Environmental Town Hall in Beaumont here, a Nov. 4 Houston speech by TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw here and 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 in Victoria, including extensive discussion of the proposed White Stallion plant, here.

Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and energy 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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  1. Sunset-Ready Houstonians Give TCEQ an Earful | the Texas Green Report - September 17, 2010

    […] Congratulations to the Air Alliance Houston, Houston Sierra Club, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Alliance for a Clean Texas, and the League of Women Voters for an excellent big success at the first of the historic TCEQ Sunset Town Hall meetings! […]

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