EPA administrator addresses TCEQ fight in Houston event

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency for the region which includes Texas told a Houston live and radio audience Wednesday that his agency is making great strides in improving the state’s environment, despite some “disagreements” with the state’s environmental regulation agency.

Al Armendariz, administrator for EPA Region 6, speaking from Dallas by phone, was the main guest on a special live program presented by KPFT and moderated by Leo Gold, host of the Houston Pacifica station’s “The New Capital Show.”

Armendariz, appointed by President Obama in November 2009, answered questions posed by Gold and interacted with the other guests who appeared in person in the New Living store in the Rice Village, and later took questions from the audience.

Gold led off the program by asking Armendariz to explain how the federal agency is implementing new regulations to regulate “greenhouse gases” under a 2007 Supreme Court decision in which several states sued the EPA under then-President George W. Bush. The court ruled that the EPA had the authority and the obligation under the Clean Air Act to regulate such gases, like carbon dioxide, which scientists say contribute to global warming.

Gold also asked Armendariz to talk about a series of announcements of new regulations and findings the EPA in late December in response to other federal court rulings upholding the federal agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which was challenged by the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Armendariz said his agency’s authority comes from a scientific consensus that “greenhouse gases do in fact pose a harm to public health and the environment.”

Just over a week ago, the U.S. District Court of Appeals lifted a stay preventing the EPA from regulating such gases in Texas.

Gold asked Armendariz to comment on a recent opinion piece by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, in which she wrote that the new regulations would severely harm the U.S. and Texas economies, raising energy prices and putting jobs at risk. Gold particularly quoted Hutchison calling the new regulations “a bureaucratic power grab.”

Armendariz went to some pains to say that his office works well in many ways with both Hutchison and Sen. John Cornyn, also a Republican. But, he said, “we do have a disagreement with some members of Congress about the regulations of greenhouse gases.”

He said the EPA was taking a “common-sense, measured approach” to implement the new regulations over the next several years and even decades. He said a focus on energy efficiency and the creation of new industries to address environmental concerns would boost the American economy in the long-run.

He noted that as administrator for Region 6, he is responsible for the environment in Louisiana, whose wetlands he said have been damaged over the years by “poor wetands management” as well as rising sea levels.

Asked to describe the EPA’s relationship with Texas state officials, including the TCEQ leadership, Armendariz again stressed that the two agencies work together on many issues, including responding to such events as a recent spill in the Houston Ship Channel.

But he also noted the EPA’s longstanding dispute with TCEQ over the state agency’s use of “flexible permits” for industrial facilities, which Armendariz said were outside the constraints of the Clean Air Act and extremely difficult to enforce. [Read coverage of a November 2010 speech in Houston by TCEQ Executive Director Bryan W. Shaw here.]

Armendariz said the EPA was moving forward on such things as increasing mileage standards for cars and trucks and “new source performance standards” that would require new industrial facilities to be “as energy efficient as possible.”

Other speakers at the event:

Juan Parras, director of the Houston environmental group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services ( t.e.j.a.s.), who spoke about the effects of pollutants from industrial facilities in Houston’s East End;

Hilton Kelley, who heads the Port Arthur-based nonprofit Communities In-Power and Development Association Inc. (CIDA), which focuses on environmental justice issues in the Southeast Texas region;

Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation member of a shrimping family in Seadrift whose has written a book about her fight against industrial wastewater discharges in Calhoun County; and

Neil Carman, clean air director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, who talked about his concerns while working as an investigator with the TCEQ (then under another name) in the 1980s.

UPDATE:  On April 30, 2012, Armendariz resigned from the EPA after a controversy broke over public remarks he made about the need to “crucify” a certain number of polluters in enforcement actions. In June 2012, he joined the staff of the Sierra Club as campaign representaive of its “Beyond Coal” campaign. In August, he gave an exclusive interview to the Texas Tribune, in which he discussed the controversy between the EPA and the state of Texas.

On August 13, 2012, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the EPA’s disapproval of Texas’ flexible permits program, saying it was not supported by the Clean Air Act.

On March 12, 2013, the Houston Chronicle reported on a thaw in relations between the TCEQ and the EPA’s Region 6, under its new administrator, Ron Curry.

NOTE: Armendariz was the featured speaker at the “State of the Air” event hosted by Air Alliance Houston on Feb. 11. Video and audio recordings of his speech can be found here.

RELATED:  TCEQ chairman defends state agency’s fight with EPA

Copyright © 2011 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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