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Who Protects the Texas Environment?
Hint: It Isn’t the State Agency That’s Supposed To
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s mission statement says the agency “strives to protect our state’s human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.” But the agency’s numerous critics charge that the environmental protection of Texas is repeatedly trumped by politically motivated management decisions concerned only with the economic development part of the equation.
“There is so much dirt on the agency and most of it has never been investigated,” says Neil Carman, clean air director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, based in Austin. From 1980 to 1992, Carman worked as an investigator and inspector for the Texas Air Control Board, a predecessor agency that was merged into what is now the TCEQ. Carman says he has a list of criminal cases against the TCEQ that have never been pursued, compiled from trading war stories with other investigators around the state. One of the primary areas of malfeasance Carman cites is the TCEQ’s air permitting system.
“TCEQ issued more than 150 state flexible air permits from 1995-2009 to major industrial plants by using an illegal permitting program that circumvented the Clean Air Act,” Carman says. These plants include many large industrial sources of toxic air pollutants, particulate matter, ozone-forming compounds, acid rain-producing gases, and haze-forming chemicals. The U.S. EPA Region 6 headquarters listed 142 plants in Texas in a September 25, 2007, letter that was sent to companies. The letter indicated the need for grandfathered, industrial plants that hold so-called “Flexible Permits” to reduce pollution and comply with the Clean Air Act.
Carman authored a 1999 report on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. The report identified about 1,070 Texas plants partly or totally grandfathered under the state law known as the Texas Clean Air Act.
“We have a permitting system that creates enforcement nightmares,” Carman says. He said the TCEQ has issued somewhere around 86,000 permits for industrial plants and facilities since 1971, and only denied about 15. Eighty-six thousand permits over 40 years averages out to 2,150 a year—more than eight every single day. Carman says the incredulous number comes directly from the permit numbers assigned by the TCEQ.
“People are shocked when they hear about all the air permits being more than 86,000—and that is a dated total. But that is good for ‘bidness’ in Texas. They issue this stuff like candy, every day, state