As Sunset Moves Forward, Texans Voice Frustrations With TCEQ

By José Medina

Frustration.

That has been the common theme of a series of community hearings Public Citizen hosted across the state with its Texas partners as the Sunset process for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality moves forward.

If you are unfamiliar with it, the Sunset review process happens to every state agency about every 12 years. You can call it a check-in, or performance evaluation, that ends with legislation that will dictate how an agency operates in the future. 

Sunset is also an opportunity for Texans to speak about their concerns and how they want the agency to change and better serve their communities.

Texans who have voiced frustrations at community hearings about TCEQ often speak of an agency that is ineffective at safeguarding the public health and the environment while levying fines for corporate polluters that are so low that they amount to a financial slap on the wrist. For perspective, TCEQ fines for polluters are capped at $25,000 per incident per day. It takes a billion-dollar corporation about 13 minutes to generate $25,000.

But the issues with TCEQ start with its mission statement. The TCEQ is the only state environmental agency with economic development in its mission. That statement helps explain the situation Rocio Witte recounted at the statewide Virtual People’s Hearing held this month.

“I’m tired of cement plants coming into this community,” Witte, who works in Houston’s East Aldine community, said. “There are eight cement plants within a five-mile radius, including one that we recently tried to petition against. And despite all of our efforts, it looks like that cement plant will be built next to James Driver Park, which is a park for disabled youth and adults. It’s next to that park, two schools and next to people’s homes … The economic interests of polluters should always come second to people and communities and the TCEQ should say ‘enough is enough’ to dumping pollution in Black and brown communities.”

Another significant failure with TCEQ is in how it grants air permits. The agency will approve any permit that is technically and administratively complete without considering whether the permit is in the public interest. 

“Essentially, TCEQ permits pollution and our communities are told to accept it,” said Margo Denke Griffin from Tarpley, Texas, who was representing Friends of Hondo Canyon and spoke at a hearing in San Antonio. “Permitting pollution is what TCEQ does best and we the public are given no choice but to fund TCEQ with our taxpayer money and accept the consequences.”

Gayla Young echoed that sentiment during a hearing in Houston, where she said, “We have problems in Beaumont. We are by ExxonMobil. We’re by the Port of Beaumont. We’re by a Goodyear plant. We’re by so many things that pollute our community. And the sad thing about it is people of color communities are being impacted in ways that it’s just ungodly. That’s all it is.” 

Comments like these show what is at stake during Sunset and why Texans from all across the state should make their voices heard.

The Sunset process includes one official public hearing held in Austin. The TCEQ’s Sunset hearing is scheduled for June 22 at the Texas Capitol in Austin. This hearing will be the only opportunity for Texans to communicate in person and directly with the lawmakers on the Sunset Commission, who will make recommendations on how TCEQ will continue to operate.

If you are interested in attending the June 22 hearing, click here to see the agenda. Speakers must register in person between 8 and 11 a.m. on June 22. We hope to see you there!

If You Plan to Testify

If you’re planning to testify at the June 22 hearing, here are some points you might want to include when drafting your testimony.

General

  • The TCEQ is our state environmental agency. It should put public and environmental health first. The economic interests of polluters should always come second to people and communities.
  • Texans understand what the TCEQ is and what its role should be. Many of us have experienced pollution firsthand and know the TCEQ must do a better job of protecting the public’s health.
  • There is mistrust of the agency because the people regularly see TCEQ favoring polluters over the health of communities.
  • Texans are suffering from too much pollution
    • According to a 2021 report from Harvard University, 17,600 Texans die every year just from air pollution from burning fossil fuels.
    • 28% of our rivers and creeks and 38% of our lakes aren’t safe for basic uses like swimming or fishing because they have high levels of pollution.
  • Right now TCEQ prioritizes issuing permits for industrial facilities. The people want the agency to prioritize public health and the environment instead.
  • Low-income communities of color, which we know as “environmental justice communities,” are often the most impacted by pollution.

What we want from the TCEQ

  • The TCEQ should say “enough is enough” to dumping pollution in Black and brown communities. 
  • More violations of pollution laws should result in fines and corrective action. 
  • Fines should be big enough to cause corporations to change their behavior. Raising fines from the current $25,000 per day cap to at least $50,000, recovering the economic benefit of non-compliance, and allowing separate fines for separate pollutants would be a huge incentive for companies to comply with the law.
  • TCEQ commissioners should be given the authority to deny permits based on fairness. Even a permit that is otherwise complete should be eligible for denial based on considerations of equity and justice.
  • The TCEQ should improve its monitoring and inspections of industrial facilities so that the burden of alerting the public of pollution incidents doesn’t fall to members of the community.
  • The TCEQ should recognize the diversity of our state and expand its efforts to reach vulnerable and impacted communities in a variety of languages
  • The TCEQ should follow science – not politics – and not spend resources opposing EPA science simply for political gain.