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Texas Office 2019 Year in Review

Strategic efforts bring important wins on environment, elections

By Michael Coleman

Happy New Year!

Public Citizen’s Texas office has big plans for 2020, including our ongoing work to hold polluters and state environmental regulators accountable, and our continued efforts to help shape still-emerging climate plans in Houston and Dallas, and more. But it’s also worth looking back at some things we accomplished, with the help of many allies, around the state in 2019.

Public Citizen’s Texas staff maintains offices in Austin, Houston and San Antonio, as well as a presence in Dallas/Fort Worth. All worked hard to affect climate, environmental and elections policy. Even though the political climate in Texas doesn’t always favor environmental and public health protections, we scored some important wins.

Clean Air and Nuclear Waste

During the 2019 Texas Legislature, our strategic lobbying persuaded lawmakers to invest $154 million in a program that cleans the air by getting old and polluting vehicles and engines off the streets. The Republican-led Texas Legislature – notorious for coddling polluters and flouting safety concerns – even agreed to new mandates requiring the replacement of aging and dangerous iron and steel pipelines.

For nearly two decades, a for-profit, nuclear waste dump operator in West Texas has received financial and other concessions from the state Legislature. Public Citizen and others convinced lawmakers that the operator, Waste Control Specialists, had gone too far with its requests. Bills offering financial handouts to the company were defeated in committee or vetoed by the governor.

Chemical Disasters

Throughout 2019, accidents along Houston’s petrochemical corridor triggered at least five explosions

that caused dangerous air pollution, led to serious injuries and even killed a worker. Public Citizen’s participation in a relentless public awareness campaign helped garner hundreds of stories in regional and national media and led to a rare admission by the state’s top environmental regulator in late November that the violent mishaps represent “an unacceptable trend of significant incidents.” In December, Public Citizen and residents of Port Neches, where a petrochemical plant exploded the day before Thanksgiving, even convinced state regulators to  go beyond their typical slap-on-the-wrist penalty for the flagrant industrial polluter and refer the case to the state attorney general.

City Climate Plans

The Texas office also celebrated the passage of a new city blueprint designed to reduced climate-warming emissions in San Antonio. The cities of Dallas and Houston are drafting similar plans. Public Citizen and its members have been active in helping to craft these climate guidelines that include strong targets for reducing fossil fuel-generated carbon emissions in all three cities. We’ll continue pushing for action to achieve quantifiable reductions of climate pollution now.

Protecting the Vote

Our Texas office also participated in a national campaign to protect voter rights and ensure election integrity. A San Antonio rally in September pressuring Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to support election security legislation in Congress resulted in a meeting among Cornyn’s staff, Public Citizen, and San Antonio activists. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who over the summer had blocked the appropriation of any new money for states to buy more secure election equipment, eventually agreed to a package that included $250 million by fall. In December, Congress agreed to increase that amount to $425 million as part of a budget measure that was signed into law.

Earlier in the year, a coalition of groups, including Public Citizen, defeated legislation that would have suppressed the Texas vote by restricting access to the polls and criminalizing minor mistakes by voters in filling out paperwork or otherwise complying with election procedures.

The Texas Legislature is not in session in 2020, but we’ll be monitoring interim work done by legislative committees and continuing to advocate for the safety and well-being of Texans. Feel free to reach out to our staff with any questions or concerns at 512-477-1155. Or email us at texasfeedback@citizen.org. Here’s wishing you a great 2020!