The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Sunset Review

Public Citizen News / May-June 2022

By Adrian Shelley

This article appeared in the May/June 2022 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

People across Texas have concerns about how their health and safety is protected from big polluters. As Public Citizen’s Texas office regularly details, Regulators in the industry-friendly state do more to protect corporate polluters than they do average Texans.

But right now, Texans have an opportunity to speak up to make state regulators work for them.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), is undergoing a process called “sunset review,” which is like an independent audit of the agency that occurs every twelve years. The review is an opportunity to improve the agency’s function. During the last review in 2011, due in part to Public Citizen’s advocacy, the maximum fine available to the biggest polluters was increased from $10,000 to $25,000.

The sunset review process includes a single public hearing. If someone can’t come to Austin on June 22, they can’t speak to the Sunset Advisory Commission that oversees the review.

That’s where Public Citizen comes in. We set up a working group last year of organizations that shared our vision for a better TCEQ. We’ve been spreading the word about the review opportunity and reaching out to people across Texas impacted by air, water, and solid waste pollution.

Beginning in March, we hosted additional “People’s Hearings” in San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. More than two hundred people joined us at these hearings to share their stories about the TCEQ and pollution in their communities. As Public Citizen News goes to print, we have another statewide virtual hearing scheduled for June 8. We’re transcribing each hearing and will deliver all comments we receive to the Sunset Advisory Commission at the June 22 hearing.

To raise awareness about the TCEQ across the state, we built a website to introduce the sunset review process and share opportunities with interested people. (You can visit ForOurCommunities.com to learn about sunset review, read stories from people around Texas impacted by pollution, or write your own comment that we will hand deliver to the Sunset Advisory Commission.)

So, what are we hearing from Texans?

Most people are not happy with TCEQ. They see an agency that hands out far more permits than fines and seems to be more interested in protecting corporations than our air, water, and land. Many people suggested they need more resources from TCEQ, from additional air monitors in their communities, to more inspectors and agency officials willing to fine big polluters.

For some commenters, its personal. We’ve heard dozens of stories, for example, from people who watched TCEQ put a concrete batch plant in their community. TCEQ often permits polluting facilities to locate right next to schools and hospitals. The agency refuses to even consider neighboring sources of pollution when it issues a permit. In fact, TCEQ commissioners claim they don’t even have the authority to deny a permit they don’t think should be issued.

The Texas legislature can fix these problems. We’ve made many recommendations for how to improve the TCEQ. Some of our suggestions are big picture, like removing protection of “economic development” from the TCEQ’s mission (it’s the only environmental agency in the country with such a mission). Other suggestions are simpler and practical, like putting permit applications online and resuming in-person public hearings once it is safe to do so.

It all comes down to priorities. We believe the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should serve the people of Texas first—protecting our air land and water and our health and that of our children. For decades, state lawmakers have acted as if TCEQ’s main mandate is to keep polluters in business, and to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency out of Texas.

Talking to Texans across the state, we see people who want to be safe and healthy in the places where they live. We believe that if lawmakers left Austin and held hearings around the state—the way we have—they would feel the same way.