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Two Bills Under Consideration in the Texas Legislature will Restrict the Rights of the Public to Participate in Permitting Decisions

March 30, 2005

Two Bills Under Consideration in the Texas Legislature will Restrict the Rights of the Public to Participate in Permitting Decisions

Report Shows Texas’ Environmental Permitting Process Rates Well Compared to Other States Across the Nation

Austin – Two bills pending in the State Legislature will alter the permitting process in Texas and inhibit the public’s ability to participate in permitting decisions at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. These bills would drastically expand the authority of TCEQ commissioners to make permit decisions without affording affected landowners public hearings. 

Texas has the most industrial sites in the country, including 2,000 major sources of air pollutants. Public participation plays a critical role in the evaluation of permits.   House bill 2758 and its Senate companion, SB 1542, will limit the opportunity for citizens to request contested case hearings for various types of permit applications, including air, wastewater, injection wells and solid waste permits. 

Trek English is an Austin resident who lives just over a mile from two landfills.  She says, “Our neighborhoods are facing expansions of two major regional landfills owned and operated by the No. 1 and No. 2 waste companies in North America.  These facilities are located only eight miles from the Capitol. Had the public had the opportunity to comment on a drainage modification granted to one of the landfills we could have prevented the company from making a costly mistake and polluting our community. Who is going to look out for us if the public can’t participate in the process?”

Robert Cervenka lives outside of Waco, in Riesel, Texas. ALCOA’s aluminum smelter and the Lake Creek plant have blown plumes of pollution over his property for more than 50 years.  The Big Brown and Limestone plants are also near his home.  He says, “Although no one in our family history ever had asthma, my wife and I both have the disease, as well as two of our four children. Now my grandchildren may be at risk. I requested a contested case hearing on the new coal-fired power plant proposed for just a mile away from my home. This plant will release tons of fine particles, soot and global warming emissions into the air I breathe. I deserve this right.  The permitting process is so lax in Texas that industry wins over protecting my health and the health of my grandchildren!”

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen conducted a study comparing Texas’ permitting procedures to 13 states across the nation. The report compares Texas to bordering states and those the state competes with for attracting new business.  In comparing Texas to other states, Public Citizen found Texas is generally more efficient and less time-consuming than the other 13 states and provides similar opportunities for public participation.

“Our report shows that all of the states researched provide the opportunity for contested case hearings regarding the four major types of permits: water, air, solid waste and hazardous waste,” said Beth O’Brien, researcher for Public Citizen.  “The study also shows that the majority of permits in Texas are processed relatively quickly and with minimal opposition.  For the fiscal years 2001-2003, the TCEQ granted contested case hearings for fewer than half of 1 percent of the 8,970 permit applications that had the possibility of resulting in a contested case hearing.”

Proponents of “streamlining” Texas’ permitting process claim the process in Texas is lengthy and unpredictable, causing uncertainty for business and industry. They say Texas’ permitting process drives industry to other states because it acts as a deterrent. 

“Public Citizen’s report shows Texas processes air, water and hazardous waste permits faster than the average of the 13 states studied, and the time it takes to process solid waste permits in Texas falls within the average range of the 13 states,” O’Brien said. 

The report looks at how attractive Texas is for business and industry and whether TCEQ’s permitting process is acting as a deterrent. It is no secret that Texas ranks high among all states as a destination for business and industry. Site Selection Magazine, the official publication of the Industrial Asset Management Council, ranked Texas No. 1 in 2004 for having the best business climate in the nation.  Texas is the all-time leader in receiving this title for the 27-year history of the corporate project competition.

“Public Citizen’s report shows the process in Texas is working effectively, on average not taking longer than the states we compete with for economic development, and we provide similar public participation opportunities as other states,” O’Brien said.  “The changes to the state’s permitting process proposed in the State Legislature would alter the balance of this equation.  They set Texas apart, primarily in ways that reduce effective citizen participation.  They would not necessarily make a more efficient process.

“There are likely ways to improve the permitting process in Texas, but the state should base any process to make changes to permitting procedures on a consensus reached among all stakeholders – including the public – and not on politically motivated legislation promoted by some industries.  Any changes or ‘improvements’ should not include reducing the rights of Texans to participate effectively in the permitting process.”