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Environment

Texas’ environmental agency is undergoing a Sunset Review. Here’s why it matters

 In this Thursday, April 30, 2020 photo, a refinery along the Houston Ship Channel is seen with downtown Houston in the background.
David J. Phillip
/
AP Photo
In this Thursday, April 30, 2020 photo, a refinery along the Houston Ship Channel is seen with downtown Houston in the background.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is currently undergoing a performance evaluation, known as a Sunset Review.

It’s a state-mandated process that only occurs every 12 years. The aim is to evaluate whether state agencies are still needed and to come up with improvements to make them more efficient and effective.

The Sunset Commission is made up of 10 lawmakers and two members of the public who are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House. They evaluate the agency and develop recommendations for lawmakers to take up in the next legislative session.

In the past, environmental advocates and community members have successfully used this process to push for changes within the agency.

To find out what changes environmental advocates are pressing for this time, Houston Public Media spoke with Adrian Shelley, the Director of Public Citizen's Texas Office.

What changes has the TCEQ made as a result of past Sunset Reviews?

The most significant one, in the last Sunset Review, would be the increase in the available daily maximum penalty [for polluters]. It used to be $10,000 a day, it was increased to $25,000.

I’ll give you another example: In Texas, there’s what’s known as STEERS — the state of Texas emissions event reporting system — and it’s (a database of) industry self-reported air pollution events. And that was put in place in the Sunset process in the past. It’s a wealth of data about who is polluting the air in Texas and how that’s happening. We can look at that and we can compare it to ambient air monitoring data, we can compare it to other data we have about communities, and it’s formed the basis of lawsuits.

What kind of key changes would you and other environmental groups like to see come about this time?

There are some common sense things that the agency could do to help the people of Texas — putting permit applications online is an obvious one.

We are hoping that the Sunset Commission will look at this problem of cumulative impact because it’s something that we think is ignored by current law. Anybody who’s worked in communities that are overburdened by pollution knows a couple of things about those communities. They’re typically low-income communities, they’re typically communities of color, and they’re also communities in which there are numerous facilities. It’s not just one, in many cases — they’re surrounded by petrochemical facilities, or they’re surrounded by concrete plants. It’s that accumulation of pollution from all of these facilities that forms what we call the problem of cumulative impact. And as we look at permitting at the TCEQ right now, we would say that it ignores this problem entirely.

So we’re making a pretty clear recommendation to the Sunset Commission and to the legislature, which is: give the TCEQ the authority to deny a permit if considerations of equity and justice just plainly show that the permit shouldn’t be issued. The commissioners ought to be able to use their best judgment to look at the totality of circumstances, whether that’s the people nearby or the facilities nearby, or the history of the community. They ought to be able to look at it and say, ‘Is this fair? Is it just have this facility in this neighborhood?’ And they ought to be able to say ‘no,’ and right now, they don’t have that authority. So that’s a pretty clear example of something that the Sunset Commission could recommend and the legislature could change.

And how can the public get involved in the process?

The sunset agency has its own process. It’s going to have a public meeting on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality after its report is released in May. So there will probably be a public hearing in late June, early July. That’s just one public meeting in Austin.

Public Citizen and other advocates around the state have been trying to create other opportunities for the public to get involved to make their voice heard in the form of public town halls in other cities in the weeks leading up. We’re going to record them, transcribe them and then turn over that raw information to the Sunset Commission.

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