The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is currently undergoing a performance review, known as a Sunset Review.
It is a State-mandated processThis only happens once every 12 year. It is intended to assess whether state agencies are still necessary and to suggest improvements to make them more efficient.
The Sunset Commission is composed of 10 legislators and two members from the public, who are appointed by both the Speaker of Congress and the Lieutenant Governor. They evaluate the agency, make recommendations for lawmakers, and then they present their findings to the Speaker of the House.
This process has been used by environmental advocates and community members to push for agency changes in the past.
Houston Public Media spoke to Adrian Shelley, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office, to find out what environmental advocates are pushing for.
What changes has TCEQ made due to past Sunset Reviews and what are the results?
In the Sunset Review, the most significant change would be the increase of the maximum daily penalty. [for polluters]. It used to be $10,000 per day, but it was increased up to $25,000.
Another example: Texas is home to what’s called STEERS The state of Texas emissions events reporting systemIt also has a database of industry self-reported events relating to air pollution. This was also established in the Sunset process. It provides a wealth of information about who is polluting Texas’s air and how it’s happening. It can be compared to ambient air monitoring data and can be compared to other data about communities. This data has been used as the basis for lawsuits.
What key changes would you like to see in the environment and other groups at this time?
The agency could do some common sense things to help Texas citizens. One obvious example is putting permit applications online.
We hope the Sunset Commission will investigate this problem of cumulative impacts, which we believe is being ignored by current law. Anyone who has worked in communities that are overburdened from pollution knows a few things. These communities are often low-income, they are often communities of color, and there are many facilities. It’s not just one. They are often surrounded by petrochemical and concrete facilities. Cumulative impact is when all these facilities accumulate pollution. We think the TCEQ permits this problem completely, and we are seeing it right now.
We made a clear recommendation to the Sunset Commission, and to the legislature. This was to give the TCEQ authority to deny a permit if equity and justice clearly show that it shouldn’t be issued. The commissioners should have the ability to use their best judgment and look at all circumstances, whether it is the people or facilities nearby or the history in the community. They should be able to examine it and ask, “Is this fair?” Is this just a facility in this neighbourhood? They should be able say no. Right now, they don’t have that authority. This is a clear example of what the Sunset Commission could recommend, and what the legislature could do to change it.
How can the public get involved?
The sunset agency has its own process. It will have a Public meetingAfter the May release of its report, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will hold a public hearing. It is likely that there will be a public hearing in June or July. This is just one Austin public meeting.
Public Citizen and other advocates from the state have been trying create other opportunities for people to get involved in order to make their voices heard. In the weeks ahead, there will be public town halls in other cities. We’ll record them, transcribe them, then turn that information over to Sunset Commission.
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