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Texas promised non-English speakers access to environmental documents and meetings. The rollout was not without its problems.

Texas promised non-English speakers access to environmental documents and meetings. The rollout was not without its problems.

This piece Original publication at The Texas Tribune

In summer 2018, many residents of Manchester, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Houston, attended a meeting on a plan by a refinery to increase pollution in their neighborhood.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) printed the notices for the meeting in English. There were not enough headsets to provide a Spanish translation for all residents. Residents were left frustrated or confused.

Environmental groups cited this meeting as one of their main examples when they filed a civil-rights complaint against TCEQ. This prompted an investigation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

After years of discriminating against Spanish speakers with limited English proficiency for years, the TCEQ was established. The plan was presentedThe agency reached out to stakeholders to translate important agency documents and provide interpreters at public meetings as part of an agreement it made to avoid possible civil rights violations that could affect some of its federal funding.

To solicit community input on how to make its work more accessible to communities with limited English proficiency and millions of native Spanish speakers in Texas, the TCEQ organized a series of meetings this spring. The plan was already in place before the meetings started, so community advocates are unsure if their input will make any difference.

At a recent stakeholder meeting, a TCEQ attorney stated that the plans were living documents. She also indicated that the agency had already received and responded to public inputs during a formal process in the fall. A rule was createdCompanies will be required to provide competent interpretation services at public meetings concerning environmental permits in order to allow people who do not speak English to fully participate. (Companies must comply with this rule starting May 1.

Spanish speakers and community advocates claim that the agency has not addressed their most pressing concerns, including how competent interpretation will work. They claim that TCEQ has largely ignored requests to ensure that translators/interpreters have the skills to communicate complex environmental laws and procedures.

Advocates say it is important that the agency allows people who don’t speak English to understand its work. This is because the public has the right to ask, comment on, and protest new sources of pollution in their communities that could affect their health.

Shiv Srivastava, a policy analyst with Fenceline Watch (a small environmental advocacy group focusing on language access in communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution), said that clear standards for translators would allow people who only speak limited English to fully participate.

For example, Texas courts require that the state provides a qualified translator to explain legal proceedings for defendants and other participants who don’t speak English. The Texas Department of Transportation also offers guaranteesLanguage services at its public meetings and assesses interpreters competency with specialized terminology and concepts in both language.

Gary Rasp, a spokesperson for TCEQ, stated in a comment that the agency does not have specific standards for translation and interpretation services. The current agency plan includes a list acceptable translators. This can include bilingual TCEQ staffers who can interpret meetings in real-time or online translation services that translate official agency documents. Community advocates fear that this could lead to poor translations.

Srivastava said that TCEQ is actually trying to do as little as possible by using Google Translate.

However, TCEQ leaders wanted the company to move quickly, even though they were not sure of all the details.

Sometimes, you can’t fuel your ship with aspirations alone. TCEQ Commissioner Bobby JaneckaDuring an August meeting, when the rule was approved by commissioners.

TCEQ Commissioner Emily Lindley agreed. Lindley agreed. I hope that the executive directors office will address many of the concerns weve raised during implementation.

During a March 3 webinar, Amy Browning, an environmental lawyer with TCEQ, stated that TCEQ will review the criticisms made by the public during the meeting. These included concerns about electronic translation services and calls for TCEQ to expand the definitions of vital documents to include toxicology risk. There is no formal process for requesting that the agency respond.

Language access plans are part of TCEQs agreement between EPAIt is better to take several actions than wait for the end of a long civil rights investigation. The EPA continues to monitor the state agency’s efforts. Browning, a TCEQ attorney, stated that EPA had already reviewed the agency’s language access plan on the March 3 call.

Isabel Segarra Trevio filed the 2019 civil right complaint against TCEQ while she was an attorney for an environmental advocacy organization. She stated that during her five-year tenure as a TCEQ staff member, she was often asked to do extra work as an interpreter as she was one of few bilingual attorneys on staff.

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This scenario is repeated throughout Texas, where the agency should know it should provide Spanish-language materials, but it doesn’t, stated Segarra Trevio. He is now an assistant county lawyer in Harris County.

Segarra Trevio said that language barriers extend far beyond what the TCEQ even began to consider in their policies.

She said that you don’t need a translator, but someone who can deal with the technical aspects of these applications as well as deliver appropriate interpretations.

Separate phone lines in English and Spanish were available at the March 3 webinar. It was the first public meeting to solicit input from the public on the plan. Leticia Gutierrez was the director of government relations and community outreach at Air Alliance Houston. She began giving comments in Spanish on the English phone line.

Laurie Gharis, Chief Clerk of TCEQ, I will stop you there. She explained that bilingual participants couldn’t speak Spanish while using the English phone line.

Gharis said that it is better to join a Spanish line or if your native language is English.

Gutierrez asked Gutierrez if she could converse in English.

Gharis stated that he would prefer one over the other and then apologized. We are doing our best, but they aren’t perfect.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans and engages with them about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


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