The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is currently undergoing a performance review, known as a Sunset Review.
It is a State-mandated processThis happens only once every 12 years. The goal is to determine whether state agencies still need to be used and to propose 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 assess the agency and make recommendations to lawmakers for the next legislative session.
This process has been used by environmental advocates and community members to push for agency changes in the past.
Houston Public Media spoke with Adrian Shelley (Director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office) to learn more about the environmental advocates pressing for these changes.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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What changes has the TCEQ made in response to past Sunset Reviews?
The most important, as seen in the Sunset Review, is the increase in the daily maximum penalty [for polluters]. It was $10,000 per day before it was increased to $25,000.
Another example: Texas is home to what’s called STEERS The state of Texas emissions event reporting softwareIt also has a database of industry self-reported events relating to air pollution. This was also established in the Sunset process. It contains a wealth information about who and what is polluting Texas’ air. 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 that the Sunset Commission will examine this issue of cumulative effect, as it is something we feel is not being addressed by current law. Anyone who has ever worked in areas that are overburdened from pollution knows a few facts. They are typically low-income communities and communities of color. There are also many facilities in these communities. They are not isolated. In many cases, they are surrounded either by petrochemical plants or concrete plants. The problem of cumulative effect is the accumulation of pollution from all these facilities. This problem is completely ignored by the TCEQ, as we see it 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, including the history of the area, people nearby, and facilities nearby. They should be able look at it and ask themselves, “Is this fair?” Is this just a facility in this neighbourhood? They should be able to say no. But they don’t have the 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 be involved in this process?
The sunset agency has its own process. It will have its own process. Public meetingAfter its May report is published, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will hold an open hearing. There will likely be a public hearing sometime in June or early July. It’s only one meeting in Austin.
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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