Texas’ Top Environmental Agency Seeks Federal Compliance Review

Texas' Top Environmental Agency Seeks Federal Compliance Review

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is being called into question by a dozen organisations, including a Dallas-based community advocacy group, who claim the agency has violated environmental and civil rights laws by failing to assess how air pollution from industrial sites affects low-income and minority neighbourhoods.

Additionally, it is claimed in the 61-page petition submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency that the TCEQ restricts citizen involvement during the permitting process. The groups want the TCEQ to update its rules and a compliance evaluation of the state’s air permitting programme. The primary environmental regulator in the state is the TCEQ.

Erin Gaines, a senior attorney with environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice and co-lead lawyer for the petitioners, said on Wednesday that many of the groups involved had been bringing up these issues with the TCEQ through individual permits for years and that it was crucial to take this route because we weren’t seeing any changes being made in response. We think there are structural problems here, and the TCEQ won’t modify its ways without help from the EPA.

According to Stella Wieser, a TCEQ spokesman, the organisation declined to comment. Requests for comments on the petition’s next steps received no response from the EPA.

A concrete batch facility and an asphalt shingle company have been attempting to leave the region for years, according to the neighbourhood group West Dallas 1.

It claims that the TCEQ gives little to no public notice to the majority of Latino neighbourhoods in West Dallas when an industrial site applies for a permit to operate there and that it is up to locals and community advocates to raise awareness of how close these sites are to residences, schools, and other gathering places.

Additionally, there are regional nonprofits and coalitions centred in Port Arthur, Houston, El Paso, Corpus Christi, and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as national environmental organisations like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project. On June 28, the EPA received the petition.

President of West Dallas 1, Raul Reyes, stated in a statement that his neighbourhood is similar to many underserved neighbourhoods around Texas where citizens are required to prove environmental impact.

It’s time for TCEQ to start protecting our neighbourhoods instead of the polluters, he said.

West Dallas has a long history of industrial manufacture and the effects it has on the environment. From the 1930s until the 1980s, a significant lead smelter factory operated there, producing high levels of lead that were detected in children living nearby. Additionally, soil contamination was discovered in residences, parks, and schools.

About 28,000 people call the 75212 ZIP code home, and 62 per cent of them identify as Hispanic, according to the results of the 2020 census. Around $40,000 per year is the median household income. In comparison to the Dallas metro area’s rate of 11 per cent, nearly 24 per cent of residents live below the poverty line.

According to a 2020 study by Paul Quinn College researchers, one West Dallas ZIP code, 75212, had some of the worst air pollutions in the entire city.

Late last year, Dallas stated that there were 38 operating concrete batch plants in the city, and TCEQ records indicated that at least five concrete manufacturers had permits in the 75212 ZIP code. The batch plants have been named as sources of dust and other particulate matter by locals, who claim that this impacts their ability to breathe.

“Densely populated urban areas in Texas, such as the Houston, Galveston, and Brazoria areas, exist in a state of perpetual nonattainment with health and welfare-based federal standards,” the petition claims. “Texas’ failure to comply with basic Clean Air Act requirements has resulted in these areas,” it continues.

And it is abundantly obvious from the evidence that communities of colour, those made up of people who are poor or close to being poor, and other marginalised populations suffer disproportionately as a result of industrial pollution.

In order to promote public involvement and access to TCEQ decision-making processes in a variety of languages, the TCEQ said last year that it was beginning an environmental justice initiative. An action plan for setting targets was highlighted in the statement from April 2021.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits programmes receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, colour, or national origin, and is referenced in the state regulator’s website section under “Title VI Compliance,” which lists those plans.

According to the agency’s public engagement plan, it would operate transparently and “with awareness of and sensitivity to the changing demographics of Texas.” It also outlines tactics like how to aid the general public in understanding the TCEQ’s operations, how officials want to reach underserved populations, and who is in charge of organising language interpretation and translations at TCEQ events.

The TCEQ, however, was deemed to be insufficiently open and upfront about what it does and how judgments are made, which is eroding public confidence, according to a state legislative report that examined the agency and was published in May.

In its assessment, the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission noted, among other things, that publicly accessible data on the TCEQ website is missing or difficult to locate, and that permitting hearings “rarely result in significant public input.”

The public hardly ever knows about, much less participates in, these processes, the report stated, even though TCEQ examines research on contaminants and creates scientific standards to safeguard public health. “This lack of transparency and public involvement dissuades those wanting to provide advice on how such research and standards affect their day-to-day lives.”

The Sunset Advisory Commission provided a number of suggestions, including that the TCEQ enhance its website and public announcements and offer more chances for public participation on permit applications prior to being taken into consideration for approval.

The TCEQ is charged in the petition with breaking Title VI as well.

The TCEQ has allegedly ignored requests from citizens and organisations from all around the state to assess the environmental justice implications of individual air permits before issuing them.

In accordance with state legislation, those who are deemed to be “affected persons” may request an administrative hearing to contest a decision to grant an application for an air permit. The petition claims that the TCEQ generally interprets that word to mean those who own property or reside within one mile of a proposed industrial site.

The groups requesting the EPA review claim that this leaves out citizens who dwell outside of that zone but are nonetheless impacted and that it fails to take into consideration the cumulative impact of having multiple industrial facilities in a given location.

The petition further claims that the state office permits those requesting air permits to hide publicly available information, such as emissions statistics, on the pretence of protecting trade secrets and sensitive company information.

Before the EPA makes a decision, it’s unknown how long it will take. Gaines cited a similar petition that was submitted last October by a number of environmental organisations requesting that the EPA take over a state-wide initiative to reduce pollution in surface waters, arguing that the TCEQ wasn’t adequately examining permits and their possible implications. She stated that the federal organisation is still examining that petition.

Wendi Hammond, a lawyer with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas who is defending West Dallas 1, expressed her hope that the wait wouldn’t be too long.

“In the petition, we made clear to EPA that they must answer within a reasonable timeline; but, what is deemed “reasonable” is arbitrary,” said Hammond. “The community has waited long enough; we are unsure of when the EPA will take up this issue, but we hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Due to problems with the state procedure, more neighbourhood organisations are placing pressure on city leaders to solve air quality issues. Two batch plants operating illegally in their neighbourhood were recently ordered to close by the city as a result of a petition from West Dallas 1.

In order to operate lawfully, all concrete batch plants must obtain clearance for a special use permit from the council and city planning commission. This was authorised by the Dallas City Council in May.

Before the groups decide on an operator’s application, there are public hearings in both stages.

Dallas previously permitted permanent batch factories without a specific use permit, avoiding a public hearing procedure, on-premises classified for industrial manufacture. Additionally, no authorization was necessary for plants that wanted to operate briefly.

The city is also thinking about other rules, such as changing the zoning code so that plants must be kept a certain distance away from residences, schools, parks, and other public places.

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