TCEQ In The Hot Seat

In Texas, state government agencies must justify their existence every 12 years. It's called "sunset review" and allows legislators and citizens to discuss whether an agency should be reformed or even abolished. This year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is in the hot seat. Houston residents met recently with the TCEQ's executive director, and KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel listened in.
It was billed as an “environmental town hall.” Air Alliance Houston invited TCEQ director Mark Vickery to hear from local citizens about ongoing environmental battles.

“I am Dr. Anthony George and what I’m opposed to, along with many of the other individuals here is the dumping of 186 million gallons — the proposed dumping of 186 million gallons of toxic cancer-forming waste into the Woodland region.”

George is referring to injection wells — underground storage spaces, usually for wastewater from oil and gas drilling. Ultimately, it’s up to the TCEQ to decide whether the proposed underground storage system is safe and to issue a permit. But George says the agency always seems to side with companies, instead of listening to everyday Texans.

“They’re very high handed and cavalier, and their attitude was go away boy, you bother me. The business of Texas is business.”

Other speakers had other problems, but most had the same criticism of TCEQ: it favors businesses and downplays potential health and pollution risks.

“You write all these rules and regulations that are supposed to be for everybody but don’t enforce any.”

That’s Deborah Wilkerson of Acres Homes. She says she has complained in vain to TCEQ about concrete dust from a nearby company blowing onto her property.

“I am tired, I am disappointed in the system designed to protect, and I’m really, really angry. It’s affecting my health and my ability to fully enjoy living in my own house.”

State Rep. Jessica Farrar participated and joined the crowd in calling for major reforms at TCEQ.

“In environmental policy in Texas, there’s a bias towards industry.”

Mark Vickery is the executive director. He listened sympathetically to each complaint but also reminded the crowd that he has to follow the regulatory process. He also pointed out the agency’s positive achievements.

“I think we’ve seen really good reductions, the air quality in Houston has gotten better. Not to say for one second that we don’t have a lot more work to do.”

One reform idea is to increase the agency’s enforcement power. Right now, TCEQ can only fine a company $10,000 per day. Many critics say that’s not enough to deter companies from polluting. Farrar says increasing the fine would be hard.

“Because to try to pass legislation to lift that cap would be impossible but if you let your legislators know that this is an important issue, because all we hear about — uh, mostly who we hear from is industry.”

While the sunset process might result in some reforms, the future direction of the TCEQ is highly dependent on who prevails in the November race for governor. To comment on the sunset review of TCEQ, view www.sunset.state.tx.us/contactus.htm.

For additional information concerning the injection wells that Dr. George addressed, visit www.stopthetoxicwells.com/.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...