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TribBlog: Assessing the TCEQ

The long-awaited Sunset Advisory Commission staff report on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is out — and it ducks some of the most controversial questions surrounding the agency.

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The long-awaited Sunset Advisory Commission staff report on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is out — and it ducks some of the most controversial questions surrounding the agency. 

The headline-grabbing fights between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the TCEQ over air-pollution permitting are "ultimately high-level political and policy issues that do not easily lend themselves to objective staff-level analysis and solution," the report states.

Instead, the report focused on "operational" aspects of the TCEQ. Among the principal recommendations: transferring responsibility for making recommendations to address groundwater pollution near oil and gas drilling sites to the Railroad Commission (both agencies currently have a claim to this); shifting regulation of water and wastewater rates from the TCEQ to the Public Utility Commission; improving the Commission's effectiveness in evaluating a company's past compliance history (a useful tool for deciding whether to grant additional permitting requests by the company); continuing to crack down on groundwater contamination from underground oil storage tanks, the state's largest source of groundwater pollution; improving TCEQ's ability to manage surface water quantity in the event of drought; and clarifying some aspects of its enforcement process and penalties.

The report had this to say about TCEQ's also-controversial response to public air-pollution concerns stemming from the Barnett Shale:

"After its initial flat-footed response, TCEQ has made an effort to make its regulatory activities related to air emissions in that area accessible to the public, including creating an interactive air monitoring map on its website. Despite this seeming lesson learned, these criticisms did bring to light deficiencies in TCEQ’s focus on public assistance, as discussed in this report."

TCEQ recorded $659 million in expenditures in fiscal 2009.

"TCEQ performs reasonably well, given the difficulty of its environmental responsibilities," the report states.

Update (3 p.m.):

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen’s Texas office, welcomed the Sunset staff's assessment. "Basically we're pleased with a lot of the report," he said. "The big thing they said was we've got to get tough on enforcement." He added: "The citizens are going to have to turn out in large numbers to be able to ensure that some of the lessons learned from the TCEQ's failures over the last decades are heard and remedied by the Sunset commissioners."

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