Texas Senate seeks increased penalties on polluters as it renews state’s environmental agency
The bill would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to focus enforcement on repeat violators and increase public outreach.
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The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously approved a bill that would increase the penalties the state environmental agency can impose on industrial facilities that don’t comply with state regulations and give the public more time to weigh in on industry permits.
Senate Bill 1397, commonly known as the TCEQ sunset bill, by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, came out of more than a yearlong state review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s effectiveness by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a group of 10 state lawmakers and two members of the public who periodically review all state agencies and produce a report with recommendations for changes. The process is also an opportunity for Texans to weigh in on how agencies operate.
It’s been more than a decade since Texas officials last reviewed how the TCEQ operates.
The TCEQ, which regulates air, water and land pollution, was described as a “reluctant regulator” in the state review, which also highlighted public distrust of the agency.
Schwertner said on the Senate floor Tuesday that the new bill will address concerns from Texans who said they have not always felt included in the industry permitting process.
“What I heard during the sunset hearings was disappointing, and the convoluted and really confusing process was an injustice to citizens that wanted to voice their concerns,” Schwertner said. “I'm glad that we were able to incorporate, I believe some significant advances, and hopefully that fixes that problem.”
SB 1397 and its companion bill, House Bill 1505, by Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, include a number of changes to how the TCEQ operates, such as requiring the agency to email meeting notices to Texans who live near a facility when it’s applying for a permit renewal, as well as posting meetings on its website — in addition to the required public posting in local newspapers or other publications.
The bill would give the public 36 hours to comment on agency matters following TCEQ meetings. Currently, people must offer comments during or immediately after meetings.
The bill also would allow the agency to consider industrial accidents such as fires or explosions when a facility applies for future permits — which could lead to permits being rejected.
The bill would also increase the penalties that the TCEQ can impose on industrial facilities that violate state regulations from $25,000 to $40,000 per day.
For years, the TCEQ has been criticized by environmental advocates as being too industry friendly.
Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the bill a “modest but important bill that will improve access to TCEQ documents, increase penalties in certain egregious environmental crimes and improve community outreach.”
While he supports the bill, Reed said he wanted environmental justice initiatives included, such as establishing an environmental justice advisory council within the TCEQ that would look to regulate “cumulative air quality impacts” that result from multiple industrial facilities operating in close proximity.
Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, said the bill is a small step forward and a missed opportunity.
“The improvements to the TCEQ approved by the Senate are modest,” he said. “We like what’s in the bill, particularly late changes to improve public participation in the permitting process. That being said, the TCEQ still needs major reforms. That won’t happen until the Legislature gets serious about protecting people from polluters.”
He said it will now be up to the House to consider “further people-focused reforms.”
The House bill remains pending in committee.
Disclosure: The Sierra Club has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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