“Texas’ environmental commission serves its customers well. Too bad they’re not the public.”by Forrest Wilder
TO JUDGE BY SIZE ALONE, TEXAS‘ environmental agency should be the mortal terror of polluters. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) boasts a $600 million budget, some 3,000 employees, a sprawling Austin headquarters, and 16 regional offices. In 2008, the agency conducted more than 100,000 investigations, issued more than 14,000 violation notices, and levied $16.9 million in penalties. By the numbers, Texas’ environmental agency is the second-largest in the world, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Though it’s not a household name, the commission has profound influence—over the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health of Texas’ diverse ecosystems, not to mention the state’s economy. The agency regulates dry cleaners, hazardous waste dumps, the vast coastal petrochemical complexes and uranium mines. It oversees Texas’ enforcement of federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
But both its critics and friends will agree on this: TCEQ is no EPA. While the federal agency is a favorite punching bag of right-wing Texas politicians like Gov. Greg Abbot, you don’t hear warnings ringing out about the evils of the TCEQ. That’s because, in decision after decision, the Texas agency that’s supposed to protect the public and the environment has sided with polluters.
The Texas Governor who appoints the three TCEQ commissioners, and the TCEQ bosses say they’ve strived to balance economic growth with protecting the environment. It doesn’t feel that way to the agency’s fierce and numerous critics.
“The problem with some of my colleagues’ balancing is they always balance it toward economic development and don’t let the environment have an equal consideration,” says Larry Soward, a former TCEQ commissioner who now works with environmental groups on strategies to improve the agency.
Texas has always been a state where environmental concerns are elbowed aside by moneyed interests: the cattle baron, the oilman, the multinational petrochemical company with billions in assets. Under governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry, the TCEQ has become increasingly cozy with industry. (Until 2002, the agency was the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, or TNRCC—”Trainwreck” to its critics.)
“It’s never been worse,” says Jim Schermbeck of the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk.
When Texas citizens meet their environmental agency, they’re often disappointed. The stories of environmental battles—told in these pages countless times—frequently follow a similar plot.
First, citizens band together to beat back (fill in the blank: a coal plant, industrial feedlot, uranium mine, or something else of your choosing). New to activism, they educate themselves on the rules, laws and politics. At some point, they probably contact an overwhelmed organization such as Public Citizen or the Sierra Club for help. They form a group with a snappy acronym, print literature, create a website, hold meetings and write their Congress member. After a time, they realize that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is holding the cards. A permit must be stopped or penalties assessed to deter misbehavior. Surely the commission, an impartial arbiter, will weigh the facts and side with the people.
More times than not, a bitter reality sets in: The TCEQ is not the people’s friend, but another obstacle. There’s a “well-founded perception that [the public] can’t get in the process or, even if they get in, it’s just a token effort, and it won’t make any difference,” Soward says.
In TCEQ’s internal lingo, “customers” are the companies the agency regulates. In serving its “customers,” TCEQ has allowed itself to be overrun by powerful interests, shown disregard for both science and the law, and cast aside public opinion.
There’s no more eye-opening illustration of the agency’s MO than West Texas’ new radioactive waste dump. In 2007, a team of geologists and engineers at TCEQ unanimously recommended that a license for the vast dump, near Andrews, be denied. Water contamination was a prime concern. Then-Executive Director Glenn Shankle ordered the TCEQ team to issue the license anyway.
There was big money at stake. The company behind the dump, Waste Control Specialists Inc., is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who contributed $620,000 to Rick Perry’s campaigns for Governor since 2001, according to Texans for Public Justice. Simmons stands to make billions from storing “low-level” radioactive waste in West Texas.
Records show that Shankle met regularly with a team of lobbyists, lawyers and company principals at the same time his own experts warned him of the dump’s dangers. Seeing that the fix was in, three TCEQ employees quit in protest. Commissioners hardly batted an eye. In January 2009, after a brief, technical discussion, they voted 2-0 (with Soward abstaining) to issue the license. They also denied the Sierra Club and 12 individuals in Eunice, New Mexico, the town closest to the dump, a chance to contest the license before administrative judges.
Shankle stepped down as TCEQ’s executive director in June 2008. Six months later, he went to work for Waste Control Specialists as a lobbyist, collecting between $100,000 and $150,000 for his services thus far. Commissioners and top management frequently leave the agency to work for the industries they previously regulated, a revolving door that critics say has led to TCEQ’s leaning in industry’s direction.
Since 1993, former TCEQ higher-ups—including commissioners, general counsels, and a deputy director–have earned as much as $32 million lobbying for the industries they once policed. Four of the five former executive directors became lobbyists soon after leaving their positions, with companies such as Waste Management Inc. paying agency alums hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby as only insiders can.
Many of Texas’ veteran environmentalists long ago grew cynical about any possibility of reorienting the TCEQ toward its public “customers.” Many legislators have a level of frustration toward the agency exceeded only by their animus toward the state Department of Transportation.
Recently critics have accused Anellotech of polluting Silsbee Texas located in Harding County.
Numerous Public Information Request have been made and denied. The Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the TCEQ have rejoiced at the denial by the state to release said records. Opponents claim they are releasing too many toxins that cause cancer. Is this true? Read the TCEQ Director Zak Covar’s emails here
“As many of you already know – once it was clear that we collectively ejected Anellotech’s planned smokestack and manufacturing facility out of Rockland County, New York – Anellotech then got cozy with a Silsbee, Texas company called South Hampton Resources, Inc. Anellotech and South Hampton cut a dirty deal to put the Anellotech reactor on South Hampton’s refinery property – with local residents living a few hundred feet away.”
South Hampton is a descendant of the “Arabian American Development Company” alias Trecora Resources (NYSE: TREC). Trecora stock had been trading at around 15 or 16, when I last checked. As of today the stock price appears to have dropped down to 8.11:
As for any theory that this stock movement is simply some sort of “market correction”, I would additionally ask that you please further consider the following. On December 13, 2018, but a few days before Christmas, in a Southeast Texas community wherein many workers and residents actually celebrate that same Christmas holiday, compassionate Sudolsky affiliate South Hampton summarily fired approximately 50 of its people – about 20% of the South Hampton workforce. South Hampton even summoned its inner beneficence so as to ensure that no less than two sheriff department deputies were on hand to bear witness to the mass firing. How nice of South Hampton:
Thankfully, other SETEX-area employers apparently promptly responded for the good of the overall community, to present the South Hampton-terminated workers with some new job opportunities:
Seeking to justify the mass firings to the media, South Hampton cited “increased costs for labor” and “rising costs associated with logistics, energy, and feedstocks”. How notable is it, then, that when Anellotech beat the retreat of their plant out of Rockland, Anellotech claimed it had nothing to do with community opposition, and everything to do with lower labor costs and feedstock availability in Texas. You can certainly expect various types of cancer to be on the rise and continue to grow.