Gov. Greg Abbott’s opportunity to help clean up Texas

Former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward Photo by Bob Daemmrich/BDP Inc.

It’s been 10 years since the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had a leader willing to hold corporate polluters accountable.

Larry Soward left the powerful three-member commission in 2009, after a six-year term distinguished by his outspoken nature and numerous 2-1 split decisions. As a public health advocate, Soward often voted in the minority.

The former commissioner’s radical position was that violators of state law should be punished. That companies failing to abide by their state permits should be fined. That bad actors who refused to comply with state law should not be granted new permits. Soward remained a steadfast, minority voice until he left the commission.

Texas doesn’t have a TCEQ commissioner that bold right now. There is a vacancy on the commission, however, and Gov. Greg Abbott has an opportunity to make an appointment that would bring balance to the state’s most important environmental body.

Since Soward’s departure, Abbott and his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Perry, have made five separate appointments to TCEQ, drawn mostly from within the ranks of state government, including their own staff members. Bottom line: In a decade of TCEQ leadership, we haven’t seen another commissioner like Soward, and that is probably by design. 

The TCEQ is unique among state environmental agencies. It is the only one whose mandate to protect public health and natural resources is qualified by a requirement that its actions be “consistent with sustainable economic development.”

“Sustainable economic development” in this context actually means “the private interests of oil and gas companies.” It’s no secret that the TCEQ operates in service of industry, especially the petrochemical companies. How else can we explain the fact that the commission penalizes companies for only 3% of self-reported violations of clean air laws? Or that Houston homeowners have no ability to stop the placement of a concrete plant or a metal recycler next to their homes? 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Today the TECQ hides behind feigned impotence. Corporate polluters know that 97% of violations go unpunished, because TCEQ lacks the resources or the will to do more. The commission asserts that it lacks authority to deny a permit application that has been filled out correctly. As chemical disasters and fires erupt across Houston, the commission largely sits on the sidelines, issuing vague, boilerplate press releases that provide public relations cover for the industry by claiming the TCEQ “has not detected any air contaminant concentrations of concern.”

Meanwhile, a recent Indiana University study found that unauthorized releases of air pollution in Texas account for more than $150 million in health costs annually.

At the moment, a conscientious commissioner with a commitment to public health doesn’t exist. So, what would we like to see in a new TCEQ commissioner appointed by the governor?

First, we need someone from outside of the ranks of industry or state government. Petrochemical interests are far too entrenched in Texas. It is time for a fresh perspective.

Second, we would like a commissioner who understands the plight of Texas’ environmental justice communities — someone who knows what it is like to live in the shadow of a chemical plant, or how daunting it can be to take on a global oil company in an effort to protect your family.

Third, we need a commissioner who isn’t afraid to be a dissenting voice. The current commissioners, Jon Niermann and Emily Lindley, have not shown a willingness to hold polluters accountable. Maybe one who did would be a minority, or maybe he or she could move the other commissioners. But the next commissioner must be willing to speak out.

We don’t know how the TCEQ would react to a voice for accountability within the commission. All we know is that the TCEQ hasn’t had such a voice for a decade.

So, we’re calling on Gov. Abbott to make the right choice with his next TCEQ appointment. The oil industry already has representation on the TCEQ. How about the rest of us?

Adrian Shelley

Director, Public Citizen Texas