State panel critiques TCEQ on transparency

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
HOUSTON CHRONICLE

The Texas agency that regulates industrial pollution should be more responsive and transparent to the public, according to a state analysis released Thursday.

The long-awaited report says the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality performs “reasonably well,” considering the complexities of its regulatory role, but falls short in a number of areas, including the way it interacts with the public.

The report, for example, recommends that the agency adopt enforcement policies, such as the way it calculates penalties for polluters, that are easier for the public to understand. In all, the audit makes 25 recommendations to improve the agency.

The recommendations come about a month before TCEQ appears at the Sunset Advisory Commission, the body that periodically reviews the missions and performance of state agencies. After the hearing, the state Legislature will decide whether TCEQ merits another 12 years, as the report recommended.

A TCEQ spokesman said the preliminary findings show “a lot of confidence” in the agency, while environmental groups gave a mixed review.

“It’s a good start,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston. “But it’s not the front-to-back review of the agency that we wanted.”

The 124-page analysis does not address the heated dispute between the federal government and Texas over the way the state regulates industrial air pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently rejected some of the state’s permitting rules, saying they fall short of federal Clean Air Act requirements. Texas has challenged the decision in court, as well as new federal rules for carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

The report’s authors said the feuding creates “real problems and uncertainty for TCEQ and all stakeholder groups,” but are high-level policy issues that go beyond their task of reviewing the agency’s operations.

Instead, the report offers a series of recommendations intended to make the agency more responsive to citizens. It was a theme in 2001, the last time the TCEQ, then known as the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, appeared before the Sunset panel.

This time, the auditors suggested changes in the way TCEQ evaluates compliance histories for the industries it regulates. The formula, which is used in enforcement and permitting decisions, does not truly identify “good and bad actors,” the report said.

At the same time, state lawmakers should increase the statutory cap on penalty amounts so that TCEQ can take “effective enforcement action” against polluters, the report said.

A balancing act

The report acknowledges that the agency has a difficult job because it must balance “often competing interests of protecting the environment without unduly affecting the state’s economy.” TCEQ’s mission statement may fuel concerns that the agency is biased in favor of industry, the report says.

Environmentalists have long charged that the TCEQ has become a toothless lapdog for industry, forcing them to take legal action to stop illegal emissions. As an example, they pointed to Thursday’s announcement that Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. had reached a $2 million settlement with the Sierra Club and Environment Texas over claims of excess air pollution at its Baytown plant.

The proposed settlement would require the company to limit “upset” emissions occurring outside routine operations, upgrade pollution controls and reduce flaring.

“It’s strong evidence that TCEQ hasn’t been forceful enough,” Environment Texas director Luke Metzger said of the settlement.

Secondary concern?

The audit also took TCEQ to task for its “flat-footed” response to public concerns over toxic, smog-causing emissions from Barnett Shale natural-gas operations in North Texas. Although the agency eventually created an interactive air modeling map on its website, it must be more proactive in identifying environmental concerns, the report says.

“It seems like time and again citizens and their needs are of secondary concern at TCEQ,” Tejada said.

TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz said the agency knows it must improve its relations with the public.

“Texas is a large state with 24 million people, and we are responsible for a quarter-million permitted facilities, so it’s a big job,” Saenz said. “It will always be difficult to get the word out.”

matthew.tresaugue@chron.com