Communities should pressure environmental agencies to do their job

Alex Arevalo

Last Tuesday, a lawsuit was filed in the state district court in Austin against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failure to either issue or deny Clean Air Act permits. The case pinpoints the failure of state agencies to do their jobs, and the reliance on the public to act as a monitor of their own well-being.

The claim was filed by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club, Air Alliance Houston and the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Under the Clean Air Act, large-scale emitters of pollution in the U.S. are required to have permits for the purpose of outlining control strategies that minimize the harm done by emissions. The permits are intended to work in favor of balancing economic interests with public health and sanitary considerations. They work as a way to allow energy producers to go on with business as usual while taking into consideration the regulations imposed on them by a federal agency.

This is just one example of environmental policy and regulations at the state level continuing to be gridlocked as climate change and public welfare persistently take a backseat to economic priorities.  As plants and refineries continue to operate under expired permits, Texans remain in the dark about the amount of pollution entering the air they breathe. Without the permits, these corporations are running illegally and are not being subjected to reporting the amount of pollution emitted. Companies filed their permits on time, but the commission has failed to act on them, in some cases for years.

In this case, the blame does not fall on the energy producers involved in the dispute, but on the side of the TCEQ. Accordingly, state agencies should not have to reach the point of litigation to fulfill their duties. However, if necessary, communities should exert pressure on the organizations responsible for their health and that of the environment.
Andrew Dobbs, program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, attributes the commission’s lax attitude toward the enforcement of these permits to the very nature of the agency.

“The TCEQ is the only state environmental agency that has an economic mandate; its purpose is to promote business in the state,” Dobbs said. “They perceive their role as issuing permits and see their applicants as their customers. They publicly and shamelessly say they cater to their customers and not the public.”

The commission, according to their website, “strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.” If it were not for the litigation brought about by the concerned public, it’s hard to imagine that the agency would take initiative on anything under their jurisdiction.

Lawsuits like these take years before any resolution is seen. At this point, the public cannot afford to wait on these agencies to follow through with their responsibilities. Waiting on the government to do the right thing has not always proved worthwhile. Communities must use political pressure if they want to see good things start to happen.

Arevalo is a journalism freshman from McAllen.