October 31, 2008
A Texas Senate committee this week quietly withdrew recommendations that would require the state’s environmental agency to adopt stringent new limits on hazardous air pollutants.
The reversal came four weeks after the Senate’s jurisprudence committee unanimously backed the series of nonbinding, but potentially influential, recommendations in advance of the legislative session that begins in January. It also dealt a blow to Mayor Bill White’s efforts to clean Houston’s air.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican who chairs the committee, said he had second thoughts about the recommendations after hearing from a Senate colleague and business lobbyists who asserted that the committee had overreached.
“We probably shouldn’t have done it,” Wentworth said of the initial push to require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to limit certain air toxics, adding that the Senate’s natural resources committee is the appropriate venue for such deliberations. “It wasn’t what we were asked to do.”
But some lawmakers and environmental activists see the move as a blatant attempt to bog down efforts to control air pollution and reduce emissions of toxic chemicals in a state with scores of petrochemical plants and refineries.
“It’s another example of politicians pandering to polluters instead of protecting people,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Austin office of Public Citizen, a consumer and environmental group. “The committee had taken testimony and proposed some common sense solutions to cut down the most toxic pollutants. But even that attempt to give a backbone to our quivering environmental watchdog was eviscerated.”
At the request of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, the committee in July took up the question of whether cities could regulate pollution coming from industrial plants and refineries located outside their boundaries.
The Legislature debated the issue without resolution during the 2007 regular session while White threatened to use a public nuisance ordinance to go after neighboring polluters. At the time, Dewhurst, a Republican, lobbied senators to pass a bill that would block the efforts of Houston’s Democratic mayor.
Dewhurst assigned the matter to the jurisprudence committee because of lingering questions about jurisdictional authority, spokesman Rich Parsons said. The lieutenant governor generally assigns tasks to various committees to get a head start on the legislative session, but the work doesn’t always turn into a bill.
As a first step, the jurisprudence committee held a hearing three months ago in Edinburg, where representatives of the Texas Chemical Council and other industry groups, TCEQ and the city of Houston provided testimony.
Christina Wisdom, vice president and general counsel for the chemical association, told the committee that the primary responsibility for regulating air quality should remain with TCEQ for clarity and consistency. But Elena Marks, the mayor’s director for environmental and health policy, said Houston had to act because the state agency hadn’t done enough to protect public health and safety.
Wentworth described the three-hour hearing as “persuasive.” On Oct. 1, the committee, with four of seven members present, voted unanimously to make five recommendations that would expand TCEQ’s regulatory tools, including an emissions cap for benzene, a cancer-causing chemical used in the manufacture of gasoline, plastic and other products.
Although the committee didn’t support Houston’s push to regulate nearby polluters, White called Wentworth to thank him for recommending greater oversight by TCEQ.
But Wentworth told White that he already had heard criticism of the decision. For one, Sen. Robert Duncan, a Lubbock Republican and committee member who missed the Oct. 1 meeting, said the recommendations went beyond Dewhurst’s charge to the committee.
Business lobbyists also called Wentworth to complain. He said that he didn’t hear from Dewhurst, Gov. Rick Perry or their staffs about the matter.
Wentworth scheduled another meeting, for last Monday. This time, Duncan attended and told colleagues that by requiring TCEQ to adopt additional controls they had gone too far. Dewhurst wanted them to define the regulatory authority and limits of cities, Duncan said.
The committee then voted, 4-1, to withdraw the recommendations, with Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and formerly the state’s top air quality official, in opposition.
The recommendations “sent a clear message that we want TCEQ to do these kinds of things to protect public health and safety, and it was in direct response to claims that TCEQ should be the one to do these things,” Watson said in an interview.
The reversal also angered Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Houston Democrat and committee member who missed Monday’s eight-minute meeting in Austin because of a doctor appointment.
“It raises a big red flag,” Gallegos said, adding that he would propose a bill incorporating the recommendations during the legislative session. “We voted unanimously for it, and then all of sudden it’s not in our jurisdiction.”
Wentworth said he changed his vote because of “procedural concerns, not the substance” of the recommendations. Sen. Chris Harris, an Arlington Republican, also switched his vote.
Marks, the mayor’s environmental policy director, said she is hopeful that the matter will be heard in the natural resources committee. “It can’t be that they belong nowhere,” she said, “but that’s where we are.”