HOUSTON (AP) – In the decade that Texas’ environmental regulatory agency has received two scathing audits, it has changed its name, increased collection of fines and gone head-to-head with oil giant BP.
It is also engaged in a high-profile — and sometimes ugly — battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it acknowledges hinders its regulatory abilities, and is accused by critics of having a too-cozy relationship with the industries it is supposed to be keeping in line.
For the last seven months, investigators from a state commission created to investigate government waste and inefficiency have been reviewing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. On Thursday, the TCEQ — and the public — will get a preliminary look at the Sunset Advisory Commission’s audit.
The commission harshly criticized TCEQ in 2000. The State Auditor’s Office also did in 2003.
The TCEQ is the second largest environmental regulatory agency in the world, behind the EPA. It regulates the country’s largest oil refineries, 17 coal-fired power plants — more than any other state — and a myriad of other heavy polluters, all of which contribute to Texas’ designation as the nation’s leader in greenhouse gas emissions and industrial pollution.
TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz said investigators were in the agency’s offices daily, met with nearly the entire staff, visited refineries and drilling operations, and had a step-by-step walk through of the industrial permitting process.
“We’re very interested in seeing their findings,” Saenz said. “We think they understand our agency, they understand the process and they understand our challenges.”
The audit will be opened to public comment and sent to the Legislature with specific recommendations for action that might improve Texas’ regulation of businesses that impact the environment.
The Sunset Advisory Commission last reviewed the agency in 2000, and released a scathing report. By 2002, the agency had changed its name from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to include the word “environment” in its title, yet the state audit a year later found nearly the same problems as Sunset.
Most of the criticism focused on the agency’s penalty and enforcement policies, described as too lenient. TCEQ was also accused of lacking transparency and not providing the public enough opportunity to comment on policy and process. The Sunset Commission called for a “new regulatory structure” that would encourage action “greater than minimum requirements” and allow the state to successfully address “persistent environmental problems,” including poor air quality in the largest cities and water quality.
“We haven’t seen any substantive change since then,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an environmental watchdog group. Metzger wants the agency take more enforcement action and slap hefty penalties on industries that violate federal clean air and water laws.
But TCEQ has increased enforcement. In 2009 it issued 1,756 administrative orders — an action similar to a court order — compared to only 762 in 2004. It also imposed penalties of $14.5 million in 2009, compared to just over $5.6 million in 2004.
Since 2005, when a fire at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured about 170 others, the agency has forwarded all violations to the State Attorney General. The TCEQ has asked him to impose the harshest enforcement actions and penalties on the company, which it said repeatedly violates state and federal environmental laws.
Yet environmentalists say the agency has not gone far enough, and its cozy relationship with industry make it impossible to effectively preserve the environment and public health. They also say the agency is only willing to take enforcement action and pass laws that will not hurt the bottom line of the massive oil and gas companies that operate in the state.
That, environmentalists said, needs to change.
“They are not there to regulate the environment to the benefit of industry but rather, they are there to regulate industry for the benefit of the environment,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
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