If anyone ever doubted that environmental regulators in Texas favor polluters over reasonable oversight, recent events should clear things up.
Well, maybe “clear things up” is the wrong choice of words.
Last week, on the eve of a visit to Texas by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted 2-0 to grant a permit to the Las Brisas Energy Center in Corpus Christi, which would burn petroleum coke, an oil refinery by-product, to power 650,000 homes. They did so despite an EPA request to wait until the feds could clear up — there's that phrase again — concerns about whether the plant can meet new federal standards for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, among other things.
That followed another demonstration of the full-steam-ahead mentality at TCEQ: approval of a five-year permit for Fort Sam Houston for limited discharges into Canyon Lake from a recreational retreat it owns there.
That happened in November, over objections by Friends of Canyon Lake, who argued the facility was more than 44 years old and has self-reported 10 minor violations of sewage discharge limits since 2004.
The OK came despite state Rep. Doug Miller's suggestion that it be extended for only two years.
“What I suggested was, why don't we look at, instead of renewing the permit for a five-year period, that we make it a shorter period to kind of put a little pressure on the military to stay in compliance,” he said. “I was just trying to make it acceptable for all parties.”
Fort Sam officials preferred the five-year renewal, but TCEQ should have put its foot down. The compromise suggested by Miller, a New Braunfels Republican and no wild-eyed greenie, wasn't exactly “out there.”
“It was just putting a little tighter rein on them,” he said.
After the five-year renewal sailed through, Bob Wickman, a retired Air Force colonel and a Friends of Canyon Lake founder, wrote a blistering letter to EPA asking for an explanation. He's still waiting, but blames everybody.
“I'm a conservative Republican, but at the same time, I look out here and say, ‘This is folly,'” he said. “They're all in collusion.”
All of this comes on the heels of a new report on TCEQ by the Sunset Advisory Commission. If the common-sense reforms it recommended — heftier fines and more consistent enforcement, mainly — are ignored by the Republicans running things in Austin, that will be a shame.
Coincidentally, Jackson said during an appearance at St. Mary's University on Friday that the environment should transcend politics. The EPA and the Clean Air and Water acts were creations of a Republican administration, she noted, and it was the administration of former President George W. Bush which found that Texas' flexible air permits “don't pass muster.”
“But this isn't about politics and this isn't about a war of words in the media,” Jackson said. “This is about air pollution and public health.”
That's how it should work, but at her level it's always about politics. Down here on the ground — and in the water, for that matter — the view is somewhat murkier.