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EDITORIAL: Send TCEQ in to the Sunset

April 09, 2019 - 19:41
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The Texas Legislature seems to have a pretty laissez faire attitude when it comes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its lengthy record of blunders, delayed investigations, inaction, and failure to hold polluters or industry responsible for much of anything.

Whether it is a 40-mile stretch of the San Saba River drying up, or the way it handled permit applications for radioactive waste dumps in West Texas about a decade ago, it isn’t hard to find examples of this agency’s ineptitude, inaction, and flat-out siding with big polluters.

We’ve seen it in Colorado County with Clean Harbors/Altair Disposal Services.

We are living it with Skull Creek.

The environment has always taken a back seat to money in Texas, be it Pilgrim’s Pride being allowed to exceed its permit limits for dumping pollutants like nitrogen and fecal bacteria in to the waterways near Mount Pleasant with seemingly no accountability, or major petrochemical companies with billions of dollars in revenue creating so much air pollution in DISH, Texas in Denton County that the city was forced to commission their own study to find out what their residents were breathing.

The idea of legislators thinking they can turn a blind eye to TCEQ while they pocket campaign contributions from big polluters must end. The late Bo Pilgrim, namesake of Pilgrim’s Pride, was caught handing out $10,000 campaign contribution checks on the floor of the Texas Senate--with the payee left blank--on a day when legislation he favored was pending in that chamber.

The Legislature must hold TCEQ accountable for its failures. Skull Creek is one such failure.

The easiest and most effective way for the Texas Legislature to hold TCEQ accountable is by subjecting it to immediate Sunset Review during the 2019-2020 Sunset cycle.

Each year, the Legislature must address several bills deemed as “must pass” bills to keep government operations going. One is a bill passed, usually at the end of each session, addressing the Sunset Review process. Sometimes, legislators are forced to kick the can down the road, when, for either political or timing reasons, agencies Sunset was tasked with reviewing simply weren’t reviewed.

Legislators can also change the review timetable, and move agencies up in the review schedule with amendments to this bill, or even by crafting it to move up an agency’s review schedule.

The Texas House Research Organization, a non-partisan state legislative department, declared in 2015, in its analysis of House Bill 3123, the 78th Texas Legislature’s end-of-session Sunset bill, “The legislature frequently changes the review schedule for certain agencies to balance the workload of the Sunset Commission and to better align the review of agencies by grouping them based on subject matter.”

We call on State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) and State Rep. Ben Leman (R-Anderson) to immediately pledge to agree to author amendments to the appropriate Sunset bills in their respective chambers to add TCEQ to the Sunset Review cycle for 2019-2020.

We further call upon Sen. Kolkhorst and Rep. Leman to vote against any Sunset bills that do not contain immediate Sunset Review for TCEQ, and insert statements in to the journals for their respective chambers explaining that they cannot, in good conscience, vote for a Sunset bill that doesn’t address TCEQ because of issues happening in their districts, specifically in Colorado County. 

We further call on Sen. Kolkhorst and Rep. Leman to take any and all actions they can to obstruct, delay, or otherwise kill any appropriations measure or bill granting TCEQ any request, money, or authority the agency does not presently possess.

Since 2003, we have seen:

*Legislators flee to New Mexico and Oklahoma to block quorums in order to protect their constituent from redistricting efforts the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately deemed were unconstitutional;

*Catheter-wearing legislators filibuster for hours to protect a woman’s right to choose;

*The Governor call the legislature in to special session to address Sunset issues, only to add the so-called “bathroom bill” to the call along with cuts in funding for abortion providers under the auspice of protecting the unborn.

If legislators and the governor can manipulate the legislative process for any of these reasons, our legislators should use every tool, every piece of parliamentary procedure, and every portion of the rules of their respective chambers, in any way possible,  to protect our environment in Colorado County.

Sen. Kolkhorst has already authored a bill this session to close a loophole that would prevent companies like Altair Disposal Services/Clean Harbors from having an easier time with their application simply because the companies they dispose of waste for are owned by the same parent company.

The deadline has passed to author new bills in the current legislative session, but there remain dozens of possibilities to amend already filed legislation, manipulate the General Appropriations Act, block bills, kill bills, “chubb” bills to death, hold them up in committee, and generally throw a wrench in the legislative process until what is needed is achieved.

Anything TCEQ wants of the Legislature during the 86th Session should turn to dust, with our legislators at the lead, until the agency is forced in to Sunset Review.

Kolkhorst, most certainly, as one of the most powerful senators in her chamber and indeed one of the most powerful and respected lawmakers in Texas, has the power and influence to make this happen. Rep. Leman, though a freshman House member, can help, given the coalitions that worked to help elect him to office are actively lobbying the legislature right now on various bills.

We expect action. We will be watching.