News from Air Alliance Houston – two day Environmental Justice Encuentro and More

Received yesterday from Air Alliance Houston, one of the outstanding and effective organizations involved in the Moving Forward Network.


Texas Environmental Protection Issues 
The Legislature, State’s Elected Leadership and Environmental Regulators 

Larry Soward, President, Air Alliance Houston
Since the mid-1990’s, there have been systematic and concerted efforts by the Legislature, the State’s elected leadership and environmental regulators to significantly limit, if not preclude,opportunities for Texas citizens to have any meaningful input and participation in decision-making on environmental protection issues.  Under the mantra of economic development and job creation, environmental laws and regulations have been adopted which have the greater effects of subverting democratic decision-making at the local level on environmental issues impacting those local areas; eroding, if not preventing, meaningful citizen participation; and reducing the transparency of how our government is really making decisions affecting our public health and environment. The very laws and regulations that are supposed to protect citizens from harmful pollution are instead more protective of the economic interests of those that are regulated.
It appears those active efforts will continue in the legislative session next year. Several House committees, as directed by Interim Charges issued by the Speaker, are already studying the “environmental permitting processes at the TCEQ, specifically the contested-case hearing process;” “the economic impact that the state’s permitting processes have on Texas manufacturing sectors;” and “the public policy implications of litigation related to environmental contamination brought by local governments, in particular whether such litigation supports effective remediation.”
As has been attempted in almost every legislative session in the past decade, once again there appears to be a real threat brewing to weaken even more or actually eliminate the opportunity for contested case hearings at the TCEQ.  Industry claims contested case hearings impede businesses’ efforts to do business in Texas by creating a cumbersome permitting process that allows “obstructionist participation” which creates uncertainty, delays facilities or forces concessions, wasting time and money.  Yet, for citizens and environmental and public interest groups, these contested hearings are the only avenue to meaningfully participate in permitting decisions and have their concerns heard and potentially addressed.  A contested case hearing, or the threat of one, often enables citizens to obtain more protective concessions from the applicant than would otherwise be available through the TCEQ in the permitting process.  To eliminate the long-standing and well-established opportunity for contested case hearings in the guise of “efficiency” and “streamlining” ignores the real benefits provided to the public by affording the opportunity for hearings on environmental permits — none of which are unreasonably burdensome on industry seeking permits.
And, once again, the Legislature is also attempting to significantly limit local governments’ ability to pursue enforcement actions against polluters in their jurisdictions. Regulated businesses and industries claim that local government lawsuits “harm economic development” and do nothing but “seek absurd demands for penalties that the state would never pursue.”  Rightly so, local governments, the Texas Municipal League and the Conference of Urban Counties strongly disagree and aggressively oppose such a restriction on their local authority.  Too often, Texas cities and counties are forced to pursue enforcement actions against polluters in their jurisdictions because state and federal regulators fail or refuse to do so. Unquestionably, this legislative scrutiny specifically focuses on Harris County, which has historically filed the most civil environmental lawsuits in the state.
The common public perception is that Texas is overly biased in favor of industry and has no serious focus on environmental protection and the health and welfare of its citizens. So long as our Legislature, our State elected leadership and environmental regulators continue to restrict or prohibit Texas citizens and local governments from having meaningful input, participation and roles in environmental protection issues, that perception will not likely change for the positive.

EPA Rule will Include Fenceline Monitoring

Limiting Toxic Air Emissions from Refineries
Adrian Shelley, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
By now you have probably heard that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule last week regarding toxic air emissions from oil and gas refineries. Officially known as the “Proposed Petroleum Refinery Sector Risk and Technology Review and New Source Performance Standards,” those of us who have been working for years toward this rule know it simply as the “Refinery rule” or “Refinery toxics rule.”
This rule is the culmination of years of work by many people and organizations. EPA is more than a decade overdue in reviewing this rule. The lawsuit by Air Alliance Houston and others was filed in 2012. This proposal is only the next step in this lengthy process. EPA will take public comments on the proposal for sixty days. The agency will also hold two hearings on the rule: one in Los Angeles and one in Houston sometime in the next few months. After getting public feedback, EPA will spend several more months responding to comments and finalizing the rule. Then the states will have to develop plans to implement the rule. Air Alliance Houston has been heavily involved in the process, and we will continue to be.
So: what’s in the refinery rule? First, additional pollution control requirements. These requirements will apply to some of the most problematic units at refineries: storage tanks, flares, and delayed cokers. Second, an elimination of the exemption for emissions that occur during startup, shutdown, and maintenance. As anyone familiar with the industry knows, these exemptions have been widely abused. People breathe all of the time, and there is no reason to exempt some air emissions from regulation. Third, the rule requires fenceline monitoring and establishes a fenceline standard for benzene, a carcinogen that serves as a marker for toxic emissions from refineries.
All told, we are very pleased with this rule. The provision for fenceline monitoring in particular is a huge step forward. This is the first time that EPA has included fenceline monitoring in a rule. It is true that the type of monitoring proposed is not necessarily what we would like. The monitors are passive, meaning that they will have to be collected and analyzed periodically, with their data being made public well after the fact. We would have preferred active, real-time monitoring, but on balance we are very pleased that fenceline monitoring will now be required. As I have said before, if we don’t know what our communities-and our children-are being exposed to, we can’t protect their health. This rule is a great step toward the health protection that the children of Houston need.

Now or Never
It is time to act on Environmental Justice issues in Houston 
Brian Butler, Community Outreach Coordinator, Air Alliance Houston

This past weekend, environmental activists and Houston residents gathered at Texas Southern University (TSU) for a two day Environmental Justice Encuentro. The event was graciously sponsored by The Houston Peace & Justice Center, Air Alliance Houston, The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Sealy Center for Environmental Health & Medicine, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, TSU, and the Citizens Environmental Coalition. The goals were to foster dialog, communication and education between environmental groups and residents of areas most affected by severe environmental health risks; enlighten Houstonians with an understanding that environmental injustices suffered by “fence-line” communities affect all Houstonians; and empower Houston residents to work for environmental quality. 

We were honored to have as our keynote speaker Dr. Robert Bullard, Environmental Justice pioneer and Dean of TSU’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. In addition to Dr. Bullard, Jim Blackburn, Al Armendariz, Winfred Hamilton, Larry Soward, and several others presented on topics ranging from strategies for building healthy and resilient communities in an era of climate change to the role of Texas in environmental justice today and in the future. 

By the end of the second day it was abundantly clear that now is the time to solve Texas’s environmental challenges. The damages, risks, and stakes are too great to wait any longer. Texas emits twice as much pollution as any other state. Solving these challenges here will make solving them in the other forty-nine states that much easier.