Top Ten List Of TNRCC Excuses

"Complaining to Barry McBee's Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission does no good, so why bother to call the agency?" So I have been told again and again by citizens across the state -- Texas taxpayers who have given up on the TNRCC's obligation to protect them from health hazards caused by dozens of industrial plants across the state.

And few people have more confidence in the TNRCC Office of Public Assistance, which McBee announced on Earth Day 1996 as his agency's attempt to respond quickly to citizen complaints. The Office McBee established does not have its own staff members investigate individual complaints, but must, instead, pass complaints on to field officers in one of the TNRCC's 15 field offices.

When those field agents go out to investigate a complaint, they go slowly. A slow response might work for water complaints, because chemical contamination can remain in water for several days. Air pollution, on the other hand, is transient; yet a frequent complaint about the TNRCC response to air incidents is that investigators arrive far too late. When investigators do arrive, agency guidelines require them to stand only on the property from which the complaint was filed. Before McBee, investigators could take the complainant to the suspected source point of the air pollution, and ask if the smell there is what caused the complaint. No more.

When the agency does respond, it issues too few violations, often allowing polluters to go scot-free -- as it did in CITGO's toxic hydrofluoric acid release on May 12, 1997, in Corpus Christi. Hydrofluoric acid destroys bone tissue, so once it gets into the body it can cause serious problems. Yet in Corpus Christi, it took TNRCC investigators 12-14 hours to respond to citizens' complaints, despite what was clearly an emergency.

TNRCC employees told people filing complaints, "We're not an emergency response team." Had the agency been prompt in its response, local physicians would at least have known what they were treating.

From complaints I regularly hear, I could easily compile a weekly Top Ten List of TNRCC excuses. This week's list -- what agency employees actually told the people they are charged to protect -- includes:

* "It's roofing odors on the next block."

* "It's a natural gas leak, probably on the homeowner's side of the meter."

* "It must be a cleaning solvent you're using in your house."

* "I can't smell anything at your home
(the wind shifted the pollution a bit)."

* "The wind direction was wrong."

* "The plant called it in."

* "The plant is monitoring the event."

* "It must be a natural house odor."

* "I can only smell a cat litter box."

* "Maybe it's a dead dog."

When excuses don't work, the TNRCC issues pro forma reports, claiming that inspectors "could not determine the source" of odors (even when they have made very little effort to do so). Companies also shift the blame by pointing the finger at each other, creating further confusion. The TNRCC then agrees with company insistence that they pose no danger to their neighbors -- despite both common-sense observations and subsequent illnesses.

Working with people from all over the state, I have learned that TNRCC has lost the public's trust -- despite a new Office of Public Assistance, which citizens know is a farce.

Neil Carman, Clean Air Director
Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Clu

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