Naked City

Sun Sets Slowly

It sounds like the beginning of a bad haiku, and maybe it should be -- bad poetry for bad public policy. Every 10 years or so, each state agency must appear before the state legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission (four state reps, four senators, and two public members) to defend its policies, procedures, and reason for existence. This year the TNRCC (the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, or "Trainwreck" as its detractors call it) must defend its 12-year record of protecting the public health and the sanctity of the state's air, soil, and water. Most people would rather defend O.J. Simpson again.

It hasn't been a good 12 years for the environment in Texas, and more often than not, the TNRCC has been part of the problem, rather than the solution. Shall we count the ways? Voluntary permits for grandfathered polluters. The Sierra Blanca radioactive waste dump debacle. Toxic waste incineration. And who could forget the "Call First" surprise inspection policy for polluting facilities (got to make sure somebody's home, after all)?

Despite ample ammunition, don't bet on the Sunset Commission throwing too many bombs at the June 20-21 public hearing in Austin. The commission has already issued its report, which recommends continued use of voluntary compliance and "regulatory flexibility" to enforce state and federal environmental laws. This, despite the fact that out of more than 900,000 tons per year of grandfathered (i.e., from exempted older facilities) pollution, the governor's voluntary permitting program has produced a reduction of only 3% (17,878 tons per year) in the 29 months since the program began, according to the Sierra Club.

In fairness, the Sunset Commission has recommended two major reforms that environmental activists have been seeking for years. One is to make the agency's Office of Public Interest Counsel, which represents the public's interest when citizens challenge agency decisions, a truly independent body. OPIC's attorneys currently answer to the same executive director and commissioners whose decisions they are called upon to challenge.

Second, the commission recommended that TNRCC's executive director no longer actively support the industry side throughout the contested permit hearing process, a practice that understandably causes citizens battling polluters to question the agency's impartiality. Expect industry groups such as the Texas Chemical Council to come out hard against those recommendations and to fight tooth and nail against related legislation next session.

Environmental activists would like to see a much more comprehensive overhaul of the agency, beginning with a redefined mission statement that emphasizes protecting public health and the environment and removes entirely the current reference to promoting economic development. Fifteen state environmental and public interest groups have formed a working group to raise awareness about the upcoming hearing and to pressure commission staff and legislators to use the review process to redirect the agency.

Among other reforms, they would also like to see stronger conflict-of-interest rules to discourage the revolving door between industry and regulators. (Commissioner Ralph Márquez, for example, served 30 years with Monsanto before deciding to dedicate his life to public service.) "The staff sees polluters as their clients ... not the people," said Erin Rogers, Texas Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Rogers has toured the state, filming citizens as they tell their war stories about battling polluters and the TNRCC. A rally will be held on the south steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, June 21, from noon to 1pm. For more information, visit www.texascenter.org/sunset or e-mail Rogers at erinrogers99@hotmail.com; or call the Sierra Club at 477-1729.

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