Naked City

As the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission undergoes Sunset review, a new report details a host of citizen concerns about the agency's complaint review process.

Robin Schneider (l) and Billy Akers at Austin Liquid Disposal
Robin Schneider (l) and Billy Akers at Austin Liquid Disposal (Photo By John Anderson)

Hear No Evil

In the fall of 1994, Billy and Grace Akers contacted the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission about a rancid smell that was wafting through their East Austin neighborhood. The smell, they believed, came from Austin Liquid Disposal, a nearby business that processed grease and other liquids from restaurants in and around Austin and San Antonio. For months, the Akers tried to get the TNRCC, which is charged with protecting air and water quality throughout the state, to do something about the stench coming from down the road.

Nearly three years passed before the state took any action. In 1997, after several TNRCC inspectors had visited the Akers' property, one finally managed to confirm that the odor afflicting the neighborhood was coming from Austin Liquid Disposal. The company was cited for violating state laws, given 60 days to resolve the problem, and fined $9,000. Later that year, Austin Liquid Disposal went out of business and the smell finally went away.

Today, Grace Akers has plenty to say about the TNRCC, none of it good. Her story is recounted in a new report from Public Research Works, a nonprofit organization that brings together the expertise of Consumers Union, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and a host of concerned individuals. The TNRCC is currently undergoing review by the state's Sunset Advisory Commission that could lead to changes in the way the agency handles citizen complaints.

"We contacted the TNRCC repeatedly, and they basically didn't do anything," Akers says. "The only reason the problem went away is that the company eventually filed for bankruptcy."

Jon von Gonten tells a similar story. Von Gonten, who runs a farm not far from Alcoa's lignite-burning power plant outside Rockdale, has watched his equipment corrode at an alarming rate; meanwhile, he has been suffering from respiratory problems. Some days, the sky around his place turns an acrid yellow; other times, it turns brown with smoke from Alcoa's stacks. So von Gonten approached the TNRCC to see if the agency couldn't ascertain whether somebody in the area was violating Texas' air quality laws. "The response," he says, "was not real good."

Von Gonten says the TNRCC has been slow to respond to his complaints, and has yet to identify the source of his problems. So he's taking matters into his own hands. "I've been complaining about this since May of 1998," he says. "Sometimes it takes [the TNRCC investigator] two weeks to show up, and sometimes they don't show up at all. But there's something going on out here, and I'm trying to figure out what it is." To that end, von Gonten has hired his own consultant to do an environmental assessment of air quality on his farm and determine where, exactly, the problem is coming from.

Robin Schneider of Public Research Works, who authored the recent report, says it took her about a year to track down the statistics concerning citizen complaints to the TNRCC. Schneider believes a major overhaul is in order for the agency.

"The TNRCC needs to have the authority to crack down on polluters, and it needs to have the will to use that authority," says Schneider. With the ongoing Sunset review set to conclude on September 20, she adds, it's time for the agency to initiate some major changes.

According to the report, between 1996 and 1999 the TNRCC received more than 50,000 complaints from citizens throughout Texas, more than half of which pertained to air pollution. Fully one-fifth of the complaints the TNRCC investigated required some sort of corrective action. Based on citizen testimony and TNRCC records, Schneider maintains the agency could have been faster to locate trouble spots and could have documented many more violations. Essentially, she says, the complaint process requires too much of citizens and not enough of their corporate neighbors. (For PRW's specific recommendations, see sidebar.)

Mark Vickery, director of Field Operations for the TNRCC, disputes the notion that the state is in the business of protecting polluters, but he does acknowledge that there's room for improvement -- especially when it comes to citizen complaints. He notes that the Sunset Commission has already suggested that TNRCC should be quicker to investigate and assess complaints, and to take enforcement action when needed. Already, he says, the TNRCC is looking for ways to allow staffers to respond to complaints 24 hours a day, seven days a week; the agency, he adds, has also taken pains to make its database more useful to the public.

As for the report, Vickery says he disagrees with the general tone and some of its conclusions. "This report is very critical," he says. "The general theme is that we don't take complaints seriously, but I want to be clear that we do take all complaints seriously. We do our best to respond to the general public's needs, and I believe we do have the resources to protect human health and the environment in the state of Texas." But Vickery adds that building a case against a polluter is similar to prosecuting any other crime: it often takes months of data collection to establish whether an "enforcement action will stand up to legal scrutiny."

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who sits on the Sunset Commission, agrees that the TNRCC's response time to citizen complaints is inadequate. "Any time a citizen wants to spend the time and energy to contact a state agency, it warrants immediate attention on the part of the staff," says Lucio. "Personally, I want to see every complaint handled promptly and properly, and we must make sure people receive a final letter in layman's terms explaining what has happened."

For its part, PRW has taken the complaints it gathered from the TNRCC and entered them into its own database (available at www.report pollution.org) so that citizens can research pollution issues on their own. The Web site also includes an online guide to the complaint process. Since the report came out last month, Schneider says, people across the state have contacted her with stories she says warrant investigation. But ultimately, Schneider says, it will not be enough to simply document citizen complaints: "There is no substitute for good regulation through strong permits and effective enforcement action."


Hearing Aid

Public Research Works recommends that the TNRCC make the following changes to its complaint process to make it more accessible to citizens:

  • Make the complaint database a tool for environmental protection efforts. This database could help the state locate pollution problems quickly and efficiently.

  • Encourage the public to file complaints. A toll-free phone number and e-mail address would help citizens more easily contact the agency.

  • Provide around-the-clock investigations. Currently, the TNRCC has no way to respond to complaints made after business hours or on the weekend.

  • Simplify the complaint process and provide tools and training so that citizens can gather evidence. The TNRCC provides a brochure for businesses undergoing inspection resulting from complaints, but has no similar brochure for the public. Air and water monitoring devices could also be made available to the public.

  • Guarantee a response to complaints, and provide updates on investigations and enforcement actions, as well as case outcomes.

  • Improve environmental protection laws and expand the public's right to know. The Office of the Public Interest Counsel should be able to assist citizens making complaints, acting as a liaison between citizens and the TNRCC and providing oversight.

    (Source: "The TNRCC Complaint Process: Is Anybody Listening?" by Public Research Works)

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