Does Austin Need Its Own Air Control Bureau?

The wild card in Texas air quality protection is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – TCEQ, dubbed "T-Suck" by critics.

The agency has long faced criticism that it is far too business-friendly. Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said: "It's not just environmentalists. The state auditor, back in 2003, found that TCEQ does not consistently hold violators accountable." That report found that, for every dollar Texas firms were fined, they made $5 off the violation. The problem, Metzger said, isn't that staff are incompetent. It's that the management culture, starting with the commissioners appointed by the governor, is polluted. He explained, "There are a lot of great people that work for the agency, but they've often had their hands tied or their mouths gagged when it comes to protecting the environment."

So if Austin can't depend on TCEQ, what are its options?

One option is to establish its own bureau of air quality control, as the city of Houston has done under Mayor Bill White. Normally municipalities delegate the bulk of their inspection and enforcement powers to TCEQ through a local air program contract. But Houston became frustrated by the agency's unwillingness to tackle big emitters, even if the city red-flagged a problem. Elena Marks, Houston's director of health and environmental policy, explained, "We'd rate something as a 5, but they'd downgrade it to a 2, so it wouldn't get the proper attention."

Dissatisfied with TCEQ's unwillingness to enforce its own rules, in 2005 the city struck out on its own, beefing up its existing bureau with additional inspection and enforcement staff, turning it into what Marks called "a mini-TCEQ, in terms of its capabilities." While the bureau works under the same rules as TCEQ, Marks argues that it is more proactive and that the threat of better enforcement curbs polluters. "The two toxins that we track most closely are benzene and butadiene, and we've seen the numbers come down," she said. "We've made the greatest headway because we've been vocal and public, rather than because of specific legal actions."

TCEQ faces its own inspection of a sort, as the agency's Legislative Sunset Review date has been moved up from 2013 to 2011, in part because legislators were loath to leave it unexamined for another four years. Until then, Houston will depend on its own bureau. Marks finds that somewhat frustrating. She noted, "It should have all been unnecessary, but for the fact that nobody else was doing it."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Environmental Cage Match
Environmental Cage Match
After a history of pulling its punches, is the EPA finally forcing TCEQ to clean up the Texas air?

Katherine Gregor, May 28, 2010

Racism Alleged at TCEQ
Racism Alleged at TCEQ
Lawsuit filed by two former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employees accuses agency of racial discrimination, contends agency denied them promotion because they are black.

Patricia J. Ruland, May 18, 2007

More by Richard Whittaker
David Giancola Puts the Pedal to the Metal With <i>Axcellerator</i>
David Giancola Puts the Pedal to the Metal With Axcellerator
Director leaves tragedy behind and embraces the B-movie

June 25, 2019

Austin Film News: From A(nimation) to Z(ombies)
Austin Film News: From A(nimation) to Z(ombies)
Production updates from around town and just beyond city limits

June 21, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Luke Metzger, Houston Bureau of Air Quality Control, Environment Texas

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle