The Austin Chronicle

Does Austin Need Its Own Air Control Bureau?

By Richard Whittaker, August 28, 2009, News

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."

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