EPA: Political Punching Bag or the New 'It' Agency?

Perry emits more hot air over state's dirty air

This inflatable coal plant provided the backdrop for a Sierra Club and Public Citizen announcement last year of a lawsuit filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, now drawing ample heat from the  EPA for failing to enforce air quality laws.
This inflatable coal plant provided the backdrop for a Sierra Club and Public Citizen announcement last year of a lawsuit filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, now drawing ample heat from the EPA for failing to enforce air quality laws. (Photo by John Anderson)

The Environmental Protection Agency's May 25 action to begin taking federal control of the flawed air-permitting process in Texas – starting with Flint Hills Resources' East Corpus Christi refinery – has become political fodder in the race for Texas governor. Demo­crat Bill White blamed Gov. Rick Perry for EPA's action: "Because of Rick Perry's mismanagement of the state's environmental agency, our state is now losing our ability to make our own decisions about air quality and the economy." Perry gave a June 2 speech defending the Texas Commission on Envi­ron­mental Quality and vowing to fight the federal takeover with "every breath." White responded that Perry has for years "played chicken with the EPA so he could create a controversy for the purposes of political theater and his career."

Perry frames the threat to take over Texas air permitting (which has been violating federal law) as both a partisan political move and a states' rights issue. He called on Presi­dent Obama "to rein in the EPA and instruct them to study our successful approach for recommended use elsewhere." White responded, "Other governors have been able to keep the authority to enforce the Clean Air Act."

The Environmental Defense Fund's Jim Marston commented in a May 26 blog post, "For too long, Gov. Perry and TCEQ have treated the EPA and the federal health-based Clean Air Act as a nuisance they can't be bothered with. Well, they're bothered now, and squealing like a stuck pig." State legislators and environmental groups gathered May 28 in Houston to urge TCEQ to bring the state's air permitting into federal compliance. "Since breathing clean air is not a partisan issue," said Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis, "all of us have the same goal: cleaner air that protects Texas families from the health impacts of the worst air pollutants."

Meanwhile, Fort Worth officials have charged that the TCEQ has repeatedly provided inaccurate data on air quality and covered up its mistakes. Data indicates that levels of benzene, a carcinogen, may be two to three times what TCEQ allows.

The Sierra Club gave EPA some much-needed political cover, in a backhanded way – by threatening to sue EPA if it doesn't keep up the good work. On June 2, the nonprofit group filed a notice of intent to sue the agency over its failure to meet key deadlines (in 2005, October 2009, and this April) for improving air quality and for failing to reduce smog, soot, and the effects of Texas pollution on neighboring states. Earthjustice joined the Sierra Club in calling on EPA to enforce air quality laws in Texas.

"TCEQ is still issuing weak air permits for coal plants in the state," said the Sierra Club's Eva Hernandez. "We still are asking EPA to step in to stop the new coal plants. We have to keep the pressure on, to make sure TCEQ does its job."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, EPA, TCEQ, Rick Perry, Bill White

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