Tag Archives: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Sierra Club and Steelworkers

20em

20em (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent the morning with United Steelworkers in Texas City in a forum organized by the Blue Green Apollo Alliance. Spent the night at Economy Lodge and there were funny smells in the air. Sigh.

The presentation rolled out by the Blue Green Apollo Alliance identified these problems:

  1. the US economy depends on oil
  2. the US is using more oil than we produce
  3. improvements are needed in the safety practices of oil production and refining
  4. the oil industry is a powerful political force, resulting in an unhealthy cycle of huge subsidies and lax regulation

And they proposed a suite of solutions:

  • we can cut our consumption of oil in half
  • we can ensure the oil we use is domestically produced and improve job security of US refinery workers
  • we dramatically improve safety and health practices in the US oil industry
  • the people we elect to represent us are committed to these ideals

In order to accomplish these things, there were suggestions of improving vehicle fuel standards, improving infrastructure for more efficiency, investing in transit options, and of course, smarter growth (courtesy of Agenda 21! just kidding).

We were asked to opine on the presentation, whether we agreed, disagreed, or had any further thoughts. We actually didn’t disagree with anything in the presentation, neither the facts of it nor the aspirations (Steelworkers: “Cut our consumption of oil in half? Desirable. Just not sure if it’s possible, or if Big Oil will let us do it.”) There were three similar events of this kind all over the country preceding our encounter, and the presentation changed after every presentation, so I’m assuming the content was perhaps more controversial at the beginning.

What I actually learned:

  • Steelworkers are having a tough time building their own membership. Their coworkers are mostly conservatives. The USW consistently supports Democrats, so they’re having a rough time.
  • Enforcement (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, EPA, any kind of state/federal regulator) only come around when they are called. They spoke frequently about more safety and more regulations.
  • I could have guessed this, but contract workers are a huge problem. They aren’t as well trained, and in a dangerous line of work like this one, the consequences for not knowing how to properly operate machinery or troubleshoot safety issues are enormous.
  • Deaths of contract workers in accidents do not count against “Safety Awards” given out by executives for no accidents. That is why the Texas City BP refinery had a “Safety Award for 4 years without an injury” in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, even though the Texas City BP refinery exploded on March 23, 2005, and killed 15 workers.
  • These companies cut corners wherever they can. They care about safety, as long as it isn’t expensive.
  • These guys know solidarity. They’re going to protest at Costco to get them to pull Palermo’s pizza after Palermo employees tried to form a union and the managers promptly called ICE on them. (Saturday, August 25th from 10am-noon at 3836 Richmond Avenue, Houston TX 77027 if you’re interested).
  • USW Local 13-2001 Vice President Mark Schubert, who was recently fired for statements he made at a new worker orientation, said this: “I’ve heard environmentalists belittle themselves. I have to say, that when I was growing up in the ship channel, I remember horny toads, fish, split-tail lizards… [I think that’s what he said, he was just listing wildlife]. Those guys were all gone for a while, but thanks to you guys, they’re coming back. And now maybe my grandkids will see them. And that’s really nice.”

To support Mark, you can sign this petition to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson asking him to reinstate his job.

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Let’s talk about water!

The Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter proudly co-sponsored the Brazos Valley Water Conservation Symposium on June 20th. The event was co-sponsored with the City of Waco, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, the Texas Water Foundation, the Brazos River Authority, and the National Wildlife Federation. Organized with the intent of educating individuals ranging from policy makers to water utility professionals, the meeting focused on the importance and benefits of practicing viable water conservation planning methods in the state of Texas.  The symposium, entitled “The Business Case for Water Conservation,” presented ways in which the region may meet its water needs through enhanced water conservation.

Ken Kramer kicking off the Brazos Valley Water Conservation Symposium

Toby Baker, the commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), addressed the immediate need to secure a reliable water supply for Texas stating that it cannot have growth without water availability. He talked about the potential for water conservation as a way to extend our water supply and then explained some of the issues surrounding water conservation. While TCEQ requires water providers to submit drought contingency plans, their capacity to enforce them is very limited. It is critical for water providers and state agencies to work together on conserving water as a way to extend our current water supply and better prepare for future droughts.

The Commissioner was then followed by Comer Tuck, director of the conservation division of the Texas Water Development Board. Mr. Tuck started by communicating to the audience that the year 2011 was the driest and hottest recoded in the history of Texas. Following a talk on the projected population increase, he spoke of the importance of funding the 2012 state water plan, a set of strategies that would help us meet the water demands of future Texans.

Carole Baker (Alliance for Water Efficiency and Texas Water Foundation) focused on myths related to the feasibility of performing water conservation. Common beliefs, such as water shortages being temporary problems that will disappear with time, do not reflect  their real nature. Instead, they are ongoing issues.  She then disproved the notion of current development being efficient by explaining that new properties use 20-60% more water. Ms. Baker concluded by clarifying that “wasting water is not economically feasible.”

Mark Peterson, coordinator for outdoor programs at the San Antonio Water System, spoke of the successful implementation of water conservation strategies in the City of San Antonio.  So what does it mean when it is said that the city is “on board” with conservation? It translates to meeting the water demands of a population 60% larger with the same amount of water supplied by the city during the 1980s.

Mr. Peterson explained that adopting the perspective of ongoing water conservation as being “a source of water” is crucial and that regulations are by no means a form of public punishment during dry times.  Another unique approach was perceiving customers as being part of San Antonio’s “conservation team“.  The reader should keep in mind that while water conservation practices in San Antonio are credited as being successful, the variability of the water sources and infrastructure of every water utility is different. That said, San Antonio can serve as a great model for other cities.

Lorrie Reeves, a representative of the Water Efficiency Network of North Texas, then talked about the benefits of creating local networks of water utility professionals and water conservation experts.  These networks consist of municipalities, water providers, and water conservation advocates that meet on a regular basis throughout the year. The purpose of these coalitions is to regionally reduce water use by working together to promote water efficiency education, programs, legislation and technologies and openly and actively share information and best practices. Through the networks, entities are able to efficiently share knowledge and exchange information. For example, by sharing strategies and goals with one another, the North Texas network  pooled their resources to educate the general public about irrigation strategies for clay soil (specific to the region).

Jennifer Walker leading the panel on the implementation of water conservation strategies in different Texas municipalities

While the success of water conservation programs and progress being made in numerous parts of the state of Texas  was apparent through the conference, the importance of coupling these programs and any restrictions with stronger education programs was a consistent theme that should be given future consideration.  Most water consumers do not understand the amount of water that is needed to keep a lawn healthy and often use too much, making it important to educate the public about the lack of need to irrigate extensively (Toby Baker).

-Hector Varela, Water Policy Intern

Special thanks to Jennifer Walker and Joanna Wolaver

Hill Country River Rats Taking On a Whole New Storm in 2012

When getting ready for a river trip to New Braunfels this summer make sure you leave a few things off your checklist, starting with beverage cans and cups. The most recent controversial splash in New Braunfels, forty-five miles south of Austin, has been the ban of disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers within the city limits. Last November, supporters and residents in New Braunfels passed the disposable container ban, with 58 percent of the votes in favor of the ban. Since then, there have been many issues stirring around with both sides making strong valid points and accusations.

In certain parts, there are mounds of garbage covering the bottom of the Comal River in New Braunfels.

The German influenced city, New Braunfels, has attracted millions of tourists over the past decades. With cold-water springs flowing through the city, and home to one of the most renowned waterparks in the country, New Braunfels is an ideal place to visit during the sizzling Texas summers. With that being said, many locals have become fed up with all the trash and garbage that a lot of the tourists and irresponsible residents leave behind.  Many people in the community have always pointed out that all the accumulated trash in the rivers could potentially put their sources of drinking water as well as habitats for endangered species in jeopardy. It just took the city some time, but New Braunfels finally put their foot down and addressed this issue and is now taking steps to project their community for future generations.

Something had to be done in order to eliminate the amount of garbage in the Comal and Guadalupe rivers.

On the other side of the spectrum, the disposable container ban has put fire in some people’s eyes. By taking away their rights to have canned and cupped beverages in the river, people feel like the city is also taking away from their river experience. Many people are also claiming that the ban is in place to indirectly attempt to eliminate alcohol on the river, which the city attempted and failed to do in 2000. Another large drawback people have with the disposable container ban is the economic effect that will come with it. River tourism is a huge portion of the cities earnings and if people decide to take their money elsewhere, New Braunfels could take a big hit. According to sources, if the ban even spooks off just five percent of the cities’ river rafters, businesses in the area could lose about $20 million this year.

There are still mixed opinions about the ban.

Ever though the ban was passed last November, the battle seems to have just begun. Bryan Miranda, New Braunfels city councilman, will be headlining a recall election next month in result of voters signing a petition to remove him from office. The petitioners needed only 150 signatures and wound up with a whopping 279. On top of that, a handful of residents and businessman are suing the Texas Land Commissioner as well as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for managing municipal solid waste in an illegal manner. It appears like it’s been a rough ride on where to draw the line with this issue. Nonetheless, something had to be done in order to preserve nature and keeping it intact for generations to come.  Hopefully both sides can come together and see eye to eye in the mere future.

Related Links : One can ban backer will face recall, Container ban on river passes, Comal River tubing, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Guadalupe River Clean-up Page

– Jarred Garza, Sierra Club Intern

Take Action Online Against Las Brisas!

Towards the end of January an independent panel of judges, the Office of Public Interest Counsel, and the EPA all recommended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deny the proposed Las Brisas petroleum-coke burning plant an air permit, based on its multiple deficiencies and clear violations of the Clean Air Act. The Perry-appointed commissioners approved it anyways. According to its own permit, Las Brisas will emit 220 pounds of mercury, 100 pounds of lead, 8,096 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and 1,767 tons of particulate matter on a yearly basis.

Communities in Corpus Christi are left with few options: the ultimate authority of the EPA, and the leadership of their elected officials.

“This is my hometown, and I love it,” Rebecca Lyons, a graduating honors student at TAMU Corpus Christi, told Matt Tresaugue of the Houston Chronicleback in January, “But I don’t want to raise a family here because of the health risks…There has to be a better way.”

After hundreds of letters, petitions, and phone calls made to the EPA, Corpus Christi residents are taking their fight to the online world. Join us!

Take Action Online!

Copy and paste this status and video to the EPA’s Facebook pages!

Corpus Christi doesn’t want Las Brisas. Stop the air permit now! http://bit.ly/merA7n

EPA’s Facebook Page: http://on.fb.me/X4FYe

EPA Region 6 Facebook Page: http://on.fb.me/lBXW9C

Administrator Lisa Jackson’s Facebook Page: http://on.fb.me/130rQ6

Are you on Twitter? Tweet with us!

@epaGOV @lisapjackson I want clean air! Stop the Las Brisas air permit in Corpus Christi, TX! http://bit.ly/merA7n

Ready to go the distance? Ask your elected officials if they support responsible growth, or Las Brisas…Copy and paste this to their Facebook pages:

I’m a voting constituent, and I don’t want Las Brisas. Do you? http://bit.ly/merA7n

US House Rep Blake Farenthold: http://on.fb.me/f2XnkP

State Rep Connie Scott: http://on.fb.me/jj0qJv

State Rep Todd Hunter: http://on.fb.me/mpSG5d

Mayor Joe Adame: http://on.fb.me/km137a

State Senator Judith Zaffirini: http://on.fb.me/lbxOW5

State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa does not have a Facebook page. Send his office an email instead by scrolling down here.


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There’s Something in the Dirt in Texas

“What I don’t understand is why Texas always has to take care of everybody else’s crap,” says Kenny Ahlrich, a cotton and milo farmer in Robstown, Texas. We’re riding his pickup truck along the perimeter of his property, which happens to be right next to U.S. Ecology, a hazardous waste treatment and disposal plant.

Kenny and Virginia Ahlrich

A known rabbler-rouser in Corpus Christi, Carolyn Moon, had written an email to a group of activists about her visit a few days before: “I was out there for a half an hour and started to cough. A big black cloud of particulate matter puffed into the air while I was watching, and black smoke was coming out of the processing building. Virginia Ahlrich called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s 800 number, but it didn’t sound like they were interested, and they didn’t give her an incident number.”

As U.S. Ecology undergoes a permit modification with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the public is wondering just how many incidents there have to be before a toxic waste processing facility becomes a danger to the public. The dump has been there since 1973. The Ahlriches started farming there at the end of that decade. The tap water is undrinkable, and Kenny has been treated for heavy metal poisoning multiple times.

The facility has had multiple incidents, only some of which have gone recorded. Huge plumes of dirt from the facility have flown up and been dispersed for years. And in this part of the Texas, the wind can really blow.

As we ride around the property, Kenny Ahlrich shows me pictures of dirt falling from dump trucks that passed by his property years ago.

We drive by a large, damp spot, caused by uncontrolled drainage from the site. The farmer who plows that land had to go around it. Growing cotton in toxic soil doesn’t sound particularly appealing to him.

As US Ecology undergoes a permit modification, citizens in the area have become increasingly aware of the problems associated with the facility, and are turning out for hearings and passing the word along to their neighbors. When it comes to protecting public health, they’re not going to leave it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do the right thing.

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ALERT: Chisum Would Gut TCEQ Process

Folks, we have been focusing on fighting Chisum’s amendments to the TCEQ Sunset Bill. But Chisum has another trick up his sleeve- the amendment is being introduced as a stand-alone bill, HB 3251.

This is the bill that eliminates the opportunity for a contested case hearing on any amendment to an air pollution permit held by an electric generating facility (read: coal-fired power plant) to implement new controls on hazardous air pollutants such as mercury and toxics (hazardous air pollutants or HAPs are covered under Section 112 of the federal Clean Air Act).

The contested case opportunity is replaced with what essentially is a public meeting (called public “hearing” in the bill but this is really more akin to what we know in Texas as a public meeting) and public comment period – basically a meaningless public venting process.

No “affected person” status, no referral of a case to the State Office of Hearing Examiners for a quasi-judicial proceeding before an administrative law judge, no discovery, no cross-examination of witnesses, no burden of proof on the applicant, no leverage to force an applicant to the negotiating table to try to greater reductions in the emissions of hazardous air pollutants than the applicant and TCEQ have already agreed to (not likely to be as protective as what citizen groups would demand).

Call your State Representative! Find them here.

Sample Script:

“Hi my name is ____ and I’d like to leave a message for Representative _____. I strongly oppose House Bill 3251. It eliminates the contested case process when industry applies for a permit, which means that the people don’t have any role in the decisionmaking process. Please ask Representative ____ to oppose HB 3251. Thanks.”

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Thanks, Mayor Parker!

The Mayor of Houston Requests the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Require Environmental Impact Statement from White Stallion Coal Plant

 Mayor Parker Concerned about Proposed Coal Plant Impacts on Houston Air Quality, Coastal Wetlands, and Lower Colorado River

(Houston, Texas)   Mayor Annise D. Parker sent a letter last week to the Colonel in charge of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District office requesting the Corps require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from the company behind the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant planned on Matagorda Bay southeast of Houston.

Mayor Parker cited concerns about air pollution:

I am concerned that the proposed White Stallion Energy Center (White Stallion) located just 20 miles outside the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria non-attainment region will put my city at risk for additional bad air days and will put at risk the investment made by industries within this area to clean up our air.  Houston’s industries have put time and money into reducing our air pollution.  Allowing such a large new source of nitrogen oxide (which is a key component of ozone), mercury, dioxin, sulfur dioxide, and lead from White Stallion to be emitted so closely to this should be examined through the EIS process.

 Prior to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) permitting the White Stallion plant in September, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned the TCEQ that the White Stallion permit did not adequately address how it ‘would not cause or contribute to violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone.’  Mayor Parker bases her concerns on the EPA guidance to TCEQ.

“Houston is a severe ozone nonattainment area with one of the worst smog problems in the nation,” said Dr. Neil Carman, chemist and Sierra Club Clean Air Program Director.  “The truth is that without another source of pollution, Houston is already off to a roaring start to the 2011 ozone season with seven bad air days already through April 24.  Mayor Parker’s concerns are well-founded.”

Houston Mayor Parker also expressed concern that:

  1.  White Stallion project, if built, would dredge and fill wetlands needed for protecting coastal communities from hurricane storm surges;  and,
  2. Planned multiple, daily coal barge trips would require dredging and widening the sensitive lower Colorado and would likely ‘erode the unprotected shoreline, and eventually destroy recreational and subsistence fishing.

“We appreciate that Mayor Parker has taken this vital action to protect Houston air quality and the coastal wetlands environment from significant, proposed degradation by White Stallion coal plant,” said Lydia Avila with Sierra Club.  “The Army Corps will take the next step and the EIS will confirm our belief that the proposed White Stallion coal plant is not in the best interests of individuals, businesses, or the environment.  White Stallion should never be built.”

The EIS process is a provision of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers to integrate environmental values into decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of proposed actions and reasonable alternatives.

Beside this EIS, White Stallion project would also have to obtain a water contract from the LCRA before it could operate.

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