Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Every Friday, the Daily Texan editorial board will publish a selection of tweets and online comments, along with direct submissions from readers. Our intention is to continue the tradition of the Firing Line, a column first started in the Texan in 1909, in which readers share their opinions “concerning any matter of general interest they choose.” Just like in 1909, the Texan “will never express its approval or disapproval of opinions given under the [Firing Line] header.” In other words, take your shot.

An environmental agency in name only

I recently read your article “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should protect the atmosphere, too,” and was angered to realize Texas was the only state to refuse to comply with federal regulation of greenhouse gases and that the commission dedicated to the environment really has no interest in the environment over economic benefits.

The issue of politicians versus scientists seems to be a critical issue in this situation. Many times informed decisions are not made due to the fact that policy makers and scientists do not work together. The members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality blatantly dispute the serious issue of rising global climate due to anthropogenic factors, especially green house gas emissions. If these members would take the time to work with scientists and understands the dangers and potential ways to improve them, they would seemingly save money they are worried about spending on lawsuits, and could use it to benefit our state and overall the globe.

The fact that atmosphere is a public resource that is so crucial to everyone’s health all around the world makes me believe new leaders should definitely be chosen. Although choosing new leaders will not magically solve our massive climate problem, it would be one step forward by getting someone on the commission who actually supports the effort for environmental change.

—Elise Bentley, Austin resident

Atmospheric protection also needed for its effect on water

I recently read with interest the article “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should protect the atmosphere, too.” I appreciate that The Daily Texan can see the blatant issue with the commission’s disregard for the need to protect the atmosphere. I would like to expand on the fact that if the commssion’s true goal was to protect state waters, than they would also be worried about protecting the atmosphere. The level of acidity in the ocean is rising rapidly, and a huge part of that is because of the current state of the atmosphere. The ocean is absorbing approximately a quarter of the CO2 that has been released into the atmosphere each year. This absorption is causing the acidity level of the ocean to rise. Not only is creating issues with seawater, but has a huge impact on biodiversity, particularly on shellfish. Not only is not protecting the atmosphere causing problems with protecting state waters but is also contributing to the major issue we are having with decline in marine biodiversity. Society should take it upon themselves to stop, if not try to reverse these problems, and this article is a great effort to make people aware of the problems at hand.

—Katie Crawford, Austin resident

UT students can make a difference for the environment

The article “Austinites Should Fight for Efficient Energy,” written by Travis Knoll, recently caught my attention as I’ve been curious about local efforts in reducing carbon emissions and living a ‘green’ lifestyle. Knoll sums up Austin’s role in addressing climate change through energy efficiency by reminding readers that Austin ranks sixth in the nation due to the green-friendly building codes enforced. Austin already has the plastic bag ban, which is an inspirational start for change.

As a current student in the course “Humans and a Changing Ocean,” I am exposed to many of the major issues facing our planet such as climate change, ocean acidification, and a loss of biodiversity. Human impact on the environment is starting to take its toll as we wait around for something major to happen; it is evident that we’ve already started some huge changes such as temperatures rising due to the rate of the greenhouse gases we are emitting. It is encouraging to see UT’s newspaper posting opinion articles such as this, and I hope to see more attention drawn to the student’s role in climate change in the future. The time is undeniably now to start shifting the way we approach these issues, and Austin is a great place to start. More awareness needs to be brought to the topic of climate change and it’d be great to see the Daily Texan encouraging students to get involved by posting informative articles, in addition to the local and individual changes our generation can make. I enjoyed the different perspectives of the three speakers as it gave a well-rounded view. The closing statement of the article stated that it would take the effort of not only our generation, but the older generation that played a role in emissions as well. I feel that the UT student body and our generation in general is capable of making some major changes if we can get people interested and properly informed on the topic at hand.

—Carly Shiell, UT student

Research stands up to scrutiny

In this space, Travis Knoll [“Potter, other UT professors should peer-review abortion research before they politicize it”] has suggested that my testimony, both on the stand and in the declarations I submitted to the court in Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Service v. Abbot, No. 1:13-cv-862-LY, was rushed and not subject to any sort of review, and that its scientific rigor was compromised by haste and political objectives. It does not appear, however, that Mr. Knoll has read the declarations and their accompanying exhibits, or the transcript of my testimony, and he certainly made no independent attempt to evaluate their rigor and credibility.  

While the analysis performed by me and my colleagues on the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), reflected in the initial declaration I submitted on Oct. 1, was prepared in a relatively short amount of time, we had the advantage of being able to draw on research that we have been conducting over the past two years. During this time, we have collected information from both providers and recipients of abortion care throughout the state. We also had a team made up of three Ph.D.’s, one M.D. and five M.A. researchers working on the analysis. Moreover, the analysis we carried out was limited in scope so that it could be carefully completed during the time that we had available.  

The original declaration was, in fact, subject to a form of peer review within the legal system. The defendants submitted a declaration in their response filed on Oct. 15 that was prepared by Dr. Peter Uhlenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. In his declaration, Dr. Uhlenberg commented on and reviewed our declaration. We then had three days in which to prepare and file a rebuttal declaration addressing the concerns raised by Dr. Uhlenberg and other declarations filed as part of the defendants’ response. All of these documents are publically available on the court’s web site. Our declaration, Dr. Uhlenberg’s declaration, and our rebuttal declaration have been posted on the TxPEP web site. The issues of academic peer review and the scientific credibility of the investigators are addressed explicitly in the rebuttal declaration. In this document, we also provided a detailed elaboration of the methods used, and the assumptions made, in arriving at our estimates of the shortfall in provider capacity. I encourage anyone concerned with the objectivity and integrity of our analysis to read the original declaration, the Uhlenberg critique and the rebuttal: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/orgs/txpep/research-briefs.php.

 —Joseph Potter, sociology professor at UT-Austin

Pop quiz: Is the atmosphere a public resource that we all have the right to use? If you answered yes, congratulations, we think you’re absolutely right. If you answered no, you might work for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

As reported in the Texas Tribune on October 11, the commission, the state environmental agency charged with promoting “clean air, clean water and safe management of waste” in Texas, is currently appealing a court ruling that actually went in its favor. In 2011, a group of environmentally-conscious kids called on the commission to institute more rigorous greenhouse gas regulations. The commission declined, and the kids’ parents sued on their behalf, arguing that the atmosphere was a shared public resource and the government was legally required to protect it for public use under the public trust doctrine. 

The case was seemingly closed when Travis County District Judge Gisela Triana ruled that while the state of Texas did indeed have a responsibility to protect “all natural resources of the state including the air and atmosphere,” it was up to commission to decide whether to enact specific regulations related to greenhouse gases. 

The commission appealed the ruling, demanding that the Third Court of Appeals vacate Triana’s opinion that the state’s environmental agency is required to protect the atmosphere.

According to the commission, its responsibility to protect natural resources was “exclusively limited to the conservation of the State’s waters,” and that it “was merely empowered, but not required, to adopt a rule to control air contaminants related to climate change.” Finally, the commission argued that the public trust doctrine Triana cited was “not central to the outcome of this case” and as such was outside the court’s jurisdiction.

“The scope of this doctrine is a very important issue which deserves to be fully vetted, not decided in a case that turns wholly on an issue of administrative procedure,” commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow wrote in an email to The Daily Texan editorial board.

In other words, though the commission agrees with Triana’s judgement that it shouldn’t have to regulate greenhouse gases when petitioned by private citizens, it disagrees with her judgment that the the public trust doctrine requires it to protect Texas’ atmosphere. We agree with the commission that further litigation is needed to clarify the issue. But that’s where we stop agreeing, because if recent history has shown us anything, it’s to be suspicious of the commission’s intentions when it comes to protecting the environment. 

The commission is headed by three commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. Only two of those seats are currently filled, by Texas A&M biological and agricultural engineering professor Bryan Shaw — commission’s chairman — and former Perry adviser Toby Baker.

It’s no great secret that the agency prioritizes economic interests at least as much as environmental protection, if not more. Unlike the “out-of-control and out-of-line EPA,” Perry said in 2012, “Texas will continue to pursue common sense policies that balance the priorities of protecting the environment and allowing our industries to thrive.”

Former TCEQ commissioner Larry Soward told the Texas Observer in 2010, “The problem with some of my colleagues’ balancing is they always balance it toward economic development and don’t let the environment have an equal consideration.” Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, had a harsher assessment, calling the commission “a lapdog for polluters.”

The commission’s leadership has done little to dispel these claims.

Under Perry and George W. Bush before him, the commission has consistently resisted federal EPA regulations, like a 2011 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that current commission chairman Shaw condemned in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.

 “Like so many of the EPA’s proposed rules — extreme tightening of ozone limits, global warming control schemes, attempts to nullify Texas’ very successful flexible permitting program — this rule seems not so much intended to improve the environment as to impose unnecessary, expensive federal controls on industry and increase the costs of energy to consumers,” Shaw wrote.

In 2010, in response to the EPA’s demand that the commission reform its industry-friendly emissions regulations, Shaw and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote a letter declaring that “Texas has neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring, or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Texas was the only state to refuse to comply with the federal regulation of greenhouse gases.

Nowhere in the United States are effective emission regulations more sorely needed than in Texas, the state with by far the nation’s highest greenhouse gas emissions. If Texas was its own country, its emission levels would rank 21st in the world.

Greenhouse gas emissions are almost universally accepted as a major cause of global climate change, and as the problem worsens it is absolutely necessary to limit those emissions as much as possible. The state of Texas isn’t just doing a poor job of limiting them — it’s actively resisting doing so at all, even when that means appealing court rulings that fall in its favor because they also affirm its responsibility to protect the atmosphere. That must change, and if Texas’ current leadership continues to encourage such environmental negligence, then it’s time for new leadership.

Every day, labs in the University of Texas System produce low-level radioactive waste in the course of medical procedures and scientific research. Despite what the comic books would have you believe, this radioactive waste isn’t fluorescent green glowing sludge. Most of the waste the UT System produces consists of objects like gloves, protective clothing and laboratory glassware that have been exposed to radiation during routine research or medical protocols. Roughly 90 percent of this low-level radioactive waste can be safely contained on-site at the UT System labs that produce them. But what happens to the other 10 percent of toxic trash raises concerns.

In 1980, the federal Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) Policy Act made each state responsible for disposing of all the LLRW produced within its borders. Only four LLRW disposal facilities, which dispose of waste by burying it in controlled shallow land, exist in the U.S. All 50 states depend on these four facilities to dispose of their radioactive waste, and until 2008, Texas disposed of its LLRW in South Carolina. But when that facility closed its doors, Texas was forced to look into other options.

Enter Waste Control Specialists LLC, the private vendors who recently built a new disposal facility in Andrews County in West Texas. Licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and established as part of a “compact” with the state of Vermont, the facility accepts waste from Texas, Vermont and the federal government. It accepted its first shipments of radioactive waste last April. According to Chuck McDonald, a spokesperson for Waste Control Specialists, both the UT and A&M Systems have requested direct contracts with WCS. In a Sept. 26 meeting of the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation, he testified that these contracts were about to be finalized. (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid intern in State Senator Wendy Davis’s office, but these opinions are my own and not hers or her staff’s.)

Disposing of LLRW is expensive, but luckily the UT System produces very little of it — only 10 to 20 drums per year. Under contracts that fix the prices charged by WCS, the approximate cost to dispose of one 55-gallon drum of waste material is $2,000, meaning that the UT System will spend no more than $40,000 dollars on LLRW disposal each year. The problem with WCS isn’t financial — it’s environmental.

WCS is run by Dallas businessman Harold Simmons, who persuaded the Commission to allow him to put up stock of Titanium Metals Corporation, a company he owns, as security on the facility. So if anything monumental goes wrong with the Andrews facility, stock in WCS’s sister company will be given to the state for damages. As the Texas Observer reported, radioactive waste disposal facilities are typically secured with a bond, a letter of credit or insurance. Securing one with stocks, let alone stocks so strongly tied to the operator of the facility, is near unheard of. It’s as if Simmons convinced a bank to give him a line of credit by using another line of credit as collateral. It just doesn’t make sense.

In the same Sept. 26 committee meeting, State Representative Lon Burnam interrogated McDonald about whether or not the disposal routes used by WCS to transport the waste met federal and state safety standards. McDonalds responded that he could not speak to that specifically because he was not aware of the routes. McDonald also said that WCS ensures the financial stability of WCS by moving around the stocks in the security every single day. Maybe that’s worked so far to keep the company financially secure, but that’s not the point. The point is that the state agency that’s supposed to be regulating WCS is allowing it to secure the high-risk venture with stock in a sister company. That hardly seems like regulation at all. And if the Commission can’t stand up to Simmons on something as blatantly fishy as securing his company with stock in his other company, then how will they stand up to him on the more serious issues that have been raised about the facility’s environmental impact — issues like ground water contamination and safe transportation of LLRW? It’s not hard to imagine that they won’t.

Wright is Plan II and biology junior from San Antonio.

A man sits on a rock Sunday at Barton Springs. The Austin City Council decided on Thursday to turn down a plan for a new sewage treatment plant which some critics believe could potentially pollute Barton Springs.

Photo Credit: Ricky Llamas | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council voted unanimously against a new sewage treatment plant Thursday that some claim could pollute Barton Springs and the drinking water of 50,000 to 60,000 people.

The project, a 130-acre area of land to be used for sewage treatment of a new housing subdivision, would be the first of its kind to be built directly over the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone ­— which includes features such as caves and small holes through which water travels. However, project managers claim they have mapped out features in the land and worked around them.

The city of Austin manages 23,577 acres in the recharge zone area for conservation purposes. The decision means the city will have to work with the applicants to establish different conditions or go before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Nov. 14 to contest the project’s application for a permit.

The commission regulates development activities that can affect the environment in Texas, but has been accused by critics of pandering to developers.

After listening to testimony from environmental representatives and concerned citizens, Sheryl Cole, Austin Mayor Pro Tem, called for a vote to reject the city of Austin’s current settlement.

“The risks of establishing bad precedent if we do not continue [fighting this kind of development] are too great,” she said. “I’m going to move to deny the settlement and for staff to continue with litigation.”

Jeremiah Ventures L.P., the applicant, intends to use the land to dispose of 330,000 gallons of wastewater daily by spraying it on Bermuda grass and soil. The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the Lower Colorado River Authority joined the city of Austin in opposition, but withdrew their protests earlier this year.

John Dupnik, assistant general manager of the Barton Springs/Edwards Conservation District, said the district withdrew its opposition after Jeremiah Ventures agreed to take precautions to preserve the critical environmental features in the area.

Lauren Ross, a researcher hired by the Save Our Springs Alliance to prepare a report on the impact of the project, said she does not believe taking these precautions is enough.

“When the spray irrigation happens where there’s not enough soil you’re going to have the less than completely treated wastewater moving down into the aquifer and moving towards Barton Springs,” Ross said.

Ross said similar projects in the area have led to increases in waste products like nitrate in downstream areas. Increases in nitrates can lead to algal blooms and lower levels of dissolved oxygen. In turn, she said, endangered species such as the Barton Springs salamander can be affected.

For this reason, opponents said, allowing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to give Jeremiah Ventures a permit without a fight would be a mistake.

Save Our Springs officials said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is not likely to be sympathetic to this case. Roy Waley, vice-chair of the Sierra Club’s Austin regional group, said the state commission isn’t the end of the road.

“We don’t expect to get a good deal at TCEQ,” he said. “But we do expect to go to an administrative law judge and have science on our side.”