May 29, 2008
We should all have such critics

You'd think a story headlined Critics question White's motives for environmental push would feature some criticism of Mayor White. This is what you got:

In his third and last term, White has backed up his eco-friendly rhetoric by purchasing wind-powered electricity, weatherizing old homes and adding hybrids to the city fleet.

White also has used the bully pulpit to confront the chemical industry over its emissions of cancer-causing air pollutants, such as benzene. All of which has earned high marks from environmental groups and some business leaders.

"To me it's a public health issue and also an ethical issue of stewardship of our national resources," White says.

Some critics, however, suggest White has a different goal in mind: furthering his political career, possibly with a run for governor in 2010. Despite all the mayor's talk about global warming and green space, it is easy to point out that the city's curbside recycling program does not even reach every house or apartment.


White said last week that he planned to challenge the permits of nearby plants to force the TCEQ to limit the levels of benzene. He previously had threatened to fine plants outside Houston up to $2,000 a day for emitting the pollutant into the city's air.

White's saber-rattling has been more about political points than true progress, say lawyers for some of the chemical companies, who refused to be named because of business pending before the city. But environmentalists and public officials say he has brought urgent, much-needed attention to the issue.

"It had not really been one of the top priorities of prior mayors," Councilwoman Sue Lovell says.

"Industry, the regulatory agencies and the Legislature are now watching him closely," says Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer. "He has their attention."


White has fought battles, too. He pushed through an ordinance that requires developers to set aside funds for open space. He tightened the energy code for commercial buildings, and plans to do the same for residential homes.

But many residents have complained that the mayor has neglected a basic environmental precept: recycling. The service is available to only 162,000 homes, though 50,000 will be added in the next budget year. A quarter of a million homes are on the waiting list.

White acknowledges that the city is behind with recycling.

But he resists implementing citywide recycling simply because it looks good. Recycling trucks use gas, and some neighborhoods that do get the service barely participate. So he's attacked the problem by pulling out the largest recyclable from the city's trash cans -- wood waste -- and creating a program to recycle it. The program begins in the fall.

But the benzene battles may be the crux of White's environmental legacy.

Politically speaking, White is in a seemingly no-lose situation: He either gets emissions cut and takes the credit, or blames industry for unhealthy levels of air toxics. But industry lawyers say his position makes the city's air seem worse than it is.

For example, the city's benzene plan aims to lower the chemical's concentration to a level that could cause one additional cancer case per one million people. That's 10 times stricter than the state's benzene goal and a level that the entire city exceeds, not just in areas by the big plants.

White's approach "tended to be putting all the blame on industry," says John Manlove, former mayor of Pasadena, home to several large chemical plants and refineries. Most benzene and smog-forming pollutants come from automobile tailpipes, so "it's not fair" to concentrate on smokestacks.

Still, Manlove and others doubt the air pollution battles will hurt White should he run for higher office in a state that emits more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than California and Pennsylvania combined.

Boy, pretty harsh, huh? Maybe this is why they say that good policies make for good politics.

I don't know if this was a case of the headline writers having their own take on things, or if the story would have been more substantive about the alleged criticism if more than one critic had been willing to be named. Either way, I figure Mayor White isn't too unhappy with the result.

Putting the peculiarities of the story aside, the substance of the criticism is pretty weak. I consider myself a passionate supporter of curbside recycling, but given the abysmal participation rates, I can't see justifying an expansion of the program, especially given the cost of running the pickup vehicles. I'd love to see the city do some kind of PR campaign aimed at boosting the curbside recycling numbers, but that's no small undertaking, and if such a thing isn't in the works right now, I see no point in complaining about it. It's pretty small potatoes in context of the Mayor's overall record on environmental issues - it's not like recycling and harassing chemical plants were his only options, after all.

As far as Manlove's complaint about the poor plants being singled out, I say cry me a river. How many years have we been fighting this battle, and how many ways have the polluters found to stall, obfuscate, and deny the issue? Sure, automotive emissions are a chunk of the problem, but what exactly would you have the Mayor do about that? Focusing on the plants is something the Mayor can do something about, and so he is. Disagree with the action he's taking if you want, but I see this particular argument as little more than a distraction. KUHF has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 29, 2008 to Local politics

** I consider myself a passionate supporter of curbside recycling, but given the abysmal participation rates, I can't see justifying an expansion of the program, especially given the cost of running the pickup vehicles. I'd love to see the city do some kind of PR campaign aimed at boosting the curbside recycling numbers, but that's no small undertaking, **

It's no small undertaking, but it's the sort of thing that can be undertaken if one is serious about recycling and green issues.

Leaders can promote the public good and public virtue, and can certainly propose to expand recycling programs into something useful IF those leaders feel like expending the political capital and are passionate about the matter.

Or, if leaders feel like building downtown parks largely for affluent people and engaging in trinket governance, they can expend political capital on those things.

Nobody should be surprised, however, if non-acolytes notice that the Great Green Hope actually comes up a bit short on recycling (where he might actually have some success -- versus the longshot odds of taking on the state).

Posted by: Kevin Whited on May 29, 2008 10:28 AM

Nice to see you post a comment with actual substance in it (such as it is) instead of your usual copyeditor-wannabe schtick.

I know you blog all the time about how important recycling is and what the Mayor should be doing RIGHT NOW about it so I won't bother to ask you about that, but I am curious about one thing: Have you actually been to Discovery Green, or is your opinion of it entirely a product of your complete disdain of everything related to Mayor White?

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 29, 2008 5:11 PM
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)