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Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

County files lawsuit over Watson Grinding explosion

As well they should.

Harris County and state officials entered the fray Thursday, bringing civil charges against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in the explosion that left two dead and damaged 450 structures last week in west Houston.

The county has asked a judge to impose an immediate halt on all activity at the company until the site and surrounding area are deemed safe from fires and explosions. Officials also want a detailed inventory of materials on the premises as well as all air, water and soil samples and studies. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also a party to the suit, as required by law.

[…]

The county lawsuit says Watson violated environmental, regulatory, nuisance and common law following the explosion involving “ultra-hazardous chemicals” Friday at its Gessner facility. It says the company violated the Clean Air Act by exposing the public to unauthorized emissions, imperiling public health, general welfare, physical property, basic air resources and visibility. The county also states Watson created a public nuisance and violated Texas code by failing to report dangerous emissions and through unauthorized outdoor burning and air pollution.

Watson discharged air pollutants into the atmosphere including propylene and byproducts of combustion when a 2,000 gallon tank exploded, the lawsuit says.

“Flying glass and debris injured many residents while they slept,” court documents say. “As a result of the blast, many nearby residents cannot occupy their damaged homes while others now live in damaged structures.”

As of Thursday, the emission event had not been reported to the TCEQ or to Harris County Pollution Control, according to the county.

“Watson’s use of propylene was an ultra-hazardous activity and the company failed to exercise its duty of care to protect the public,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a draft of a news release, “particularly when the facility is located in a neighborhood.”

The lawsuit says Watson officials were negligent in failing to maintain equipment and properly store chemicals. Its failure to properly train, supervise and monitor employees endangered lives and damaged property, according to a draft copy.

“Due to the high degree of risk involved it Watson’s conduct, Watson’s actual and subjective constructive awareness of this risk, the fact that Watson had been made aware of the probability and extent of the potential harm that could result from engaging in such conduct on numerous occasions by numerous governmental regulatory authorities, Watson continued to operate in a reckless manner demonstrating a conscious indifference to welfare and safety of others, including employees and residents of Harris County,” the suit says.

The county will seek exemplary damages for gross negligence, according to documents.

See here for the background. Other lawsuits are being filed as well; the more, the merrier, I say. Part of this, as the County Attorney notes, is to ensure that all evidence is preserved. I’m sure we’ll find out that there were even more problems at this place than firsts reported. Harris County has invested more resources in environmental protection, and there may need to be more beyond that. For now, let’s do all we can to figure this one out, and hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions.

How many explosions is too many explosions?

Unfortunately, we’re on track to find out.

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar to Houston residents.

Explosions, flames reaching into the sky, plumes of black smoke, calls to shelter in place, evacuations, injuries and deaths.

The explosion early Friday morning at a manufacturing plant was the latest deadly reminder of the potential danger posed by hazardous material facilities in the Houston area.

In 2019, there were at least five major chemical incidents in Southeast Texas.

[…]

The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation found there was a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. The investigation found many facilities posed serious threats to the public but were unknown to most neighbors and largely unpoliced by government at all levels.

In November, the Trump administration rolled back a number of chemical safety regulations created in response to the 2013 West Fertilizer explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 200. A coalition of environmental groups sued to stop the rollback.

With those regulations off the books, companies will not have to complete third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident. Companies also will not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities either.

While the federal government weakened regulations, Harris County has taken a more aggressive stand with the petrochemical industry in recent months.  The county brought civil lawsuits and criminal charges to multiple chemical companies after incidents in 2019. This has led to a race to the courts as the state and the county fight over taking the lead in penalizing polluters.

I was awake and getting dressed when that explosion happened. It was loud enough that I thought it was something that happened in my house, and I’m a long way from the 4500 block of Gessner. All things considered, we’re damn lucky there weren’t more casualties.

The story goes on to list the other recent disasters, a rogues’ gallery that includes the likes of Intercontinental Terminal Company, KMCO, and the Exxon Mobil plant in Baytown. You can now add Watson Grinding & Manufacturing to that list. It’s just a matter of time before that list grows again.

And look, we all know the stakes of the 2020 election, but this list and the two parties’ responses to it are the stakes of every election. The Republicans roll back regulations that are in place to prevent and mitigate disasters, to hold the negligent companies responsible, and to inform the public of dangers in their midst. The Democrats support and enforce such regulations, and seek to make sure the people know about what’s out there. We know what we’re fighting for this year. Put “fewer giant explosions caused by under-regulated and uninspected facilities that contain all kinds of dangerous materials” high on the list of things we should be fighting for in 2022 and beyond.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

Revitalizing recycling

This is encouraging.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini

On Monday, bipartisan legislation designed to help offset the sapped demand for recyclables abroad cleared a final legislative hurdle at the Texas Capitol.

Senate Bill 649, which passed the Senate last month on a 21-10 vote, cleared the Texas House on an informal voice vote. The bill aims to increase the number of Texas plastics and paper manufacturers using recyclables as industrial feedstock to produce consumer and other products.

It will require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office to figure out how best to increase demand for recyclable materials among the manufacturing industry, identify the quantity and type of recyclables cities and industrial sources are currently collecting and estimate how much of it isn’t currently being reclaimed. The bill also calls for the development of a statewide campaign to educate the public about the economic benefits of the recycling industry and how to properly recycle.

[…]

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who authored the bill, said in a statement that the legislation is not only about propping up the recycling industry but spurring business growth. The Laredo Democrat noted the results of a recent economic impact study that discovered the recycling industry has a meaningful economic footprint in the state.

We’ve discussed some of the challenges faced by the recycling business at this time. It’s going to take building up our domestic infrastructure for recycling to get things where they need to be. I don’t know how much this bill would do, and of course it still has to pass the House and get signed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

State sues over Deer Park fire

Too big to ignore.

Late Friday, the state of Texas sued Intercontinental Terminals — the Houston-based company whose petrochemical storage facility in the suburb of Deer Park caught fire last weekend and burned for days, sending a dramatic plume of black smoke over the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleges that air pollution released during the fire is a violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

It seeks a permanent injunction and civil penalties that “could exceed $100,000.”

“The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

Were you able to read that statement with a straight face? Then read this.

The TCEQ, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s environment and public health, has been criticized for letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist. An analysis of its enforcement record by an environmental nonprofit found that the agency imposed penalties on violators in just 3 percent of cases. ITC appears to have benefitted from the lax enforcement. In 2016, for instance, the company released more than 1,500 pounds of benzene — a carcinogenic chemical — for over five days and failed to notify the state agency within the mandated 24-hour deadline. The fine: roughly $4,000.

I’m just saying. Maybe some day when there aren’t new fires breaking out every time an old fire gets put out, we can get to the bottom of what happened here. And then sue these assholes out of existence. More broadly, maybe we can demand that our state take enforcement of environmental regulations seriously. If they had done so before, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position now. The Chron has more.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

Texas cities will soon get millions of dollars to help clean up air quality, but Houston officials say the plan for distributing all that money isn’t fair.

The money is coming from a settlement in the Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating scandal. Local governments will be able to use the money to reduce emissions from their vehicles and other equipment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to give the biggest chunk of the money – more than $73 million – to the San Antonio area, mainly because that city is closer than others to getting in line with federal pollution rules it’s currently violating.

Under the state’s plan, the Houston area, which has worse air quality, would get about $27 million.

The City of Houston says about a quarter of the cheating VW cars that were in Texas were driving in the Houston region.

“So we deserve at least a quarter of those funds, because we’re the ones that were harmed,” said Kris Banks, a government relations assistant with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Turner expressed his disenchantment with the amount allocated to Houston in a press release; you can see all of the city’s documentation on the matter here. The full TCEQ plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust is here, or you can save yourself some time and read the Texas Vox summary of it. The TCEQ is still accepting feedback on the draft plan through October 8, so send them an email at [email protected] if you have comments. The Rivard Report has more.

Hempstead landfill officially dead

Hooray!

Waller County leaders and residents on Monday cheered a Georgia company’s decision to abandon plans for a 250-acre acre landfill near Hempstead, saying they look forward to moving beyond an environmental fight that has dominated public debate for seven years.

Green Group Holdings LLC said in a news release Monday that it was dropping its remaining court appeals and withdrawing any pending requests for approval, citing public opposition and the prospect of a court battle that could go on and on.

“When I looked at the length of time that it would take to go through the permitting process if we were even successful in court and just the level of opposition and divisiveness this has caused in the local community, I just came to the conclusion that we should dismiss the appeals that are pending in the court system and withdraw any other efforts on our part to continue to permit and operate a landfill on this property,” said David Green, the company’s CEO, in a phone interview.

The move ends a bitter fight over the landfill proposal — one that led to a court verdict that past county commissioners failed to show transparency, the ouster of commissioners who backed the project, a well-funded movement to oppose the plan and numerous court rulings blocking the plan.

[…]

Green said the company would still pursue other potential locations for the landfill. He said he believes a solid waste disposal site is needed in Texas because of its expanding population and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

“I hope and really do feel like this facility could’ve been designed and operated safely, but this has been such a fatiguing and expensive journey for all of the participants,” Green said. “It’s time to put this behind us, so we at Green Group can focus on our other projects that we have.”

Here’s the Green Group press release. It was the recent ruling by a Travis County District Court judge that upheld the denial of a new application by the TCEQ to build the landfill that led to their retreat. They may pursue other opportunities elsewhere in the state, but at least now local communities have a playbook for how to fight back. The rest of us can commit to generating less waste if we want to give communities like Hempstead a hand going forward. No one should be faced with the prospect of having a landfill in their backyard.

TCEQ rejection of Hempstead landfill application upheld

Sweet.

StopHwy6Landfill

A yearslong battle over the construction of a landfill in Hempstead has come to an end for now after a judge ruled in Austin on Friday that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s decision to return the landfill’s application should be affirmed, according to court records.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had already rejected Pintail Landfill’s second application to build, but the company wanted that decision overturned. The trial took place on Thursday in Travis County’s 250th Civil District Court, where Judge Karin Crump the next day issued her ruling.

“It’s another court victory. It’s been a very long fight,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon. “From the beginning we were very clear, that this was absolutely one of the worst spots that you can possibly locate a landfill.”

The landfill, which would be built north of Hempstead off Texas 6 in Waller County, has been opposed for years by community members because they felt it would negatively affect their water supply and economic future. A local group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, has actively worked against the construction of the landfill, raising more than $2 million for the cause through community garage sales and other fundraisers.

See here for the most recent update. You would think this would be over by now, but the judge’s ruling can be appealed, so it ain’t over yet unless Green Group throws in the towel. One hopes this time the message will sink in. Congrats to CALH for the latest victory.

More MUD muddles

Who needs collateral?

When Houston businessman David Lucyk decided to develop land in northeast Harris County, he lined up a bank loan to pay for water pipes, sewers, roads and a stormwater detention pond.

He offered the bank three items as collateral: land his company owned, an ownership stake in a business, and the promise of money in the future – millions of dollars in payments from a municipal utility district, or MUD, that he helped create to finance his project.

If everything had gone as planned, Harris County Municipal Utility District 402 would have sold tax-exempt bonds to reimburse Lucyk’s company for its infrastructure costs, and Lucyk would have used the money to repay the bank.

MUDs are highly popular among Texas developers, who hold enormous sway over how they’re created and benefit greatly from their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and levy property taxes to cover infrastructure costs, as Lucyk was counting on. Those infrastructure costs are ultimately passed on to property owners within the MUD’s boundaries, whose property taxes go to repay the bonds.

Taxpayers’ advocates have questioned the transparency of some MUDs and see them as an increasingly problematic way to pay for infrastructure as local government debt increases, given their sweeping power to sell bonds and raise taxes. What happened with Lucyk and MUD 402 became a case in point when things didn’t work out as planned.

Lucyk’s firm defaulted on the bank loan and filed for bankruptcy. But because part of the collateral he offered the bank was proceeds from the MUD’s forthcoming bond sales, future taxpayers were on the hook for his company’s debts.

Hugh Coleman, a Denton County commissioner and critic of special purpose districts, said the state needs to better protect taxpayers by stopping developers from using future MUD bond proceeds as collateral for bank loans. When things go wrong, banks can sell that collateral.

“It’s like buying credit card debt, except you get to buy it for a developer-run governmental entity and the property owners are on the hook to pay the full amount of the debt,” he said.

It’s one thing for a developer to reach an agreement requiring the MUD to reimburse its infrastructure costs with bond proceeds. But by using that deal as collateral to get a bank loan, Coleman said, it often means a developer enters the project under-collateralized. A chunk of the financial risk of development is transferred from the developer to the taxpayers, he added.

[…]

It’s unclear how often future MUD payments to developers are used as collateral and then bought and sold after a bank loan default.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which along with the legislature creates MUDs at the request of developers, does not track how often those developers go bankrupt.

“TCEQ is not aware of any effects a developer’s bankruptcy has on bonds issued by a district,” said agency spokesman Brian McGovern.

I dunno, that sounds like a nice piece of data to have. I’ll say again, MUDs may have their merits, but I seriously doubt this is the system we’d willingly choose to have if we were designing everything over from scratch. For all the chest-thumping we are subject to by Republican legislators about being zealous watchdogs of taxpayer money, not to mention the fervor to meddle in local affairs, you’d think someone would file a bill to provide more oversight of MUDs. I guess the pander potential is insufficient for that.

Hempstead landfill application denied again

Good.

StopHwy6Landfill

A state commission has denied a new application to build a landfill in Waller County, saying ordinances adopted by the county and the city of Hempstead now prohibit a garbage dump in the area.

A highly charged debate over proposals to build a landfill rising as high as 151 feet above ground has been going on for about five years.

The Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, LLC, has pursued the project, while a local advocacy group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, and current local elected officials oppose it.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last year rejected an original application filed by Green Group, citing an alleged failure of the company to account for how high the water level might get in the area of the proposed Pintail Landfill. The commission returned an appeal of that rejection in the spring, saying it came too late.

The company, meanwhile, went ahead and bought the 723-acre property in June and filed a new application. It reiterated its commitment to meeting required standards and stated a belief that it should be grandfathered in under old laws — before the local ordinances had been adopted to prohibit a landfill at the site, which is north of the city of Hempstead off Texas 6.

But, in a letter dated Thursday, Earl Lott, waste permits director for TCEQ, wrote that the ordinances prevented the agency from granting the new application. For any questions, Lott directed the company to contact its staff attorney.

“We are evaluating all options in light of the recent decision,” said David Green, president of Green Group, in a written statement.

See here for the most recent update, and here for a somewhat hard to read copy of the TCEQ letter. The next step, if there is one, would be legal action to challenge the ordinance. We’ll see what if anything Green Group does.

Still asking for Zika help

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Following reports of the first local mosquito-borne Zika infections in the U.S., Mayor Sylvester Turner is once again calling on the state of Texas and federal government to provide financial assistance to help fight it.

“There are already 14 confirmed cases of Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida,” said Mayor Turner. “I believe it is just a matter of time before Texas is in a similar situation. Cities are the front line of defense in this battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments. It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here.”

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been conducting weekend sweeps of illegal dump sites that can serve as mosquito breeding grounds. To date, 3,433 tons of debris and 29,130 tires have been hauled away at an annual cost of $3.6 million. With some additional state or federal funding, the City could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Last week, the Houston Health Department was awarded $1.5 million by the Centers for Disease Control to use for surveillance, testing and prevention. The City is already in discussion with Harris County on the best way to maximize the use of these dollars.

Houston has documented 12 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infection since the start of the outbreak in Latin America earlier this year. Harris County has confirmed another 12 cases – 11 are travel related and one is an infant with microcephaly born to a mother who contracted the virus while traveling outside the United State. There are a total of 80 confirmed Zika cases in Texas. At this time, there is no evidence the virus has infected mosquito populations in the state.

In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, the City has public service announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Residents are encouraged to follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Wear long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellant containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

This is not the first time Mayor Turner has asked for this help. I doubt the Republican-controlled Congress is any more interested in taking action now than it was then, but it can’t hurt to ask. Better to keep expectations low, though.

Want to know how close you live to a polluter?

There’s an app for that.

More than two million Texans live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility, putting them at risk of exposure to toxic fumes, according to a new app released Wednesday by national environmental groups. The online tool — which includes a searchable map — places about a fifth of the state’s area, and more than 900 Texas schools and 75 medical facilities, in the half-mile range.

The app, created by Earthworks, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance, is searchable by address and overlays the locations of oil and gas facilities and vulnerable populations with cancer and respiratory health risk information. An analysis published with the map also estimates that by 2017, 82 counties in Texas with a population of 4.1 million or more will face an elevated cancer risk.

“This [app] is so important in Texas is because of the political situation,” said Earthworks’ communications director, Alan Septoff. “The state has vowed never to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and there’s no chance the state of Texas is going to act.”

[…]

In June, about a month after the Obama administration announced plans to regulate methane leaks from new oil and gas facilities, the Texas Railroad Commission urged the state’s attorney general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the rules. Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter has previously said the methane regulations “kill the jobs Texans rely on to support their families” and are “unnecessary” and “over-burdensome.”

Septoff said his group hopes both that the tool will be a resource to help folks living close to oil and gas activity understand the health risks they may be facing, as well as a push for the Obama administration to adopt methane regulations for facilities already in operation.

Here’s what the map for Texas looks like. There’s a ton of information on the webpage, with videos to help you use and understand the data. However you feel about regulations, you’re better off having full information available to you. Check it out.

Hempstead landfill application resubmitted

Here we go again.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Georgia-based company on Wednesday announced it had initiated a new application to build a controversial landfill in Waller County, bringing renewed attention to a project that a citizens group and several county commissioners have actively opposed.

Earlier this year, Commissioner John Amsler had described the landfill as “dead” though at the time the proponent, Green Group Holdings LLC, was exploring ways to still bring the project to reality.

On Tuesday, the firm filed the first two parts of an application for construction of the Pintail Landfill with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow confirmed.

The portions submitted deal with whether the land can be used for waste disposal. They will be reviewed to decide whether the application can go forward, Morrow wrote in an email.

[…]

Green Group’s new application follows the rejection last fall by TCEQ of a previous proposal, which found the company had not adequately accounted for how high the water might rise in the area. TCEQ this spring also denied an appeal of that rejection, saying the appeal came too late.

In a news release, Green Group said the company was “confident” its new application would meet “all applicable design and location standards.” The new proposed landfill will be on a smaller portion of the of the original site.

News of the filing concerned Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has actively opposed the proposal, believing that it would negatively impact the area’s water supply and economic vitality.

After first opposing the plans five years ago, the grass-roots group has kept a close eye on the project. Members of the group last month predicted the fight would continue when the company finalized the purchase of a 723-acre parcel where it plans to build the landfill.

“CALH remains strongly opposed to Pintail Landfill,” treasurer Mike McCall said Wednesday on behalf of the group. “We have got a lot of work to do to fairly evaluate that application. … Until that happens we are not going to have any further comment.”

See here and here for the background. On the one hand, there’s no reason to think that Green Group can’t fix the problems that caused their initial application to be rejected. On the other hand, the county government in Waller is unanimously opposed to this project, which wasn’t the case back when it first came to light some years ago. I never have faith in the TCEQ to be on the side of the people, but I do believe that Green Group has a much higher hill to climb this time around. We’ll see how it goes.

Hempstead landfill fight still not over

As with all things, it ain’t over till it’s over.

StopHwy6Landfill

Green Group Holdings recently purchased the 723-acre parcel where the company had planned to build the landfill before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality turned down the project.

The move means the Georgia-based Green Group hasn’t given up on the project, known as the Pintail landfill. David Green, vice president of the company, said it would continue to explore how to move forward.

“The Pintail property has been under option to purchase for a number of years,” Green said in a statement last week. “After much consideration, we have decided to exercise the option and purchase the property.”

Citizens Against the Landfill, a grass-roots group in Hempstead, said the company’s purchase of the land indicated that the 5-year-old fight over the project would continue. The group contends that the landfill would harm the area’s water supply and economic future.

“As much as we hate to admit it, at this point we are convinced that the battle is not over,” the group said in a statement that called for a new round of fundraising.

See here and here for the background. Green Group would have to submit a new application for the permit, so any new attempt to make this happen would begin more or less from the beginning, and would face opposition that has already organized and extracted a settlement from county government stemming from the initial attempt. It would be difficult for them, in other words, but not impossible. Those who do not want to see this landfill get built will need to stay on guard.

Mayor Turner asks for Zika help

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

With members of the local legislative delegation at his side and an illegal tire dump as the backdrop, Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the state of Texas to declare the Zika virus a public health emergency and dedicate funds toward local efforts to fight it.

“Local governments are in a position to do the door-to-door, neighborhood-by-neighborhood hard work necessary to mitigate Zika,” said Mayor Turner. “There is a critical need for help in paying for this massive effort. We have programs already underway and would welcome state help in funding them. Let’s work together to eradicate this threat.”

Mayor Turner is requesting assistance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Solid Waste Disposal Fees Account, which currently has a balance of $130 million. Under changes made by the legislature in 2007, the fund may be used for an immediate response to or remediation of an emergency that involves solid waste.

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been cleaning up illegal dump sites to help reduce mosquito breeding sites and combat the spread of Zika. They have already hauled 3,000 tons of debris and 19,000 tires away. The effort is expected to cost $3.6 million this year. With additional funding, the City of Houston could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Zika is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is found in Houston and southeast Texas. Infection during pregnancy causes microcephaly and other brain malformations in some babies. Infections in adults have been linked to Guillain–Barré syndrome.

The city has launched a multi-pronged approach to fighting the Zika virus. In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, there are also educational announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Now that mosquito season is here, residents need to be vigilant about protecting themselves from being bitten. Follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Dress in long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellent containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

Seems like a reasonable request to me. The state made its own request for assistance to the feds, so fair’s fair. We’ll see how they respond. The Chron and the Press have more.

Houston’s anti-pollution ordinance killed by Supreme Court

Alas.

Bill White

Bill White

In passing two ordinances designed to regulate air pollution, the city of Houston overstepped its authority and illegally subverted state law, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday. The ruling is a victory for a coalition of industrial facilities whose emissions were subject to inspection and possible prosecution by the city.

The case pit the BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of companies including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company, and ConocoPhillips, against the city of Houston, which sought to penalize companies in criminal court when those companies violated state emission guidelines.

Attorneys for the city of Houston argued that the city was simply trying to enforce the standards set out by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, by putting in place a parallel enforcement mechanism that would impose fines on the companies even if the Commission chose not to act.

“If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” attorney Robert Higgason told the justices in September.

In an 8–1 ruling Friday, the justices made it clear that they disagreed – saying that if the Commission chose not to enforce any given law, that did not clear the way for Houston authorities to do so.

“By authorizing criminal prosecution even when the TCEQ determines an administrative or civil remedy—or even no penalty at all—to be the appropriate remedy, the City effectively moots the TCEQ’s discretion and the TCEQ’s authority to select an enforcement mechanism,” Justice Paul Green wrote. “This is impermissible.”

See here and here for the origin story, and here and here for the most recent updates. The Chron story adds more.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson issued a statement saying the court’s decision “will not dampen the city’s efforts” to assist the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with the enforcement of environmental laws. The statement said the city will employ “other legal mechanisms” allowed under state law to monitor and take action against polluters. A spokeswoman said the city hadn’t decided whether to appeal.

Adrian Shelley, executive director of the advocacy group Air Alliance Houston, said the decision was “not the least bit surprising” but dismaying nonetheless.

“It’s pretty in-keeping with both previous judicial decisions and the direction in which our state government is moving,” he said. He cited the state Legislature’s passage of a bill last session that caps the amount local governments can collect through environmental lawsuits, Gov. Greg Abbott’s filing of a brief in support of the industry advocates in this case, and a prior legal case that made its way to the Texas Supreme Court.

“There will be more polluters who pollute with impunity,” Shelley said. “There will be a little poorer public health in the city as a result.”

Houston battled smoggy skies for decades and has failed to comply with federal ozone standards. The 10-county area includes the largest petrochemical complex in the country, hundreds of chemical plants and a bustling port.

Under the ordinances, the city collects registration fees from companies in order to investigate potential violations of air pollution laws.

City officials have defended the ordinances since their passage in 2007, arguing they helped fill an enforcement gap created by understaffing at TCEQ, the state agency responsible for monitoring and punishing polluters.

The city said legal mechanisms it could use against polluters include requesting that TCEQ investigate suspected polluters, seeking injunctive relief and penalties in civil court against suspected violators and notifying TCEQ of violations deemed to be criminal in nature.

Former Mayor Bill White pushed for the ordinances after growing frustrated with TCEQ. He and City Council members voted to amend a 1992 ordinance and start requiring businesses to pay registration fees based on their size and emissions. The fees range from $130 for a dry cleaning plant with fewer than six employees to $3,200 for plants emitting more than 10 tons annually of airborne contaminants.

The ordinances also authorized city health officers to seek civil, administrative and criminal sanctions for violations that can be prosecuted in municipal court, with fines of up to $2,000 per day for repeat violators.

The ordinance was based on the premise that these facilities are outside Houston’s boundaries, but their emissions directly affect the city and its residents, not to mention Houston’s non-compliance with EPA regulations. The Supreme Court wrote that allowing such ordinances might lead to uneven enforcement around the state. I can see the logic of that, but as is so often the case with the TCEQ, if they bothered to enforce the law in the first place, the city wouldn’t have passed that ordinance. It’s the same impetus that drove Denton to ban fracking, and as was the case there, it’s the same impulse to squash inconvenient expressions of local control that led to this result. How long can you hold your breath, Houston? The Press and the Observer have more.

Find those leaks

I don’t care how.

A pair of state and federal government inspectors spent two weeks traveling around northern Colorado’s oil and gas fields in early 2012, filming with an infrared camera.

Air pollution was rising in the region, and attention was turning to the rapid increase in drilling activity. The inspectors focused on Houston-based Noble Energy, one of the state’s largest drillers with about 7,000 wells in the suburbs and countryside north of Denver.

With the naked eye, there was nothing to see at the nearly hundred sites they visited. But when observed through the infrared camera, again and again they saw plumes of gas radiating from the top of storage tanks near the wells.

“The infrared camera does not quantify emissions, but you can say that’s a small leak versus a big leak. And these were big leaks,” said one of the inspectors, Cindy Beeler, an energy adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Colorado. “When we showed our findings to Noble, they were surprised.”

As the Obama administration accelerates its campaign to blunt the effects of climate change, federal regulators are turning to infrared technology to seek out emissions leaks in the country’s oil and gas fields. With state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental groups embracing the technology, drillers are increasingly finding themselves staring down the lenses of infrared cameras.

Beyond government inspections, many companies are worried they soon will be required to do their own infrared scans and make what they fear will be unnecessary repairs across the country’s more than 1 million oil and gas wells. Industry lobbyists are already challenging the devices’ effectiveness.

“Part of our concern is that it really locks us in to this technology at a point in time the understanding of these fugitive emissions is really in its childhood,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The presumptive starting point for the EPA is requiring infrared.”

[…]

For decades, companies and government inspectors relied on hand-held sensors to tell them if gas was leaking. But without a means to see the emissions, one was left to guess where to hold the sensor on a drilling site that can run the size of a football field – “like trying to pin the tail on the donkey,” Beeler jokes.

Then in 2011, the EPA decided to try infrared technology, which uses variations in temperature and other environmental measures to form images – capturing everything from a mouse on the ground to escaping gas.

At the time, the primary mission was reducing the release of volatile organic compounds, a key contributor to smog, which has long been linked to asthma and lung disease in humans. But federal attention is now turning to methane, which makes up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has an impact on global warming 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

The oil and gas industry is pressuring the EPA to look away from infrared at other cheaper technologies, like methane sensors, that would automatically detect leaks as they occur but are still in development. In a memo to EPA in December, the IPAA raised several issues about the infrared devices, including concerns about whether smaller companies could handle the cost – $100,000 each – and whether they were reliable.

“The results of the camera, the ‘pictures,’ are difficult to interpret and subject to misinterpretation, e.g., what appears to be a leak could simply be a heat plume,” the memo stated.

EPA officials countered that infrared is one of a variety of tools for gathering evidence in emissions cases that often was supported by data from the companies themselves.

“Infrared allows us to see hydrocarbons,” said Apple Chapman, associate director of EPA’s air enforcement division. “It’s a faster screening tool and a faster investigative tool.”

I don’t care what technology gets used, as long as something gets used that can reliably detect these leaks. I doubt I have to explain why some kind of voluntary compliance program is worthless. If the industry has a viable alternative to infrared that they don’t mind being required to use, then fine. If not, then infrared it is. Whatever gets the job done.

Texas files another lawsuit against the EPA

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

In the state’s first lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016, Texas is suing the agency for rejecting parts of a seven-year-old state proposal to reduce haze in wilderness areas.

The EPA rejected portions of the plan in January, citing concerns that it did not adequately address requirements of the agency’s Regional Haze Rule, which regulates the air in natural areas in Texas and Oklahoma.

“Texas already has a plan that meets the standards of the Clean Air Act, however, once again, the Obama Administration is misinterpreting and misusing federal agencies to force through a radical agenda based more on the beliefs of his environmentalist base than on common sense,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement.

The petition for review – the state’s 24th legal action against the EPA since Obama took office in 2009 – was filed in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.

The Regional Haze Rule was proposed by the EPA to clean up the air at wilderness areas and national parks. Regulations for Texas include the Guadalupe Mountains National Park east of El Paso and Big Bend National Park on the Texas and Mexico border.

Do the particulars of this case even matter? It’s the same song, 24th verse. Even “Amazing Grace” isn’t that long. It is what it is, and the good news is that past history suggests that the state will lose. Again. The Scoop Blog has more.

Waller County landfill plan appears to be dead

Maybe.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Waller County commissioner on Wednesday declared victory in a years-long battle against an outside company’s proposal to develop a landfill there.

“I am proud to say the landfill is dead,” Commissioner John Amsler said as the regular commissioners court meeting got underway.

However, a company representative said Wednesday that Green Group Holdings, LLC, is continuing to explore ways to move forward with the project.

[…]

County and city ordinances regarding landfills now prevent one from being built at that site, meaning a new application would be rejected, County Judge Trey Duhon said by phone Wednesday.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, had been looking to grandfather in an application due to a transfer facility permit they had already gotten for the location, but the county’s attorney learned recently that the state agency did not agree that would be the case, Duhon said.

“That effectively kills the landfill,” Duhon said, though he noted the company already has invested significantly in the project.

Or maybe not.

And yet, in a written statement on Friday, the chief executive officer of Green Group Holdings, LLC, said they were continuing to pursue the project that several commissioners such as Amsler promised during their election campaigns they would fight.

“We are assessing other avenues to move the project forward,” CEO Ernest Kaufmann wrote in a statement.

[…]

In his statement, Kaufmann wrote that Green Group believes TCEQ “has misinterpreted” the rules regarding how a permit application can be grandfathered. And he disagreed with Amsler’s conclusion: the agency’s recent interpretation of the impact that the transfer station registration would have on a resubmitted application “does not mean the project is ‘dead,’ ” he wrote.

A representative of an advocacy group called Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has long fought the project, expressed they weren’t celebrating just yet.

The group has spent $1.8 million to fight the project, “a travesty in and of itself,” says Mike McCall, the group’s treasurer.

And while McCall said the group agreed with TCEQ’s decision that a new application should not be grandfathered in under old law, he said he won’t be convinced the group is done until they take away their equipment at the site. Until then, said McCall, who lives north of the proposed landfill site, the group would remain vigilant.

“I’m a CPA by profession, and I like to dot my I’s and cross my T’s,” he said. “I’m not satisfied that Pintail is through yet.”

As the first story notes, Green Group has not appealed the TCEQ rejection of their application for a permit; the application they had submitted was ruled “deficient” because it had not accurately accounted for the landfill’s potential effect on groundwater. That initial application is presumably their best chance to get this landfill done, since local laws have since been changed to ban them. There’s still the possibility of other legal action, and I’m not aware of a deadline for appealing the TCEQ ruling, so it’s still too early to say this is over. We’ll see what card Green Group plays next.

Environmentalists petition EPA to strip Texas of some authorities

This unfortunately is not likely to go anywhere, but I relish the idea anyway.

Alleging that Texas has dramatically eroded its safeguards against air and water pollution, two environmental groups are asking the federal government to step in.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Caddo Lake Institute are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to strip Texas of some of its authority under the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The nonprofits asked the agency to “review and withdraw its delegations of permitting authority to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality” — the TCEQ — arguing that Texas lawmakers, by gradually cutting funding and passing more industry-friendly laws, have effectively rendered the agency toothless.

The commission panned the petition. “Texas law has and continues to meet federal requirements – to suggest otherwise is misleading to the public,” spokesman Terry Clawson said in an email. “We expect EPA to reject this frivolous petition.”

And the EPA on Tuesday said it was “not aware of significant deficiencies in TCEQ-delegated environmental programs at this time.”

“We will carefully review and consider claims raised by the environmental groups and respond accordingly,” Melissa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in an email.

[…]

As it has in other states over the past four decades, the EPA has given Texas the authority to permit and enforce a variety of air, waste, water and mining programs after lengthy and complex negotiations.

The federal agency rarely — if ever — has completely revoked a state’s permitting authority. But there have been close calls.

In 2013, for instance, Arkansas lost some of its Clean Water Act authority after its legislature passed a bill changing requirements for discharging minerals into streams. Lawmakers fixed the legislation after several permits were routed to the EPA.

Experts can’t recall an example where the agency took away Texas’ authority, but the state has faced similar issues.

About five years ago, the state refused to follow regulations involving greenhouse gas permits, delaying dozens of energy projects and prompting a major outcry from the industry. The Legislature relented in 2013 and directed TCEQ to begin issuing the permits.

You can see a copy of the petition here, and a copy of the EDF’s press release here. The move was in response to the many awful, anti-environmental bills that passed during the last legislative session; you can read the Trib story for an accounting of that. The EPA doesn’t sound particularly enthusiastic about picking this fight, and given how often they’ve had to defend themselves against lawsuits filed by Texas, I can’t blame them for being leery. I still hope they’ll at least put enough thought into this to deliver a scare to everyone who deserves it.

Yet another lawsuit by Texas against the EPA

So what else is new?

In another lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Texas is taking aim at tightened standards on ground-level ozone — President Obama’s effort to cut down on smog that chokes the nation’s skies.

An ozone standard finalized in October shrank the previous 75 parts per billion limits on ozone to 70 parts per billion, putting pressure on some regions in Texas that struggled to meet the previous standards. The rules aim to crack down on pollution coming from factories, power plants and vehicle tailpipes.

Ozone forms when emissions from cars and industrial plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight, and it can worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

Though the new regulation is more lenient than what environmentalists called for, Texas leaders quickly joined with industry in blasting the regulation, arguing that it will cost billions of dollars to invest in cleaner technology that will yield fewer health benefits.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. We all know the drill here. There will be much sound and fury, and in the end the state will most likely lose. It’ll take awhile and cost a lot of money, and we’ll all try to pretend that this is normal. Wake me when it’s over in a couple of years.

TCEQ rejects application for Hempstead landfill

Back to the drawing board.

StopHwy6Landfill

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week returned a company’s application to construct a landfill in Waller County, calling the application “deficient.” It was the latest blow to plans for the highly controversial project about 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, a Georgia-based company that develops and operates waste management facilities, did not adequately account for how high the water level might get in the proposed area, a discovery that was made after years of vetting the application, according to a letter Monday from TCEQ to the company.

Actively opposed by a local citizens group, the Pintail landfill project was designed for a site north of Hempstead off Texas 6. The landfill’s maximum height would have been about 151 feet above the ground, with a volume of 35.7 million cubic yards available for disposal, according to the TCEQ application overview online.

Agency staff spent more than 1,300 hours over four years working with the company on the permit application, pointing out more than 400 points to be addressed, wrote Earl Lott, the agency’s waste permits division director, in the letter.

“Despite this significant effort, the application is still deficient,” Lott continued. “Elevated seasonal high water levels have been discovered at the proposed landfill site, substantially affecting the basis under which the draft permit was prepared.”

[…]

“For the integrity of the municipal solid waste landfill program, this is not where we want to be at this point in the process,” Lott wrote. “The application has already undergone extensive technical review, a draft permit has been prepared and the matter has been referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. It is at this point that momentous site information is discovered which significantly alters the approach to the design of the facility.”

Green Group Holdings can now walk away from the project, draft a new application or appeal the decision. An appeal must be filed within 23 days of the decision. The company has not yet decided what it will do next, according to a written statement.

“We are surprised by the action and are in the process of evaluating our next steps,” the statement said.

Citizens Against the Landfill counts the application’s return as a victory, but doesn’t believe the fight is finished,

“It’s a victory but it’s not over,” Huntsinger said. “When they leave town and say, ‘We’re not coming back to Hempstead with this site, that’s when it’s over.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the TCEQ’s letter to Green Group. I have a hard time imagining that they will give up the fight, but their choices aren’t very good at this point. Congrats to CALH for all their hard work, whatever comes next.

Houston pleads its case to the Supreme Court

We’ll see how they did.

Bill White

Bill White

“The point of all this is to protect the public and the environment, to have clean air, and the TCEQ, for the Texas Clean Air Act, envisions that it be vigorously enforced,” [Houston attorney Robert] Higgason said. “This is what the statute makes reference to — cities being allowed to enact and enforce their own ordinances to achieve the goal of the Texas Clean Air Act.”

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company and ConocoPhillips, has sued to strike down the ordinances, arguing Houston is exceeding its authority under state law.

“The Legislature has already addressed what cities can do to address this problem…and they’ve turned what should be an administrative and civil regime, that should be consistently applied, into a local criminal statute,” BCAA attorney Evan Young argued. “To convert it from something very different from what the Legislature intended degrades and erodes the meaning of the act.”

[…]

Higgason repeatedly argued that it was incumbent upon cities like Houston to enforce the clean air act where the state agency is unable to do so. “If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” Higgason said.

Justice Eva Guzman, a former Harris County district and appellate judge, challenged his stance, asking if local actions might compromise the TCEQ’s right to use discretion in enforcement. She said the TCEQ’s sluggish ability to respond to air pollution violators was not necessarily Houston’s concern.

“When cities exercise their own discretion, that discretion could or could not be consistent with what the TCEQ would have done under their regime,” Guzman said. “It seems to me like that defeats your argument.”

Young emphasized that Houston was indeed allowed to enforce the state’s regulations — so long as it used the state’s preferred method of civil enforcement actions in civil courts.

In contrast, the Houston ordinances allow polluters to be charged in criminal courts, with convictions leading to a range of penalties including fines up to $2,000 per violation for repeat offenders.

“If we’re going to have a statewide, uniform comprehensive regulatory regime that actually gives predictability, it is essential that the TCEQ be involved in that decision-making,” Young said. “If a city wants to enforce the regulations in court, it can do that — by bringing a civil suit.”

See here for the background. The Press, which takes a closer look at the plaintiffs in this action, notes that the stakes are higher than they might appear.

What’s intriguing about this case is that the outcome might ultimately do more than just decide whether Houston has the right to regulate its own air quality. The case gives the Texas Supreme Court the chance to wade into a seldom-explored area of law looking at whether cities have the right to enact local regulations without clashing with state law, according to Law360. Should the high court decide in favor of Houston’s ordinance, that, for instance, could potentially give the city of Denton some legal legs to bring back its anti-fracking ordinance. (Hester, however, contends the chances of that happening are still slim.)

But a ruling against Houston would limit the city’s ability to enact environmental regulations and that would mean the TCEQ would be the agency deciding how to penalize companies that pollute in Houston. “It’s really a question of who gets to make the call on what type of enforcement should take place,” [Tracy Hester, an environmental law professor at University of Houston] says. “If the ordinance is upheld and the city feels like an enforcement action doesn’t address their concerns, then they will be able to have their own enforcement actions.”

So there’s that. Doesn’t make me feel any more optimistic about the likely outcome, that’s for sure. Hope for the best, of course, but I’m not expecting it.

More good news for Hempstead landfill opponents

This could be the end of the line for the proposed landfill.

StopHwy6Landfill

Opponents of a proposed landfill in Waller County won another victory in a years-long legal fight to prevent the project. The executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a decision supporting the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead’s request for summary judgment on the permit application.

“This is the best news we have received thus far in this case, which has been going on three to four years now,” county judge Trey Duhon wrote in an e-mail. “It is clear that the current application does not meet state requirements for a landfill, as the landfill opponents have been saying all along.”

[…]

“We’re pleased to see that decision by the executive director which acknowledges the position we’ve taken all along,” said Bill Huntsinger, president of the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, representing opposition in the small town roughly an hour northwest of Houston.

Following the decision from the executive director, it falls to the administrative law judges of the State Office of Administrative Hearings to make a determination about the permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would then rule on the findings.

“We are hopeful that the judge will do the right thing and dismiss the application,” said Duhon.

[…]

In his decision, the executive director of the state’s environmental commission, Richard Hyde, wrote, “the current application does not meet TCEQ rule requirements by the Applicant’s own admission.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The final step in the process is the actual Contested Case Hearing, which is set for November 2. At that hearing, the case – which may take two weeks – will be heard by two Administrative Law Judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). At the end of the hearing, these SOAH Judges will issue a “Recommendation for Decision” to the Commissioners of the TCEQ, and then finally the TCEQ will make its decision. (There’s currently a vacancy on the TCEQ, awaiting an appointment from the Governor, so I suppose this could affect the timeline.) One presumes the decision by the Executive Director of the TCEQ bodes well for the landfill opponents, but there’s still that hearing to go through. Stay tuned.

Houston’s environmental protection ordinances go to the Supreme Court

Where, sadly, they’ll likely get killed.

Bill White

Bill White

State environmental regulators don’t adequately enforce air pollution laws, the city of Houston believes, and on Wednesday it will ask the state’s highest civil court to let it keep trying to do the job itself.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging a pair of ordinances the city enacted in 2007 and 2008 requiring industrial polluters within Houston to register with the city, and subjecting the polluting companies to fines if they operate without registering.

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil and the Dow Chemical Company, sued the city seven years ago, claiming the ordinances improperly preempt state law. The First District Court of Appeals has already weighed in on Houston’s side, finding in 2013 that the Legislature had not foreclosed such local regulations with anything resembling “unmistakable clarity.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, BCCA argues that the city is allowed to enforce air regulations only if it uses the weaker enforcement tools laid out by the state.

But Houston, and a host of environmental groups filing amicus briefs in the city’s support, say it is perfectly within its rights to enforce state laws using alternative regulatory strategies, including levying fines where the state won’t.

“The city’s looking for accountability, and this is a streamlined way of trying to do that,” said Rock Owens, who co-authored an amicus brief submitted by the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “There should be something that happens if you don’t follow the law, and the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] isn’t in a position where they can provide enforcement. They don’t have the resources, or, frankly, the will.”

Owens said he believes the Houston ordinances simply put some muscle behind the regulations the commission laid out. “It’s just a matter of layering — a matter of making the law effective,” Owens said.

[…]

Given how political tides recently have turned against local efforts to police industries, Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said he isn’t optimistic about the city’s chances in front of the state’s highest civil court.

Shelley cited House Bill 40, signed by Abbott in May, which preempts local control over most oil and gas activity, as one reason for his concern.

“I think it needs to be said that there’s a larger trend here — a problematic trend — and that’s bad for public health in Texas,” Shelley said. “We’re likely to lose this case.”

See here and here for some background on this, which was an initiative of then-Mayor Bill White. I’m sure I have more entries on this, but my older archives aren’t quite as organized. I wish I was more optimistic about this, but I think Shelley nails it. As the story notes, Greg Abbott supports the BCCA, because of course he does. Local control only matters to Abbott when the locals are doing things he approves of. We should know in a few months how the Court rules, and I guess you can add this – “what, if anything, should the city do to improve air quality if the Supreme Court invalidates the city’s air quality ordinances of 2007 and 2008?” – to the list of questions that we ought to be asking the Mayoral herd. See this op-ed by Adrian Shelley and Jen Powis for more.