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August 11th, 2022:

EPA to investigate TCEQ over concrete plant permits

Well, this ought to be interesting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the subject of an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency following complaints that the state agency violated civil rights laws in its permitting of concrete batch plants.

The Harris County Attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, alleged that the state environmental agency discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency through a revised permitting process to build new concrete batch plants.

Their complaints, filed with the EPA earlier this year, said TCEQ failed to provide information in Spanish and insufficiently protected communities of color who live in areas where concrete facilities are predominantly located.

The concrete plants are subject to permits that aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter and crystalline silica — which have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer — but independent testing of concrete facilities by the complaint’s authors indicate that pollution levels exceed health-based limits.

Last year, TCEQ approved an amendment that included exemptions for emission limitations for concrete batch plants, in response to an application to construct a plant by a Fort Worth concrete company. Area residents had fought the company’s application, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t adequately study the impacts of pollutants. TCEQ later passed the amendment and approved the company’s application after what it called a “clerical error.”

The EPA’s civil rights compliance arm announced the investigation last Wednesday. The investigation will focus on whether the adoption of the amendment — and the permitting process — is discriminatory, and whether the state agency failed to seek meaningful public comment.

The Chron adds some more details.

County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star lawyers alleged in separate complaints to the EPA earlier this year that the state agency discriminated against Black and Latino residents when they didn’t adequately ensure communities would be protected and didn’t appropriately seek input from people who aren’t fluent in English.

Local, state and federal leaders celebrated the EPA’s decision to look at the discrimination claims Tuesday. They saw it as a chance to win long-sought relief for people who have suffered from batch plants. Facility operators say the plants are safe and need to be close to construction sites. People near them, concerned for their health, plead for them to go far away.

“Time and again, the TCEQ has approved permits for additional plants in these very same neighborhoods, and failed to ensure that the pollution that comes out of these plants does not harm human health and the environment,” Menefee said. “We’re here today because the TCEQ failed to address these issues when it had the chance.”

[…]

Applications are frequently submitted to start up concrete batch plants in the Houston area. They elicit strong backlash from residents who often already know what it’s like to live by one. Residents in Aldine recently packed a room to tell TCEQ not to approve another new plant — only to find out that the deadline had already passed to ask the state agency to escalate the dispute to the next level.

EPA stepping in signaled a shift in that fight for residents who have little more than emotional appeals on their side, and what help they can get from frustrated government representatives.

“This is important to us,” said Huey German-Wilson, president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, “and now we have someone to hear us loud and clear, for the small Black and brown voices in communities that have not been heard.”

Politicians at the news conference slammed the state environmental agency for valuing the needs of industry over the health of people. They said that it took President Joe Biden — a fellow Democrat — winning the White House for federal regulators to put pressure on this issue in the conservative Lone Star State. Recent bills proposed in the state legislature largely floundered.

Neighborhoods with batch plants lack deed restrictions and zoning to protect them, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said. And facilities are often in communities of color — not wealthy, white River Oaks — making what has been happening clear environmental racism, state Sen. Borris Miles said.

Menefee’s office asked the EPA to stop any new standard concrete batch plant permits from being issued until the investigation is finished, he said. A public meeting has been scheduled later this month for residents to weigh in on a plant that’s been proposed in Simonton, a small city west of Houston in rural Fort Bend County.

This isn’t a lawsuit, it’s an investigation. I have no context to guess how long it may take, though I’d expect that if the state doesn’t like what the EPA says we’ll get a lawsuit afterwards. Until then, we wait. Here’s a Twitter thread from Chron reporter Emily Foxhall with more quotes.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

Thou shalt not violate copyright

It’s right there in the Commandments.

A McAllen church is facing backlash for illegally performing Hamilton with anti-LGBTQ messaging and biblical themes, according to multiple reports. The Door Christian Fellowship Ministries of McAllen changed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition of the musical to incorporate a sermon that compared being gay with having an addiction.

The Hamilton team in New York told the Washington Post that it did not give a license or permission to the Door McAllen church in McAllen to stage the performance and that it was an illegal reproduction. The OnStage Blog, the first to report about the show, revealed the production live streamed the unauthorized show on Friday, August 5.

During the live streams, characters Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton talked about how Jesus “saved” them. After one of the performances, Pastor Victor Lopez gave a sermon with language that compared being gay to alcohol and drug addiction, according to OnStage Blog.

“He knows exactly what you’ve gone through,” Lopez said, referring to God, according to the video. “You’ve gone through maybe broken marriages. Maybe you struggle with alcohol, with drugs – with homosexuality – maybe you struggle with other things in life, your finances, whatever, God can help you tonight. He wants to forgive you for your sins.”

In a statement to the Dallas Morning News, Pastor Roman Gutierrez said he acquired legal permission from the team behind Hamilton to produce the church’s show. In a sermon on Sunday, August 7, Gutierrez said that he received a request from a lawyer to remove videos of the performance published online. He added the church is not anti-LGBTQ and “everyone is always welcome”

Miranda’s Hamilton team denied giving the pastor permission to perform the show, according to the Dallas Morning News. The team said that they sent the church a cease and desist letter on Saturday, August 6 after the Friday performance. Hamilton allowed the church to continue with Saturday’s show as long as no pictures or videos were taken.

Yeah, you don’t get to put on a performance of copyrighted material without a license. You sure as heck don’t get to change the words and lyrics to a musical without the permission of the copyright holder. This is not complicated or mysterious stuff. And yes, despite their protest, this wretched performance and its accompanying sermon were anti-LGBTQ. Again, this is not complicated or mysterious.

The OnStage Blog has been all over this, cataloging the changes the church made to the script, running statements from the Hamilton team and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and my personal favorite, documenting that this same church pulled the same stunt with Beauty and the Beast in 2018. The fact that they avoided any repercussions from Disney’s squadron of IP attorneys is kind of a miracle, I have to admit.

Anyway. I don’t know if this will end up being a temporary kerfuffle or if The Door Christian Fellowship Ministries will get its collective butt dragged into court for their utter disregard for the law. I think they should, as this is not their first offense and they clearly need to have the message about respecting other people’s creations implanted. I’ll keep my eyes open for further updates. WFAA has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 8

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like to see more damage awards being given to Sandy Hook parents as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

DPS can keep Uvalde info secret for now

Hopefully not for much longer.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

A state district judge ruled Wednesday that the Department of Public Safety does not have to turn over records related to the Uvalde school shooting sought by state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who had sued the state police in hopes of securing them.

The order by Travis County 419th Civil District Court Judge Catherine A. Mauzy was narrow, however, and sidestepped the question of whether the state police can withhold records concerning their response to the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School. Mauzy concluded that Gutierrez had not properly filed his request under the Texas Public Information Act, the state’s public records law, and therefore DPS was not obligated to fulfill it.

Still, the outcome grants a reprieve for the state police, who have fought to keep secret the details of how 91 officers responded to the shooting. Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, wrote a letter to DPS Director Steve McCraw on May 30, requesting the agency’s training manuals as well as any documents that detail how the state police responded to the shooting that day. In a hearing last week, DPS officials said that request should have gone to the agency’s media relations office.

Gutierrez said Wednesday he disagreed with the ruling and suggested the state police were simply looking for an excuse not to comply with his request. The lawmaker has been among the most critical state officials of how DPS has handled the shooting.

“It is most absurd that Department of Public Safety continues to fight even the most benign distribution of documents, like a training manual,” Gutierrez said. “And they refuse to do it because they’re culpable of their negligence and malfeasance on that day.”

See here for the background. Sen. Gutierrez has since released a statement that says he will appeal, and he will also re-file his request per the court’s orders. If so, then one way or another he should be able to get that information eventually. I’m sure we’ll have to go through more litigation before DPS complies. But I do expect that at some point they will have to.