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.