The Environmental Protection Agency says an informal investigation is underway after more than two dozen environmental advocacy groups submitted a petition against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The petition alleges that state regulators are not doing enough to protect water quality in Texas, as is federally required.
The environmental groups are asking the federal agency to step in and repair Texas’ “broken system” of issuing permits to control water pollution, saying the state has made it too easy for industries to contaminate its water.
“We really feel that the TCEQ regulations, frankly, are not sufficient to ensure clean water,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, an environmental protection nonprofit based in San Antonio.
Historically, the TCEQ has been criticized for being a “reluctant” regulator and for being industry friendly. Many environmental groups have been pushing for permitting transparency, opportunities for more community input, and accountability of the state agency.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Public Citizen and 16 other groups filed the petition in 2021, stating that Texas has a major water pollution problem with state rivers, lakes and estuaries “so polluted they are considered impaired under the federal Clean Water Act.”
The Clean Water Act is a 1972 law designed to reduce pollution in America’s waterways. According to the petition, the state’s water permitting process does not recognize people who use waterways for recreational purposes, such as fishing or kayaking, to petition for a contested court hearing — only those who own land nearby.
The petition also states that industries are not required to document “the economic or social necessity of projects.” Environment advocates believe companies should provide documentation that shows there are no other options to their projects that could avoid pollution of the waters in order to obtain permits.
“They are the ones who are wanting to pollute the environment,” Eric Allmon, an attorney representing the petitioners, said about the industry. “The applicant should bear the burden of demonstrating compliance.”
Allmon said the EPA’s informal investigation is a preliminary step that determines whether there is any merit to the allegations from environmental advocates before the agency formally reviews the TCEQ’s track record on enforcing water quality standards.
If the EPA concludes that TCEQ is not enforcing the Clean Water Act, then the federal agency can proceed with a formal investigation and could revoke TCEQ’s authority to regulate water quality. The TCEQ would have 90 days to fix the problems or lose its authority.
I confess that I look at this with at least as much trepidation as any other emotion. Sure, this could end up with the TCEQ actually doing more to protect Texas’ waters. It could also end up with Ken Paxton filing a lawsuit against the EPA that ultimately results in SCOTUS doing serious damage to the Clean Water Act and/or the EPA itself. I have no trouble believing that the TCEQ has at best been half-assing this job, and I don’t want to tell these groups to be ruled by fear. But in the current climate, with the courts being what they are and a state government that has no interest in serving the public, we have to take this kind of thing into consideration. I hope I’m being way too pessimistic.