By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Rogers says she got a nosebleed while the well went on flaring, and on the fifth day of the flare, six of her chicks and a pair of young goats were found dead—likely from asphyxiation, her vet told her.
Armendariz, she recalls, "was the only person who had done any kind of work on air emissions in the Barnett Shale." "I think he was very brave because he was one of the early ones too. We were all kind of lone voices in the wilderness."
Rogers arranged for Armendariz to test her air and turn the results over to UNT Health Science researchers to study what the results could mean for people breathing the air. She canvassed business friends in Fort Worth to help pay for the follow-up study, which turned up benzene and sulfur compounds.
"I used to be the most apolitical person you ever met, and now I'm a raging activist about this," Rogers says, but she recognizes it's a tough situation to understand until it happens to you. "If you're going to look at this, you've got to look at it in a cold hard scientific way. I don't see how you can say that there isn't a problem anymore. There's just too much data out there."
In fall 2009, TCEQ entered a new era of brash fed-scoffing, joining the upper ranks of Perry's states' rights PR machine, with the promotion of TCEQ Commissioner Bryan Shaw to chairman.
Larry Soward, a former commissioner whose six-year term ended at the same time, says he's noticed the shift since then. "It really rumbled below the surface until—well, until the end of my term," Soward says. "I think what you've seen in the last two to three years is a much more visible and vocal commission...consistent with the governor's increased vocalness over the federal government intruding in the state."
As the EPA laid the groundwork for greenhouse gas regulations in every state—a move that Perry, the climate-change skeptic, has fought every step of the way—Shaw, an associate professor in Texas A&M's Biological and Agricultural Engineering department, testified, according to the minutes of his confirmation hearing, that he "does not believe the science is conclusive regarding human contributions to global warming."
A Sunset Commission review of the agency last year—one that environmental groups said had turned soft on the agency—called out TCEQ for lacking punitive follow-ups to enforcement orders or taking a long-term look at a polluter's historical compliance.
"It's unfortunate. The agency, for the most part, is a very scientific organization," Soward says, but the rhetoric from the top of the agency echoes down the chain of command. "I could get staff to agree with me privately on particular issues and policies, but when the majority of the commissioners took a different position, staff wasn't about to stick their heads out of the foxholes and get shot at," Soward says. "It sets the parameters in which the staff can operate."
With the EPA squared off against Texas—the only state in the country that refused to start regulating greenhouse gases—the stage was set for a showdown over Texas' air.
While ranks formed in Austin to fight the feds' efforts, the EPA was missing a local leader in Dallas, without a regional chief since January 2009 when the last administrator, Bush-appointed Richard Greene—a former mayor of Arlington—stepped down.
Armendariz says the job had already been in his sights for a year—since TCEQ commissioners voted unanimously to approve Asarco's permits to reopen its smelter in El Paso. "That was really at that point the motivating factor for me to find out what it would take to be regional administrator," he says.
Weeks before he got the appointment, the EPA threatened to invalidate Asarco's TCEQ-approved permits, and the company backed off reopening the smelter. They started talking about paying for site cleanup instead. Yet, Armendariz still pursued the job.
Schermbeck says when Armendariz first floated the idea past him, "I said, if you do that, I'll support you, thinking he didn't stand a chance in hell."
Typically, the regional administrator job would go to a politician like Greene. Schermbeck says he expected former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to be a prime candidate, but says she wasn't interested. "[Armendariz] was not a member of the Democratic Party at all—that's what people don't understand who don't know him. He is not a party hack at all," Schermbeck says. "He really had no constituency other than us."
Not long after Obama appointed Lisa Jackson to the EPA's top job, she came to Dallas' EPA office to talk about the looming possibility that Texas would resist regulating greenhouse gases. Jackson, an engineer, made an off-hand request for suggestions to fill the open administrator job, Schermbeck recalls, "and I pulled out Al's résumé and a packet of stories about him and said, 'This guy right here.'"
Support for Armendariz gathered steam around the state's green activists, and when Armendariz got the nod in November 2009, "It was elation," Schermbeck says.