By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Folks from EDF and Public Citizen came up from Austin to join Downwinders and other Dallas-Fort Worth air quality groups for a party at J. Gilligan's, a brick-and-wood-paneled Irish bar in Arlington. With green balloons up around the neon beer signs, they gave Armendariz a send-off into the wilds of federal policy making. That night Downwinders gave Armendariz its "Agitator of the Year" award: a full-sized washing machine agitator painted gold.
"The route to this office for him was so circuitous and so unusual," Schermbeck says, "people just really don't appreciate how rare getting somebody like him is."
A little more than a year since that party, the EPA has followed through on its threats to rule Texas' flexible air permits illegal and to regulate greenhouse gases. Smaller enforcement actions and an upcoming study on hydraulic fracturing's potential impact on water supplies have been further opportunities to raise hackles in Austin.
After the EPA's decision on Texas' flexible permitting program in June, Perry issued a statement calling it an "irresponsible and heavy-handed action," saying it would destroy a program that successfully cleaned the air and fostered business growth. The agency, he said, had been "blinded by its activist agenda."
"When politicians say things that are clearly erroneous and deserve a response, we will go on the record. But I don't see a tremendous amount of value in daily having a back and forth argument," Armendariz says. "I have too many important things to do and a limited period of time.
"When I started the job, I wasn't thinking at the time that we would necessarily be doing any of the greenhouse gas permitting for any of the states," Armendariz says—but last summer, he says, Texas officials made it clear they'd be putting up a fight.
A letter from Abbott and TCEQ Chairman Shaw to Armendariz and Jackson at the EPA spelled out Texas' take on greenhouse gas regulation last August, calling them "regulations that are plainly contrary to United States law," and saying the EPA's move was a threat "to usurp state enforcement authority and to federalize the permitting program of any state that fails to pledge their fealty to the Environmental Protection Agency."
Since then, Perry and his appointees at the TCEQ and RRC have made an organized sport of EPA-bashing, with all the nuances of a good drinking game.
In an e-mail reply to the Observer, a TCEQ spokesman says the EPA hasn't proved its decisions will do anything to improve air quality: "Environmental regulations must have some environmental benefit, and not just expand the power of the federal government," he writes. As for Armendariz himself, the TCEQ says "he has been very effective in ensuring that the majority of our differences are resolved in the courts."
On December 30, Abbott filed a legal challenge to the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases in Texas, saying the agency was "unlawfully commandeering Texas' environmental enforcement program."
That adversarial approach to the EPA has been echoed lately in Congress, where Republican-led committees have brought in Abbott to praise his legal battle while grilling Jackson on the agency's decision—even mocking the concern over carbon dioxide, breathing heavily and suggesting that's what pollution looks like to the EPA. Texas congressmen like Joe Barton, John Carter and Ted Poe have come out strongly in efforts to explicitly remove carbon dioxide from the scope of the Clean Air Act.
Meanwhile, many of the environmentalists who'd been at Armendariz's send-off in Arlington say they haven't spoken much with him in his new job. Marston, at the Texas EDF office, says he recognizes the irony in it, but partly because of ethics rules, "we never meet with him."
In the past, Armendariz hadn't shied away from calling himself an "activist" in the press, but he avoids the word today. "Activist is a very undefined and loose term. I very much am an environmentalist," he says. "Really how I see myself is really day-to-day as a law enforcement official."
While Armendariz has a new role today, Schermbeck is confident Armendariz is still the same guy. "He's got an inquisitive mind. He's curious," Schermbeck says. "I don't know how many engineers you've ever known, but Al's an engineer. He's better dressed lately, I have to give him that. He's not wearing plaid ties with plaid shirts anymore."
"He's the most affable fellow you've ever met....That's a good personality to have when you're right in the middle of the crossfire between Washington and Austin," Schermbeck continues. "When you actually see him, it's very hard to match the rhetoric they're spewing out of Austin with this guy."
Located in the sleek downtown Fountain Place high-rise downtown, EPA's Dallas office is one of 10 regional offices in the country, with 850 people working here under Armendariz. The digs are simple, comfortable, spread out over a few floors, outfitted like a dentist's office waiting room.
In a conference room attached to his office, Armendariz describes the agency's work in Texas with a quiet confidence, a calm, friendly sort of approach backed by his rock-solid trust in science and his authority from the federal government. "I'm not surprised that EPA became part of the states' rights, federalism kind of debate, although I am surprised at the degree to which state officials have taken that argument," he says, "because I think they're on the losing side of history on this issue."