Texas Agency Charged With Protecting Environment Continues Bold War on Air

Dallas' 2005-era smog.
Dallas' 2005-era smog.

Some of our state agencies have confusing names. The Texas Railroad Commission, for instance, is the name of the entity that regulates fracking. And the agency called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has actually kept a fairly consistent stance against environmental quality. Don't feel bad if you're confused. The commissioners leading the TCEQ, all political appointees, claim in their mission statement that they want "clean air," "clean water" and "safe management of waste." But there is a big caveat: "The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strives to protect our state's public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development." That's a polite way of saying that when they are not "consistent with sustainable economic development," the public health and the natural resources part can go to hell.

Consider the TCEQ's recent reaction when faced with new research claiming that fewer people will prematurely die if better emissions controls are installed on cement plants in Midlothian and coal plants in East Texas, two major sources of smog in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. The two studies were led by Dr. Kuruvilla John, an associate dean at the University of North Texas' school of engineering, and Dr. Robert Haley, a researcher at UT Southwestern who is a former president of the Dallas County Medical Society. Though commissioned by the environmental activism group Downwinders at Risk, the research itself was conducted by actual researchers in academia, using figures, they say, that came from the TCEQ's own data and models for ozone projections. 

In Monday's Dallas Morning News, the state responded to the research: "Texas officials and the owners of the power plants dismiss the study’s results as overblown or agenda-driven. ... Texas environmental regulators say that most of the region’s smog is cooked up from local emissions," like vehicles, "and that what those power plants produce doesn’t contribute much here." The research counters that going after single, large sources of smog — the cement kilns and the coal plants — will help Texas cut down on smog more cheaply and effectively. 

"We do have an agenda, but in this case the study was directly from their [the state's] model, so that agenda has no way of showing up in the model itself. That's all from the state," says Downwinders at Risk's Jim Schermbeck. 

As it stands, North Texas has been out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act for nearly two decades thanks to our smog. And TCEQ commissioners like newly appointed Jon Niermann, whose résumé includes playing a "key role" in helping Texas sue the EPA as assistant state attorney general, seem unlikely to want to change that. 

The TCEQ has long rejected advice from researchers and doctors to do something about the coal and cement plants that are a major source of the ozone pollution. When the Dallas County Medical Society petitioned the TCEQ two years ago to crack down on the coal-fired plant emissions, the TCEQ rejected the petition and accused the doctors of having a "knee-jerk reaction" to smog. The TCEQ, which has also claimed despite mounting contrary evidence that there's no link between fracking and smog, showed similar hostility to researchers who studied smog last year. The TCEQ had provided funding for the Alamo Area Council of Governments to study ozone levels in San Antonio but stopped funding the study after the researchers linked the pollution to horizontal drilling. 

The Downwinders' ozone study, meanwhile, comes at a critical time for the dirty coal plants in East Texas. Energy Future Holdings, the company operating them, has been in the midst of a bankruptcy case for over a year. In August, the company announced it had cut a deal to sell its power lines to the Hunt Oil family, but whether new owners will have to put new emission controls on the coal plants is uncertain. How the coal plants should be operated is ultimately up to a bankruptcy judge in Delaware, who has a decision scheduled for next month. In the meantime, Dallas County Commissioner Theresa Daniel has proposed a resolution for today's commissioner's meeting, asking the bankruptcy court and Energy Future Holdings to consider shutting down or improving emissions controls at the plants. Schermbeck says the resolution would send an important message to the bankruptcy judge. "These three coal plants ... they're very old , they're very obsolete, they have to import a lot of their own coal from Wyoming, so eventually they're going to be too expensive to operate, but what we're concerned about is someone buying them up, running them to the ground and then leaving behind a super-fund site," he says.

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