Toxic Avenger: In the War Between the Feds and Texas, EPA Chief Al Armendariz has Science on His Side. Is That Enough?

There's a mob of environmentalists in the middle of the room before lunch, and it's not for the vegan seaweed salad.

It's a cool Friday in February, just minutes before this year's State of the Air conference, hosted by the clean-air advocate Air Alliance Houston, in a community center in the group's hometown. Buried in the scrum of suits is Dr. Al Armendariz, in a brown suit and a blue tie, schmoozing and passing business cards around, breaking his thoughtful gaze now and then with a wide, enthusiastic grin.

A little over a year ago Armendariz left his professorship at Southern Methodist University to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Dallas. In so doing, he brought hope to hope-starved generations of Texas greens, folks who'd spent years confronting skeptical Texas legislators, watch-dogging regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, growing accustomed to the sense the state was selling its environmental policy down a hazy, toxic river. Never did they think they'd see so much authority rest with someone they trusted.

In their corner now was a man who'd scrapped over pollution controls with legislators, confirmed that natural gas drilling was a huge contributor to smog in North Texas when nobody else could, and risen, almost miraculously, through their ranks to a place of federal authority to stand tough against Texas' most powerful global warming skeptics and industry pals.

Earlier this year, Texas Monthly named him one of their "25 Most Powerful Texans" and the Houston Chronicle called him "the most feared environmentalist in the state." Just before today's talk from the guy these environmentalists still affectionately call "Dr. Al," activist Allison Silva—who heads a group fighting a proposed coke-fired coal power plant in Corpus Christi—echoes a common sentiment about Armendariz for the crowd: "He's a rock star in my book."

Once he's up at the podium, alone with his slide show, he doesn't make for much of a rock star. His speech is measured. Each sentence starts off slowly until the whole thing is precisely formed in his head, and he can rush through the end of his thought.

Here's the man critics call a slick, power-grabbing bureaucrat, the guy trying to drive business out of the state, stammering and nervously rubbing his hands together. Here's that rock star, kicking off his PowerPoint with a nine-line legal disclaimer.

Here's the most feared environmentalist in Texas, telling a story about when he was just a kid in El Paso, surrounded by the arsenic-laced cloud of the Asarco copper smelter, one of the lucky ones among generations of children who, many studies later showed, were poisoned by the plant.

"You could taste the air," he recalls for the crowd. "Your throat would tingle with all the metals that were put into the air."

Armendariz has relatives who worked at the plant, and in the past, when speaking about his childhood, he's recalled how a few of them developed cancer and asthma after years of exposure, and the frustrating uncertainty about whether the smelter was to blame.

Today, though, he keeps it light for the crowd, recalling how his family moved around the country, back in the days when air quality rules were looser all around, first to Los Angeles when he was in first grade, and then to Houston for a year in the late 1970s before moving back to El Paso, where he graduated from high school.

"I tease my dad, we were doing the Clean Air Act tour," Armendariz says—the most he hams it up all afternoon.

That "cocktail of exposure to air pollution" he describes stuck with him through his wild and wandering college years—his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his master's and doctorate in environmental engineering, and a couple of gigs that followed, at MIT's Center for Global Change Science and Radian Corp. in North Carolina's Research Triangle.

In 2002, he returned to Texas to join the faculty at SMU's Lyle School of Engineering. He moved into a house in Lake Highlands, where he now lives with his wife, Cynthia, a second-grade teacher in Irving, and their two boys. He drives a Ford Taurus that can run on ethanol. "I always buy American cars," he's quick to point out.

When he moved to Dallas, Asarco's smelter in his hometown had been shuttered for three years. In 2002, though, the company began talking with TCEQ about reopening the facility, without even updating its permits. As Armendariz jokes with the crowd today, that's when he first considered applying to work at the EPA. "My plan was to try to be the regional administrator, shut down the Asarco smelter, quit and go back to SMU."

If only things had been that simple. In the year-plus since Armendariz took over EPA's Region 6—a six-state slice of the country he jokes includes "Texas and the states that border it"—the unassuming engineer has been cast as the enemy in Governor Rick Perry's war on Washington, as the long meddling arm of President Obama's job-killing federal government, as a tree-hugging arch-nemesis to business and states' rights interests.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels

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