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Bush's quiet little war
on the Texas environment:
Assault on the regulatory front

The Bush Pollution Plan

During his campaign for governor, George W. Bush advocated a philosophy of letting "Texans Run Texas". With respect to the environment, this policy has more closely resembled "Let Texas Industry Run Texas".

In a three-part series, PEER will examine how Gov. Bush's appointees at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) undermined new federal public health standards and state pollution inspections, rolled back regulations, and attempted to manipulate pollution data to help the industries they were charged with regulating. Taken individually, each of these decisions is a matter of questionable policy; examined together, they suggest an ongoing strategy to strip environmental protections from a state with some of the weakest standards in the country. PEER will also document the industries that benefited from these actions and their financial support for Gov. Bush's political campaigns.

Part One of the series examines how Gov. Bush filled the TNRCC Board with representatives of regulated industry and cites several examples of his appointee's efforts to weaken pollution control.

First Step: Cut the Budget

One of the first actions that confirmed Gov. Bush was intent upon weakening environmental enforcement took place when the TNRCC budget was passed by the State Legislature. The State Appropriation bill called for a 10% cut in the budget of all state agencies, except for the TNRCC. This agency was singled out for a 20% cut (1), which caused Texas to fall from 16th to 37th nationally in total environmental spending as a percentage of the state budget. (2)

According to a former State air quality inspector, the budget cut resulted in fewer inspections of polluting facilities. Also by eliminating overtime, the cut reduced the ability of inspectors to respond to citizen complaints. (3)

Second Step: Let Industry Regulate Industry

On May 1, 1995, Governor Bush announced that Ralph Marquez, a thirty-year executive with Monsanto Chemical Company, was to be his first appointee to the TNRCC. Marquez was the former chair of the Environmental Regulation committee for the Texas Chemical Council. One of the first actions of the TNRCC after his appointment was to stop smog health advisories in the Houston area.

In 1995, Houston was the largest city in the country with a serious smog problem without a public awareness campaign. During the spring of that year, citizen groups and the regional air quality planning committee agreed to issue warnings through local media when weather conditions were favorable for smog formation. These forecasts or Ozone Action Days had been used to publicly warn citizens of high ozone levels for years in other smog ridden urban areas. Yet Houston business leaders were reluctant to publicize the city's dirty air problem, even at the expense of their own citizen's health.(4)

At the May 25th meeting of The Houston Regional Air Quality Planning Committee, approximately three weeks after Marquez's appointment, the TNRCC sided with local industry representatives to stop the planned Ozone Action Day program in the Houston-Galveston non-attainment area. The TNRCC accomplished this over local objections by refusing to supply monitoring results of summertime high ozone levels. (4)

Third Step: Manipulate the Data

On August 1, 1995 Governor Bush announced his second appointee to the TNRCC, Barry McBee; an attorney with the industry oriented lobby law firm Thompson & Knight. While serving at the Texas Department of Agriculture a few years earlier, McBee led efforts to roll back Right to Know laws on pesticide use that benefited farmworkers. With a majority of Gov. Bush appointees on the Board, the agency began an aggressive effort to challenge and undermine proposed EPA air quality regulations. These standards proposed lower limits on ozone (smog) which has been linked to asthma and small particulates that have been linked to premature death.

To determine the quality of a region's air, monitors are set up to continually record ozone levels. In an effort to hide increasing air pollution levels being recorded in Texas, the TNRCC first advocated "averaging" the results of ozone monitors across a large geographic area. This strategy of "statistical juggling" would bring even the severe pollution in the Houston-Galveston area into compliance with health standards.

The agency wrote,

"The TNRCC believes that applying the current standard of 120 parts per billion (ppb) to a more reasonable averaging period would more closely reflect actual public exposure than the current one hour averages… EPA should also consider that a non-attainment designation would be more properly based on a composite reading from multiple monitors. This would reserve a general non-attainment designation to circumstances where there is evidence that a pollutant is affecting a wider geographical area." (5)

The agency then argued that a non-attainment designation should be based on monitoring data rather than using computer models to estimate pollution levels, but only if they could control the location of the monitors and the way the data is used.

"While computer modeling is useful in determining sites for air quality monitors, it should not be used to designate an area as non-attainment. The designation should be based on actual monitor readings adjusted for background levels…. Monitors placed to determine background (levels) should not be used to designate previously undesignated areas as non-attainment… Monitors placed within an urban area where exceedances are expected or ongoing should be used to determine the degree to which the area exceeds the background level."(5)

Fourth Step: Undermine Inspections

On September 1, 1995, Governor Bush announced that farmer and rancher John Baker would be his final appointee to the three-member TNRCC board. With the board now complete, the commission quickly supported reversing a 23-year old policy on conducting inspections without prior notification.

Texas has an estimated 1,585 industrial facilities that are ranked as a major sources of air pollution. Additionally, there are 75 minor sources subject to annual inspection. Field investigators working in the 16 regional offices perform the once-per-year routine inspections as required by agreement with the EPA. For approximately twenty-three years, surprise annual inspections were carried out at Texas' industrial plants without first informing plant officials.

But on Sept 11, 1995, only ten days after the third and final Bush appointee was announced, John Young, the acting division director for Field Operations, issued a memorandum changing surprise annual inspections to mandatory announced site visits with as much a two weeks notice for all TNRCC programs. This includes yearly compliance reviews and visible emissions observations of the plant on the day of the visit.

The memo stated, "Effective the date of this IOM (inter-office memorandum) it will be the policy of Field Operations Division to provide notification to facilities of our intent to conduct a compliance inspection prior to all-routine inspections. Ideally this notification should occur one to two weeks prior the inspection date."

The Bush Pollution Plan

On October 31, 1995 the TNRCC announced the Texas Ozone position on revising the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The key to this plan is to use a statistical averaging scheme across all monitors in a city, essentially to average out most ozone exceedances in large urban areas.

The Texas Plan also included several other steps to minimize the impact of the rising pollution levels in the state. These include using a rolling eight-hour average to diminish the effects of temperature, and meteorology. Limiting the data under consideration to include no more than five exceedances (unsafe levels) per year averaged over a three-year period, and deleting the high and low years from the most recent five years to determine the three year average.

The Texas Plan could best be summarized by the old phrase, "out of sight, out of mind."

Bush Pollution Plan Goes to Washington

The effort to undermine the proposed clean air standards to protect industry polluters culminated in early November when Commissioner Ralph Marquez traveled to Washington to testify before The House Committee on Commerce Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and Health and the Environment.

During his congressional testimony, Commissioner Marquez presented the policy of the Bush Administration as it pertained to controlling ozone (smog). Marquez said, "EPA' s use of ozone (smog) as a surrogate for control of other dangerous pollutants should be discontinued." Marquez then explained that this was because smog or ozone was not hazardous.

He continued, "Since many of the current control theories (for smog) are derived using assumptions that each have certain margins of error, the use of these assumptions built on each other increase the continuing uncertainty of the causes of ozone". In effect, Marquez questioned the reliability of accepted scientific methods commonly used across the nation.

He went on to say, "The ozone standard should be revised as indicated by the Texas proposal … It is time that we as a nation step out of the current ozone control philosophy box and reassess our air pollution priorities."

Commissioner Marquez then commented, "After all, ozone is not a poison or a carcinogen. It is a relatively benign pollutant compared to other environmental risks."

Results of Gov. Bush's Pollution Policy

By 1999, high school athletes in Deer Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston, became sick from breathing the polluted air traced back to large industries in the area. During the summer, air pollution monitors recorded the highest ozone pollution levels in the country, and Texas passed California as the state with the nations worst ozone pollution.

Stay Tuned for Next Week - Part Two: Cooking the Books on Air Pollution

Sources:

  1. TNRCC FY 1996-97 budget as approved by the 1995 legislature
  2. The Council of State Governments, Resource Guide to State Environmental Management, 1st, 4th, and 5th Editions. (Texas uses a two year budget cycle)
  3. Interview with Dr. Neil Carmen, Ph.D., Nov. 1999
  4. Agenda Items of May 25,1995 Houston Regional Air Quality Planning Committee Mtg.
  5. August 1995 TNRCC letter to EPA on Air Quality Standards.


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