May 16, 2022 - News

Why Texas' enviro agency avoids the term "environmental justice"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One year after announcing an environmental justice initiative, the state agency leading the charge has no apparent budget for the effort and has suppressed virtually any mention of the term on its website, per an Axios investigation.

Why it matters: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has long regulated polluters with a light touch — and members of low-income communities bordering the state's industrial sites have historically had little sway at the agency.

Catch up quick: The environmental justice movement was started by individuals, primarily Black and Latino people, who sought to address the inequity of protections in their communities.

Flashback: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced last April that it launched an initiative "aimed at better understanding the environmental justice concerns of Texans to help ensure that everyone enjoys the same protection from environmental and public health hazards and has equal access to the services and decision-making processes that provide for a safe place to live and work."

Yes, but: Axios asked how many personnel had been assigned to the initiative and what funds had been budgeted for it — as well as the program's goals, a list of accomplishments and an interview with the agency clerk in charge.

What they're saying: The state agency declined to make the agency clerk available for an interview.

  • "TCEQ has committed and continues to commit considerable time and resources to these efforts," agency spokesperson Stella Wieser told Axios via email.
  • TCEQ is "evaluating budget needs" for the work, including how much to ask for from state lawmakers, Wieser said.

Zoom in: Word of the environmental justice effort peeped out in an agency blog a year ago — shortly after the state environmental agency pledged to federal authorities to improve its outreach as a way to stave off a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation into alleged civil rights violations.

  • Texas environmental groups complained to the EPA in 2019 that the TCEQ wasn't requiring public notices in any language other than English.
  • The complaint also observed the lack of interpretation services at state public meetings even when the agency was aware of the high likelihood that people who spoke languages other than English would be present — and be affected by the permit matter at hand.

The state agency's actions were generally spelled out in its pledges to the EPA.

  • Pollution permit applicants will now be required to include a plain language summary and certain public notices must be translated into one other language.
  • Wieser also said the agency clerk has hired a full-time translator.

Meanwhile: Despite its plain-language efforts, the agency has opted to use the term "Title VI work" — referring to a portion of the federal Civil Rights Act that bars discrimination in any program that receives federal money — instead of "environmental justice."

  • "The term environmental justice means different things to different people and there is no federal or Texas law governing environmental justice," Wieser explained.

Between the lines: The three commissioners overseeing the agency are appointees of Gov. Greg Abbott, who vowed to fight President Biden's environmental agenda.

  • For years, state lawmakers have resisted calls to take matters of environmental justice into account when permitting polluters.

Context: "The agency has always taken the position that the way it processes permits and looks at protectiveness is by looking at the fence line ... and that analysis is blind as to who is on the other side of the fence," Austin energy industry lawyer Whit Swift said on the Bracewell Environmental Law Monitor podcast last August.

  • "That has kind of been the agency's answer when environmental justice issues have been raised in permit proceedings."

Zoom out: This January, the chief of the U.S. EPA announced steps to address environmental justice issues in Texas, such as expanding air monitoring programs and ramping up unannounced inspections of polluting facilities.

The bottom line: Any so-called environmental justice initiative by the Texas environmental agency is window-dressing, says Neil Carman, clean air director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

  • The environmental justice initiative appears to be "a kind of fluff," he told Axios. "They've tried to show they're doing something, but they're not doing much."

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