Aug 10, 2022 - News

Texas environmental agency investigated for civil rights violations

Democrat Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee holds up papers during a press conference announcing an EPA investigation.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, holds up a letter from the EPA during a press conference. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) over potentially discriminatory tactics related to concrete batch plant permitting.

What's happening: The investigation centers around a 2021 rule change to how concrete batch plants are permitted. Local officials say the change wasn't communicated to non-English-speaking communities.

  • The EPA will also look at whether TCEQ's standards for concrete batch plants are too lax, allowing plants to emit cancer-causing crystalline silica in mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Why it matters: Harris County has the largest share of concrete batch plants in the state.

  • A majority of those plants are in communities where people of color make up at least 80% of the population.
  • There are virtually no concrete batch plants inside the largely white and affluent Houston Arrow.

Flashback: In 2021, TCEQ changed its permitting rules to exclude crystalline silica reporting from the permitting process.

  • The changes also removed reporting requirements for emissions of certain cancer-causing materials.
  • State law mandates that TCEQ alert Texans to such proposed changes, but the agency published the notices only in English.

Driving the news: In April, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star Legal Aid filed separate, but similar, complaints to the EPA, which prompted the investigation.

  • In the complaint, Harris County attorneys argue that those in "linguistically isolated communities" were left out of the conversation.
  • The attorneys also say the pollution at concrete batch plants in Harris County "exceed[s] health-based standards."

What they're saying: More than a dozen dignitaries, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, praised the EPA for opening the investigation.

  • "It's a rubber stamp," Jackson Lee said of TCEQ's concrete batch plant permitting process. "No questions asked. Set up right next to the elementary school."

The other side: TCEQ declined to comment on the investigation.

What's next: The EPA will issue its preliminary findings within 180 days.

  • Harris County is asking the EPA to withdraw TCEQ's authority to issue concrete plant permits until the investigation is resolved.
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