SENATE COMMITTEE ON JURISPRUDENCE EXAMINES STATE REGULATORY POWERS
(EDINBURG) — The Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence traveled to the Rio Grande Valley Wednesday, July 16, 2008. Meeting at UT-Pan American University in Edinburg, the committee heard testimony on how the regulatory authority of various agencies can overlap, possibly causing confusion among those regulated.
The first invited witness was Christina T. Wisdom, Vice President of the Texas Chemical Council. She began by reviewing the Council's work during the last session to give the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) primary authority over the state's air, limiting the power of local governments. Committee member Senator Mario Gallegos said that currently chemical companies were not properly notifying TCEQ of accidents that have compromised air quality in Houston and that the air quality agency is not listening to local officials since the bill doesn't order it to, adding, "TCEQ is not doing anything because of that language in that bill".
Michael Stewart, President of the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association, testified that there has been conflict between state and local governments for years over air and water quality as more and more municipalities try to regulate companies operating outside their city limits, but inside their extra territorial jurisdictions. Committee member Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa criticized those who have established plants such as tire recycling operations over sensitive aquifers, saying TCEQ is not "sensitive enough" in examining where certain operations are permitted, and that local communities need more influence in determining where such operations are located.
Ned Munoz, from the Texas Association of Builders followed, testifying about land use and housing affordability. He said his members have problems with local governments that go beyond their statutory authority to regulate development, as this cannot help but drive up the cost of housing, and that given that demographers project the state's population will double by the year 2040, excessive regulations by cities will shrink the amount of affordable housing.
Elena Marks from the City of Houston testified that unless Houston has clean air, they simply cannot continue to attract or keep jobs and that as a home rule city it is guaranteed certain powers by the state constitution which can be applied to air pollution. She said that certain carcinogens are in Houston's air and that the TCEQ has placed parts of Harris County on a watch list due to this. She then described the city's desire to regulate air quality in Harris County and how that led to state legislation introduced during the 80th Legislative Session. Their main problem is that the chief emitters of the chemical benzene are outside of the City of Houston's jurisdiction and cannot be regulated by the city. In response to questioning from Senator Hinojosa, she said that other states that, unlike Texas, have standards for such air toxins generally have lower levels of the chemicals in their air. For instance, a Shell Oil facility in Deer Park, Texas emits more pollutants than do similar plants in California and Louisiana, two states that do have emission standards. Senator Kirk Watson of Austin said that such standards need to be below the safety level for human exposure and that TCEQ has refused to set such standards. Instead, it has voluntary guidelines that, according to Marks, are rarely followed.
Michael Honeycutt, the chief toxicologist of TCEQ, then testified that there are pros and cons to such standards, that some states have standards and don't enforce them, and that standards for a chemical like benzene can vary widely. He said their guidelines were set at the middle of a range of standards used by various governments. According to Honeycutt the problem in Houston is that there is a large number of mobile and stationary sources of such pollutants, but that new technologies now available are helping them to reduce pollutants in the area. Senator Gallegos replied that while that may be the case, the agency is failing to communicate with local officials. He told the meeting that during a recent fire he personally tried to call TCEQ on its 800 number and it took him an hour to speak to a person. He said he smells the chemicals at his Senate office and that there is no "confusion" in his mind about standards, that "this has gone far enough for me, especially when this stuff is right in the middle of my district. We're going to have to push or shove on this one." Committee Chair Jeff Wentworth then urged the witness to go back to TCEQ and report the members' concerns to his superiors.
The Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee is Chaired by Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen is the vice-chair. Members include Senators John Carona of Dallas, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Mario Gallegos of Houston, Chris Harris of Arlington and Kirk Watson of Austin. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.