The Insider

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photo by Michael Stravato
Larry Soward

In his six years as a TCEQ commissioner, from 2003 to 2009, Larry Soward got a rare insider’s view of how the agency functions—and how it doesn’t.

“The mindset of the agency is we gotta issue permits, that’s our job, we issue permits,” he said during a recent interview in Houston. “[O]ver the years the culture has been developed to be very friendly to industry and that is the culture the agency lives with every day.”

Commissioners, he says, are routinely lobbied by industry, and company lawyers or industry groups frequently draft rules for the commissioners to consider.

“I refer to it as the mariachi band approach,” Soward says. “You’d have three or four of the lawyers or consultants. They would set up meetings and go office to office with their spiel.”

Soward is a diminutive man, an attorney with a pleasant, deliberative aspect honed during his 35 years in state government. In his time at TCEQ, Soward frequently clashed with his two fellow commissioners over high-profile decisions. Soward describes Gov. Perry as “a dear friend” and takes pains to couch his views as disagreements over policy, not personal conflicts. Still, he’s now retired and free to describe how the TCEQ really functions. He’s also free to try and change it: Soward is helping Air Alliance Houston (previously called GHASP) and other environmental groups draft recommendations to reform TCEQ in the Sunset process and the 2011 Legislature.
Soward says the Sunset process must address a central flaw: “The commissioners regularly and routinely get one side—industry’s side—therefore you end up with policies and rules that are more friendly, if you will, or certainly acceptable to industry.”

Some of TCEQ’s problems stem from the Texas Legislature tying the agency’s hands, Soward argues. For example, under state law the commission can impose penalties of only up to $10,000 per day per violation. “In many cases that’s an effective amount to deter [misbehavior],” Soward says. “But in many cases it’s not.”

In 2003, the State Auditor’s Office studied the problem and determined that companies were fined only 19 percent of their economic gain from polluting. Soward would like to see the Legislature bump the cap up or allow more severe penalties in certain cases.

When state law isn’t clear enough, Soward says, the commission simply finds a way to get corporate interests what they want—even to the point of straying from the law and engaging in secrecy. He points to the agency’s so-called “flex permit” program, a Bush-era program devised 14 years ago to give some of the state’ biggest polluters—refineries and chemical plants—a pass on ratcheting down emissions at the thousands of pollution points on each facility.

Instead, the program assigns a plant-wide cap on key pollutants—a cap that is much too high, critics say.

Soward knows better than most that reforming TCEQ won’t come easy.

Still, he holds out hope that a reform moment has arrived. “You keep sowing seeds and eventually you’re going to find a little fertile ground and that seed is going to sprout.”

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Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.