From the chemical-addled brain of Senator Buster Brown comes another gift to industry: a bill that would allow the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to decide for itself what is or is not a hazardous waste. Currently, the state defines “hazardous waste” to be anything the Environmental Protection Agency defines as such, but under the new law, the TNRCC would issue its own rules “consistent with, and not more stringent than necessary (emphasis added) to maintain state program authorization” under federal law. In other words, the bill would give Texas more power to determine its own environmental policy, but require that our policy be no stricter than whatever the feds will let us get away with. Polluters could sue the state for imposing too strict a standard, but communities could not likewise challenge lax rules in court.
Brown’s bill serves to remind us what Republicans mean when they talk about giving more power to the states. New EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has proposed granting states more flexibility in administering the federal air and water laws; in this state, anyway, “flexibility” means doing less, not more. Given the polluters’ sway over certain state lawmakers, it’s no wonder that industry lobbyists are pushing for more state-administered policy. Notes Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund, “Giving Texas more flexibility over federal environmental laws will result in a one-way street to less strict standards.”
BUDDY DON’T LIKE SURPRISES
H.B. 876 Rep. Buddy West (R-Odessa)
Buddy West got a surprise from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission last year, and it wasn’t on his birthday. The agency issued several after-hours press releases concerning the Huntsman Polymers Corp. refinery in South Odessa, which drew national attention when a class-action lawsuit alleged that Huntsman fumes had damaged citizens’ health. That couldn’t have been good press for Odessa, and West is apparently bent on having more warning in the future. So he’s proposed H.B. 876, which would require a state agency to inform a legislator before releasing public information concerning that legislator’s district to the news media. Under penalty of removal from office, agency employees could issue news only during normal working hours, and only after informing (read: warning) the appropriate lawmakers about the contents of the release.
Aside from the practical problems this bill would pose–neither state agencies nor the news media operate on a strict 9 to 5 schedule–H.B. 876 would drive a dangerous wedge between agencies and the public they are charged with informing and protecting.
CHAIRMAN CHIZ FINALLY FLIPS
H.B. 3420 Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)
One of the more interesting spectacles last session was watching House Environmental (De)Regulation Committee chairman Warren Chisum resist a veritable army of nuke-waste lobbyists pushing for privatization of radioactive waste dumping in Texas. Chiz, normally as pro-business as they come, held the line on the mother of all bad environmental ideas all session. Of course, they were back again this time around, but up until a couple of weeks ago Chiz was still telling reporters that the bottom line for him was state control of the license to dump. But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Just before the filing deadline, Chisum signed his name to a bill by Sen. Robert Duncan that would direct the state to license a private company to import and dispose of radioactive waste in West Texas. Developed almost entirely under the radar, the 100-page bill appears to leave Waste Control Specialists, which operates a massive facility in Andrews County (north of Midland), holding all the cards. The bill would allow a private company to import waste from nuclear power plants across the country, as well as Department of Energy waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons program, for below-ground disposal. Worse yet, the state will ultimately be responsible for the waste once the licensing period is over and the dumping profits have been reaped, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for liability issues. Liability is everything in an industry where the product remains dangerous for thousands–if not millions–of years.