Bush and the Texas Environment

But Bush’s environmental track record – you know he’s running on empty.

– Neil Carman, Lone Star Sierra Club, May 1999

You’ve got to ask the question, is the air cleaner since I became Governor? And the answer is yes.

– George W. Bush, May 1999

That’s not a stretcher – that’s a whopper. If you want to get strong about it, it’s a perverse distortion of reality, since Bush is, to put it mildly, part of the problem.

By no known standard has the air of Texas improved under Governor Bush, nor has anything else involving the environment. He personally intervened to protect major air polluters in the state, and his appointees in this area are staggeringly dreadful.

According to the tri-national North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, set up by NAFTA, Texas pollutes more than any other state or Canadian province. That record includes air pollution and water pollution. We’re Number One.

And according to records kept by the Environmental Defense Fund, Texas is also number one in:

overall toxic releasesrecognized carcinogens in the airsuspected carcinogens in the airdevelopmental toxins in the air (affecting brain and nervous-system development in children)cancer risk.

And number one in ten other categories of dangerous air pollutants in the environment, too.

The problem was not created by Bush, and we have had governors who cared even less about it. In 1980 our then-governor Bill Clements’ oil company owned the offshore rig that blew out in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, causing an immense oil slick to wash up on Texas beaches. As the slick approached land, Clements was asked what he thought we should do about it. “Pray for a hurricane,” he snarled. (He did actually snarl – Clements snarled rather frequently.) Still, Bush’s record is dismal, even by our standards.

The Texas Gulf Coast, from the Louisiana border south to Corpus Christi, is home to the largest concentration of refineries and chemical plants in the United States. The ungodly stench that afflicts coastal cities from Port Arthur to Port Aransas is described by residents as “the smell of money.” It’s sort of a combination of something chemical and something rotten. Again, the industries, the pollution they produce, and the smell existed long before Bush became governor, but it is fair to ask why he hasn’t used his six years in office to do anything except let the problem get worse – and has even stymied efforts to improve it. Big George Bush asked a similar question in 1988, when he used Boston Harbor as a backdrop for a television ad that claimed Michael Dukakis was responsible for “500 million gallons of barely treated sewage and 70 tons of sludge” flowing into the harbor daily. Thanks to Bush the Younger, plants producing 904,000 tons of air pollution annually could continue to operate as they have for almost thirty years – in ways that would have them shut down or fined in almost any other state in the nation.

Since 1988 Boston Harbor has gotten a lot cleaner, as has the air in Los Angeles and the water in the Hudson River – all environmental success stories under Republican governors. It is not beyond expectation, it is not un-Republican, it is not even unusual for environmental progress to be made. In this state, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, and Beaumont-Port Arthur have all been put on the E.P.A. list of “nonattainment zones.” (Now, there’s a catchy bureaucratic phrase for you; it means the air is filthy and air alerts have to be issued on a regular basis in the summertime.) In addition, Austin, Tyler, San Antonio, and Longview are now eligible to be on the list, having attained the appropriate levels of pollution, but they have not yet worked their way through the bureaucracy. Dallas-Fort Worth is now listed as a serious nonattainment zone and is expected to move up to severe. As L.A.’s air gets better, Houston’s gets worse, and on at least one indicator, Houston has already beat L.A. for “most polluted”: In 1998 and 1999 Houston had the single highest recorded ozone levels of any city in the country. A study done by the city of Houston itself shows air pollution causes at least 430 deaths per year, another kind of death penalty.

Between 1993 and 1998, fifty-six of the ninety-six nonattainment areas around the country got off that list; none were in Texas. It’s harder to tell about the pollution of Texas rivers, because after Bush got elected governor, the state virtually stopped monitoring water quality. The pesticide-monitoring program has also been largely abandoned; according to the E.P.A., 59 million pounds of pesticides were used in Texas in 1998.

Bush began briskly in 1995 by calling for the resignation of all three of Ann Richards’ appointees to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the closest thing Texas has to an E.P.A.. The commission is known in state government as Trainwreck, since that’s the closest we can come to pronouncing the acronym T.N.R.C.C.. It was established in the early nineties to monitor air quality and to grant state permits for new refineries, chemical and industrial plants, and landfills. Trainwreck was never a center of environmental activism, to put it mildly. But by the end of Bush’s first term, it had clearly become what government professors call “a captive regulatory agency” – controlled by the industries it was established to regulate.

Richards’ appointees to Trainwreck were a man (just for the record, African-American) with more than a decade’s experience as an administrator in state environmental agencies; a woman county commissioner from Austin, a town notoriously full of tree huggers and whale savers; and a woman county judge from West Texas, where they equally notoriously do not hug trees – they don’t even have trees. Bush replaced this trio with three guys so sympathetic to big polluters it left Texas environmentalists whomperjawed. John Baker is from the Texas Farm Bureau, the agricultural interest group that sells discount insurance and tires to farmers and ranchers. Although the bureau purports to speak for Texas farmers, it is actually a large insurance company whose portfolio is loaded with agricultural chemical stocks. The bureau has opposed all efforts to regulate pesticides in Texas. The next new commissioner was Ralph Márquez, who spent thirty years working for the Monsanto chemical company and then became a lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council. The man from Monsanto went to Washington, D.C., using his position as one of Texas’ top environmental officials, to testify that ozone is “benign”; he opposed efforts to strengthen federal air-quality standards. And finally, the man who may well replace Carole Browner at E.P.A. should Bush become president, our Barry McBee.

McBee is a boyish lawyer in his mid-forties who worked in Bush the Elder’s White House. He was called back to Texas by Rick Perry in 1994. Perry, he of the good hair, now lieutenant governor, had then just been elected state ag commissioner. If Karl Rove is Bush’s brain, McBee is certainly Rick Perry’s gray matter. He’s a smart technocrat who has spent most of his life in government and is also an evangelical Christian who would occasionally fall to his knees and pray before casting a vote to open a hog farm in the Panhandle. At one Trainwreck meeting in 1997, McBee launched into a homily on Christian love and mercy just before casting a landfill vote; a major industry lobbyist said later, “It absolutely scared the shit out of everybody in the business community.”

“I do hope that people would say and know that I am a Christian,” McBee told a reporter in 1997. He is the perfect W. Bushie, a combination of Christian and corporate. In the Texas Senate, to which McBee transferred after his old boss Perry was elected lite guv, McBee is known as “the skinny Hitler.” They’re colorful in the Texas Senate.

Bush’s appointees to Trainwreck spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying against and rallying industry opposition to the new federal air-quality health standards enacted in 1997. Before November of ’97 they made many trips around the state for meetings with people from industry, urging them to write their congressmen. They held “rallies” where six to eight people showed up, all happy to denounce the feds.

Rebecca Flores-Harrington, now with the AFL-CIO, spent many years organizing for César Chavez’s United Farm Workers. In 1986, when Jim Hightower, a populist Democrat, was elected state ag commissioner, Flores worked with him to develop a policy requiring farmers to warn workers when fields sprayed with pesticides were so “hot” they could cause illness or even death. One worker had already died of pesticide exposure, offed like a bug sprayed with Raid. “The policy was really nothing radical,” said Flores. “We just wanted signs posted that would warn workers that a field has been sprayed, and that for two or three days the fresh, active chemicals in the field could kill them.”

When McBee went to work as deputy director of the Texas Department of Agriculture, one of his first acts was to dismantle the right-to-know regulations that protected farmworkers. “It took us years to get the system to work for us,” said Flores. “He took it apart in one day.”

According to a 1999 study, “Pesticides and Texas Water Quality” by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, the number of pesticide stations sampled went from twenty-seven in 1985 (under Hightower) to one in 1997. The report details many other inadequacies in the monitoring program.

When Bush moved McBee to Trainwreck, the agency reduced public participation in its hearings. That policy was challenged by a grain farmer from the Panhandle, who vehemently opposed the granting of a permit for a corporate hog farm across the road from his house. He sued and won his right – and the right of all citizens – to participate in permit hearings. However, Trainwreck has recently published rules trying to get around the court order and close the hearings again. Meanwhile, Texas is going in the opposite direction from other states like Iowa, Oklahoma, and North Carolina on large, confined animal-feed operations, particularly hog farms. These outfits produce enormous amounts of fecal waste that threatens water supplies and water quality. While other states are tightening regulation of the waste, Texas has been moving to cut the operations free of regulation. The agency also began providing advance notice of “surprise inspections” of large industrial facilities, thus lending a surprising new meaning to surprise. Trainwreck also opposed the E.P.A.’s attempts to strengthen national air-quality standards and all but stopped monitoring water quality in the state’s rivers and streams.

As bad as Trainwreck was under Bush, the commissioners finally decided something had to be done about the state’s grandfathered refineries, utilities, and chemical and industrial plants. These plants are exempt from state pollution controls because they were in operation before the Texas Clean Air Act went into effect in 1971. Former state representative Sissy Farenthold says the grandfather exemption was meant to be for “a few years, maybe four,” giving the plants enough time to come up to the new state standards. Twenty-eight years later, the same 850 plants are producing 36 percent – more than one-third – of the state’s total air pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and Public Citizen have worked for years to increase pubic awareness of the issue, and pressure on Trainwreck gradually increased. Not just greens were involved; because every one of the state’s major metropolitan areas is or soon will be declared in “nonattainment,” the E.P.A.’s immortal euphemism, that means the loss of highway funds. That’s a B.F.D., as they say in East Texas (big f–ing deal), in a state where highway spending has precedence over all other state functions, including the public schools and public health. The E.P.A. designation also leads to some restrictions on business.

Just as Trainwreck was about to crack down on the grandfathered plants, Bush stepped in. The Sierra Club and an environmental coalition called SEED got the following information through an open-records request. In 1997 Bush’s environmental director warned the governor that industry was concerned that his three appointees to Trainwreck, those environmental firebrands, were “moving too quickly” and “may rashly seek legislation this session.” Within a few months the governor quietly asked two oil-company presidents to outline a voluntary program for the grandfathered polluters, which is something like asking criminals to set the length of their own sentences. In June 1997 the same two oil execs summoned two dozen industry representatives to a meeting at Exxon’s corporate headquarters in Houston and handed them an outline of the voluntary emissions-reduction plan Bush had requested. A memo written by a DuPont executive who attended the meeting indicates some astonishment: “The approach of the presenters was pretty much like, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. Do you want to get on board or not?’ Clearly the insiders from oil & gas believe that the Governor’s Office will ‘persuade’ the T.N.R.C.C. to accept what program is developed between the industry group and the Governor’s Office.”

And they did. The governor of the state with the highest volume of air pollution in the nation accommodated the state’s biggest polluters. After almost three decades of unrestrained pollution, he let it continue under the guise of “voluntary compliance.” Of the 850 grandfathered polluters, 28 have come up with a plan to reduce pollution, but only 3 have actually done so. Hell of a program.

Two years after his 1997 gift to oil, gas, and electric utilities, Bush moved to have his voluntary-emissions program written into law. In what could be his last legislative effort in Texas, his staff beat back a revolt by House Democratic liberals against setting this nonsense into law. The D’s put up a bill requiring the plants to use what environmental engineers call the Best Available Control Technology. The governor’s office had its own bill, written by R. Kinnan Goleman, a lobbyist for energy and utility companies who is also general counsel for the Texas Chemical Council. Goleman’s bill permitted the use of ten-year-old pollution-control technology and voluntary compliance with the law. Every newspaper in the state ran angry editorials opposing this joke of a bill. Despite the eleventh-hour stand by the Democrats, the deal went down.

Two campaign-finance watchdog groups, Public Research Works and the Center for Responsive Politics, discovered this happy concordance: The companies participating in the industry working group that helped design Bush’s voluntary program gave a total of $260,648 to his 1998 gubernatorial campaign – and $243,900 to his presidential campaign within a month of the opening of his exploratory committee. The largest donor to Bush’s last race for governor was a South Texas oil-and-gas operator who gave $101,000. Among those who contributed over $75,000 that year were four energy company C.E.O.s, for a total of $325,000.

After Bush’s bill – written by the lobbyist who represents Exxon, Koch Industries, ASARCO, etc. – had been passed by the House, its sponsor, Representative Ray Allen of Grand Prairie, explained to a colleague why he had carried it: “to protect Texas Utilities [a Dallas company] – and to make George Bush green for the presidential campaign.” Although some House Republicans actually claimed the bill was pro-environment, the only green involved was money.

The height of Bush’s environmental greenery came late in the ’99 legislative session. He said during a press conference, “Yes, I think global warming is a problem.” As it happens, Texas leads the nation in the emission of carbon monoxide, the principal greenhouse
gas. But the American Petroleum Institute immediately declared itself “surprised” by this ferociously green stand. A spokesman for an industry-funded “grassroots” group complained of “a shock wave throughout the community.” Sierra Club spokesman Neil Carman was driven to mix his metaphors: “But Bush’s environmental track record – you know he’s running on empty,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dan Quayle jumped fearlessly into the fray, claiming Dubya was “surrendering.” So Bush retreated, saying a few days later that while his environmental advisers agree there is “some warming, they disagree about its cause and impact.”

Just one more indicator on air quality – the number of days when Texas cities violated the one-hour ozone count. For the four years Richards was governor, the numbers are 58, 43, 38, and 48. The numbers for Bush’s first term are 88, 38, 69, and 56. Of the twenty-one air-quality indices looked at by the Environmental Defense Fund, all have gotten worse under Bush.

For twenty years the state of Texas has been trying to get the E.P.A. to let it take over the Federal Water Pollution Permit Program, known by another nonacronym, Nipdes, for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. Without federal approval of the state’s water-pollution control program, all the industries and cities in Texas have to get two water-pollution permits – one from Trainwreck and one from E.P.A.. This is not only annoying but costly, running into thousands of dollars per permit. Industry could save money and local governments could cut costs as well if Texas just had a water-pollution program that measured up to federal standards. Every year Texas would apply to take over the program, and every year the E.P.A. would reject its application, pointing out all the inadequacies in the Texas program. Every year the state would fix a couple of things out of the hundreds that were wrong and then reapply hopefully. Back it would come, again listing all the problems yet to be fixed. In 1997 the E.P.A. listed seventy pages’ worth of problems with the Texas application, including several laws passed in the 1995 session that created new problems in water-pollution control. Texas was one of seven states that failed to get E.P.A. approval. But all the while congressional pressure on the agency was building; Texas congressmen wrote angry letters again and again. The Legislature finally moved to fix some of the problems listed by the E.P.A., and the application was approved in 1998, to the horror of Texas environmentalists, who promptly filed a lawsuit.

The suit, filed by the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, notes, among other pesky considerations, that (1) Texas doesn’t provide adequate resources in either money or people to do the job, spending even less than Louisiana; (2) our Texas “voluntary” compliance program does not meet E.P.A.’s enforcement criteria; and (3) there’s not enough public participation allowed in the permit process to ensure proper consideration of applications.

Texas has water-quality data for only a small percentage of its streams and rivers. The state has over 190,000 miles of streams and rivers, but only 40,000 are perennial, meaning they flow year-round. The state has designated specific uses – for example, water supply, contact recreation, high-quality aquatic life, etc. – for only 14,385 stream miles, about 7.5 percent of the total. Those 14,385 miles are called “classified segments” – yet another bureaucratic gift to the language – and the only water-quality monitoring we have is on these classified segments. In 1995 the number of monitoring stations was decreased by 24 percent. About 86 percent of the 446 existing water-quality monitoring stations are checked four times a year, the rest less frequently. Of the classified stream miles, 72.2 percent met the qualifications for their designated use in 1992; 66 percent in 1994; and 67.9 percent in 1996. Perhaps the most ominous drop in water quality is in classified reservoirs. In 1992, 90 percent of the classified reservoirs fully supported their designated use; in 1994, 98 percent; and in 1996, 78 percent. According to Trainwreck, this “substantial decline in reservoir water quality statewide” was due to low dissolved-oxygen levels (affecting aquatic life), elevated fecal coliform (basically, that’s shit, and it affects contact recreation use), and elevated levels of metals and organic pollutants. In addition, the Texas Department of Health issued fish-consumption bans for several reservoirs because of mercury contamination.

According to a coalition of Texas enviros reporting on the state’s perennial Nipdes application in 1996, Texas ranks at the top of every criterion of need for a strong water-pollution program.

It ranks number one in major discharge facilities (those are your big-time polluters), with 575 major facilities, compared with the next-largest states of Pennsylvania with 390 and New York with 350 major facilities.Texas ranks second in total number of minor Nipdes facilities, about 5,700. Louisiana has the largest number of such facilities in the country, about 6,000.Texas is the second most-populous state, but it has very limited water resources. Many of the state rivers, lakes, and bays are severely polluted. Over 3,000 miles, or one third, of Texas rivers and 44 percent of Texas bays are so polluted that they do not meet the standards set for recreational and other uses. Thirteen Texas lakes were covered by advisories or bans on fish consumption in 1996.

Kristen Warren, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, said sadly, “Environmentalists around the country really want to believe Bush is good on the environment. When they ask me about him, it makes me feel bad that I have to tell them the truth.”

Bush has signed numerous bills that weaken environmental protection. Most of the anti-environmental agenda of the Republican Revolution of 1994, which failed to pass in Washington, has passed and is law in Texas, including bills concerning takings, audit/privilege immunity, cost-benefit analysis, regulatory flexibility, and reduction of the public’s right to participate. The takings bill in particular, a pet project of the wacko right favored by militias everywhere, threatens to become a monumental problem for the state.

But perhaps the apogee of environmental folly during the Bush years was the Tejas Testing fiasco. By 1995, Houston, Dallas, El Paso, and other cities were in violation of E.P.A. air-pollution standards and the state was fixing to start the cleanup process by testing automobiles and making everybody ratchet down the pollution their cars cause. Of course, the only reason the state was doing this was so we could get back our highway money from the feds. But a right-wing radio host in Houston went on a jihad about how this was unconscionable government interference in our lives, and we have a right to breathe dirty air, and so on. (This is not an original argument in the Lege. Representative Billy Williamson of Tyler, home to an infamous killer asbestos plant, once said on the floor, “I think we are all willing to have a little bit of crud in our lungs and a full stomach rather than a whole bunch of clean air and nothing to eat. And I don’t want a bunch of environmentalists and Communists telling me what’s good for me and my family.” Billy has since died of lung cancer.) State senator John Whitmire, a peerless political opportunist, seized on this little quasi-populist flapette and made himself the champion of all those who felt heavy burdened by having to get their mufflers fixed. By then the state had not only signed a contract with Tejas Testing Technology, but the company also had sixty-five testing centers set up with all the equipment required to test emissions – just as the state contract required. Cooler heads warned Whitmire and those who joined him in this rebellion against Big Brother that the state would get sued if the contract was broken. But Bush backed Whitmire, and both pooh-poohed the idea we’d have to pay for it. Bush’s support was critical. Tejas Testing went into bankruptcy as soon as the contract was broken and sued for $200 million, finally settling at $140 million. Now here’s the beauty part. How to pay off this company? By using the funds appropriated to keep the air clean, of course. They took $41 million out of the Clean Air account, $63.6 million out of the Petroleum Storage Tank Remediation Fund, $20 million out of Hazardous Solid Waste Remediation, and $10 mill out of general revenue. The remainder was put off to the next biennium, when they raided Clean Air funds again. Believe it or not, even the Chemical Council, which pays into the Superfund for hazardous-waste site cleanup, was pissed off about it. The state was out more than $140 million, and not a single nickel of it went to make the air cleaner. It was reckless and stupid. You talk about not stopping to think through the consequences of policy. Not only is our air that much dirtier, but now what the state needs is an emissions-testing program. And the air in Houston is so filthy people are rising up to demand one.

“Bush and the Texas Environment” is excerpted with permission from Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, by Molly Ivins and Louis Dubose, published by Random House, and currently on the New York Times best-seller list.

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