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Burning Issue Citizens question new toxic waste rules BY JAMES CULLEN ATENT CITY” WAS set up outside the Texas Water Commission’s headquarters in Austin late last month to protest the scheduled expiration of a moratorium on new toxic waste disposal permits. Midlothian residents who set up the tent city were protesting plans to expand two cement kilns that burn hazardous waste 25 miles southwest of Dallas. The Water Commission gave the demonstrators little comfort Oct. 2 when it replaced the moratorium with new rules that prohibit hazardous waste incinerators within a half-mile of homes, schools, churches, day-care centers, parks and water supplies. The new rules, enabled by legislation passed this spring, require companies seeking a permit to burn hazardous waste to prove they have enough money to build the plant and operate it responsibly. The commission also for the first time will consider a company’s compliance record in determining whether to approve a permit. Despite the tougher rules, environmentalists warned that concerned neighbors should not relax their vigilance, even as Gov. Ann Richards’ appointees take over the Texas Water Commission. The Legislature, as part of Senate Bill 1099, passed this spring, ordered the 120-day moratorium on hazardous waste incinerator permits while the commission drew up the regulations. The law and the new rules that resulted from itrepresented a compromise after Richards in February proposed a two-year moratorium on issuing new permits. She later embraced the legislation as the best version that could win legislative approval, although some environmentalists argued it did not go far enough. The Water Commission’s action clears the way for action on 13 permit applications that were pending. While those permits.will resume their way through the agency toward a final decision, environmentalists were hopeful the commission would hold them to tougher standards. New TWC Chairman John Hall said the commission will not “rubber stamp” applications, but will make a careful review. “We may actually turn some down,” he said. Jim Blackburn, a Houston attorney for environmental groups challenging several of the permits, said the moratorium and new rules are a significant improvement. “Before the moratorium there was a business-as-usual view of hazardous waste permitting,” he said. “I think for the first time we now have what I would call a level playing field with regard to environmental permitting. I feel like with the appointments Governor Richards has made, I have a chance to convince Chairman Hall, new Commissioner Reed and even [Commissioner] Buck [Wynne, the lone holdover from Republican Gov. Bill Clements] that a bad site ought not to be permitted.” The prospect for a transformation under Richards of the Water Commission, which oversees a wide range of environmental programs in the state, is the main cause for hope, but not all environmentalists were happy over the appointment of Pam. Reed, a Travis County commissioner, to the commission. Reed joins chairman Hall as the second Austin resident on the three-member commission, but Austin environmentalists demonstrated against Reed a week before her appointment, when news leaked out that she was being considered for the post. As a county commissioner, Reed approved road construction projects in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Barton Creek VIC HINTERIANG Environmentalists protest at Texas Water Commission watershed, and had ties with developers such as Gary Bradley, who has opposed the Austin environmental community in the debate over strengthening the city’s comprehensive watershed ordinance, as the Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club, noted in its. State Capitol Report. Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club said environmentalists were disappointed with Reed mainly because there appeared to be more qualified candidates, both in Austin and elsewhere in the state. “It just seemed rather odd, in contrast with some of the governor’s other appointments,” he said. He added, “I expect that Pam Reed will pretty much follow Chairman Hall’s direction on hazardous waste disposal.” Rick Abraham of Texans United, a Houston-based grassroots environmental coalition that helped organize the tent city, also criticized Reed’s appointment. “We were very disappointed in that [Reed] appointment. She’s a woman who may be very nice, but who knows very little about the environment, and we don’t think the Water Commission should be a training ground for commissioners,” he said. The governor’s press aide, Bill Cryer, said Richards selected Reed for the seat, vacated by the death of John Birdwell, because she was the best person available for the job, despite the criticism of some Austin-based environmentalists. “I think the Pam Reed controversy here in Austin was probably beneficial, because I think it suggested to Pam Reed what the concerns are in the environmental community,” he said. Reed said she is “not an ecoterrorist, but I am an environmentalist” who supported environmental concerns on the Travis County Commissioners Court, including the decision to complete the controversial Southwest Parkway through the Barton Creek watershed rather than leave it half-built. “The main criticism I have heard was that I didn’t know anything about water law. Of course that has never been a requisite for being water commissioner,” she said. Reed said she planned to follow the direction of chairman Hall and she would rely on the staff to provide technical expertise. “If you can’t rely on the staff, they shouldn’t be there,” she said. Hall said he expects Reed to support him on the commission. “I THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9