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FEATURE Public Output BY MICHAEL KING Houston, March 5 “We work for the people of the state of Texas ” announces Barry McBee as he calls to order the evenine “town hall meeting,” inviting public input into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission `strategic planning” pmcess. TITINRCC Commissioner McBee had come to Houston to host the fourth of a dozen such scheduled meetings through early April, from El Paso to Arlington to Beaumont to Laredo. The Commissioners were coming, the TNRCC had announced, to receive input from “regular people.” “I can’t emphasize enough our desire to hear from representative segments of the Texas population,” de clared McBee in the agency’s press release, “and by that I mean ordinary citizens, business leaders, environmental groups, civic or ganizations, and many others from all over.” There are several of each here tonight, in the Houston/Galveston Area Council’s meeting room, on the second floor of a glistening high-rise in the city’s near-west side. McBee is accompanied by his neke of the agency’s Office of Public Assistance. As they open the meeting, all three emphasize their eagerness to hear from the public. \(“We’re not here to debate, but to listen to your concerns,” says nitaries turn the podium around, and the vox populi resounds. One should not be surprised if “the public” is more than a little skeptical about the sincerity of the Commissioner’s declared interest in its opinions. During its brief life, McBee’s agency has developed a formidable reputation as the bosom friend of industry and the indifferdeal of specific skepticism among environmental groups about the intent of these public meetings. The first three \(El Paso, San Angelo, Arthem early enough to attend. It hasn’t been much better in Houston a rip-and-read press release buried in the Chronicle and on public radio -but it’s clear the environmental grapevine has done its work, bringing a capacity crowd to a room that holds perhaps 130 people. Several activists have told me earlier that they consider these ceremonial TNRCC occasions little more than public relations gambits. “I’m not sure what particular good can come out of it,” said George Smith before the meeting. “They gave the meeting precious little publicity in the first place, and it’s not focused on anything in particular; I suppose numerous people will come up and speak about particular local problems.” Smith chairs the air quality committee of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and he brought very low expectations to the TNRCC meeting. Smith said the TNRCC has paid little attention to organized efforts by Houstonians to focus on the area’s massive environmental problems “air pollution, toxic waste sites, brown fields [poisoned land], et cetera.” The Sierra Club, the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, and even the high-tech, high-profile Houston Area Research Center have all issued reports addressing the local environmental crisis, with little serious response from the TNRCC. “The agency continues to issue permits to pollute without serious review, and their enforcement against pollution violations is virtually non-existent,” said Smith. “They’ve had seven years to come up with a clean-air plan in response to federal mandates from the E.P.A., and all they’ve done is set ‘targets,’ with no control measures, no detail on quantification, and no expectation of results.” Smith was looking forward to upcoming public hearings on the agency’s plan \(called the “State Imton/Galveston area. The SIP is subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency. “The state’s plan is very weak,” Smith said, “and I expect the E.P.A. will reject it.” If Smith is skeptical, activist LaNell Anderson is rejectionist. She has battled the agency for years over industrial pollution near her she described the town hall meeting as just a “publicity stunt” she would not attend. “It’s not a sincere attempt to reach the public,” Anderson said. “They haven’t publicized it, they’ve scheduled it in an inconvenient location at a pro-business organization, and their message is, ‘Don’t talk to me unless you’re industry.'” Anderson was hoping for better results from the E.P.A. “At least they listen,” she said. Those who do decide to attend this evening’s three-hour session provide a steady litany of the overwhelming environmental problems endemic to the Houston/Beaumont/Galve ston area. Representatives of the Bayou Preservation Association describe the chemical and solid waste besetting the city’s waterways. A retired professor describes the toxic soup that makes up Houston area smog, generated both by major industrial sources and the gasoline life-blood of this car-choked metropolis. There are more localized concerns as well: a creosote-soaked superfund site in Conroe; a Houston-generated, sub-contracted sewage-waste sludge dump near Katy, so foul, says a local citizen, that he and his neighbors must stay indoors to avoid vomiting. His pleas to the agency have fallen on deaf ears, as it simply responds, concerning the waste company, “‘They’re in compliance….’ I don’t have a good thought for the TNRCC…. They have been a shield [for] the company.” He is followed by a Bay City alderman, who says that the TNRCC has ignored the state’s own Coastal Management Plan, in permitting bay-area landfills, and that it appears “the TNRCC permits a landfill if every blank on the permit application is completed.” The stream of complaint is interrupted occasionally by a touch of comic relief. One large suburbanite demands that the TNRCC stand 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 27, 1998