THE BACK PAGE Up Uher’s executive director and/or the three T.N.R.C.C. commissioners. Opponents of the bill, including a “Right to Know” network composed of more than 100 organizations, held a press conference to decry H.B. 801 as a sham that substitutes the opportunity to “vent emotions” in the place of participation, and the leverage provided by a full and formal hearing. \(They also point out that the Chemical Council and its backers, including the Texas Association of Businesses and Chambers of Commerce, do not seek to remove the right of regulated industries to request contested-case hearings when they rent process can be long and costly for all parties involved, but in 1996 and 1997, fewer than 1 percent of permit decisions were referred for contested-case hearings, and perhaps half of those actually went through the process. That’s too many for Uher. “Even if it’s just one case that runs over $1 million, that’s not right,” he told the House Environmental Deregulation Committee February 15. Uher likened his bill to a kindred effort to improve the state’s business climate: tort reform. “We’re talking about economic development,” Uher said. “If our permit process becomes a real issue, and it’s cheaper in Alabama and Louisiana, then we’ve lost jobs,” he said. Some remember Uher singing a different “A question ain’t really a question, if you know the answer, too.” John Prine Don’t tell House Speaker Pro Tern Tom Uher about environmental permits. If you leave aside the Houston Ship Channel, Uher’s District 29 probably hosts the highest concentration of chemical manufacturers in Texas, and Uher’s recent campaign contribution reports read like a page from the state’s annual Toxics Release Inventory: listing PAC contributions from corporate citizens such as BASF Corporation, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Eastman Kodak. All of which makes the veteran House member the perfect candidate to carry the centerpiece of the Texas Chemical Council’s 1999 legislative package: House Bill 801. \(“If you can’t get the Speaker, get the Speaker pro tern,” explained Chemical in the previous two sessions, with H.B. 801 the Council has targeted the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission’s contested-case hearing process, by which citizens and local governments can request a trial-like hearing before an independent administrative judge to contest a permit granted by the agency. Last October’s denial of the radioactive waste disposal permit in Sierra Blanca was the result of such a contested-case hearing. And an example of what’s wrong with the process, according to Uher. “There was nothing wrong with the Sierra Blanca site; people have said it’s not safe, but it really is,” Uher said. “It was politics.” The Chemical Council wants to replace the contested case hearing with a less formal, “non-adversarial” public hearing process \(with, they claim, “expanded public tune in the early eighties, when his district was targeted for a controversial underground “salt dome” hazardous waste disposal site. Local opposition was fierce, and Uher joined the opponents in the lengthy contested-case hearing that ensued. “The applicant was sell ing a new procedure that hadn’t been tested,” Uher explained shortly after lay ing out H.B. 801. “They were mixing up a [waste] slurry and pumping it down into caverns, salt domes. Then it would supposedly solidify forever and not get away. Well, there’s no way to know that,” Uher said. Yet the T.N.R.C.C.’ s predecessor agency granted the permit or would have, were it not for the contested-case hearing demanded by Uher’s non-industry constituents. Although the case eventually ended up on appeal in state district court, it was the contested-case hearing process that allowed opponents to build their case against the company and the agency, according to Austin attorney Mark Lawless, who represented opponents. If there had been no contested-case hearing process? “My gut tells me the outcome would have been different,” Lawless said.
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