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“Perry makes Bush look like a Greenpeace smokestack sitter.” BROWSE internal TCEQ emails and calenders at cattle baron, the oilman, the multinational petrochemical company with billions in assets. Under governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry, the TCEQ has become increasingly cozy with industry. \(Until 2002, the agency was the Texas Natural Resources Conservation “It’s never been worse,” says Jim Schermbeck of the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk. “Perry makes Bush look like a Greenpeace smokestack-sitter.” When Texas citizens meet their environmental agency, they’re often disappointed. The stories of environmental battlestold in these pages countless timesfrequently follow a similar plot. First, citizens band together to beat back \(fill in the blank: a coal plant, industrial feedlot, uranium mine, they educate themselves on the rules, laws and politics. At some point, they probably contact an overwhelmed organization such as Public Citizen or the Sierra Club for help. They form a group with a snappy acronym, print literature, create a website, hold meetings and write their Congress member. After a time, they realize that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is holding the cards. A permit must be stopped or penalties assessed to deter misbehavior. Surely the commission, an impartial arbiter, will weigh the facts and side with the people. More times than not, a bitter reality sets in: The TCEQ is not the people’s friend, but another obstacle. There’s a “well-founded perception that [the public] can’t get in the process or, even if they get in, it’s just a token effort, and it won’t make any difference,” Soward says. In TCEQ’s internal lingo, “customers” are the companies the agency regulates. In serving its “customers,” TCEQ has allowed itself to be overrun by powerful interests, shown disregard for both science and the law, and cast aside public opinion. There’s no more eye-opening illustration of the agency’s MO than West Texas’ new radioactive waste dump. In 2007, a team of geologists and engineers at TCEQ unanimously recommended that a license for the vast dump, near Andrews, be denied. Water contamination was a prime concern. Then-Executive Director Glenn Shankle ordered the TCEQ team to issue the license anyway. There was big money at stake. The company behind the dump, Waste Control Specialists Inc., is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who’s contributed $620,000 to Perry’s campaigns since 2001, according to Texans for Public Justice. Simmons stands to make billions from storing “lowlevel” radioactive waste in West Texas. Records show that Shankle met regularly with a team of lobbyists, lawyers and company principals at the same time his own experts warned him of the dump’s dangers. Seeing that the fix was in, three TCEQ employees quit in protest. Commissioners hardly batted an eye. In January 2009, after a brief, technical discussion, they voted 2-0 denied the Sierra Club and 12 individuals in Eunice, New Mexico, the town closest to the dump, a chance to contest the license before administrative judges. Shankle stepped down as TCEQ’s executive director in June 2008. Six months later, he went to work for Waste Control Specialists as a lobbyist, collecting between $100,000 and $150,000 for his services thus far. Commissioners and top management frequently leave the agency to work for the industries they previously regulated, a revolving door that critics say has led to TCEQ’s Many of Texas’ veteran environmentalists long ago grew cynical about any possibility of reorienting the TCEQ toward its public “customers.” Many legislators have a level of frustration toward the agency exceeded only by their animus toward the state Department of Transportation. Hope for reforming the TCEQ has surged in the past year, however. The chief reason: Since President Barack Obama took office, a newly invigorated \(and demonThe federal agency has declared several of the state’s air-permitting programs inadequate. They’re cracking down on TCEQ’s frequent refusals to hold public hearingsand on its fundamental failures to control major air polluters. The EPA is getting plenty of blowback from Perry and his commissioners. Soward sees neither side budging: “I think that in the days and weeks to come, we’re going to see that that confrontation is going to come to a head.” The state-federal showdown is kicking off as TCEQ goes before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies every 12 years. Critics like Soward hope to use the sunset process to press the Texas Legislature, which meets in January, to change TCEQ’s idea of who their customers really are. With the pressure building and hope for reform rising, it’s the ideal time to step back and examine the patterns of failure at TCEQ. SEE NO EVIL Since 2005, a drilling frenzy in the Barnett Shalean extensive geological formation with trillions of cubic feet of natural gashas overtaken much of urban and suburban Fort Worth. It’s been a bonanza for gas producers, local government coffers, and residents receiving royalty checks. But there’s a backlash, fueled by fears of groundwater contamination, pipeline explosions, and evidence that at least some of the 14,000 wells drilled so far are leaking dangerous toxins into the air. Last September, the tiny town of DISHfrustrated by the lack of action on TCEQ’s partannounced the results of a bombshell air-quality study it spent 10 percent of the town’s annual budget to commission from outside experts. Air samples from residential areas near gas-compressor stations contained high levels of benzene, and other carcinogens and neurotoxinsmuch higher than TCEQ health-based standards. Evidence in hand, DISH Mayor Calvin Tillman, a conservative who’s become the bane of North Texas gas interests, called on the industry to clean up its act or get out of town. The fallout from the DISH study prompted TCEQ to do its own testing during three days in December. On Jan. 12, Deputy Director John Sadlier presented the muchanticipated results to the Fort Worth City Council. “Everything you hear today will be good news,” Sadlier told the packed council meeting. The commission staff, he said, had visited 126 sites in the Fort Worth area and found no evidence of benzene or other cancer-causing chemicals. “Based on this study, the air is safe,” Sadlier told the council. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG