House Republicans Make it Harder for Citizens to Fight Polluters

In lopsided votes, the Republican supermajority weakens public participation in environmental permits.

Earth Day is three days away, so naturally the Texas House voted overwhelmingly today to make it tougher for citizens to fight polluters. The changes were tacked onto the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s “sunset” bill, legislation that reauthorizes the powerful agency. Environmental groups, no strangers to disappointment at the Lege, reacted swiftly.

Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)“The bill started out pretty good, but polluters and their allies in the House turned a good bill into a big step backwards for the many Texans working to protect their families from pollution,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in a statement.

One amendment, by Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) who’s toying with a bid to head the Railroad Commission, further weakens the state’s contested case hearing process, one of the few ways that citizens can challenge polluting industries. In a contested case hearing, both sides fight it out in a trial-like procedure overseen by administrative law judges. The burden of proof currently falls to the permit-seeker.

The House voted 96-44 to approve the amendment and shift the burden of proof to citizens. Repeat: the burden of proof is now on people, not polluters. It also allows the commission’s executive director, who usually sides with industry, to pick a side in the hearing. Another amendment by Chisum eliminates the opportunity for citizens to contest certain permits altogether, instead requiring folks to use a weaker federal process.

Democrats were disappointed that they were unable to keep the Office of Public Interest Counsel, a consumer advocate within TCEQ, from being stripped of its authority to represent citizens. They also lost fights to close the revolving door at TCEQ, which leads agency heads straight from regulating industry to working for industry.

In every case, the votes were terribly lopsided with the Republican supermajority voting almost in lockstep. Indeed, the Republican leadership hardly even bothered mustering an argument for and against changes to the sunset bill. And why bother? The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Rep. Lon Burnam, a progressive Democrat from Fort Worth who sported a green tie today, reacted with disgust afterwards. “The bottom-line is Republicans don’t give a rat’s ass about the environment,” he told me.

Green lawmakers had one victory, however. They got Rep. Chisum to withdraw a proposal that would have made it impossible for TCEQ to penalize polluters for emitting multiple forms of pollution at one time.

Rep. Chisum later explained that he withdrew the amendment because he didn’t want it to apply to water pollution as well as air pollution. And once again, environmentalists will be counting on the Senate – that bastion of progressive thinking – to make things right.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 11:28 pm CST
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