A Quiet Hell

Thanks to lax enforcement by TCEQ, plants along the Houston Ship Channel launch tons of toxic gases into our air, and face little penalty even when they exceed pollution limits over and over again.

Perry makes no bones about being pro-business, and has criticized ideas such as climate legislation, saying it would seriously injure Texas industry. Companies appear to take advantage of that. According to a 2005 City of Houston study that relies on EPA information, Texas allows the emission of far more carcinogens per 1,000 barrels of refined oil than either Louisiana or California, both states with huge refinery operations. Texas also has the highest percentage of carcinogen emissions versus refining capacity of any state in the country.

In order to help implement his philosophy, critics say, Perry appoints TCEQ commissioners who more often than not share his views and agenda.

"That's what governors do," says former commissioner Soward, who was frequently on the losing end of 2-1 votes on the commission. "That's just the real world."

From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Courtesy of GHASP
From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.
Chris Curry
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.

In August, Soward, who was appointed by Perry, was replaced on the commission by Carlos Rubenstein, TCEQ's deputy executive director since June 2008. Most insiders say it's still too early to tell which way he will vote on important issues. The other two commissioners are Buddy Garcia and Chairman Bryan Shaw.

Before Perry appointed Garcia in 2007, Garcia worked for his hometown state senator, Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, and held a slew of jobs under Perry, including deputy secretary of state, border commerce coordinator and senate liaison for the governor's office. Garcia even worked for Perry as a border adviser when Perry was still lieutenant governor. With a degree in political science from Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State University, Garcia took the commissioner post with hardly any scientific, engineering or environmental experience.

In August 2007, former commission chairwoman Kathleen White's terms expired, leaving just Garcia and Soward on the job, and a vacancy for the spot of top dog. Perry appointed Garcia, passing over Soward, a lawyer with more than a decade's worth of experience with the Texas Water Commission and four years as a TCEQ commissioner. Soward had been a vocal critic of the agency for its industry-friendly permit policies and for not being aggressive enough in the fight against pollution.

"The governor puts people in there who have very little training in this field," says Carman. "He picks people too concerned with the political wind."

The state legislature confirmed Shaw as a commissioner in May 2009. Four months later, Perry appointed the former associate professor in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department at Texas A&M University to be chairman. Shaw grew up on ranches in west Texas and has said that he believes his duty is to protect the environment, but in a way that maintains the economy.

Clean-air advocates have been going berserk this year over Shaw's stance on climate change and the control of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.

"The science on global warming is far from settled," Shaw said in a statement this fall. "Reducing CO2 in Texas will do nothing to lower CO2 globally, but will have the effect of sending U.S. jobs to China and India."

Lobbyist Cyrus Reed of the Sierra Club says that Shaw's view that humans can't necessarily slow or reverse climate change is tantamount to saying that nothing should be done that can hurt industry.

"The commissioners tend to just listen to the industry point of view," he says, "and it's case after case after case."

When asked what the commissioners' reactions are to criticism that they are overly pro-business, an agency spokesman side-stepped the question, e-mailing the Press a statement saying, "The TCEQ aggressively enforces its environmental laws," followed by some broad agency enforcement statistics.

Looking at all the money that industry gives to Perry and whom he appoints to TCEQ, says Smith of Public Citizen, it becomes evident that companies have established a clear sphere of influence in Austin.

"When the energy and petrochemical folks want something done," he says, "they have a straight shot to Perry or to TCEQ."

Back in Manchester, several blocks from the Valero refinery, Delia Del Valle is desperate to move out. She doesn't want to die of cancer in the same place that she's convinced caused it. But she cannot afford to. The retired Luby's waitress collects less than $500 a month from Social Security, and her crumbling clapboard home is practically worthless. Not that anyone would buy it, especially in that neighborhood.

The exception is Valero. For years the company has been purchasing homes near its refinery, offering residents a last-ditch ray of hope to get away.

The problem is that Del Valle's home is just two blocks west of the cutoff point and is not eligible.

chris.vogel@houstonpress.com

Marguerite McConihe contributed to the research for this story.

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