Four years ago, Houston Mayor Bill White and his environmental policy director Elena Marks didn't think that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was doing a very good job enforcing pollution violations and keeping the area's oil refineries and chemical plants in check. The city had the statutory right to do its own environmental enforcement, but for years Houston officials had contracted away that right to TCEQ. White and Marks wanted it back, and began negotiating with the agency.
But TCEQ wouldn't budge.
"They did not want us in the enforcement business," says Marks. "They told us that was their job and not our job."
The problem is, TCEQ isn't doing its job very well. For the past four months, the Houston Press has been examining emission reports for 20 facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, which make up slightly more than 10 percent of all the petroleum and chemical plants in Harris County. We discovered not only that the plants are emitting tons of toxic pollution and carcinogens into the air, but also that many of the facilities routinely release harmful pollutants above and beyond what is legally allowed.
And what does TCEQ do about it? Most of the time, nothing at all. When the agency does issue a penalty, the fines are puny and are often significantly reduced later on. In fact, the more a violations a facility racks up, the less percentage of their fine they have to pay.
Read this week's feature, "A Quiet Hell," and find out how these are just two of the ways TCEQ gives polluters a break, putting industry and economic needs ahead of public health.