It was nearly standing-room-only at Wednesday evening's environmental town hall meeting when Deborah Wilkerson stood at the mic and addressed the panel of legislators, state regulators and experts.
A resident of Acres Homes in northwest Houston, she told the story of how a gunite factory moved in next door to her home, and how the giant piles of dry concrete-like mix blow into her yard and house, causing her a long list of health problems.
Wilkerson said she had contacted the TCEQ many times, but nothing was ever done. She said she eventually got a court injunction against the factory, but no one has ever enforced it, and so the facility has been working away, business as usual.
"I'm really angry," she said, "and this is affecting my health. I'm always worried and I want my life back. I've done everything a person can do. What should I do?"
In response, Mark Vickery, executive director of the TCEQ, said, "I appreciate your passion and I understand. I would ask you to remain vigilant and when you see a problem to pick up the phone and call us. We will work with our partners in the area and see if we can't take care of this."
Not much of an answer, but in fairness, what else could he really say? However, this type of exchange went on for more than two hours, where citizens thundered away at TCEQ, and panelists typically offered bureaucratic answers.
The event itself was held at University of Houston-Downtown and put on by Air Alliance Houston. It was the state-wide kickoff for a series of town hall meetings designed to give locals a platform to gripe and perhaps get their comments and suggestions considered by the legislative Sunset Advisory Commission as it reviews and examines TCEQ. Other town hall meetings are scheduled in San Antonio, Abilene, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Dallas, and many other cities.
Folks lined up nearly a dozen deep at times to ask questions and tell environmental horror stories to the panel, which included Vickery, former TCEQ commissioner Larry Soward, and state representative Jessica Farrar of Houston, who serves on the House Committee on Environmental Regulation. One woman asked why the monetary fines imposed on industrial plants for violating their air-pollution permits are so low, and thus not a deterrent for companies to fix problems and cease polluting.
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Soward told the woman that TCEQ is hampered by a law enacted by the Legislature which says the agency cannot fine plants more than $10,000 a day. Unless the Legislature changes the law, he said, the fines will remain nominal.
That's when Farrar piped up, saying, "To pass legislation to lift the cap is at this point impossible."
It was that kind of a night. In the end, there was lots of lip-service and a few pledges to try and help folks.
We shall see.