Is Texas Water Really Protected?

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Texas industries are regularly in violation of environmental laws. They dump human waste and chemicals into its water bodies. Unfortunately, without facing consequences. Environment Texas, in a recent report, shows that over half of the Industrial facilities from Texas are in violation of their wastewater permits.

Along with human waste, the facilities dump grease, oil, and a number of miscellaneous chemicals into state rivers and bays. This evaluation of water affairs doubts the effort by Texas Commision on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to protect Texan waters. The report underscores the fact that TCEQ is lax and its efforts are insufficient.  

In their report, Environment Texas states that 132 of the 269 Industrial facilities from Texas violate their wastewater permits. One of them is the Ineos plant which creates polymers for pharmaceuticals and pipes. Researchers pointed out that the violation count is 938 across 21 months between 2016-17. This makes Texas a state with the highest number of violations in the USA.

 

In about 300 of these violations, refineries, chemical companies, and wastewater treatment plants dumped waste into rivers, bays, and lakes which were previously classified as ‘impaired’ by the EPA.  An example of this is the Neches River. Even after the EPA classified it as ‘impaired’, it is one of the common sites for toxic waste and pollutants to be released. Today, the Neches is one of the dirtiest in the country. This further delays the water’s recovery process and harms aquatic life.

 

Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas says that TCEQ is lax and thus, facilities are not forced to comply with these permits.

The Ineos USA facility holds a repeated violation (8 times) of dumping wastewater into the Chocolate Bayou between Jan. 2016 and Sept. 2017. Their wastewater release contained a large proportion of the E. Coli bacteria which points toward fecal matter dumping. The facility has failed to comply with the Clean Water Act for 12 months over 3 years. In spite of the obvious violations, TCEQ did not issue fines.

In February 2018, the Observer reported an investigation on the biased level of enforcement by the TCEQ. According to the report, there is a disparity between how TCEQ penalizes large corporate polluters and small businesses. Large corporate polluters (refineries & petrochemical plants) are rarely penalized for air contamination and illegal pollutant release even though they have the resources to pay, make amends, and fight back. Whereas, small gas stations were fined thousands of dollars for relatively simpler violations such as recordkeeping. Environment Texas, in a recent report, highlights this partiality where corporate giants easily get away with water pollution and small businesses are financially choked.

TCEQ’s spokesperson, Andrea Morrow, says that they routinely monitor the data which companies submit for violations. The companies also report permit exceedances which they check. She says that the TCEQ penalizes and has the authority to enforce corrective measures to improve compliance when violations are grave and warrant formal action.

The report clearly hints lax enforcement by the TCEQ. It highlights poor accountability for repeat violators (the corporate offenders). Because legal and procedural affairs take time (months to years), it is uncertain if TCEQ will penalize violators with a fine in some cases. Metzger believes that it is unlikely that these facilities would face consequences due to TCEQ’s lax track record.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act became a federal law after the Cuyahoga River (Ohio) caught fire. This seminal law created a nation-wide vision of a country with zero pollutant discharge in waterways over the next 13 years. Unfortunately, and at a high cost, this vision is far from being realized.

Regions hosting heavy industrial activities had more polluters than the industrially less dense regions. About 600 of the 938 violation cases involved facilities from Harris, Jefferson, and Nueces counties where the state’s largest industrial operations are run.

Without giving any undue justification, Texas does have a high number of facilities which in turn create the opportunity for pollution. Although this increases the likelihood of pollution, it does not warrant repeated violation of permits. Texas, today, has the highest pollution rank.

As per the report, federal enforcement has decreased under Trump’s administration. Fines have lowered and the EPA is pursuing fewer cases. The monetary value of fines was 60% lesser in the first 6 months of Trump’s administration as compared to Obama’s, or Bush’s, or Clinton’s.

To compound these issues, the current administration has proposed a reduction in EPA’s civil enforcement budget. The budget is likely to drop by $30.4 million for the year 2019. The auxiliary federal budget which funds grants that assist states in fighting water pollution will drop by 20% in 2018 and 2019.

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