Texas Department of Environmental Protection suspends negotiations over discrimination investigation



Despite the fact that the number of batch plants (small industrial facilities that produce ready-mixed concrete) in the Houston area is increasing, concentrated in the same Black and Latino neighborhoods, and worsening health outcomes. , a permit approved by state environmental officials, has drawn the ire of environmentalists. Risk from the cloud of cement dust they emit.

The Oxbow calcining chemical plant near Port Arthur is located in the west part of the city, in a predominantly black neighborhood, and injects disproportionate amounts of sulfur dioxide into adjacent neighborhoods. Black residents in the county are 40 percent more likely to die from cancer than the average Texan, according to a study by the University of Texas Medical Branch. Still, the 88-year-old facility remains state compliant through the decommissioning process. That means you don’t have to follow the latest updates. Federal Pollution Prevention Regulations and Technology.

These hot-button issues are quickly becoming a hot topic between Texas officials and the Biden administration, as Texas resists the EPA’s focus on environmental justice and challenges states’ hands-off approach over claims of discriminatory permits. is becoming the latest battlefield.

Condition reaction: TCEQ proposes new rules for permitting concrete batch plants as EPA investigation and court challenge loom

A little-known office within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating discrimination complaints to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for months over the impact of permitting practices surrounding concrete batch plants and oxbow facilities. TCEQ officials initially agreed to negotiate with EPA, but withdrew from negotiations on October 20.

In a lengthy letter, TCEQ Director Erin E. Chancellor said the conversation had proven counterproductive and accused federal officials of overreach. He also said the state opposes “EPA’s attempts to expand the scope of civil rights enforcement programs,” among other efforts.

The EPA said it has a duty to ensure the organizations and governments it funds don’t violate civil rights laws, but it will continue investigating regardless.

regulation of discrimination

For the past 30 years, EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has received Title VI discrimination complaints from citizens and agencies across the country, evaluating each one and determining whether it merits investigation.

Most of these charges have been dropped, and the agency has never withheld federal funding because of the violations. Instead, authorities have primarily resolved investigations through informal resolution agreements, a process rejected by TCEQ in October.

Legal experts believe Texas’ withdrawal from the process could mean the state is preparing a lawsuit against the EPA. The approach would mirror steps taken by Louisiana regulators, which withdrew from negotiations with the EPA over civil rights claims this spring. The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the federal agency, which ultimately closed the case against Louisiana without taking any further action.

Citizenship Claim: EPA to investigate TCEQ for alleged civil rights violations in permitting process for concrete batch plant

“Litigating an issue like this would be very consistent with the direction the Texas attorney general has been heading,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and Rice University law professor.

An Oct. 20 letter from TCEQ said both permitting processes under investigation were developed to implement a set of rules already overseen by the EPA, namely the Clean Air Act.

State officials said the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights specifically “does not have jurisdiction over the federal Clean Air Act,” since air pollution standards are administered by a separate division of the EPA. The Biden administration’s EPA has disputed this argument in the past, stating in an online FAQ that states must “independently comply with federal civil rights laws” in their environmental permitting programs, including consideration of “cumulative impacts in overburdened communities.” I have an obligation to do so.”

location, location: Houston’s dangerous concrete plants are mostly located in communities of color. Residents are fighting back.

Betting in Texas

The idea of ​​overburdened communities is at the heart of three Texas complaints under investigation.

“Environmental justice considerations should be considered in areas that already have significant flooding of industrial facilities, whether batch plants or not, before pushing through permits through the standard process,” said Amy Ding, director of litigation at Lone Star. “is necessary,” he said. Legal Aid assisted him in filing two of her three pending claims.

Attorneys from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project and the Harris County Attorney’s Office also worked on the case.

Residents of East Aldine, one of the areas in unincorporated Harris County with a high concentration of concrete batch plants, pack the room every time a TCEQ meeting about a new batch plant is held in their area. Meetings are sometimes held after permits are approved, despite language barriers for many Spanish-speaking residents.

Residents of the Blind Side: Aldine residents begged for a chance to block the concrete plant. They didn’t know that it was already too late.

“Our community is already somewhat done with batch plants. Enough is enough,” said Veronica Sanchez, an East Aldine resident and administrative district director for the area, at a public hearing this summer. He spoke later.

“Many of the batch plants in our region don’t clean up after themselves, which sends a lot of dust into the air, worsening air quality,” Sanchez said. “We have about eight in our area, which is a significant number.”

play by the rules

At public hearings, residents whose homes are on the same block as the concrete batch plant often tell TCEQ representatives about the respiratory and heart health issues they face. Many people moved into their neighborhoods long before machines were allowed to operate next door. State officials will listen, but the regulations do not say they can exclude a factory from permitting based on local opposition or evidence of health effects.

TCEQ had a related discussion about the Oxbow plant in Port Arthur, which was approved under older regulations and therefore allowed to emit far more pollution than comparable facilities. Nevertheless, it said it complied with regulations.

For residents and local activists like John Beard, the plant’s exemption from emissions regulations is inconsistent with their needs. Beard said Oxbow, which smells like old matchboxes in West Port Arthur, is “very difficult for people to live there right now because of the explosions, the noise, the pollution, the odors.” “It has become.”

Federal intervention: How Biden’s environmental justice dilemma is playing out in Port Arthur

Focusing on language access, community input, and cumulative health impacts, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said, “The EPA has dropped the hammer, announced its findings on discrimination, and filed a lawsuit against the TCEQ.” “We hope that the authorities will request that their permits be returned to square one.” But TCEQ representatives believe the federal agency does not have the authority to use that hammer.

The decision as to which party is in the right may soon be in the hands of the courts.

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