Texas Environment Could Work Against Bush
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 1999; Page A1
The city of Houston reached a pitiful milestone earlier this
week: For the
first time, it surpassed Los Angeles as the American city with the most
dangerous smog. So far in 1999, the top 24 readings of ozone pollution in the
country were recorded in Texas.
Eleven years ago, the senior George Bush savaged his
opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, for failing to clean up Boston Harbor.
son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has embarked on a presidential bid in which he
could be attacked for environmental vulnerabilities of his own: the unhealthy
air hanging over many of Texas's cities.
The younger Bush inherited a state with severe environmental problems
particularly air pollution from the state's automobiles and factories and he
asserts that fresher air will be his environmental legacy. "You've got to ask
the question, 'Is the air cleaner since I became governor?'" he said in May.
"And the answer is 'Yes.'"
But there is statistical evidence that the air in Texas
cities is as foul
and perhaps more so than when Bush took power in 1995. The frequency of smog
alerts in Houston, Dallas and Austin has risen steeply in the Bush years.
Physicians say the smog can harm children, the elderly and asthmatics, and
possibly cause long-term lung damage.
Last week the state's environmental agency, the Texas Natural Resource
Conservation Commission (TNRCC), claimed an 11 percent reduction in industrial
emissions from 1994 to 1997. But environmentalists strenuously dispute the
number, saying Environmental Protection Agency statistics show a 10 percent
Now EPA is threatening to cut off hundreds of millions of
dollars in highway
funds to Dallas and Fort Worth and to force imposition of draconian
air-emissions rules on Texas motorists and industries because of the cities'
failure to meet clean air requirements. Many officials there, most Republicans,
complain that Bush's appointees have failed to help them attack air pollution.
"Local elected officials have been frustrated TNRCC hasn't
taken a stronger
leadership role," said Lois Finkelman, a Dallas City Council member and
independent. "We hope within the short time available they will."
Instead of demanding that industry clean up, environmental
federal regulators say, Bush's appointees have lightened the regulatory burden
on Texas's dirtiest companies. The state environmental agency has all but ended
surprise inspections of plants and made it harder for citizens to press
complaints about polluters.
"Bush's performance on the environment has been negative,"
said Neil Carman,
a former state air quality expert now with the Sierra Club. "Texas continues to
rank near the top among states with the dirtiest air in the nation."
In May, weeks after launching his presidential bid, Bush
helped pass two
laws in the Texas legislature that offer a case study in his environmental
strategy. Bush says the laws demonstrate his commitment to cutting pollution
without dictating to business, but environmental groups say they display his
closeness to industry and reluctance to take action until forced to do so.
Bush endorsed a bill requiring power plants, some of the
polluters, to cut emissions by up to half by 2003. Only two other states,
Massachusetts and Connecticut, have taken that bold step.
But Bush acted only after his agency's failure to draft a
pollution plan for
Dallas prompted the EPA to threaten a cutoff of federal highway funds and other
tough actions against the city. That prospect spurred the powerful Texas
highway-building lobby, along with the Dallas financial and political
establishment, to seek quick anti-pollution action.
At the same time, Bush helped block a bill to crack down on
830 older plants
allowed to pollute at will because they were built before the state's
air law. Instead of requiring that the plants cut emissions, Bush proposed and
won approval of a plan to let them do so voluntarily.
Bush trumpets the plan as a rejection of the "command and
imposed by federal regulators. "You finally had a governor who stood up and got
Texas industry to respond," Bush said. "I led."
Only 120 of the 830 grandfathered plants have so far agreed
to the voluntary
cuts, and critics say they see little incentive for any of the plants to make
significant improvements. "You have to have a stick," said a senior Clinton
administration official. "But everybody knows [Bush] has no stick."
Running for governor in 1992, Bush embraced the GOP's anti-federal
government philosophy, saying Washington had no right to meddle in Texas
affairs. His environmental agency has taken the doctrine to heart.
Bush's appointees to the three-member commission that runs
TNRCC all came
from a pro-industry perspective. One was a cattleman and executive of the Farm
Bureau, which represents agribusiness. Another had worked at the state
agriculture department, where he tried to loosen rules requiring farmers to
notify farm workers when applying pesticides. The third was a 30-year executive
of Monsanto Co. and lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council.
"When he appointed me, he said, 'I want decisions based on
good science, and
to leave Texas cleaner than when I found it,'" said commissioner Ralph Marquez,
formerly with Monsanto. "We've tried to deliver on that."
The agency has endorsed industry opposition to EPA
initiatives and belittled
federal officials' science. For years TNRCC did little to combat the industrial
pollution that EPA and air quality experts said was Texas's main problem.
Marquez testified in Congress that ozone the key ingredient in smog is "a
relatively benign pollutant."
When a major TNRCC initiative to impose strict vehicle
inspection rules ran
into flak from radio hosts, Bush and the legislature canceled the program. The
firm that had the contract to conduct the inspections sued, and the
to a $130 million settlement taking the money from a state environmental
Now, TNRCC employees say, the agency lacks equipment to test
air and water
quality and is severely understaffed. "Gov. Bush's mantra for governing, 'Let
Texans run Texas,' more correctly should have been stated as 'Let
run Texas,'" a group of state environmental employees said on a newly launched
anti-Bush Web site. "State environmental regulators have become largely
ineffective, with inadequate resources or direction."
The TNRCC has effectively abandoned one enforcement tool, surprise
inspections of plants. It first issued a memo barring such visits, but after
controversy within the agency substituted a plan that achieved the same result
by requiring layers of review before surprise inspections could be conducted.
In conjunction with the state legislature, the agency has
also made it far
more difficult for Texans who claim they are harmed by polluting plants to have
their complaints reviewed by TNRCC.
"Bush and this commission trust industry to be good
neighbors," said Austin
environmental attorney Rick Lowerre.
Bush's handling of the "grandfathered" polluting plants illustrates the
middle course he has tried to steer between the warring camps of environmental
activists and polluters and offers insights into his governing style.
Bush himself arrived at the idea of asking grandfathered
plants to clean up
on their own. "'Can we do it voluntarily?'" Marquez recalls Bush
asking in 1996.
Bush then asked executives from two oil companies, Exxon and Marathon, to
fashion a voluntary program with Bush's top environmental aide. That aide met
numerous times in early 1997 with dozens of oil and chemical business
who wrote the plan.
One participant, DuPont executive Jim Kennedy, thought the then-secret
process was so skewed to industry that, once made public, it would inflame
"I told them that this was dreaming in today's environment
to think that
industry could put together a detailed program on this hot subject, then . . .
expect any kind of [public] buy-in," Kennedy wrote in a memo obtained by
environmental groups. "This thought was pretty much dismissed I believe mainly
because the leadership doesn't have any real value for public involvement."
After industry developed its plan, Bush announced, with much fanfare, a
blue-ribbon panel, including environmental activists, to consider how to deal
with the grandfathered plants. But he said nothing about the pre-written plan,
which was quickly approved by the public panel.
Environmentalists note that the grandfathered firms, their
executives gave Bush $689,000 in his two gubernatorial campaigns, and this year
donated $427,000 to his presidential bid.
"It's ridiculous to say Gov. Bush made decisions because of campaign
contributions," said Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett. "He's the first
governor to take on this [grandfather] problem. . . . The problem with command
and control philosophy is it's adversarial, and you end up in court."
Combining this voluntary plan with the power plant law passed
at the same
time, Texas officials say, will reduce Texas's industrial emissions by 250,000
tons a year, equivalent to 5.5 million cars.
It may also provide some political help to Bush. Democratic
Glen Maxey recalls bargaining with GOP Texas House leader Ray Allen
a date by which grandfathered plants must cut their pollution. Allen
said he and
Bush were adamantly against imposing any deadline.
"Allen said, 'Bush wants to have a campaign issue to talk
command-and-control regulation, to say we got environmental progress without
commanding anybody, and to make himself 'green' against Al Gore,'" Maxey said.
The next few months will be critical in determining whether Dallas and
Houston can resolve their air pollution crisis and whether it becomes a factor
in Bush's presidential campaign.
In the face of stepped-up EPA pressure, the cities hired their own air
quality experts, who largely endorsed the EPA view that the state needed to do
much more to attack industrial smog.
The debate reached a climax early this year, when Dallas officials sent
TNRCC regional pollution projections that were much more pessimistic than the
state's. Stunned by those numbers, the state did not file the
control plan for Dallas with the EPA, risking federal highway funds.
A number of Houston and Dallas officials, including some
Bush and TNRCC now are trying to avoid taking the fall for the politically
volatile decisions that those regions' leaders must make within the next few
months inconveniencing motorists in car-crazy Texas or saddling industry with
"TNRCC's forcing local officials to bite the bullet and take
steps," one ranking Dallas official said. "We see very little action out of the
Marquez replies that the state is working hard to find solutions and no
longer picks fights with EPA. But he adds that the agency is hobbled by
personnel shortages. "We haven't been perfect," he said. "We have our limits."
Now Dallas officials are pressuring TNRCC to clamp down on
outside city borders because the emissions drift their way. At a
TNRCC executive director Jeffrey Saitas expressed dread at cracking down on
those plants in the way Dallas officials recommended.
"That would be war," Saitas said, according to participants.
"They would sue
One site Dallas officials want cleaned up is a huge cement
that burns hazardous industrial waste. Some neighbors say the Texas Industries
plant emissions lead to shortness of breath, wheezing and bronchitis. TNRCC and
the firm deny that the plant's emissions harm anybody, but their conclusions
were questioned by two outside experts retained by residents.
University of Michigan air quality expert Stuart Batterman harshly
criticized the TNRCC's study, saying it had "many serious omissions,
inconsistencies and inadequate or misleading analyses. . . . Statements with
little or a frail scientific basis show a disregard for the
protection of public
health, and serve to diminish the TNRCC's credibility."
Earlier this year, even as EPA warned Dallas to cut its
commissioners voted 3-0 to allow the plant to double capacity. Voting "aye" was
commissioner Marquez, who declined to recuse himself even though he had worked
for the firm as a consultant.
Now, he said, under the gun from EPA, state officials have
gone back to the
company seeking its help in cutting emissions.