Texas state rep ‘deeply disturbed’ by story

By David Leffler and Savanna Strott/Public Health Watch

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A Texas state representative said she will address some of the problems  uncovered in a recent investigation of chronic pollution in east Harris County, where low-income residents of color live side by side with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Public Health Watch and the Investigative Reporting Workshop co-produced the story.

State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, a first-term Democrat who sits on the House Environmental Regulation Committee, said she was “deeply disturbed” by Public Health Watch’s findings. Her district is in the northwestern part of Houston, the largest city in Harris County.

Morales Shaw, who is up for reelection in November, said she will meet with Houston organizations to craft policies that would:

  • raise the amount of the fines polluters are charged with and remove loopholes that allow many to pay no fines at all.
  • give local officials more authority to punish polluters.
  • make it easier for the public to report violations and participate in the permitting process for petrochemical plants.

Morales Shaw also said she will work with her House colleagues to make sure the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has the resources it needs to improve air monitoring, respond to public complaints and penalize facilities that don’t comply with environmental regulations. Public Health Watch found that between 2016 and 2021, the TCEQ’s budget decreased by 20% while the state budget increased by 16%.

The investigation, which was accompanied by a documentary, told the story of two petrochemical accidents last year that sent toxic chemicals into east Harris County. The first accident released a garlic-like odor that sickened people in Galena Park and surrounding communities, trapping some in their homes for days. The second killed two workers and injured 42 others. Both accidents occurred at facilities owned by LyondellBasell, a Dutch corporation with international headquarters in Houston. The year-long investigation, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents and studies, found that Texas rarely enforces laws meant to punish bad actors and protect public health.

State Rep. Morales Shaw, who represents the northwestern part of Houston, said she will write policies to tackle issues revealed in Public Health Watch’s recent investigation. (Photo courtesy of Morales Shaw)

Morales Shaw faces an uphill battle. The Public Health Watch story told how state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat who has served on the Environmental Regulation Committee, sponsored or co-sponsored three bills that would have clamped down on polluters. Only one of the bills got out of committee, and it was never brought to a vote in the House. Zwiener did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Public Health Watch contacted more than 40 elected officials and agencies for a response about the story’s findings. Only about a quarter responded.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to requests for comment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also did not respond.

The  investigative story showed how local officials in Harris County — the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry —are trying to step in when the TCEQ fails to act. But the state keeps throwing up hurdles.

Leading the charge is the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court, where for the first time in 30 years Democrats have a 3-2 majority. In February, the Democrats used that majority to increase funding for the county’s pollution control department by $1.2 million. In 2020 they voted to dramatically expand voter access, leading to the biggest voter turnout in Harris County history.

In 2021, the legislature passed a law that made most of the county’s reforms illegal.

Rodney Ellis, one of the Democrats on the court, credited the county’s move from environmental “complacency and underfunding” to “proactive monitoring and litigation” to the court’s political shift in 2018. That’s when County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia defeated Republican incumbents.

Ellis said he was proud of the strides Harris County has made, but that making Texas “truly healthy” required cooperation from all levels of government.

“We need a legislature, attorney general, and state agencies with the moral courage and basic understanding of science to reverse policies that embolden polluters and tie the hands of local governments trying to solve the problems that decades of greed have created,” he said.

Adrian Garcia said state leaders need to “get out of the way” of the county’s efforts to address air pollution. Both Garcia and Hidalgo are up for reelection in November.

“I feel handcuffed by the State of Texas who continually works against us to keep residents safe,” Garcia said. “I cannot understand why Texas’ statewide officials refuse to let us do the work that they clearly have no interest in doing themselves.”

Amery Reid, the communication director for Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey, declined to comment on the story because she said some parts were “biased.” She included a screenshot of a paragraph saying the county’s environmental progress would be wiped out if Republicans regained control of the Commissioners Court.

The story went on to point out that Ramsey had proposed a budget for the current fiscal year that would have cut Pollution Control’s funding by almost 20% — and that fellow Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle’s proposed budget would have cut public health funding by 47% and eliminated the local elections department. Cagle did not respond to requests for comment.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who was profiled in the story, called for the state to give local governments more authority to deal with pollution by allowing leaders to hold companies accountable in the courtroom.

The state attorney general’s office blocked Menefee from taking LyondellBasell to court for its recent accidents by exerting its right under a 2017 state law to supersede counties in lawsuits involving pollution. When counties are allowed to step in, the state limits how much money they can receive.

“I’ve seen firsthand how state leaders and the TCEQ undermine my office and other local government officials when we try to hold polluters accountable and protect the communities that are most harmed by plant explosions and major chemical releases,” Menefee said.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee in his office in downtown Houston. The state blocked Menefee from suing LyondellBasell for chemical leaks at two of its facilities last year. (Julie Dermansky)

When Public Health Watch asked the TCEQ for its response to the story, agency spokesman Gary Rasp said the article is “quite long” and would “require numerous people to read the entire piece to parcel out any sort of responses.”

Public Health Watch asked Rasp why multibillion-dollar companies like LyondellBasell are fined relatively meager amounts for chemical releases.

“Our top priority is to ensure compliance with TCEQ rules and regulations,” Rasp responded in an email. “When violations are serious enough to warrant an enforcement action, TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance.”

LyondellBasell paid only $5.2 million in fines for 1,378 illegal releases between 2002 and 2021. The company’s current market value is $29.4 billion.

Asked what the TCEQ thinks about counties stepping in when they feel the state hasn’t done enough, Rasp pointed to the law that gives the state the right of first refusal on pollution-related lawsuits. He said the law “speaks for itself” and declined to comment further.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. was the only member of the Senate’s Committee for Natural Resources to vote “no” when the first-refusal law was brought to the Senate in 2017. The Democrat, who still sits on the committee, said local governments should be able to address local issues.

“I have always believed counties should have limited authority to pass certain regulations that would give them the power to regulate and enforce land development to keep communities safe,” Lucio said in a statement. “If the regulative authority lives with the state, then the state must work with local communities to find a solution.”

State Rep. Briscoe Cain represents Deer Park, Texas, where a chemical release in August sickened many residents. (Texas House of Representatives)

Public Health Watch also reached out to state Rep. Briscoe Cain. Cain represents the east Harris County city of Deer Park, where a release of chemicals including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide — which can irritate the eyes and lungs and cause dizziness and headaches — from the Lubrizol plant occurred in August, about a month after the leak in Galena Park from LyondellBasell’s Houston Refining.

After Harris County Pollution Control Services advised residents to stay inside and wear face masks, Cain tweeted “what in the sweet libtard hell is this?” His tweet included a screenshot of Pollution Control’s Facebook post and questioned the agency’s instructions to avoid exposure.

Throughout the night residents of Deer Park and other communities tweeted that the smell was worse than rotten eggs. Many said their eyes and throats were burning. Some felt lightheaded and nauseous. Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee, did not respond to requests for comment about his tweet or about Public Health Watch’s investigation. His original tweet has since been deleted.

Texas state Rep. Briscoe Cain original tweet (now deleted) questioning the agency’s instructions to avoid exposure.