The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considered changes to its penalty policy at a work session this morning. We submitted comments together with Public Citizen and the Sierra Club and I delivered the following testimony:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony today. My name is Catherine Fraser, and I’m the clean air associate with Environment Texas, a nonprofit advocate for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.

First, I want to thank the TCEQ staff for their proposed changes to the penalty policy and to Executive Director Baker for his powerful words. It’s a sign that TCEQ is listening to community concerns and working to improve accountability. Thank you.

Change to the penalty policy is clearly needed.

For example, according to our research, TCEQ and the State of Texas fined companies approximately 1 cent per pound of unauthorized air emissions in 2018. And that same year, companies reported 4,590 unauthorized air pollution events that resulted in 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution. More than two times the amount of the year before.

Clearly, TCEQ’s current policy isn’t deterring violators. 

The proposed changes should help. For example, staff propose increasing base penalties, counting more violations, and a 20% higher penalty for illegal air pollution in counties with populations greater than 85 thousand people.

This is good news that comes after a string of high profile accidents, fires, and pollution events that demonstrates the need for a more effective deterrent to the rash of violations that are putting the health of Texas communities at risk.

More still needs to be done to put an end to widespread non-compliance. I worry that these steps alone won’t do enough to change a culture where polluters find it cheaper to pay a fine than comply with the law. So I urge you to take additional steps to strengthen the penalty policy.

You should make sure no polluter profits from violating the law by ensuring that penalties always recover the full economic benefit of non-compliance. You should eliminate the affirmative defense for emissions events, which exempts polluters from all penalties. And, you should issue mandatory penalties for unauthorized air pollution. 

I again want to thank TCEQ for proposing these changes, and hope they are the first in a series of improvements that aim to hold polluters accountable and ensure the health and safety of Texans.