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Important Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle: EPA is correct to require Texas to clean up its air

July 2nd, 2010

As legislators in Austin and Washington, D.C., we know that breathing clean air should not be a partisan issue. As a result, we urge the Environmental Protection Agency not to allow Texas’ election-year partisan politics to interfere with the agency’s legally mandated task of enforcing the Clean Air Act — a law that is integral to protecting Texans from the health risks associated with air pollution.

Recently, the EPA took some important steps to address shortcomings in Texas’ air permitting program by requiring three Texas facilities with deficient air quality permits to seek federally authorized permits directly from the EPA. This action was the end result of years of attempted negotiation between the federal agency and its state counterpart, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), over numerous controversial aspects of Texas’ air permitting program.

As a result, some have questioned whether the EPA’s actions represent an unprecedented interference in a state’s right to enforce its own air-permitting program. Others have claimed the EPA is seeking a power grab for the sake of power only.

The EPA, however, is simply weighing in on whether Texas is properly exercising the federal authority the agency delegated to the state to issue air permits, authority Texas has only because of this delegation. Further, the action taken was not the EPA’s choice. Congress has very clearly spelled out the steps the agency is required to take. By federal law, when the EPA finds that a state-issued operating permit fails to meet minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act, the agency “shall object to its issuance.” If the state agency fails to correct the deficiencies within 90 days, then the EPA “shall issue or deny the permit.”

By law, the EPA could have simply denied the facility’s operating permit. Instead, the agency has taken a more lenient approach, committing federal resources to write a new permit that complies with the Clean Air Act.

Indeed, the EPA’s actions are not about the EPA taking over a state agency, but about deficiencies in state regulations that ought to protect our health by ensuring we all have clean air to breathe. Not having a federally approved permitting program jeopardizes the hardworking Texas employers who want to follow the law, as businesses are well aware that their facilities must comply with both state and federal regulations. Air that is unhealthy to breathe endangers the lives of the 25 million Texans who live here, resulting in a poorer quality of life and increased health care costs that show up in insurance premiums and tax rates.

The previous presidential administration recognized this as well. In fact, under President George W. Bush, the EPA sent a letter to permit holders in 2007 regarding one of the more disputed portions of Texas’ air permitting program, the so-called flexible permit. The letter specifically stated that “permits issued under these flexible permit rules reflect Texas state requirements and not necessarily the federally applicable requirements.” The letter went on to remind permit holders that they “are obligated to comply with the federal requirements applicable to [their] plant, in addition to any particular requirements of [their] flexible permit.”

TCEQ is entering the Sunset Advisory Commission process later this year. This routine review process of state agencies will present the Texas Legislature with a unique opportunity to examine TCEQ programs and ensure that the agency’s air permitting program best protects the health of all Texans, as well as the environment. While we know that our colleagues in the Texas Legislature look forward to that discussion, we fully expect TCEQ to have corrected any outstanding issues regarding its compliance with the Clean Air Act long before then.

As representatives of the people of Texas, it is our responsibility to ensure that the state fulfills its responsibility to all Texans so that we may enjoy the same protections afforded to other Americans under the Clean Air Act. The environmental regulations in the Clean Air Act better all of our lives, and it is to everyone’s benefit that they be enforced.

This column was written by U.S. Rep. Llloyd Doggett, of the 25th Congressional District of Texas; U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, of the 30th Congressional District; state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, of state Senate District 26, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, of state Senate District 13.