Despite dying in committee, a bill aimed at increasing the penalty imposed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for environmental violations stirred a conversation about the agency’s lack of oversight.
House Bill 3035 by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) would have required TCEQ to ensure the amount of any administrative penalties that could be given is at least equal to the value of the economic benefit gained by the alleged violator.
“We have more facilities applying for TCEQ permits every day, particularly in the aggregate industry,” Zwiener said. “We need to be confident that TCEQ has the regulatory structure in place that encourages new permittees to be proactive.”
Zwiener said larger companies with TCEQ permits can violate the contingencies of that permit because the consequences don’t outweigh the economic impact to that business. If it’s cheaper to pollute the environment, there is little incentive to change.
Funding woes for TCEQ
The agency’s funding has been a topic of contention in the Texas Legislature for a decade. A lack of state funding to TCEQ means the agency must take a reactive, not proactive, approach to adequately citing offenders.
Zwiener said the agency is set up to be self-funded through the permitting process. However, that money doesn’t go directly to the agency’s account. The monies are funneled to the State Treasury’s office and allocated.
“We consistently have not put all of those funds back to TCEQ,” Zwiener said. “This isn’t about beating up the agency, but giving them the tools to be successful.”
Alex Perkowski, Policy Fellow on Zwiener’s staff, said the agency has an interest in having facilities operate, a flaw in its funding process.
There was a conversation at the committee on raising the penalty limit that TCEQ imposes on its violators. The limit of $25,000 has not been raised in more than a decade, which could be another way to address the issue.
The bill did not get voted out of the Environmental Regulation Committee, but Zwiener said getting the conversation started is equally important.
“We had a great conversation at committee,” Zwiener said. “We know TCEQ struggles to get full compliance with people who have permitting under them. A lot of folks play the game. This agency is meant to protect the environment, so let’s allow them to do so.”