Over the last week, media outlets around the country have highlighted lack of regulation and enforcement as contributing to the tragedy in West, where 15 people lost their lives, many of them first responders.
State officials have commented many times that there is adequate state oversight under the existing laws. And yesterday, eight state agencies testified about the tragedy at a special hearing held by the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. As you might imagine, the overall tone of the speakers was defensive, and ultimately, none of the state agencies testified that they would have done anything differently because they were all doing their jobs.
What about the laws of common sense?
The attitudes presented yesterday are frustrating and disappointing for communities. Texas is a great state and we can do better. We can start by taking a critical look at some of the bills working their way through the legislature right now designed to weaken public health protections. Consider the following bills that are in various stages of the legislative process:
- House Bill (HB) 824 (Calligari) – Spill Reporting
HB 824 aims to create a volume-based exemption for reporting accidental spills and discharges from wastewater facilities. Unfortunately, this one cleared the House Natural Resource Committee and is on its way to House Calendars.
- Senate Bill (SB) 957 (Fraser) and HB 2082 (Ritter) – Contested Case Hearings
These two bills would dramatically alter the way the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) handles certain permits and the judicial and administrative review process. The bills would shift the burden of proof on permits to the public, limit public input, and restrict evidentiary hearings.
- HB 1496 (Van Taylor) – Hydraulic Fracturing
HB 1496 would restrict a municipality’s ability to impose restrictions on hydraulic fracturing to protect public safety by adding any interest in an oil or natural gas well to the definition of private real property.
More information on current bills under consideration can be found here.
At the hearing, Progress Texas PAC Director Glenn Smith made comments that should make us all take notice:
Even this preliminary inquiry shows how dangerously wrong Rick Perry was when he said we had adequate regulations. State Chemists says security requirements are fence and door locks. The insurance commissioner says there is no requirement that the plant be insured, and that West Fertilizer's insurance was woefully inadequate to the risk. The TCEQ testified that the plant operated without a permit from 2004 to 2006, and that was only caught because someone filed an odor complaint in 2006.”
One thing that my grandmother used to tell me all the time: “The easy day was yesterday.” The hard days are ahead, improving state oversight in the interest of public protection and ensuring that we are engaged in thoughtful and collaborative work, especially as we work to protect public health.
We all make mistakes and no one person is responsible for the tragedy in West. My hope is that we all try to do just a little bit better.