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The House and Senate both advanced measures to fund the State Water Plan, but many hurdles remain.
After days of postponement, arm twisting and behind the scenes negotiation, measures to advance funding for Texas’ State Water Plan were approved in the State Legislature Wednesday.
Lawmakers have been talking about taking money from state’s rainy day fund to improve water infrastructure since at least 2011, when a historic drought gripped the state. Today, members of the House and Senate found the votes to keep that plan alive.
The House voted 130-16 to call for a constitutional amendment to create two accounts from which to loan money for water projects. The Senate passed a supplementary budget bill that would put around $2 billion dollars in that water bank from the state’s rainy day fund with a vote of 29-3.
Because of complicated deal making between the State House and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans, the vote on the constitutional amendment was postponed past a House deadline yesterday while lawmakers waited to make sure the supplementary budget in the Senate contained what they wanted.
Neither chamber would jump first. Wednesday, they held hands and jumped together.
As an FBI agent then as an assistant federal prosecutor, Malcolm Bales has investigated crooked judges in Chicago and drug dealers in Texas. Now, as the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont, he’s working amid one of the nation’s biggest petrochemical complexes.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Justice
Malcolm Bales is the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont
Bales says he’s finding there are plenty of criminal pollution cases. But not the agents to pursue them.
“We lack the appropriate number of investigators. EPA (the federal environmental regulator) is struggling to meet the caseload. There are not enough agents,” Bales told StateImpact.
“In fact, when we have cases worked over here in the Beaumont area — where we believe there is a significant number of unaddressed environmental violations — those agents have to come from Houston in every instance.”
Bales said the FBI used to work environmental cases but with changing priorities in the post-9/11 world, he says pollution cases are now way down the list. FBI Houston Division spokesperson Shauna Dunlap agreed, saying agents usually get involved only in big pollution cases like the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Lawmakers in the House voting for a rule suspension to postpone a vote on SJR1 until Wednesday.
Update: SJR1 was finally approved in the Texas House on Wednesday night. Read more here.
Right now Texas does not have the capacity to supply water to everyone who wants it in times of drought. Lawmakers have talked about taking money from Texas’ rainy day fund to fix that problem for years. On Monday, a vote was scheduled in the State House to help make the plan a reality. It would call for a constitutional amendment to set up two bank accounts to loan out money for water projects. Now, it’s Wednesday and the vote still has not come.
The measure, called Senate Joint Resolution One, is about water. But the intrigue surrounding it is about money. A vote on the resolution was postponed Monday, then again on Tuesday afternoon. There is a Texas House rule saying it had to be voted on by midnight last night, so that seemed like a sure thing. Except lawmakers suspended that rule later in the evening.
Bastrop area landowners attended a meeting of the local groundwater conservation district on Wednesday
This story was co-reported by Andrew Weber for KUT News.
It’s easy to understand why Rick Knall would be nervous with outside businesses taking water from his neck of the woods. Knall is a property owner in Bastrop County who relies on his well.
“Our well has been a godsend it has been pumping strong good clean fresh water for a number of years,” he said at a hearing of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District last night.
Like many others at the hearing, he worried that that steady supply could dry up with more straws in the ground. But the question of whether the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District would move ahead granting new permits had resonance beyond this Central Texas community.
“I think the whole state will be watching this,” Steve Box, with Environmental Stewardship, told StateImpact Texas ahead of the hearing.
His group opposes the permits. He and others saw the hearing as a sort of test case for the role of local groundwater districts.
Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone of the fertilizer plant that exploded.
Update:House Bill 1714 failed to come up for a vote in the Texas House by the end of the day Thursday, the deadline for bills to pass out of the House. This is first time the bill has not been approved by the house since 2003, when Rep. Wayne Smith first filed it. Previously the bill has always died in the State Senate, according to testimony Rep. Smith gave at an April 9th committee hearing.
Investigators continue to sift through the rubble in West, Texas to learn how a fertilizer plant there exploded, taking 15 lives and destroying nearly two hundred homes. Many state officials deny that environmental regulations, or their absence, had anything to do with the disaster.
But that hasn’t stopped the tragedy from changing the way people talk about environmental regulation this session.
The bill would end a program that grades businesses on environmental compliance and makes those grades public. The bill’s author, state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, says the program at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) burdens businesses and regulators alike.
Tanker trucks arrive at the disposal well that was site of a 2012 explosion. It's approved to inject 30,000 barrels of wastewater a day.
Some people who live in Pearsall, the South Texas town where country star George Strait grew up, said they learned they had a disposal well nearby when they heard a big boom.
“Then I saw the billows of smoke coming out,” said Henry Martinez, Pearsall’s police chief.
He’s talking about the afternoon in January 2012 when investigators say a welder’s spark ignited oil vapors at a disposal site on the edge of town.Three workers were hurt and OSHA later cited the operator for alleged violations and proposed a $46,200 penalty.
Lawmakers discuss a point of order aimed at killing HB 11
It was possibly the most high profile piece of legislation at the capital this session. It had the backing of the governor, the state’s business community, and many environmental groups. But last night House Bill 11, the plan to pull $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to put to Texas water projects, could not muster the votes to gain approval in the Texas House of Representatives.
Backers of the bill felt pressure from all sides ahead of the vote. Tea Party budget cutters called the bill an example of irresponsible spending and pointed out that it would likely break state imposed spending limits. House Democrats made their support contingent on tapping the rainy day fund for education as well.
To navigate the impasse, bill supporters plotted a risky course.
Texas likes to be “business friendly” and as the state legislature considers bills to limit environmental regulation to keep it that way, some economists warn of the longer term consequences.
Dave Fehling / StateImpact Texas
Cattle ranch borders petrochemical plant in Calhoun County
“It’s not as simple as saying yeah, it’s a negative for everybody and everybody is going to move out of the state if we have more stringent regulation,” said Daniel Millimet, an environmental economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The idea that too much regulation can scare off business has been a main thrust of some of the state’s environmental regulators like David Porter, one of the three elected leaders of the Texas Railroad Commission. Speaking last October at oil and gas drillers conference in San Antonio, Porter contended that should Texas succumb to the stricter pollution regulation of the federal government, disaster would follow for the state’s booming drilling industry.
Signs warn that fish may be contaminated at Superfund site along San Jacinto River
Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.
But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119. (UPDATE: On April 16, the committee delayed consideration of the bill by “leaving it pending”)
The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”
Pool of of oily wastewater officials say is from illegal dumping in Ector County
In the booming Permian Basin of West Texas, Ector County is one of the leaders in oil production. But some of the crude is ending up on roads and highways, as haulers of drilling wastewater break the law to increase profits by dumping the slimy mixture from tanker trucks, sometimes as the trucks are moving.
In response, the county is developing ways to catch and prosecute the polluters.
“What we were seeing was a huge increase in illegal dumping,” said Susan Redford, the Ector County Judge in Odessa.
“A lot of companies that were drilling and providing related services were looking for quick, cheap and easy ways to dispose of the fluids they were generating,” Redford told StateImpact Texas. Continue Reading →
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