With about 2,760 employees, 16 regional offices, and an operating budget of $354 million this year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the second largest state environmental regulation agency in the U.S.
The man in charge of Compliance and Enforcement at TCEQ is Richard Hyde.
Hyde sat down with reporter Mose Buchele as part of StateImpact Texas’ coverage of recently released EPA watch lists of Clean Air Act violators. Those lists showed many repeat polluters are located in Texas.
While the TCEQ said it wouldn’t comment on EPA data, Hyde and spokesperson Terry Clawson did field questions about a range of other subjects. Below are some excerpts from that 20 minute interview touching on TCEQ’s defense of its enforcement record, the Sunset Committee recommended reforms at the Agency, and the impact of state budget cuts on enforcement.
Enforcement and Flexibility
Mose Buchele: Alright, could I open up with a general question about the Commission’s approach towards enforcement?
Richard Hyde: Sure, the Commission takes enforcement very seriously. It’s one of the tools in the toolbox we use. We want all companies to comply with their permits and the rules — that’s our genuine goal — and we’ll use all the tools in the toolbox to make that happen. If we have to use enforcement we use it, and it’s swift and just.
Buchele: What are some changes that you’re looking at?
Hyde: Out of the Sunset Commission, one of the biggest parts of the report about the agency was two things. They wanted to enhance our penalty policy, to make sure our penalties were appropriate and just. And then the other piece of that was our enforcement. They wanted our enforcement policies to be, to ensure that they were transparent and that everybody, the regulated community, the public, all those that were interested, knew what those policies were, and we’ve begun that process.
Buchele: A necessary change by the estimation of the Commission?
Hyde: Sure. Yes. Well through the Sunset process the Sunset Committee worked with the Commission naturally. You know, the Commission was embracing of any changes. And even our Commissioners testified that some of these things were things that they wanted the legislature to weigh in on, and give us recommendations back on. And these two were two of the key ones that the Commission asked for guidance from the legislature, and we were given it. So, absolutely.
Buchele: I’ve interviewed a lot of folks who say that the debate now is on flexibility. The Commission may want to maintain some degree of flexibility [in its enforcement]. Other people might argue [it would be better with] everything etched in stone. If you could describe where that debate is, and maybe what the opinion of the Commission is.
Hyde: Sure. What we’re really talking about is enforcement, when you’re talking about that. Certainly, the Commission always wants an open and transparent process. But you also, when you’re talking about enforcement, you want there to be a level of uncertainty. You don’t want it to be totally clear because you always want companies to understand that the agency has the ability to enforce against them. With that said though, we did ask the Commission a series of questions. Do you want those to be placed in rules so they are concrete and that they are formalized? And they directed us to go down a path for rule making. And so it’s a mixed box. You want companies to always comply with their permits and the rules and if they don’t, you want them to understand that the agency will take swift enforcement against them.
Buchele: You said that you want to maintain some flexibility in part because you don’t need industry to know exactly what all the tools are for the Commission?
Buchele: Could you explain that a little bit more?
Hyde: You want there to be a level of uncertainty because you don’t want industry to out-think your enforcement, you want them to comply. And so a piece of this is always that the agency wants to retain responsibility for how they’re going to make companies comply. It doesn’t mean that we want it to be not clear, but we do feel like flexibility in our enforcement process allows us to have more swift justice. And that’s what we do.
Buchele: There are going to be voices that are highly critical of the Commission in this story, and I would open this up as your opportunity to point to the Commission’s history with enforcement, with penalties, anything you’d like to say about that, about successes you might have seen.
Hyde: Well last year we issued over 1,650 agreed orders. That’s the most orders we’ve ever issued. Over 11 million dollars in penalties, I believe is the number. Our enforcement continues to go up. Many of these facilities that individuals are concerned about, we have boots on the ground, in those facilities, almost daily. Some of these facilities are inspected 2-300 times a year. The other thing I would point to is on an annual basis, we are required to report back to the legislature and the Governor’s Office [on] our enforcement. That report is available in January of every year. I can tell you we are very engaged in enforcement and that report is for the entire public to see.
Buchele: Anything you can point to? You said, ‘it’s up.’ You know, what’s been going on to increase enforcement?
Hyde: Well, many of these facilities are subject to so many different rules and regulations. How you actually have enforcement, you’ve got to have boots on the ground in those facilities. And so like I said it’s a tool in the toolbox. A lot of it is state law, but a lot of it is federal law that we’re mandated to be in these facilities. And when we identify issues we try to resolve them, up and to including enforcement. So, it’s just the nature of the beast. Now I would love for us to have zero orders, because that would mean everybody is complying with their permits and all the rules. But that’s not the case. And so we will continue to do what we are required to do by state law and federal law.
Different ‘Tools in the Toolbox’
Buchele: Can you explain what some of the other tools are then?
Hyde: Well, you know, we try to incentivize companies to have emission reductions — to go out on their own and reduce emissions, which is the best way. If companies will take a voluntary approach to reduce emissions on their own, there’s little involvement with the agency. Certainly, we have supplemental environmental improvement plans where if a company has problems, they can invest that money back into the facility so that they can reduce emissions.
TCEQ Fosters Economic Sustainability
Buchele: It is in the mission statement of the Commission to try to foster economic development. You know, the Commission enforces regulation, but it also does so with an eye to a fostering a growing economy.
Hyde: It is. You have to have both. You can have a strong economy and you can have companies that are complying with their permits. We’ve seen it over and over and over again in this state how we can work with companies, have them comply, and allow them to do the business that they intend to do. A cooperative effort seems to work much better than a draconian effort. That’s what we do in Texas, and there’s a lot of benefit there.
TCEQ Spokesperson Terry Clawson: You know what I’ve heard the [TCEQ] Chairman [Bryan Shaw] say a hundred times, well not a hundred times, but several times, you know, if you look at societies where there is good environmental protection and good clean up and things like that, it’s healthy wealthy economies with lots of jobs and people employed. That’s where you have a healthy environment. The worst hell holes are the Communist, totalitarian, and the poor countries — those have the worst environmental hell holes in the world. It’s a healthy economy and a healthy society where you can afford to do the environmental cleanups.
Impact of Cuts
Buchele: Across the board throughout the state we saw agencies needed to make some necessary cuts, or I guess necessary by some estimations, other people might say no. But how do you feel those cuts might impact the work of the Commission?
Hyde: Well from enforcement, certainly our goal is to not lose any of what we call boots on the ground, field investigators. It’s our goal to make sure that we have all the necessary people in these facilities and doing inspections that we have. So there will be no cuts there from my office’s standpoint. What we have testified about is that we will do the goals and the missions of the agency. It’s just some things may take a little longer. But we are still mandated by state requirements and federal requirements to do a certain amount of inspections, to meet our LBB, our budgetary requirements, and we’ll do that. It’s just that [for] some of these things it just may take us longer to complete an enforcement action or something. And here we are, we’re already in the New Year and we’re doing fine. We’re committed to making sure that we meet the obligations that we’re expected to meet, and we’ve been doing that.
Clawson: And the 2011 Enforcement Report should be out in a few weeks.
Hyde: January. We’ll present it to the Commission in December, and then it will be presented to the legislature in January.
Buchele: Any predictions?
Hyde: Like I said, it looks very similar to the 2010 report. 2010 we did a record number of enforcement orders, and I don’t recall, but I don’t think, I think we plateaued a little bit there. But still, lots of penalties, lots of enforcement, air, water, and waste.