Ron Curry is the EPA’s new administrator for Region 6, overseeing enforcement of federal pollution laws in New Mexico (where he once headed that state’s environment department), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and in Texas.
Texas, where the state has gone to court to stop the EPA from enforcing pollution laws. Texas is also where the previous EPA regional administrator, Al Armendariz, had a rocky relationship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Armendariz left last year to join the Sierra Club after a firestorm erupted when he was heard on a video using the word “crucify” as he explained how tough his staff could be on the worst polluters.
Curry said disagreements over how aggressively pollution laws should be enforced weren’t going to go away but he indicated he would work with the TCEQ in a less confrontational style.
“We’re not going to have our disagreements in the form of headlines in the newspaper or on the radio,” Curry told StateImpact as he toured an EPA Superfund site on the eastern edge of Houston.
Curry said shortly after being appointed to the post last fall by President Obama, he met with TCEQ commissioners.
“Our message was pretty simple. We want to work with you. We understand there will be time when there are disagreements in the way you do business and the way we do business. But we’re going to work with you,” said Curry.
The Feud Not Forgotten
The TCEQ chairman, Bryan Shaw, said Curry is a “welcome change from the era of Dr. Armendariz.” In comments emailed to StateImpact, it appeared some of the animosity remains as Shaw alleged that Armendariz wouldn’t return phone calls and wouldn’t attend meetings.
“Stonewalling and a disregard for science and the law was the norm,” said Shaw’s emailed comment.
Contacted by StateImpact, Armendariz didn’t respond directly to those allegations. Instead, he provided a letter Shaw and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had sent Armendariz in 2010.
“One of my favorite Shaw outbursts,” Armendariz called it.
In the letter, Shaw and Abbott said the EPA had a “plan for centralized control of industrial development through the issuance of permits for greenhouse gases”. They wrote that the EPA was threatening to “usurp state enforcement authority” if a state “fails to pledge their fealty to the Environmental Protection Agency.”
But while all may not be forgotten, a new regional administrator may be an opportunity to start fresh. Shaw said he and Curry have had several conversations.
“His tone and demeanor are cordial and sincere, which leads me to be cautiously optimistic that this signals a genuine desire to work together,” said Shaw. But he added that he wasn’t sure if that would make any difference if EPA headquarters were to continue to be “constantly weighing in with a heavy regulatory hand.”
Shaw may have reason to be concerned: one former colleague said that Curry—while tough but fair to industry—would now likely carry out EPA initiatives whether Texas officials like them or not.
“I do expect him to be very sensitive to the directives coming out of Washington,” said Denise Fort, a former director of New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Division.
In his interview with StateImpact, Curry several times emphasized what’s called “environmental justice“. He said decisions on enforcement should give significant weight to the impact pollution could have on nearby communities. One example Curry talked about was the surge in drilling using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
“We have to understand and work with the (drilling) companies and the communities to minimize those impacts or understand them and how we are going to go forward protecting the environment,” Curry said.
Likewise, Curry said with the big expansion of petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast, it was important to “learn from mistakes in the past about how to handle that growth and how the communities will be affected.”
The TCEQ has been criticized for not involving the public enough and for enforcement procedures that are so baffling the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission said the public would be hard-pressed to assess whether fines and other penalties were effective.
Douglas Meiklejohn, an attorney and director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said Curry set himself apart from many regulators because of his sensitivity to those with little political clout. He recalled cases where he said Curry pushed for substantial fines if pollution impacted low-income neighborhoods. But he said Curry was fair to all involved.
“He did get at odds with members of industry and sometimes regulators and sometimes communities, but he was always able to talk to those folks and work with them,” said Meiklejohn.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association delcined to comment on what it thought of Curry’s time as a state environmental regulator.