News » News Features

EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz on environmental justice, Texas' (and the GOP's) war against his agency, and the recent environmental summit in Corpus Christi



What does EPA hope to accomplish at summits like this, and are there similar EPA efforts across Region 6?

We hope to really facilitate and start a dialogue. One in which we're just a participant and just one of the people at the table — a dialogue on how to reduce environmental exposure to pollutants. How to improve air quality and water quality, and how to do it in a community that has a mayor and local leaders who want to make it a better place for future generations. Our goal is really to convene people from the environmental justice community, from heavy industry, city, state, federal agencies, ours and others, so that we can move collectively together. Because EPA can't solve all the environmental issues or be the only person championing environmental justice and sustainability in any community. We just don't have the ability, the authority, and the resources. So we need other people to really help make us successful.

We have a summit that kicked off last year in Port Arthur, a port that has large refineries and a major petrochemical industry presence. And what we were able to do there was convene a summit of multiple federal agencies, local officials, industry, and that group collectively identified a number of issues they're going to work on and they're now moving forward. We're not going to solve all the problems, but we did identify some tangible goals, some quantifiable goals. One thing that we did was start a discussion about economic development in the area that's really close to the facilities. Because of a variety of issues, well mainly because it's so close to these facilities, it's a part of Port Arthur that's very economically depressed. It's one of the most economically depressed parts of Texas I've ever seen. And they lack some basic services, including basic access to healthcare. So working through some of our enforcement tools that we have within EPA we were able to restructure an enforcement action so that money is going to come from a Clean Air Act enforcement action to actually build a health clinic in that community. And it's some of the first new developments in that part of town within decades.

In these heavy-industry communities, like Port Arthur and Corpus, do these people simply live too close to these facilities for it to be safe?

People who live closest to these industrial facilities are certainly exposed to levels of pollution above and beyond the average person. And people who live closest to these facilities are getting doses of pollution that are unusual, and my job is to protect their public health. One of the things I've really done is try to focus my work and the work of my staff on improving the public health of the people that live closest to these facilities. And when it comes to proximity, it is certainly the case people get less exposure the further away they are from these major facilities. There will be less of a concern of a catastrophic release if people aren't living so close to the fence line. Adding distance between people and industrial facilities makes common sense. It helps reduce the public health burden from the air emissions. It helps make emergency response more successful.

Many in the environmental justice community and those living near the refineries say there needs to be a cumulative emissions study.

There's absolutely good science that needs to be done on cumulative emissions. EPA historically has worked on pollutants one at a time. But what we know is people, especially those that live very close to these facilities, they're being exposed to multiple pollutants simultaneously. And so we certainly do need to do studies on how that cumulative exposure affects people. Because it could be very different than studying those pollutants one at a time. But in addition to that we certainly don't want to study communities to death. We know it would be better if people didn't live close to refineries. We know it would be easier when it comes to emergency response if there was more distance between facilities and people. And so at the same time that we're doing the studies to fully understand cumulative exposure, there are some practical things I want all of us to do — the city, industry, my office, the EJ [environmental justice] community — see if we can do something collective to add some space between these facilities and these homes.

What's been the role of industry so far in these discussions? What do you expect out of them?

We've had a good dialogue with the industry in Corpus Christi. I've spoken individually with many of them. I've gotten to know many of the people who are the executives of these companies that operate these large refineries. I really do think EPA's goals and the goals of these major industrial facilities are well aligned. They don't want to emit any more than they have to. They're looking for common sense ways to reduce emissions. They know that having people so close to their fence lines is difficult for them, and it's difficult for me. And so they have been active in helping to get this summit going. And many of them are here today. I certainly hope they stay engaged throughout the process with these working groups. It's very clear to me that their goals of profitability and economic development are really essential to environmental protection. There are so many examples in our region and across the country of companies that have been down on economic times and start cutting corners. And other companies that have gone bankrupt and have left environmental disasters all over the country that have to get cleaned up. So I certainly want to see these companies profitable so they in turn have the economic capacity to make investments to reduce emissions and so they can engage in voluntary measures to clean up. I hope they see in me somebody who has an understanding that the economic growth and their economic success and my goals of public health and environmental protection really can go hand in hand.

There's this combative approach and rhetoric from much of the Texas political establishment regarding EPA. How big of a barrier is that in finding common ground, voluntary measures the TCEQ, industry, and EPA can commit to in places like Corpus?

The political rhetoric is unfortunate because it sometimes gives the impression that people have to chose sides, that they have to decide whether they want to work with the state of Texas or whether they want to work with the federal EPA. And it's very unfortunate because whether it's community groups, other agencies, or regulated industry, they really do have to work with everybody. They have to have a good relationship with state government. The state is their primary regulator, the TCEQ has primary environmental regulatory responsibility.

But that brings up the question of enforcement. Even in Corpus, your agency has found that five of six major refineries here are high-priority violators. What kind of tension does that create  between the two regulators?

There's certainly tension at the political level. There's, I think, some unfortunate rhetoric that comes from the heads of some of the agencies in the state of Texas and by people in the governor's office. But at the staff level we still have very good working relationships with people of TCEQ, people with the Railroad Commission, the General Land Office, and we still do get a lot done collectively. But it would be better if the political apparatus that runs the state agencies and is in charge in Austin didn't take — well, let me say this: It would be great if they would tone down the rhetoric. Because then it's easier for staff of these state agencies to more effectively engage with EPA. So rather than forcing their staff to choose sides or forcing industry to choose sides or forcing communities to choose sides — one of my goals is to try to have good relationships with all these state agencies, to try to repair relationships where they need to be repaired. I think that makes everybody more successful.


Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.