This is already shaping up to be a big year for Texas’ environment. Decisions are about to be made that will have a major impact on air quality, the Gulf Coast and Texas rivers.
On Feb. 10, a federal trial will begin in Houston to decide a lawsuit brought by Environment Texas and the Sierra Club against ExxonMobil. At issue is the oil giant’s routine and egregious violations of the Clean Air Act at its super-sized Baytown Complex, the largest manufacturing facility in the country.
So-called “upset” events — equipment breakdowns, malfunctions and other non-routine occurrences — have led to illegal emissions of carcinogens, smog-forming chemicals and other hazardous air pollutants discharged in excess of the facility’s Clean Air Act permits. Nearly 70,000 people live within a five-mile radius of this 3,400-acre complex just east of Houston.
The lawsuit seeks to end Exxon’s violations of the law. If successful, the case could result in cleaner air for Houston and serve as a precedent for oil refinery and chemical plant operations across the country.
Also in early February, the state is expected to release its plan for spending hundreds of millions of dollars from settlements over one of the worst environmental disasters in American history, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Our Gulf Coast not only provides our families with places to swim and play in the sun, it is also home to whooping cranes and sea turtles, shrimp and crabs, snapper and trout.
Unfortunately, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was only the latest blow to our coastline, which has suffered from decades of neglect, oil spills, pollution and poorly planned development.
BP and its contractors are expected to pay Texas as much as $1 billion for damage done during the devastating spill, and that money gives us a once-in-a-generation chance to shore up our barrier islands, restore our wetlands, protect and preserve wildlife habitat and ensure fresh water for coastal lagoons.
But in other coastal states, the money is being misspent, going to hotels, convention centers and ball fields. The state will hold listening sessions in March and April to solicit public comment on how the funds should be used.
Finally, by Sept. 1 regional water planners will submit their priorities for consideration by the Texas Water Development Board on how to spend billions of dollars in water infrastructure funds made available by voter approval of Proposition 6 last November.
The money can’t come soon enough. Years of drought and wasteful water use have strained drinking water supplies, threatened our rivers and wildlife and disrupted outdoor recreational activities.
Unfortunately, the state’s proposed plan for satisfying future water demand favors increased water withdrawals that could further harm our rivers, including the Guadalupe, the San Saba and the Rio Grande. In many cases, the state has given permission for more water to be withdrawn from rivers than is available.
Meanwhile, major water users waste billions of gallons each year, even though we have the technology and know-how to use water more efficiently.
Legislators wisely directed water planners to set aside as much as 30 percent or more of funds for water conservation, including projects to help farmers upgrade irrigation equipment and businesses to install more efficient appliances and landscaping.
It’s crucial that regional and state water planners prioritize water conservation and avoid projects that imperil our rivers.
Texans want clean air and water and our natural areas protected.
With the people and the facts on our side (and having eaten my share of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day), I am optimistic 2014 will be a good year for our environment.
Luke Metzger is the director of Environment Texas, a statewide, citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces. www.EnvironmentTexas.org