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Environmental groups ask EPA to strip Texas officials of water pollution control

Nearly two dozen environmental organizations in Texas have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to remove Texas’ authority to administer the federal program to control and reduce water pollution in this state.

In a 40-page petition sent to the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the groups call for the federal government to assume control of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System in Texas, saying the TCEQ has not met the program’s intent. They say the TCEQ has demonstrated systemic and chronic failures to adequately review and approve water pollution control permits in Texas.

“Over the years, Texas has given a green light to a huge amount of contamination of our waterways by allowing developers and other polluters to short-cut the legally required permit review process that is meant to safeguard our rivers and streams,” said Ilan Levin, Texas director of the Environmental Integrity Project, in a news release. “For this reason, EPA needs to step in and take over — or force Texas to fix its broken review system.”

The NPDES — referred to in this state as the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System — is a federal program created to control pollution in surface waters. All operators that intend to discharge pollutants into waterways must obtain an NPDES permit, which limits how much is discharged.

Ilan Levin is associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Ilan Levin is associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project / The Environmental Integrity Project

In 1998, the EPA delegated management of the program in Texas to the state, as it has in 46 other states. The program is federally managed in New Mexico, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Among the claims of the 21 petitioning organizations — including the San Antonio-based Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and Austin-based Save Our Springs Alliance — is that the TCEQ routinely gives permit applicants the benefit of the doubt that their discharges will have minimal effects. As a result, they are not required to demonstrate economic or social necessity.

“The TCEQ always finds that a proposed discharge is only going to have a de minimis impact,” said Kelly Davis, a staff attorney with Save Our Springs Alliance. “It’s never taken that step that’s defined in the NPDES rules in which the applicant must demonstrate significant social or economic development to justify the degradation of water quality. The TCEQ never gets that far.”

The TCEQ declined a request for comment, saying it won’t do so until it has read the petition.

As an example of the TCEQ’s deference to industry, Davis cites a permit issued for the Liberty Hill Wastewater Treatment Plant north of Austin, which allowed the plant to discharge 4 million gallons a day into the San Gabriel River. The TCEQ said the phosphorus pollution, which can cause harmful algae blooms, would be minor. Now, Davis said, there are thick clumps of algae downstream from the plant.

The petition describes a similar situation involving Lerin Hill Ltd.’s sewage treatment plant northwest of San Antonio.

The petitioners complain that the TCEQ routinely applies a standard known as a “de minimis” exemption during its permitting process that places the burden on the public to demonstrate that degradation will be more than minor. That standard, they said, was applied in the Lerin Hill plant’s case to allow 500,000 gallons to be discharged into several Hill Country streams. An administrative law judge recommended denial, citing an “undisputed” increase of algal and plant growth, and the TCEQ issued the permit.

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