Texas Bill would fine people for filing multiple environmental complaints with TCEQ

State Senator Drew Springer, a Republican from Weatherford, introduced a bill that would impose a fine on people who file multiple complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Springer calls his legislation a common sense bill to address vexatious complaints and conserve TCEQ resources. But environmental advocates say it could discourage people from filing legitimate complaints with the state agency altogether.

Springer’s Senate Bill 471 would amend the water code to evaluate a fee against anyone who files three or more TCEQ complaints about the same problem in a calendar year that result in no enforcement or corrective action by the agency. The fee would be less than or equal to the cost of the complaint investigation.

Kathryn Bazan, a former TCEQ employee and current chair of the Dallas Environmental Commission, said the bill would create an additional burden for people seeking the state agency to address their concerns.

“I think repetitive complaints are not necessarily indicative of vexatious complaints,” Bazan said. “I think it’s indicative of a disconnect between what TCEQ can and should do for them and what TCEQ believes it can and should do for community members.”

He said the disconnect is that the agency doesn’t always believe what is being reported constitutes a violation of the Federal Clean Air Act or TCEQ enforcement policy. Under this bill, Bazan said people should learn more about federal air quality regulations and how the TCEQ handles complaints if they hope to avoid a fine. “This bill places an unfair burden on communities to learn Federal Clean Air Act regulations and TCEQ enforcement policies, which I don’t believe most lawmakers themselves are willing to do that,” Bazan said.

“You go out and you smell or see a visible emission, you should be able to report it to your state agency for further investigation,” Bazan said. “You wouldn’t have to first go looking for that very specific permit and all permit conditions that are very technical in most cases to figure out whether or not your complaint will result in a violation.”

Bazan also said the bill has implications for the confidentiality of these complaints. “The bill would require a breach of confidentiality that TCEQ maintains in its grievance process, which protects community members and employees of that facility from retaliation,” she said. This would likely result in complainants not providing their contact information or complaining in the first place. If they don’t give their contact information, investigators will have no one to follow up with, Bazan said. This may make it more likely that the investigation will not result in a violation.

“You go outside and you smell or see a visible emission, you should be able to report it to your state agency for further investigation.” – Kathryn Bazan, Dallas Environmental Commission

tweet this Beyond all of this, Bazan said there are many reasons why it might take more complaints to get action from the TCEQ. She said there was a local batch plant operating illegally and it took numerous complaints from both residents and herself before any action was taken.

For one thing, the bar for what is considered a violation can be subjective. The TCEQ’s Odor Nuisance Policy, for example, states that if someone complains about an odor, claiming it is causing them ill effects, the investigator must experience the same thing to ensure a violation. “There are so many different levels as to whether a violation can be confirmed or not,” Bazan said.

The Sunset Advisory Commission’s review of the TCEQ cited inefficient administrative processes and the increased strain of investigating harassment-based complaints as having reduced the agency’s ability to monitor compliance and take necessary enforcement action. According to the commission, which periodically reviews state agencies, TCEQ conducted more than 117,000 inspections in fiscal year 2021. About 4,750 of these were based on complaints received by TCEQ. The commission recommended that the agency change its approach to harassment complaints to make better use of investigative resources.

In an emailed statement, the TCEQ said the bill would not change the way the agency handles information about complainants or its ability to file complaints anonymously. “If the bill passes, TCEQ would work toward implementation, including a review of grievance policies and procedures,” the agency said.

Springer’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but he discussed his bill at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs on Monday. He gave an example of two people who filed 39 complaints in 2022 against the same asphalt operator, with no results from the TCEQ. From December 2019 to the present, Springer said there have been 44 complaints filed by eight people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that have resulted in no findings of air quality violations.

He said these are examples of vexatious complaints for which people should be fined. The TCEQ would be responsible for setting a fee for each type of complaint, with each fee being less than or equal to the cost of investigating the complaints. Springer said the investigations can cost between $700 and $9,000. The commission could also decide to waive the tax “for just cause,” Springer said. He said he wants the vexatious TCEQ filing rules to be more like the court system needs to make the trial “more tried and true and more fair and equitable.”

“We have a limited amount of resources to investigate things,” Springer said. “Those limited amounts of resources that we have in the state [level] it would be best to investigate other things that the agency sees as potentially a real threat to our environment,” he said.

Springer said he’s not trying to discourage people from filing legitimate complaints.

“I’m just trying to find some common ground here,” he said. “We’re not trying to say you can’t press charges. Look, if you think something is wrong, we want to hear from you. But when we’ve done that over and over and over again, I think we get to the point where we’re becoming abusive and weaponizing the agency.

Three people showed up Monday to testify against the bill. None of the public testified in favor. Danielle Goshen, a policy expert and adviser to the National Wildlife Federation, told the committee on Monday that the bill discourages public engagement. “There are many reasons for people to file multiple complaints,” Goshen said. “There may be another complaint on the same subject. There may be more evidence that has been found. So, we really hope people aren’t deterred from participating.”

He added: “I understand that the TCEQ needs more resources for the investigation. I think it should be more of a focus instead of really punishing people if they are making multiple complaints.

“We’re not trying to say you can’t file complaints.” – Senator Drew Springer

tweet this Tim Doty, a former TCEQ employee, also testified against the bill on Monday. “The proposed legislation could unnecessarily punish economically deprived communities that live adjacent to major polluters,” he said.

Mary Evans, an economist and professor of environmental economics at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, told the committee that she has been researching environmental policy for 20 years. She and her colleagues reviewed tens of thousands of complaints filed with TCEQ from 2003 to 2019. What they found was that investigations resulting from these complaints uncovered violations more often than investigations conducted by TCEQ for other reasons. These investigations prompted by complaints are also more likely to uncover serious violations.

Evans said that while he understands TCEQ doesn’t have unlimited resources, he doesn’t think SB 471 is the solution. “I’m an economist, so I recognize that the TCEQ doesn’t have unlimited resources to respond to citizen complaints,” Evans said. “However, the bill as written risks creating a chilling effect that could cause Texans to hesitate to report important and valuable information to the TCEQ.”

The bill is still in committee and was left pending on Monday. SB 471 would go into effect Sept. 1 if approved and signed by the governor.

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