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The Polluters' President

The Texas governor talks green, but he walks with the industry giants

by Ken Silverstein

In May, Texas Governor George W. Bush staked his claim to be the second "environmental president" in his family. The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Bush said that he didn't want his state to become a "dumping ground" for toxic waste, acknowledged that global warming is a serious problem, and declared that environmental issues are "incredibly important" for the next century.

Yet for the past four years Bush has governed the most polluted state in the country. Texas ranks first in the amount of cancer-causing chemicals pumped annually into the air and water, the number of hazardous-waste incinerators, total toxic releases to the environment, and carbon dioxide and mercury emissions from industry. When it comes to environmental spending, however, Texas ranks 49th. A majority of Texans live in areas that either flunk federal ozone standards or are in danger of flunking. Houston, the nation's oil- and petrochemical-industry headquarters, is an ecological disaster, its coastal waters fouled by chemical spills and its air quality the worst in the nation outside of Los Angeles.

True, Texas was a mess before Bush's election, but critics charge that he's missed nearly every opportunity to clean it up. Indeed, the primary obstacle to writing about Bush's environmental record is trying to find one. His sole high-profile action came last year when he killed a proposal to locate a nuclear-waste dump in the poor West Texas town of Sierra Blanca-a plan he had backed until it generated intense public opposition and national news coverage.

Even Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards seemed a bit flummoxed when I called to say that I was coming to Austin to do a story about the governor's environmental legacy. When she called me back a few days later with a list of achievements, it extended only to Bush's request for new money for water-quality programs, a legislative initiative on clean air, and his support for private-property rights (a concern chiefly of right-wing landowners and a common cover for anti-environmental initiatives).

Texas environmentalists, who've had a rocky relationship with the governor, are cynical about last spring's greening, suspecting it's merely part of his presidential campaign strategy of running as a "compassionate conservative" who can appeal to the broadest spectrum of public opinion. "Bush never said anything about defending our state's environment until he realized that the presidential primaries were coming up," says Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice. "His sudden switch to 'green' is bathed in an intense white light-emanating from the White House."

But in Texas, even lip service to environmental issues is unusual, and anti-environmentalism is reflexive for many politicians, Republican and Democrat alike. At the federal level, the state has spawned figures such as House Whip Tom DeLay (R), the former Houston pest exterminator whose chief mission in Washington has been to squash environmental regulations and who once memorably referred to the EPA as "the Gestapo of government." State politics aren't any better.

A few years back, Deputy Attorney General Drew Durham told a group of property-rights activists that there were no endangered species left in Sterling County because "We killed 'em all. Being the deputy attorney general . . . I'm also the chief executioner." In May, Senator Buster Brown, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and a notorious shill for the nuclear industry, pushed a bill through the upper chamber that allowed private companies to dispose of low-level radioactive waste without a permit. (He also tried-but failed-to defund the agency that oversees the permitting process.)

While the current crop of Texas politicians may be anti-environmental, their constituents are not. During the 1970s, state residents were proud to have some of the best regulatory programs in the country (like a tough, cradle-to-grave hazardous-waste program), and they still take great pride in having some of the nation's most spectacular parks. A March survey commissioned by the Texas office of the Trust for Public Land found that 85 percent of state voters believe that conservation of land and water resources is "very important" or "extremely important."

Seventy-six percent would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund a state program to achieve that goal. Those numbers are actually higher than those obtained in five other states-Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, and California-where the Trust has conducted similar polls. "We're like everybody else," says Rick Lowerre, an Austin environmental attorney. "We want clean air, clean water, and clean food. We passed strong environmental laws in the past because people recognized that we had an incredible number of problems to address and we had real leadership from elected officials."

The governor's office in Texas is a relatively weak position, a legacy from the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Most cabinet positions are elected, and the lieutenant governor plays a more important role than the governor in the legislative process. Which is not to say that Governor Bush is powerless. He has made substantial use of a tool that is available to all chief executives: the bully pulpit. When oil prices plunged on international markets earlier this year, for example, Bush promptly led a successful campaign for a $45 million tax break for the state's oil-and-natural-gas producers.

The governor has rarely displayed such vigor when it comes to promoting environmental legislation. Take clean water, which spokeswoman Edwards highlighted as a success story. More than 4,400 miles of Texas rivers-over one-third of those monitored-are so polluted that they don't meet federal standards set for recreational and other uses. And testing programs have been so badly cut that there's no way to know the full extent of the problems. Between 1985 and 1997, the number of stations monitoring for pesticides in Texas waterways fell from 27 to 2.

The budgets of almost all Texas environmental programs come from fees paid by industry. Clean-air programs, for example, are funded by a per-ton charge leveled on polluters-which guarantees a reasonably adequate level of support. Water-quality programs, however, are funded out of general revenues and therefore depend on the whim of the legislature. When a group of environmentalists met with Bush and proposed that clean water be moved to the more stable, fee-based system, he rejected the suggestion out of hand. "We couldn't even get a discussion going with him because it was so far off his radar screen," says Lowerre, who took part in the meeting. "It was a chance for him to take a leadership role, and he wouldn't do it."

Another opportunity for Bush to show his environmental concern is in his appointments to agencies like the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Bush's appointed commissioners include celebrity lightweights such as Susan Howard, an actress best known for playing Donna Krebs on the TV series Dallas (and less known for being a board member of the National Rifle Association), and baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. He also named Richard Heath, CEO of BeautiControl Cosmetics International, whose chief qualification is being a major campaign donor to Governor George W. Bush.

At the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the rough equivalent of a state EPA, Bush's appointments have been even less inspired. Barry McBee, his first chairman, was an oil specialist at a Dallas law firm and former deputy commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture, where he led a drive to gut "right to know" laws that protected farmworkers from unannounced aerial pesticide spraying. An associate director of cabinet affairs under President George Bush, McBee might well be the head of the EPA under his son.

Next up as chairman after McBee resigned was Robert Huston of the industry consulting firm Espey, Huston & Associates, whose clients included Exxon, Chevron, and Shell. Bush's other appointees to the TNRCC are Ralph Marquez, former vice chair of the Texas Chemical Council's environmental committee and a 30-year veteran of Monsanto, and John Baker Jr., an agribusinessman who was previously a director of the Texas Farm Bureau.

With that cast of characters, it's no surprise that TNRCC's rulings during the Bush years have led environmentalists to dub it, in a twist of its acronym, the "Train Wreck" agency. On Bush's watch, the TNRCC has tossed out a number of state rules on the grounds that they were tougher than federal regulations and therefore "excessive." Among these were standards on toxic air pollution and permit requirements for cattle and hog feedlots. Bush's TNRCC also decided to give industrial plants two weeks' notice before they are visited by state inspectors.

On the rare occasion when Bush has ventured forth with an environmental initiative, he's been careful to avoid treading on the toes of polluting industries. Andy Sansom, head of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, was appointed by Bush's Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards, but was retained by Bush and has emerged as his point man on the environment. The governor, Sansom says, has adopted a "paradigm shift" in policy, moving away from acquisition of public lands and regulation of industry to cooperation and incentives. According to Sansom, it's an approach that makes sense in the Lone Star State and at the national level. "In Texas, we do conservation within the context of a limited government philosophy or we don't do it at all," he says. "He's got a record that works for the year 2000."

In practice, Bush's new paradigm looks pretty much like the old paradigm, where industry calls the shots. It is exemplified by his approach to clean-air legislation, which was passed by state lawmakers last May and which Bush calls his "biggest environmental achievement." Bush's aim was to deal with factories "grandfathered" by a loophole in the Texas Clean Air Act of 1971 that allowed 828 industrial plants to continue operating without obtaining air-pollution permits from the state. Plants subsequently coming on-line were required to obtain a permit, which is contingent upon the installation of modern pollution-control devices. Today, the grandfathered plants-some dating to the 1930s-produce hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic emissions per year, or one-third of Texas' industrial air pollution.

Two years ago, Bush announced an initiative to close the loophole. But his plan was strictly voluntary, with no penalties for companies that didn't seek a permit. What Bush didn't say at the time-and what was revealed only after the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition (SEED) obtained a host of confidential memos under the state's Freedom of Information Act-was that his program had been secretly drawn up by the very companies that run the grandfathered facilities.

Ralph Marquez of the TNRCC worked with the companies as they were crafting the proposal and defends Bush's strategy. "I had to get the cooperation of those who were going to be spending the money [on pollution-control equipment]," he explained at the agency's office in Austin's outskirts. ("Pick important problems. Solve them," read a sign on his wall.) "I didn't want to be fighting them continuously."

Peter Altman of SEED, a New Yorker who moved to Austin nine years ago, has a less generous interpretation. Over an early morning breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe, he pulled out a briefcase full of memos his organization had acquired. They show that Bush's plan dates to March of 1997, when he asked officials from Marathon Oil and Exxon-both major campaign contributors-to "develop the concepts of a voluntary program to permit grandfathered facilities." Two months later, those two firms invited several dozen other grandfathered polluters to a meeting where they unveiled their handiwork.

Jim Kennedy, an official at DuPont, prepared a summary of the meeting, noting that about 40 people attended, mostly from the oil-and-gas industry but from utilities and chemical companies as well. "The 'insiders' from oil and gas believe that the governor's office will [push through] whatever program is developed between the industry group and the governor's office," wrote Kennedy, adding that these insiders didn't see much need to consult anyone else since they don't "have any real value for public involvement." Furthermore, he wrote, the Marathon/Exxon proposal, which Bush subsequently embraced, had "no 'meat' with respect to actual emissions reductions. One of the [business] leaders actually stated that emissions reductions was not a primary driver for the program."

If elected president, Bush will confront a similar federal loophole, one that allows two-thirds of the nation's power plants to evade modern pollution standards. For Altman, the governor's efforts at the state level hardly inspire confidence. "Bush says he's an advocate of limited government, but I don't think letting polluters write his policies is a good way of implementing that policy."

In the end, public pressure led the state House of Representatives to pass legislation last May that was tougher than the bill favored by the governor and industry if not as strong as environmental groups had hoped for. It requires utilities, which produce about one-third of all grandfathered emissions, to install up-to-date pollution-control equipment by 2003. Oil, gas, and chemical plants that don't apply for a permit within two years will pay stiff fees on annual emissions above 4,000 tons. That provision will not be broadly felt, however, since only eight plants currently exceed the ceiling set by the bill. In other words, many of the grandfathered plants will be great-grandfathered, and will continue to operate without a permit.

Bush championed another piece of legislation that allows utility firms to charge higher rates to pay off "stranded costs" stemming from overruns at nuclear plants. That's a polite way of saying that electricity customers will be forced to bail the nuclear industry out from under a mountain of up to $8 billion worth of bad investments. The main beneficiary will be Texas Utilities-the single largest producer of grandfathered emissions-which runs the Comanche Peak nuclear plant near Fort Worth. An epic boondoggle, Comanche Peak was originally planned to cost $800 million but came in years behind schedule at $11 billion.

Industry's satisfaction with Bush's environmental approach is reflected in campaign-finance records. Since 1989, when poultry magnate Bo Pilgrim was spotted handing out $10,000 checks on the statehouse floor, donations to state elected officials have been banned while the legislature is in session. Nothing, however, prevents them from giving to federal candidates-like presidential hopeful George W. Bush. And give they have. Even as debate on the grandfathered plants raged in Texas, industry groups with an interest in the measure poured at least $316,000 into Bush's presidential war chest. This largesse comes on top of the $1.5 million grandfathered polluters had already pumped into Bush's gubernatorial campaigns.

Bush himself was unavailable, so the best person to talk to about the candidate's eco-policies, spokeswoman Linda Edwards told me, was Andy Sansom at Parks and Wildlife. Sansom has been something of a target for environmentalists, perhaps partly because they feel that as a former head of the Nature Conservancy in Texas he was once one of their own. As head of Parks and Wildlife, he's accused of neglecting wildlife in favor of catering to hunters, even as their numbers in Texas have dwindled to 5.6 percent of the population. To try to get that number up, Sansom's agency has offered hunting-education instruction at public schools and sponsored hunting trips for inner-city kids. Meanwhile, Texas ranks 48th in the nation in per-capita spending on parks, and Sansom's agency has made virtually no new acquisitions under Bush, who wants to see parks endowed by private capital.

A genial and highly likable man, the cowboy-booted Sansom defends his record and is almost apologetic about his alleged shortcomings. He points out that 98 percent of land in Texas is held in private hands, far more than in most states. "Texas is different," he says. "We're very frugal when it comes to public spending, and there's a belief in private property that transcends anything I've seen."

Sansom points to the issue of endangered species as an example of how he's tried to be effective but respectful of property owners. During Bush's tenure, his agency has opposed endangered listings for the jaguar, the Arkansas River shiner, the Barton Springs salamander, and the swift fox. In the latter case, Parks and Wildlife has allowed continued hunting of the fox even though it doesn't know how many are left.

"The law says that the public owns the animals but the landowner owns the habitat," he says. "I understand that listing raises the public profile, but preserving these species is the outcome I'm primarily after." Hence, in 1996 he instituted a program that pays landowners up to $10,000 per year for protecting endangered species on their property. Parks and Wildlife has subsequently signed 14 such agreements. Sansom says that landowners who were previously reluctant to acknowledge that they had an endangered species on their property, for fear that it would lead to government regulation, are now voluntarily stepping forward.

That's fine, says Scott Royder, former communications director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, but "we don't think the public should be paying landowners to do what they should be doing anyway." He also says the deals negotiated by Sansom are toothless, particularly because they don't set hard targets to ensure the recovery of endangered species.

The broader problem at Parks and Wildlife is that Sansom and his boss are petrified of offending conservative landowners. In 1995, Bush signed a property-rights bill whose primary backers included a group called Take Back Texas Inc. That outfit was headed by a farmer named Marshall Kuykendall, who during debate on the legislation described President Lincoln's decision to free the slaves as a past example of the federal government taking private property without compensation.

To prevent that sort of thing from happening again, the bill allows landowners to sue if government action reduces the value of their property by 25 percent or more (for example, by restricting construction that threatens to destroy important habitat). The next year, Parks and Wildlife dissolved Texas' Natural Heritage Program, which cataloged rare species on private and public lands. Property-rights groups have targeted Heritage programs across the country (almost all states run one) on the grounds that they might lead to regulation of private land under the federal Endangered Species Act. Texas is the only place they succeeded.

Biologist Dean Keddy-Hector is one of a number of Parks and Wildlife staffers who've left in frustration in recent years. He was forced out after charging that the agency was manipulating data and deliberately underestimating the impact of industry on endangered species. Keddy-Hector doesn't write off Sansom's contention that "Texas is different," but says Parks and Wildlife under Bush has gone to extremes. "The agency can't simply please landowners, but has to act as the taxpayers' servant," he says. "When they start messing with scientific information for convenience's sake, things have gone too far."

The Bush administration has been far more vigilant in protecting private landowners from government regulation than in protecting state residents from private polluters. One of the main beneficiaries of this approach is TXI, a company that operates a giant cement plant in Midlothian, population 5,000, about 30 miles southwest of Dallas. The plant accounts for one-quarter of the area's total industrial pollution; its pollution-control systems date to 1972. I meet Jim Schernbeck, the red-haired, goateed leader of a community group called Downwinders at Risk, at his home office-or office home, as his humble abode is completely overrun with piles of material on TXI.

Midlothian, he says, bills itself as the "Cement Capital of America," and I soon see why. On the way to TXI we pass Holman Cement, where three smokestacks, ringed yellow from sulfur dioxide emissions, rise above mountains of black coal; a slight detour takes us past the equally grim North Texas Cement Company. Schernbeck explains that TXI, unlike its two nearby competitors, generates energy by burning hazardous waste produced and trucked in by firms from the surrounding area-a "win-win" solution for TXI, Schernbeck points out, because the company not only saves itself the expense of coal or natural gas to fire its kilns but makes money by charging to dispose of other firms' hazardous waste.

For nearby residents, it's a less attractive proposition. Chemical odors are sometimes so strong that people are kept trapped in their homes. According to the Dallas Observer, scientists don't even have names for some of the substances coming out of TXI's stacks, and a University of Texas study found that people living near the plant are three times more likely to have respiratory problems than people living upwind. An unusually high number of babies born in the area have Down's syndrome, and dog breeders complain of strange illnesses, birth defects, and premature deaths among their litters. Back in 1991, TXI took air samples near the plant, confident that they would prove it was safe. Instead, the company discovered-and tried to suppress-that levels of at least four carcinogenic compounds were far higher than those considered safe by the EPA.

Before she left the governor's office, Ann Richards proposed tightening the rules on what TXI could burn at its Midlothian facility. Her proposal was shot down by a lobbying campaign led by hired guns for TXI and the chemical industry-including Ralph Marquez, Bush's appointee to the TNRCC. After Bush took office, TXI sought permission to increase the amount of hazardous waste it burns from 100,000 tons to 270,000 tons per year. Downwinders at Risk organized a grassroots campaign to block the permit, but couldn't match the clout of TXI, which gave Bush a total of $10,000 for his re-election campaign.

"We started asking for a meeting with Bush almost from the day he took office," Schernbeck says wistfully as we pull up in front of the plant. "We never got a foot in the door." By now, there's little point in trying. Last March, Marquez and two other TNRCC commissioners gave the go-ahead to TXI, which is now authorized to pump 52 tons of metals-including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead-into the air annually, making it the largest hazardous-waste incinerator in the country.

Schernbeck points out a row of semi trucks lined up at concrete silos dispensing cement powder. It's a drizzly, overcast day, and smoke belching into the air from TXI's four stacks blends in with low-hanging clouds that hover over the plant, along with a distinctive chemical odor. Schernbeck turns up a dirt road that runs behind TXI, and we look down upon a vast hole the company cut into the earth to extract limestone for manufacturing its cement. A bit farther up the road we pass a sign nailed to a wooden post-atop it perched an ugly buzzard spreading its wings-that announces a "Future Rock Quarry." We stop on a hilltop with an expansive view of the area. The TXI case, says Schernbeck, is Bush-as-usual: "He's not an anti-environmental crusader, but he won't do anything to tie the hands of business."

Gazing down over the polluted landscape, we could be looking at the country's future under President George W. Bush.

Messing With Texas

Texans love to talk about how their state has the biggest this and the most that, but here are some records that George W. isn't likely to crow about:

Since 1995, Texas has led the country in toxic releases to the environment. In 1997, 260 million pounds of toxic pollution were released in the state. That translates to 10 pounds per Texan.

This year, Texas has had the worst air pollution in the United States. The worst air in Texas is in the Houston-Galveston-Texas City area, which has had seven out of the ten worst air pollution days in the country.

Texas ranks first in the nation in total toxic air emissions from industrial facilities. Of the 50 largest industrial facilities in Texas, 28 violate the Clean Air Act.

Texas ranks first in the nation for toxic chemical accidents. Of all reported chemical accidents, 20 percent happen in Texas. It also has the worst accident potential in the country, with Houston at more peril than any other city.

All the Governor's Environmentalists

In Texas as elsewhere, many of the most critical decisions are made not by politicians but by their political appointees. If you're wondering how green President George W. Bush would be, a look at some of his picks for Texas environmental commissions might give you a clue.

Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission
Barry McBee- An oil specialist at a Dallas law firm, McBee was Bush's first chair of the TNRCC. According to the Texas Observer, McBee "limited citizen input and reduced enforcement against polluters."

Robert Huston- Before replacing McBee, Huston was an environmental consultant for industry. Who's he working for now? In June he wrote the EPA protesting its tough eight-hour ozone standards.

Ralph Marquez- Formerly of the Texas Chemical Council and Monsanto, Marquez allowed polluters to write the new (voluntary!) regulations governing antiquated pollution-spewing plants.

John Baker Jr.- A former board member of the Texas Farm Bureau, since his appointment to the TNRCC in 1995 Baker has voted routinely to deny affected citizens public hearings for new industrial plants.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Richard Heath- Chief executive officer of BeautiControl Cosmetics International, Heath's primary qualification is being a major fund-raiser for Bush's gubernatorial and now presidential campaigns.

Nolan Ryan- Former pitcher for the Texas Rangers, a team Bush partly owned. A measure by Ryan allows ranchers to trap and pen wild deer on their land in order to establish game farms.

Susan Howard- More famous as Donna Krebs on the TV series Dallas, less so as a national board member of the National Rifle Association, Howard's primary interest in wildlife is its huntability.

Ken Silverstein also writes for The Nation, Mother Jones, and Harper's; his book on what became of the covert operators of the Cold War, Private Warriors, will be published next spring by Verso.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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