The Sunset Advisory Committee listens to testimony on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin on June 22. Credit: Livestream from the Texas Senate

Sandra Edwards held the black T-shirt in the air so anyone nearby could read it. “Creosote Killed Me… And Is Still Killing,” it declared in bold white lettering. A tombstone sat at its center, a running list of deceased neighbors scrawled atop it in black Sharpie. Behind her was a door emblazoned with the Texas state seal.

Edwards had boarded a bus Wednesday morning to travel to the Texas Capitol. She’d made the three-hour trip from Houston to testify before the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the effectiveness of agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ. 

Edwards had stayed up all night to prepare her testimony, which centered on her experience living in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Her dead-end street backs up to a Union Pacific railyard, which for decades leaked creosote — an oily substance used to treat telephone poles and railroad ties — into homes in the historically Black community. The Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed a cancer cluster in the neighborhood in 2019. 

Because Texas only evaluates the TCEQ’s performance every 12 years and offers one public hearing for community members to provide input, Edwards knew she had to make the most of her opportunity to speak. She was afraid she wouldn’t be alive to testify at the next forum in 2034. 

“The TCEQ isn’t protecting us,” she said. “We’ve lost everyone on our street.”

Sandra Edwards, center, and other advocates from Houston’s Fifth Ward traveled to Austin to testify for stronger TCEQ regulation. Credit: David Leffler

Edwards was among dozens of Texans who showed up in a state Senate committee room to demand more from the environmental agency.

Gayla Young, a mother of four and child-welfare advocate from Port Arthur, had driven more than four hours to testify. While she waited for her turn to speak, she paced the Capitol’s marble floors and described how air pollution had ravaged her family. She has chronic lung issues and needs a CPAP machine to breathe at night. Her two young sons struggle with asthma. Young attributed these ailments to emissions from an Exxon Mobil complex that spans 2,700 acres and includes a refinery and multiple chemical plants. 

Shirley Ronquillo, an activist from East Aldine, an unincorporated community north of Houston, arrived with more than 15 people wearing red, including several children. There are nine concrete batching plants within a five-mile radius in East Aldine, she explained. The newest one  is being built next to a park that serves people with disabilities, including her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

The concrete plants release fine particles that are too small for the eye to see but can settle deep into lungs and seep into bloodstreams. In 2015 alone, 5,213 Harris County residents died prematurely due to fine-particle exposure, according to scientists at Harvard University and the Environmental Defense Fund.

More than a dozen people from East Aldine came to voice their frustration with the TCEQ’s industry-friendly permitting process. Their Houston-area community includes nine concrete batch plants. Credit: David Leffler

Edwards, Young and Ronquillo all live in low-income communities of color. All came to Austin to demand changes in how the TCEQ disciplines serial polluters and evaluates potential permits for new or expanding industrial facilities. From the outset, however, it was clear the Texas officials they were addressing had far less ambitious goals in mind. 

Hours before public testimony began, the Sunset commission debated the findings of an initial report produced by staffers. The report’s findings included rebukes of the TCEQ’s lack of transparency, its poorly constructed website and its archaic permitting process, which often stifles public input. 

By and large, though, the report gave the agency high marks for “admirably administering its complex programs.” It suggested that the TCEQ’s poor reputation stemmed from “a frustrated public demanding action, but not always understanding TCEQ does not regulate every industrial practice” and “a ‘not in my back yard’ perspective that merely wants to prevent industrial activity in their own communities.”

Even the mild criticisms in the report were met with defiance by the 12-member Sunset commission, composed of 10 Texas lawmakers and two “public members” with political ties to the GOP. 

At one point, state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, the commission’s chairman and one of its 10 Republican members, told a commission staffer that the recommendations for improvement at the TCEQ had gone too far. Rep. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, followed up with a more direct reproach.

“You’re out of your box on this one,” Perry said, adding that such decisions should be left to the Texas legislature. “This is not your jurisdiction… You’re really trying to open up Pandora’s Box.”

As Edwards and the other advocates waited for their chance to speak, their frustration began to mount. It was clear they had a starkly different view of the TCEQ than did Schwertner and Perry.

That disconnect was encapsulated during a tense back-and-forth between Sen. Borris Miles, a Democrat who represents several heavily polluted areas in Houston, and TCEQ Chairman Jon Niermann. When Miles asked whether he was familiar with the concept of environmental racism, Niermann seemed confused. 

“Environmental racism… I’m not sure what to do with that term,” Niermann responded. 

Niermann and other TCEQ leaders left the hearing shortly thereafter, before public testimony began. Had they stuck around, they would have heard dozens of examples of environmental racism from aggrieved residents like Edwards and Ronquillo. They would have heard Kenneth Burgess, a former refinery worker, describe the terror of surviving a deadly explosion at the plant where he worked. They would have heard 9-year-old Natalie Diamond ask why the TCEQ continues to give operating permits to dangerous polluters. They would have heard 12-year-old Sophia Foster demand clean air for herself and her little sister.

Sophia Foster in the Texas Capitol. The 12-year-old testified that her and her sister’s futures depend on the TCEQ’s improving its air-permitting process. Credit: Anoma Foster

“The reason they don’t care about these issues is because they don’t live where we live,” Edwards said. “It’s about empathy. All we can do is continue to show them how we’re forced to live, and why our lives should matter more than the companies’ profits.”