Forty percent of Galena Park's 11,000 residents live within a mile of an industrial facility.
Harris County, Texas, had 53 "emissions events" during the first three months of this year, records show. Credit: Mark Felix

In Harris County, Texas, unplanned releases of air pollutants from industrial facilities are a regular vexation. From January 1 through April 1, state records show, 53 such “emissions events” showered county residents with contaminants including benzene, a carcinogen, and carbon monoxide, which can cause chest pain – known as angina — in people with heart disease.

Legislative attempts to clamp down on polluters in Texas haven’t been particularly successful. But Penny Morales Shaw, a Democratic state representative from Houston, is trying again.

On March 7, Morales Shaw introduced bills that would tie fines imposed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to inflation and ensure that local governments access more of the money recovered in lawsuits against polluters. Morales Shaw had pledged to act after saying she was “deeply disturbed” by a 2022 Public Health Watch investigation into recurring chemical releases in heavily industrialized eastern Harris County.

“I think we have to hold industry accountable for polluting the environment,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We shouldn’t have to wait for cancer clusters or widespread childhood asthma to be our triggers to take action. We should know better and do the right thing.”

One of Morales Shaw’s bills, H.B. 3853, would require the TCEQ to adjust penalties for inflation each year. If, for example, a rule adopted in 2000 carried a $2,500 fine for a violation, the inflation-adjusted amount in 2023, based on a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculation, would be $4,455.57.

“A lot of those originally mandated fines have not been increased over time,” Morales Shaw said. On top of that, companies often contest fines and get them reduced or dismissed. 

In its story last year, Public Health Watch explained how Texas leaders, prodded by industry, had severely limited the ability of local jurisdictions to go after serial polluters. In 2015, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that set a limit of $2.15 million on the amount of money a local government, like Harris County, could collect from a pollution lawsuit – barely enough to cover the cost of a years-long legal battle. Under that law, the first $4.3 million recovered in such a lawsuit must be split evenly between the state and the local jurisdiction.

Another Morales Shaw bill, H.B. 3913, would require that the state’s half of the first $4.3 million recovered, and any amount over that, be earmarked for environmental cleanups instead of going into Texas’ general fund, as is the case now. 

State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw
State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw

Morales Shaw, who served as deputy chief to Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia before joining the state legislature in 2021, sees H.B. 3913 as a way to claw back some of what was lost in 2015. The $2.15 million cap would remain in effect, but local governments could request money for remediation projects – cleaning up a toxic-waste dump, for instance, or a polluted waterway – that otherwise might go unfunded.

Neither of Morales Shaw’s bills is likely to upend the dynamic in Texas, a state whose economy and politics are dominated by the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. But Erandi Trevino, a Houston-based community organizer with the advocacy group Public Citizen, said the effort is still worthwhile.

“Modest change is better than no change,” she said. “Part of the goal is to get [the legislation] passed. If it was too ambitious, it wouldn’t stand a chance, most likely.”

The bills must get through the House Environmental Regulation Committee, of which Morales Shaw is a member. The committee is chaired by state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Odessa. One of Landgraf’s aims, according to his website, is to “repeal burdensome regulations that harm the Permian Basin’s oil and gas industry.”

Two years ago, the last time Texas’ biennial legislature met, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat from the Austin area, introduced a bill that also would have made the TCEQ adjust its fines for inflation and required polluters to report emissions events within two hours instead of 24. The bill got a hearing in the Environmental Regulation Committee but never came up for a vote in the full House.

Asked why she would expect a different result this legislative session, Morales Shaw said, “That’s a valid question. I’m optimistic that if we keep having the conversation, we will move the needle. I think it’s important for representatives from Houston to put forth environmental-quality bills. It speaks directly to issues we have right there in our backyard.”

One of those issues is unplanned chemical releases, which, according to an analysis last year by Public Health Watch and a recent study by the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and litigation group, routinely go unpunished.

“The impact of this lax enforcement is clear,” the group reported. “Year after year, people living in Texas are exposed to tens of millions of pounds of illegal air pollution during thousands of unexpected emissions events … The consequences of pollution from these emissions events in Texas are serious, including premature mortality, healthcare costs, lost productivity, missed school days, birth defects, and psychological trauma.”

Spokespeople for two industry groups – the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association – did not respond to requests for comment on Morales Shaw’s legislation. A spokesman for Landgraf also did not respond.