Lawmakers push for streamlined environmental permitting process

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San Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN – A San Antonio sewer treatment plant has been waiting five years to receive a water rights permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – a wait that could be shortened if Republican lawmakers get their way this legislative session.

Clint Ellis, general manager for the Cibolo Creek Municipal Authority, said businesses usually wait about 12 months before receiving a permit, but this water rights application has taken particularly long because of a thorough review.

“It’s a good thing for environment and the state to make sure they fully vet the process,” Ellis said. “The flip side is as a utility we want our project to move forward.”

Consumer groups say the bureaucratic process provides environmental protection.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he supports streamlining to eliminate delays.

“That’s why I am pushing to speed up the permitting process, so you can get your permit faster and get your job done quicker,” Abbott told a coalition of transportation groups recently.

 Advocating predictability

However, even if legislation were passed to streamline the process, that wouldn’t necessarily mean TCEQ would have the resources to manage the volume of applications. Their budget appropriation is the same as last session.

The Texas Association of Business has been advocating a process that would be more predictable for business since 1999, according to Stephen Minick, vice president for government affairs for the organization. They’ve helped with a bill that would address their concerns.

“We’re not trying to do away with the process, but there is some legislation that would streamline it,” Minick said.

Before a business that releases any waste into the environment may operate, it must be issued a permit by TCEQ. The process to receive a permit involves a staff review and two 30-day public notices to be issued.

Occasionally, these permit applications, which are issued to protect air, water, and the safe disposal of waste are subject to contested case hearings. The hearings often give outside experts and the public an opportunity to call attention to any issues with the permit.

In December, the House Committee on Environmental Regulation released an interim report that addressed the permit process in Texas. According to the report, 1,560 environmental permit applications were filed each year on average between 2007 and 2013, and only 7 percent received hearing requests. The report also found that in 2013, only 10 applications were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings for a contested case hearing.

Despite the low number of permits that actually go into a contested case hearing, lawmakers have filed bills that make changes to that process. Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, filed a bill requiring hearings be held near the proposed site. A bill by Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, would tighten the process for contested case hearings.

Bill to require time frame

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, filed House Bill 201, which would change the procedure for a TCEQ application for a water rights permit. Like many other bills addressing the permit process, Leach’s bill would put a timeframe on the process and require TCEQ to define the scope of issues to be referred to the state hearings office.

Leach said he did not review the House committee interim report before filing his bill this session, but would review it.

“Having an indefinite time period is inefficient,” Leach said. “As our state continues to grow it’s going to present major problems if we don’t get this solved.”

A similar bill was presented last session and passed unanimously in the House, but was not signed into law.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, who testified in front of the Environmental Regulation Committee in May, said that the contested case hearing process is necessary because in many cases emissions were reduced through the process.

“Contested cases are really useful in making sure outside experts are brought in to review the conditions that the TCEQ staff has put on a permit,” said Smith, with the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “It’s one of the few checks and balances.”

Despite San Antonio’s Cibolo Creek Municipal Authority’s water rights application that’s been pending since 2010, Ellis said he does not believe that legislation would necessarily help the slow process.

“(TCEQ has) a great staff, but I think they are overworked and understaffed,” Ellis said. “I think they would need some funding for other issues.”

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