From Sunrise to Sunset

An account of the Sunset Advisory Commission’s TCEQ hearing

From Angie Fan, summer intern

It is Wednesday, June 22nd at 5:30 in the morning. I wake up early today to catch the bus with Harris County Precinct 2 and community members from Aldine to head to Austin. I was invited to attend the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s hearing on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) just the day before. This was not an opportunity that I wanted to miss.

About once every twelve years, state agencies like TCEQ undergo a review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates and designates the performance of such groups. Essentially, the Sunset Advisory Commission’s review decides to what extent the people of Texas still need those agencies. The process takes about two years to complete, and TCEQ’s review process began last year with the preparation of the Self Evaluation Report (SER)

On our way to the Texas State Capitol, community liaison Selina Valdez brings tacos for everyone, adding to an air of camaraderie throughout the bus. Despite our lightness, however, we have not forgotten what this day means, what we woke up before the sun to fight for. On the ride there, I talk with Johnathon, a student at San Jacinto Community College who is planning to testify against TCEQ about his terrifying first-hand experience working at a concrete batch plant in his hometown. Like Johnathon, every community member here has suffered directly because of TCEQ’s inadequacy in regulating industry development. 

We arrive at the capitol building, and I realize that several other buses filled with community members and advocacy groups have also made the early morning trek to Austin, just like us. We are ushered to a registration room for those who wish to testify – about 75% of all the community members who traveled. The live hearing room is already closed off, and I count three separate large overflow rooms open, two of which we occupy. In total, 108 speakers signed up to testify. Each person gets only two minutes to voice their demands – against the concrete batch plants, against the Union Pacific rail yard contamination, against the obscene rate of cancer diagnoses and deaths, against the early onset of childhood asthma in our communities, and against the inaccessible language of TCEQ’s resources. In short, we are pleading to the commission that economic development not be placed before the public health of our state’s people. 

Emily Foxhall, environmental reporter for the Houston Chronicle, expresses in her article the urgency of the community members’ testimonies:

“We’re long overdue for change.”
– Camil Boyd, who works in Fifth Ward

“‘We will not continue to be silent. We want livable communities. We want healthy communities. We want environmental justice.”
– Carl Davis, from the Third Ward.

Similarly, those who take the stand voice:

“I was diagnosed with early onset childhood asthma. A lot of my peers suffered from the same. At first I just thought this was a fact of life until I went to college and attended an environmental class. This is not only a San Antonio problem, this is a Texas problem.”
– Hannah Hughes of Texas Rising in San Antonio

Clearly, these issues have dragged on for decades and created generations of environmental trauma in neighborhoods. Over and over, we hear the same concerns expressed by the residents of Houston, Austin, Round Rock, Dallas, Corpus Christi. Whole families are coming out from all across the state to speak up for the health of their communities. Yet, the commission seems unclear on their stance, advisory committee member Rep. Travis Clardy responding with little consideration, “Your demands are adding to the process and creating roadblocks. We need a balance. These communities don’t want it in their backyard, but that’s where the roads are, where the money is.” Capitalizing on the issue at hand remains at the forefront for decision makers. 

The next Sunset Advisory Commission meeting is set for October 12, 2022, where the commission is expected to report their decisions on TCEQ. Community members and advocacy groups await the state’s next steps with unease. We can only hope that the commission will not only hear out the concerns of Texans but also take action to relieve their suffering.

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