Coastal flooding. Industrial pollution. Water scarcity. Extreme heat.
Name the environmental challenge, and you are likely to find an example in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6, which stretches across Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and 66 tribal nations. The range and depth of issues make the region “the hardest in the country” to regulate and repair, said Chrissy Mann, a Sierra Club senior campaign advocate based in Austin.
“This is the heart of the energy sector in the United States,” Mann said. “Climate change is embodied in the kinds of weather patterns we’re seeing here.”
Mann and North Texas environmental advocacy groups see a chance for their concerns about air quality and environmental contamination to be addressed in Earthea Nance, a former Texas Southern University professor and environmental engineer who was appointed Region 6 administrator in December.
On Feb. 28, a coalition of nine environmental activists sent a letter to Nance requesting a meeting to discuss some of the imminent issues facing North Texas, including the impact of natural gas drilling pollution on the region’s air quality and public health.
Joe Robledo, an EPA press officer, confirmed receipt of the letter and said the agency was working on finalizing a meeting date with activists. He did not respond to questions about Nance’s views on the issues raised in the Feb. 28 letter.
Mann expects the first meeting to be held in May, but said the coalition may have to host several introductory meetings to ensure that activists can voice their concerns to Nance and her staff. Liveable Arlington, an environmental group fighting the expansion of fracking in Tarrant County, was among the signees.
“There are close to 8 million people now in the Metroplex,” said Ranjana Bhandari, executive director of Liveable Arlington. “Any new rulemaking (the EPA does) is going to have enormous human impact here and improve the lives of literally millions of people. I hope that drives the work they’re doing and makes them take more seriously these issues of methane and other hazardous air pollutants leaking from fracking.”
Bhandari met with EPA Secretary Michael Regan last fall to discuss the agency’s proposed regulations to cut methane emissions associated with oil and gas production.
The Biden administration says the new rules, which largely target purposeful leaking of methane known as flaring, would cut 41 million tons of emissions from 2023 to 2035. Groups representing electric and gas utilities told the Washington Post that they support reducing pollution but also want to keep their product reliable and affordable.
Regional administrators are not subject to confirmation by the Senate, and Nance’s appointment earned little attention outside of environmental circles. Regan was confirmed by a 66-34 vote in March 2021 with the support of 16 Republicans, including both senators in his home state of North Carolina.
Not everyone was supportive of Regan’s appointment due to their opposition to the Biden administration’s climate plans. In voting against Regan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Regan would report to the front lines of the administration’s “left-wing war on American energy.”
“Mr. Regan has plenty of experience. The problem is what he’s poised to do with it,” McConnell said last March. “He and the administration are plainly prepared to put that experience behind the same far-left policies that crushed jobs and prosperity in states like Kentucky throughout the Obama administration.”
For Evelyn Mayo, however, Regan and Nance’s arrival at the EPA are welcome changes.
Mayo, a professor at Paul Quinn College and board chair of the North Texas-based clean air advocacy group Downwinders at Risk, helped coordinate the campaign to remove Shingle Mountain, a massive pile of roof shingles illegally dumped in a South Dallas neighborhood. A crew hired by Dallas officials finished removing tons of waste from the site last year.
The organization has largely focused on city-level action because they did not believe the EPA under the Trump administration would take their concerns seriously, Mayo said. That dynamic has shifted now that Nance is in office, she added.
“We see this as a renewed opportunity,” Mayo said. “Seeing a woman of color with ties to Texas Southern was a huge endorsement for what this EPA is willing to take on nationwide. We’ve never had that in my tenure of doing this work.”
‘Merry-go-round’ of bureaucracy frustrates residents
Activists in South Dallas want the EPA to take additional steps to remedy environmental pollution in their neighborhoods, including conducting a study to evaluate potential contamination from the Shingle Mountain site and finishing cleanup of the toxic Lane Plating Works site, which was declared a Superfund site in May 2018.
The EPA needs to feel a sense of urgency to address environmental injustice affecting Black residents, said Marsha Jackson, who led the campaign against Shingle Mountain as the co-chair of environmental justice group Southern Sector Rising.
“We have many issues connecting with the EPA,” Jackson said. “It’s always that they have to listen to somebody else. Why not listen to the residents and the activists who know more about it?”
Allen McGill, a leader of the Lane Plating Community Advisory Group, said there is a severe disconnect between the EPA and its partner agencies, particularly the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The EPA has delegated responsibilities for Superfund sites to state departments through interagency agreements, which can delay communication to residents about cleanup plans and testing, McGill said.
“It is very difficult sometimes to get an adequate response from these agencies, particularly in a timely manner,” McGill said. “All of that ends up causing a lot of frustration on the ground for volunteers who have to explain to residents: We can’t really give you a definitive answer of when testing or notices are going to be. That’s because we’re caught in this bureaucratic merry-go-round.”
Laura Hunt, a pediatrician and activist based in Midlothian, echoed McGill’s frustration with Texas’ environmental agency. As co-founder of Midlothian Breathe, she fought a permit application by cement manufacturer Holcim US to increase carbon monoxide emissions that was ultimately granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
She hopes the EPA will take a more active role in pushing Texas to conduct more air quality monitoring and make data on pollution and emissions more publicly accessible.
“Texas residents have been the underdogs for far too long – struggling to self-defend ourselves and our communities from destruction of our air quality, land and water resources,” Hunt said. “We have nearly given up on (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). Our last hope is that Dr. Nance won’t give up on us.”
Mann hopes legal pressure will cause the EPA to recognize the urgency of air pollution in Texas. In February, Downwinders at Risk and the Sierra Club announced their intent to sue the EPA if the agency did not take action to enforce the Clean Air Act by designating the Dallas and Houston metro areas as “moderate” violators of federal ozone standards rather than “marginal” violators.
How to comment at virtual hearing
The EPA’s May 9 virtual public hearing regarding ozone pollution standards will be held in three sessions: 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.; 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.; and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. All times are central standard time.
The final day to register is May 5. More information on the hearing is available here.
This week, the EPA proposed listing the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston-Brazoria regions as “severe” violators of ozone pollution standards established in 2008. The new designation would require Texas to implement more rigid pollution regulations in those regions.
“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health, increasing the likelihood of respiratory infections, asthma attacks and hospital visits,” Regan said in a statement. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”
The EPA will hold a virtual public hearing about the proposed changes May 9. Action on air pollution in Texas is overdue, Mann said.
“It’s really time for the EPA to take advantage of not just opportunities, but their obligations in front of them to do something about specific polluters,” Mann said. “There’s no time to slow down and wait for months to go by while they get their ducks in a row. It’s really important that we address these issues now.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.