SMU professor Al Armendariz named EPA region administrator

armendarizDallas Morning News
Randy Lee Loftis

Dr. Al Armendariz, a Southern Methodist University engineering professor who has sharply criticized federal and state regulators for not cracking down on North Texas polluters, was named on Thursday as the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regional administrator over Texas and four adjacent states.

Armendariz, 39, an El Paso native, has found fault with Texas’ efforts on Dallas-Fort Worth smog, saying that the state’s programs did too little and that the EPA erred in approving them.

In particular, he has targeted the giant cement plants in Midlothian, south of Dallas, and natural gas exploration in the Barnett Shale region west of Dallas, arguing in each case that Texas regulators were too lax on major pollution sources.

As the top environmental official in the nation’s oil and chemical heartland, Armendariz will help carry out the Obama administration’s policies on curbing global warming, enforcing federal laws on air and water quality and toxic waste, and pushing for overhauls of Texas’ air pollution rules.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has bluntly criticized some Texas environmental programs for not meeting federal requirements, offered Armendariz the job, and he accepted. The post is officially a presidential appointment, but it does not require Senate confirmation, so Armendariz can start work immediately.

Armendariz’s appointment is the clearest sign yet that the EPA under President Barack Obama will take a more active role, especially in Texas, than it did under President George W. Bush.

Since Obama took office in January, the EPA has rejected a copper smelter in El Paso that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had approved after years of controversy, and it threatened to strip the commission of its authority to issue federal air permits.

Jackson, an Obama appointee, has met with Texas environmentalists and community activists to hear their long-standing complaints that the state is easy on polluters. Texas officials and industries have rejected those assertions.

“I think the president and Lisa Jackson have clearly put the EPA on a different track,” Armendariz said Thursday. He cited moves toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, tightening rules on toxic substances, and renewing efforts to protect communities, especially low-income, minority, and border areas, from pollution.

“I think this is part of a significant change in emphasis and priority in the government,” Armendariz said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

The regional EPA post has been vacant since former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene, a Bush administration appointee, left in January. The EPA’s Region 6 oversees programs in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico, but in the EPA’s 39 years, each regional chief has been a Texan.

Other candidates included John Hall, an industry lobbyist in Austin and former Texas environmental agency chairman; and Ron Curry, New Mexico’s environmental secretary.

Texas environmentalists lobbied Jackson in person in support of Armendariz, arguing that the region needed an environmental advocate with strong scientific credentials.

“Dr. Armendariz is exactly the kind of person you want to have this job but seemingly never gets it,” said Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group for which Armendariz served as a consultant on Midlothian cement kiln emissions.

Armendariz is an associate professor at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, where he has taught environmental and civil engineering. SMU said he would keep his faculty appointment while serving at the EPA.

“We are thrilled that Al Armendariz’s work in improving our living and working environments has been recognized by the president and EPA administrator,” SMU engineering Dean Geoffrey Orsak said. “Al is an extraordinarily talented, insightful, and balanced engineer who will make a significant contribution to our nation and region.”

Dr. Bryan W. Shaw, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee as commission chairman, also congratulated Armendariz, but he also foreshadowed what could be a tense relationship. The agencies are wrestling over federal demands that the state rewrite rules that the EPA says allow illegally high emissions from many Texas chemical plants, refineries and factories.

Armendariz’s engineering studies have targeted what he called lax commission regulation of toxic and smog-causing emissions. In addition, he advocates steps to slow global warming, while Shaw–on leave from his post as an agricultural engineering professor at Texas A&M – has said climate change science is unsettled and carbon regulations unwarranted.

“I look forward to working with [Armendariz] on our common goals of protecting the health and environment of the people of Texas,” Shaw said. “While he has a long history as an environmental activist, I hope Dr. Armendariz recognizes that this position is too important to be used as a podium for environmental activism. I urge Dr. Armendariz to use sound science in his decisions.”

Armendariz said he based his critiques of Texas programs on science.

“My previous criticisms were never personal,” he said. “They were grounded in what I felt were legitimate disagreements about policy issues. Insofar as we can build new bridges and work collaboratively on projects, I certainly want to do so.”

Groups rally to guarantee public access to Texas coast

photoDaily Texan
Alex Geiser

Honks from cars and chants from people with Environment Texas and other organizations rang out in front of the state Capitol on Monday morning.

“Our beaches are so fine, let’s all vote for Prop 9,” the swimsuit-clad demonstrators chanted in a last-minute effort to promote a beach-front access amendment that will appear alongside 11 others on today’s ballot.

The proposition would add an amendment to the Texas Constitution guaranteeing public access to beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The amendment is designed to strengthen the Open Beaches Act of 1959, which states that the land between the water and natural vegetation lies within the public domain.

Robin Schneider, the executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the amendment would guard against wealthy individuals buying up and blocking access to coastal land.

Problems arise when the shoreline creeps further up the beaches by natural causes, like hurricanes. As the water rises, the line of natural vegetation pushes back to a point where private property sometimes enters the public domain.

Landowners with property bordering natural vegetation on the coast are warned before purchase of potential economic loss should the shoreline rise. The state can sue landowners to re-appropriate the shoreline property if any of it enters the public domain and dwellings are not relocated.

State Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, added an amendment to a homestead exemption bill related to Hurricane Ike during the summer’s special legislative session that enabled property owners to rebuild on the Bolivar Peninsula as long as the construction stays behind the vegetation line. But Schneider said the amendment violated the spirit of the Open Beaches Act.

“If land disappears because of erosion, they do not have indefinite right to it if it’s in the public domain,” Schneider said. “Open beaches belong to the public.”

State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, owned a house on the Texas coast that was destroyed by hurricanes last year and said he wants to rebuild. His property, however, has now become part of the public domain because of the erosion of the shoreline. Christian, who opposes the proposition, said he supports open access to public beaches, but thinks that the language of the amendment is too broad.

“Placing this amendment in the constitution will provide the opportunity for the government to use a well-intentioned law to needlessly seize property and will close the door to further discussion of this important topic,” Christian said.

A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, a former state senator who helped pass the Open Beaches Act, said Hamilton’s amendment that allows people to rebuild on public property is unconstitutional and thus should not stand. Schwartz said there is confusion concerning whether people can rebuild on their land after hurricanes have pushed them into public land.

“It has been a constant issue,” he said. “They think they can [rebuild], but they cannot.”