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SMU professor Al Armendariz named EPA region administrator

November 6, 2009

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.”


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