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Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

June 9, 2011 Thursday

Final Edition

A 'greener' 1st session than many expected



LENGTH: 959 words

For environmental activists, the legislative session looked to be a grim one as it got under way in January . Keen on regulating businesses, they had feared that a body empowered by the 2010 elections to cut government oversight would drastically loosen environmental rules.

Now some of them feel as if they had dodged a disaster.

With the major exception of the budget, which slashes money for state parks and environmental enforcement, as it does for most government work, the Legislature finished up its regular session even passing some laws sought by environmentalists.

Among the pieces of legislation sent for the governor's signature: one that would prevent homeowners associations from penalizing residents with solar panels , a measure that will force companies to tell the state which fluids they pump underground to recover natural gas in a process called fracking and one that creates a television recycling program .

A handful of bills tepidly promoting energy efficiency also were sent to the governor. Smaller-scale ones, such as a measure that would regulate outdoor lighting within a 57-mile radius of any major astronomical observatory - meant to keep the skies dark above the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis - also passed.

Lawmakers stepped away from amendments that would have undercut the ability of neighbors to challenge pollution permits for big facilities like power plants and to sue companies on nuisance claims.

A measure meant to clarify that groundwater was a private property right - which concerned some environmentalists and officials with the groundwater districts that regulate the water - was watered down to the point that it had little real meaning.

A proposal to strip the Travis County district attorney's office of its jurisdiction over state water protection laws never made it out of the House Environmental Regulation Committee.

"A lot more in the way of bad environmental legislation could have passed and did not," said David Weinberg , director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters . "It was a pretty big victory in terms of what didn't happen. This was as pro-industry a Legislature as Texas may ever see."

Industry interests did get some of what they wanted. One measure allows the state to accept out-of-state, low-level radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews County in West Texas .

The disposal of such waste - contaminated trash such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals - promises to be lucrative. Waste Control is a subsidiary of Valhi , whose board chairman is Harold Simmons , a Dallas investor and chief contributor to Gov. Rick Perry.

Utilities managed to thwart a proposal to add surcharges to build up a pool that would pay for incentives for the installation of solar panels. (The solar industry, of course, supported the proposal.)

Legislators also passed laws and resolutions pushing back at federal environmental regulators.

One bill called for the state attorney general to defend Texans if the federal government tries to prosecute them for an alleged violation of federal law based on the manufacture or sale of relatively inefficient incandescent light bulbs.

"An incandescent light bulb that is manufactured in this state and remains in this state is not subject to federal law or federal regulation under the authority of the United States Congress to regulate interstate commerce," says the bill, authored by state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana .

The House also passed a resolution urging Congress to prevent the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases from power plants and other stationary sources.

Perry has until June 19 to sign or veto any of the measures.

One of the bills he has yet to sign is the final budget, but proposals take significant slices out of natural resources programs.

Funding for such programs totals $3.2 billion for 2012-13, a decrease of $490.6 million , or 13.4 percent from 2010-11 spending. (The overall spending in the budget is an 8.1 percent decrease from 2010-11 levels.)

Taking the biggest hits are two vehicle-related programs. The Texas Emission Reduction Plan, a program that dangles money for the replacement of old, polluting heavy equipment, including locomotives and other massive diesel engines, lost nearly half its funding, or $98.3 million. A Texas cash-for-clunkers program that helped low-income residents replace or repair their old cars is reduced by 87.5 percent , from $100 million to $12.5 million .

Grants for development and acquisition of new local parks are zeroed out . The Parks and Wildlife Department will see its funding cut by 27.9 percent, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by 30.2 percent. Hundreds of jobs will be lost at the agencies.

Parks and Wildlife Department Director Carter Smith estimated losses at his agency would amount to at least 169 employees. The environmental commission is cutting 235 positions from its ranks.

The budget cuts at the state agencies will trickle down to the local level. Bill Gill , air quality program director for the Capital Area Council of Governments, which coordinates municipal and county governments around the Austin area, says he will have to discontinue some air quality monitoring after grants for his program were cut from $500,000 for the past two years to $250,000 for the next two.

Getting data is important, Gill said, "for picking the best strategies costwise and emissionwise" to improve air quality in Central Texas.

Looking far ahead, 2013 could be a water session, as questions about how to resolve impending problems of population increase and water demand ultimately went unanswered in the 2011 session.



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