A new bill that would increase the penalties that the state environmental agency can levy against industrial facilities that do not follow state regulations was unanimously approved by the Texas Senate on Monday. 

Written by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Senate Bill (SB) 1397 came about after a state review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) effectiveness by the Sunset Advisory Commission, according to The Texas Tribune. Its companion bill in the House, House Bill (HB) 1505, was introduced by Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney). 

Schwertner said Tuesday the new bill would address concerns raised by Texans regarding industry permits. 

“What I heard during the sunset hearings was disappointing, and the convoluted and really confusing process was an injustice to citizens that wanted to voice their concerns. I’m glad that we were able to incorporate, I believe some significant advances, and hopefully that fixes that problem,” said Schwertner, per The Texas Tribune. 

The bill calls for the TCEQ to make its meetings available online and to email meeting notifications to Texans living near a facility that applied for a renewal of an industry permit. The bill also gives the public 36 hours to comment following TCEQ meetings, rather than requiring comment to be made during or immediately after TCEQ meetings, as things stand now. 

In addition, the bill allows the TCEQ to consider industrial accidents when issuing permits. It increases the penalty for violating state regulations from $25,000 to $40,000.

SB1397 is a “modest but important bill that will improve access to TCEQ documents, increase penalties in certain egregious environmental crimes and improve community outreach,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, per The Texas Tribune. 

Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas Office of Public Citizen, said the bill indicates progress but still needs to include some necessary reforms. 

“We like what’s in the bill, particularly late changes to improve public participation in the permitting process. That being said, the TCEQ still needs major reforms. That won’t happen until the Legislature gets serious about protecting people from polluters,” Shelley said, per The Texas Tribune.

Shelley says it is now up to the pending House bill to consider “further people-focused reforms,” according to The Texas Tribune. 

A separate bill, SB 471, says the TCEQ is being inundated with complaints, and Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is proposing a limit to the number of complaints individual Texans can file with the TCEQ, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

One person filed 28 complaints in 2022 against a landfill that ultimately did not receive any violations, according to The Texas Tribune.

“Under current law, an individual can file unlimited complaints on the same issue for which the TCEQ has already investigated or made a ruling,” Springer said in a statement, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

“These repeat complaints waste taxpayer dollars and tie up TCEQ resources and inspectors from looking into other open cases of fraud, waste and abuse within the environment,” Springer continued.  

In 2022, the TCEQ received 10,070 complaints, with 20% coming from the Dallas-Fort Worth region, according to its biennial report. 

Of the complaints completed in fiscal 2021 and 2022, no enforcement action was required in 67% of the investigations, per the TCEQ’s report.