Energy Panel Chief Pushes EPA

Energy Panel Chief Pushes EPA
Published: 09 April 2004

United States: The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently demanded a private meeting with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt to press one point: He wants Ellis County, Texas, removed from a list of counties that fail to meet new air quality standards.  Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has been an unabashed promoter of Ellis County, which is part of his district and home to three major cement plants. 

Leavitt said in an interview this week that he had been deluged with calls from governors, lawmakers, environmentalists and others seeking changes in EPA’s preliminary "non-attainment" designations. He declined to discuss Barton’s case in detail but said, "He is among dozens of members of Congress, from both parties, from all regions of the country, that I’ve had interactions with."  Everyone agrees that Dallas-Fort Worth residents are breathing dirty air. But when it comes to assigning blame, Texas officials are divided.

Ron Harris, a Republican judge from neighboring Collin County, said Ellis needs to be included because emissions from the three cement plants are contaminating the air his constituents breathe.  "Our citizens and elected officials are absolutely dedicated to cleaning up the air," said Harris, one of a group of Texas officials set to meet with Leavitt on Friday.

Barton, who apparently went to college on a cement company scholarship, has said repeatedly that he rejects the air quality measurements that indicate Ellis is part of the region’s pollution problem.

Officials from the three cement companies -- Holcim, TXI and Ash Grove Cement Co. -- and local public watchdog groups differ on how much pollution the plants generate. Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads the Texas office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the kilns account for 40 percent of industrial emissions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  "At night the smoke is visible," Smith said, adding that the plants burn tires and hazardous waste as a fuel source.  But Randy Jones, a spokesman for TXI, said the company’s plant is only a fraction of the region’s ozone problem. "It is a minor contribution to the four-county non-attainment area," he said.

Several environmentalists said Barton and his allies were using selective data to bolster their point: Jim Schermbeck, a board member of Downwinders at Risk, a Texas group, said the three plants put out emissions equivalent to half a million cars running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also noted that Holcim and TXI are major contributors to Barton’s campaigns: Company officials have given $33,000 to Barton since 1998, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Frank O’Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, a national environmental advocacy group, said that if Leavitt grants an exception to the congressman who oversees his agency, it will encourage other lawmakers to follow suit.  "If EPA cuts a deal for Texas, other states are going to ask for exemptions," he said.