January 5, 2010
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE
They huddled over Christmas cookies in a cozy conference room on a dreary December afternoon, a few Houston environmentalists chatting about policy with the Environmental Protection Agency's new regional chief.
While the two-hour meet-and-greet with Al Armendariz didn't amount to headlines, it says a great deal about the change in power at the EPA, particularly in Texas.
After nearly a decade of feeling unheard by federal regulators, the activists say they now have one of their own as the top environmental official in the nation's oil, gas and chemical capital.
And they wasted no time telling Armendariz, who was appointed to the post last month by President Barack Obama, that much is expected of him.
“The EPA needs some kind of game changer in Texas,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, who attended the recent meeting. “They can't just talk tough.”
Armendariz, who has spent most of his professional life on the faculty at Southern Methodist University, is known for his sharp criticism of state and federal regulators, particularly their oversight of the cement kilns and gas drilling in the Barnett Shale near Dallas. He also has questioned whether enough is being done to reduce North Texas smog and fine airborne particulates in Houston.
His words have touched a nerve. The chairman of the state's environmental agency responded to Armendariz's appointment by urging him not to use the position as “a podium for environmental activism.”
Asked later to respond, Armendariz, 39, said that he is an activist who uses his scientific and technical background to help improve people's quality of life. He grew up in El Paso within view of the Asarco smelter, which later became a symbol of community struggles over pollution and poor oversight.
“I make no apologies for it,” he said of his activism, which includes serving as a technical adviser to citizen groups seeking air pollution reductions in Colorado and Texas.
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