Texan of the Year should be EPA chief Al Armendariz

EPA's Armendariz fights for state's environment

There is no better nominee for Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year than Al Armendariz, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency. In his short time at the EPA, he has made enormous strides in improving Texas’ air and water quality, given voice to those living on the fence lines of the state’s most toxic polluters, tightened enforcement and begun to solve some of the toughest permitting issues in the country.

Armendariz is the perfect government enforcement official because he knows his stuff. He was an engineering professor at Southern Methodist University, has worked for industry in the permitting process and has consulted with environmental groups. As an engineer, he understands pollution controls and has published dozens of studies on environmental issues.

“Dr. Al” first came to my attention in a hearing room at the state Capitol when he testified as a citizen and as a father. He explained clearly how bad the air quality is in Texas and, in particular, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He pointed to the big cement kilns and oil and gas fracking operations as culprits and outlined what should be done to clear the air.

After his EPA appointment in 2009, a firestorm of controversy erupted over the agency’s announcement that Texas’ 15-year-old system of allowing “flexible permits,” where pollution reductions are averaged over an industrial site, was illegal. Gov. Rick Perry called it an “irresponsible and heavy-handed action.” Industry claimed that thousands of jobs would be lost; lawsuits were filed and congressional hearings were held.

Flexible permits had been allowing excessive pollution. For example, two of Texas’ largest refineries were able to emit more than twice the federal permitting limits, imperiling the health of those living downwind and making it harder to meet safe air standards.

Armendariz was able to talk in depth with plant operators and help them comply with the law for emission limits and for operating and monitoring requirements. Permits are being strengthened, and not a single job has been lost as a result of these cleanup efforts.

Last summer, the EPA announced that all 136 industrial plants with state permits that failed to meet federal Clean Air Act requirements have agreed to reapply to come into compliance.

Armendariz’s childhood memories include the acrid taste of sulfur in the air from the Asarco lead smelter near his grandmother’s home in El Paso. He understands the plight of people who live closest to industrial facilities and are all too often exposed to harmful levels of toxic pollution. He brought together environmental justice groups and industry and government leaders at summits in Port Arthur and Corpus Christi to develop measurable plans.

He understands that a clean environment is key to our economic health as well. As he says, “We have an obligation to future generations to be good stewards of our environment. By doing so, we promote our own health, economic growth and long-term sustainability. But it’s also absolutely critical for economic growth. Places without chronic pollution problems are more likely to attract businesses that provide higher-paying jobs.”

Armendariz should be recognized for his dedication, hard work and insightful solutions.