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Texas House Bill Would Make It Harder To Stop Polluters

AUSTIN (AP/CBSDFW.COM) - The Texas House passed legislation Tuesday that would make it harder for citizens and activists to block permits for industrial plants that emit pollutants into the air and water.

Texas already leads the nation in industrial pollution, and environmentalists say the legislation would make the state even dirtier. Under the bill that continues the functions of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, people who complain in "contested hearings" about waste from power plants, feed lots, cement makers and other industrial facilities would have to prove the pollution controls are inadequate or that emissions exceed accepted standards.

Under current law, the burden of proof is on the companies applying for the permit.

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said the change is needed so that power plants and other facilities don't run into so much opposition that they don't build needed industrial infrastructure.

"It kind of levels the playing field," Chisum said. "Too many times these contested case hearings have just been to not do anything else but extend the permit process until people just virtually have rolled up their stuff and left."

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, called the bill a "major victory" for polluters.

"This bill is one small step for the Texas House, and one giant leap for Texas polluters," he said. "Texans will feel the effects of this bill — literally."

The amendment was tucked into legislation that would keep the TCEQ as the state's environmental protection agency for another 12 years. The bill is required as part of the "sunset" process that phases out agencies unless the Legislature specifically re-authorizes them. The bill faces a final procedural hurdle before moving to the state Senate.

Democrats portrayed the TCEQ as the lapdog of industrial polluters but were shot down on a variety of amendments trying to give the agency more teeth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been battling Texas over air pollution for several years.  Late last year, the federal agency took over from the state the process of granting certain kinds of industrial permits.  The EPA said Texas' system for granting the permits violated the Clean Air Act.

Environmentalists did score one victory: Chisum withdrew a proposal that would have allowed polluters to pay a single fine for violations for which regulators currently can assess multiple sanctions.

Copyright 2011 CBS Local Media.  The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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