George W. Bush

Deep in the Heart of Smog

While Texas Governor George W. Bush was away campaigning for his party's Presidential nomination last summer, his fellow Texans were choking on the dirtiest air in the country. During 1999, Texas led the nation in Clean Air Act violations, and Houston replaced Los Angeles as our “smoggiest city.” Like many environmentalists, former Texas Air Control Board pollution investigator Neil Carmen cites Bush's environmental policies as the source of Texas' foul air.

Texas hosts the largest aluminum smelter in North America, and Governor George W. Bush (left) wants it to police itself.© Peter Altman, Texas Seed Coalition

“Millions of Texans are suffering from the dirty air in our biggest cities because the state's air pollution policies lack vision from the top down,” says Carmen, who now works for the Sierra Club. “The high 1999 smog levels may serve as a legacy of Governor Bush's failed promises to improve Texas' air quality since taking office in 1995.”

Environmentalists have decried Bush's handling of 828 power plants and factories that were exempted, or “grandfathered” from meeting the standards of the federal Clean Air Act because they were operating when the act was passed in 1971. These plants, including the largest aluminum smelter in North America, continue to operate without permits and account for 36 percent of all industrial air pollution in Texas.

Although Bush boasts that he has “urged grandfathered facilities to seek permits and reduce their air pollution” under a voluntary emissions reduction program, environmentalists are outraged by the plan's lack of regulatory muscle. “Texas' industrial pollution is taking too long to clean up under Bush's lax plan,” says Peter Altman, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

Another sore point is Bush's choice of appointees to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing environmental regulations. Of the three members Bush appointed to this commission, both oil lawyer Barry McBee and chemical lobbyist Ralph Marquez had previously represented large polluting industries. Carmen likens Bush's environmental appointments to “putting Hitler in charge of human rights.”

The Environmental Working Group concludes that, in Texas, “There is barely any enforcement of existing clean air health protections and virtually no pressure for violators to comply with current pollution control laws.”

If Bush's policies represent a departure from his father's stated environmental concerns, there are nearly a million reasons: $1 million in polluter dollars pouring into the candidate's campaign chest, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. As Bush gains popularity as a Presidential candidate, environmentalists worry that Texas' air quality may represent, as Peter Altman says, “a frightening foreshadowing of how Bush would handle environmental policies at the national level.”