The city of Houston reached a pitiful milestone earlier this week: For the first time, it surpassed Los Angeles as the American city with the most dangerous smog. So far in 1999, the top 24 readings of ozone pollution in the country were recorded in Texas.
Eleven years ago, the senior George Bush savaged his Democratic presidential opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, for failing to clean up Boston Harbor. Now, Bush's son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has embarked on a presidential bid in which he could be attacked for environmental vulnerabilities of his own: the unhealthy air hanging over many of Texas's cities.
The younger Bush inherited a state with severe environmental problems -- particularly air pollution from the state's automobiles and factories -- and he asserts that fresher air will be his environmental legacy. "You've got to ask the question, `Is the air cleaner since I became governor?' " he said in May. "And the answer is `Yes.' "
But there is statistical evidence that the air in Texas cities is as foul -- and perhaps more so -- than when Bush took power in 1995. The frequency of smog alerts in Houston, Dallas and Austin has risen steeply in the Bush years. Physicians say the smog can harm children, the elderly and asthmatics, and possibly cause long-term lung damage.
Last week the state's environmental agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), claimed an 11 percent reduction in industrial emissions from 1994 to 1997. But environmentalists strenuously dispute the number, saying Environmental Protection Agency statistics show a 10 percent jump.
Now EPA is threatening to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in highway funds to Dallas and Fort Worth -- and to force imposition of draconian air-emissions rules on Texas motorists and industries -- because of the cities' failure to meet clean air requirements. Many officials there, most Republicans, complain that Bush's appointees have failed to help them attack air pollution.
"Local elected officials have been frustrated TNRCC hasn't taken a stronger leadership role," said Lois Finkelman, a Dallas City Council member and independent. "We hope within the short time available they will."
Instead of demanding that industry clean up, environmental activists and federal regulators say, Bush's appointees have lightened the regulatory burden on Texas's dirtiest companies. The state environmental agency has all but ended surprise inspections of plants and made it harder for citizens to press complaints about polluters.
"Bush's performance on the environment has been negative," said Neil Carman, a former state air quality expert now with the Sierra Club. "Texas continues to rank near the top among states with the dirtiest air in the nation."
In May, weeks after launching his presidential bid, Bush helped pass two laws in the Texas legislature that offer a case study in his environmental strategy. Bush says the laws demonstrate his commitment to cutting pollution without dictating to business, but environmental groups say they display his closeness to industry and reluctance to take action until forced to do so.
Bush endorsed a bill requiring power plants, some of the state's biggest polluters, to cut emissions by up to half by 2003. Only two other states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have taken that bold step.
But Bush acted only after his agency's failure to draft a pollution plan for Dallas prompted the EPA to threaten a cutoff of federal highway funds and other tough actions against the city. That prospect spurred the powerful Texas highway-building lobby, along with the Dallas financial and political establishment, to seek quick anti-pollution action.
At the same time, Bush helped block a bill to crack down on 830 older plants allowed to pollute at will because they were built before the state's 1971 clean air law. Instead of requiring that the plants cut emissions, Bush proposed -- and won approval of -- a plan to let them do so voluntarily.
Bush trumpets the plan as a rejection of the "command and control" regime imposed by federal regulators. "You finally had a governor who stood up and got Texas industry to respond," Bush said. "I led."
Only 120 of the 830 grandfathered plants have so far agreed to the voluntary cuts, and critics say they see little incentive for any of the plants to make significant improvements. "You have to have a stick," said a senior Clinton administration official. "But everybody knows [Bush] has no stick."
Running for governor in 1992, Bush embraced the GOP's anti-federal government philosophy, saying Washington had no right to meddle in Texas affairs. His environmental agency has taken the doctrine to heart.
Bush's appointees to the three-member commission that runs TNRCC all came from a pro-industry perspective. One was a cattleman and executive of the Farm Bureau, which represents agribusiness. Another had worked at the state agriculture department, where he tried to loosen rules requiring farmers to notify farm workers when applying pesticides. The third was a 30-year executive of Monsanto Co. and lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council.
"When he appointed me, he said, `I want decisions based on good science, and to leave Texas cleaner than when I found it,' " said commissioner Ralph Marquez, formerly with Monsanto. "We've tried to deliver on that."
The agency has endorsed industry opposition to EPA initiatives and belittled federal officials' science. For years TNRCC did little to combat the industrial pollution that EPA and air quality experts said was Texas's main problem. Marquez testified in Congress that ozone -- the key ingredient in smog -- is "a relatively benign pollutant."
When a major TNRCC initiative to impose strict vehicle inspection rules ran into flak from radio hosts, Bush and the legislature canceled the program. The firm that had the contract to conduct the inspections sued, and the state agreed to a $130 million settlement -- taking the money from a state environmental protection fund.
Now, TNRCC employees say, the agency lacks equipment to test air and water quality and is severely understaffed. "Gov. Bush's mantra for governing, `Let Texans run Texas,' more correctly should have been stated as `Let Texas Industry run Texas,' " a group of state environmental employees said on a newly launched anti-Bush Web site. "State environmental regulators have become largely ineffective, with inadequate resources or direction."
TNRCC has effectively abandoned one enforcement tool, surprise inspections of plants. It first issued a memo barring such visits, but -- after controversy within the agency -- substituted a plan that achieved the same result by requiring layers of review before surprise inspections could be conducted.
In conjunction with the state legislature, the agency has also made it far more difficult for Texans who claim they are harmed by polluting plants to have their complaints reviewed by TNRCC.
"Bush and this commission trust industry to be good neighbors," said Austin environmental attorney Rick Lowerre.
Bush's handling of the grandfathered polluting plants illustrates the middle course he has tried to steer between the warring camps of environmental activists and polluters -- and offers insights into his governing style.
Bush himself arrived at the idea of asking grandfathered plants to clean up on their own. " `Can we do it voluntarily?' " Marquez recalls Bush asking in 1996. Bush then asked executives from two oil companies, Exxon and Marathon, to fashion a voluntary program with Bush's top environmental aide. That aide met numerous times in early 1997 with dozens of oil and chemical business officials, who wrote the plan.
One participant, DuPont executive Jim Kennedy, thought the then-secret process was so skewed to industry that, once made public, it would inflame citizens.
"I told them that this was dreaming in today's environment -- to think that industry could put together a detailed program on this hot subject, then . . . expect any kind of [public] buy-in," Kennedy wrote in a memo obtained by environmental groups. "This thought was pretty much dismissed -- I believe mainly because the leadership doesn't have any real value for public involvement."
After industry developed its plan, Bush announced, with much fanfare, a blue-ribbon panel, including environmental activists, to consider how to deal with the grandfathered plants. But he said nothing about the pre-written plan, which was quickly approved by the public panel.
Environmentalists note that the grandfathered firms, their lobbyists and executives gave Bush $689,000 in his two gubernatorial campaigns, and this year donated $427,000 to his presidential bid.
"It's ridiculous to say Gov. Bush made decisions because of campaign contributions," said Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett. "He's the first governor to take on this [grandfather] problem. . . . The problem with command-and-control philosophy is it's adversarial, and you end up in court."
Combining this voluntary plan with the power plant law passed at the same time, Texas officials say, will reduce Texas's industrial emissions by 250,000 tons a year, equivalent to 5.5 million cars.
It may also provide some political help to Bush. Democratic state legislator Glen Maxey recalls bargaining with GOP Texas House leader Ray Allen over setting a date by which grandfathered plants must cut their pollution. Maxey said Allen and Bush were adamantly against imposing any deadline.
"Allen said, `Bush wants to have a campaign issue to talk about overturning command-and-control regulation, to say we got environmental progress without commanding anybody, and to make himself `green' against Al Gore,' " Maxey said.
The next few months will be critical in determining whether Dallas and Houston can resolve their air pollution crisis -- and whether it becomes a factor in Bush's presidential campaign.
In the face of stepped-up EPA pressure, the cities hired their own air quality experts, who largely endorsed the EPA view that the state needed to do much more to attack industrial smog.
The debate reached a climax early this year, when Dallas officials sent TNRCC regional pollution projections that were much more pessimistic than the state's. Stunned by those numbers, the state did not file the required pollution control plan for Dallas with the EPA, risking federal highway funds.
A number of Houston and Dallas officials, including some Republicans, say Bush and TNRCC now are trying to avoid taking the fall for the politically volatile decisions that those regions' leaders must make within the next few months -- inconveniencing motorists in car-crazy Texas or saddling industry with higher costs.
"TNRCC's forcing local officials to bite the bullet and take the unpopular steps," one ranking Dallas official said. "We see very little action out of the state."
Marquez replies that the state is working hard to find solutions and no longer picks fights with EPA. But he adds that the agency is hobbled by personnel shortages. "We haven't been perfect," he said. "We have our limits."
Now Dallas officials are pressuring TNRCC to clamp down on polluters just outside city borders because the emissions drift their way. At a recent meeting, TNRCC executive director Jeffrey Saitas expressed dread at cracking down on those plants in the way Dallas officials recommended.
"That would be war," Saitas said, according to participants. "They would sue us."
One site Dallas officials want cleaned up is a huge cement factory nearby that burns hazardous industrial waste. Some neighbors say the Texas Industries plant emissions lead to shortness of breath, wheezing and bronchitis. TNRCC and the firm deny that the plant's emissions harm anybody, but their conclusions were questioned by two outside experts retained by residents.
University of Michigan air quality expert Stuart Batterman harshly criticized TNRCC's study, saying it had "many serious omissions, inconsistencies and inadequate or misleading analyses. . . . Statements with little or a frail scientific basis show a disregard for the protection of public health, and serve to diminish the TNRCC's credibility."
Earlier this year, even as EPA warned Dallas to cut its pollution, TNRCC commissioners voted 3-0 to allow the plant to double capacity. Voting "aye" was commissioner Marquez, who declined to recuse himself even though he had worked for the firm as a consultant.
Now, he said, under the gun from EPA, state officials have gone back to the company seeking its help in cutting emissions.
How Texas ranks on the environment:
27 of the 30 highest ozone readings this year were in Texas.
1st in number of days with unhealthy ozone.
1st in airborne carcinogens.
1st in ozone components.
1st in toxic air releases.
46th among states for water resources protection, devoting $3 per person each year to this effort.
44th in spending on environment per capita.
While Los Angeles has made progress on ozone pollution, Houston has not.
In many Texas cities, ozone pollution has worsened in the past four years.
Number of days in which ozone standards were exceeded*
*the last four cities used a standard for measuring ozone exceedances different from the first three.
SOURCES: EPA, TNRCC, Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund, Council of State Governments, Public Citizen, Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, Sierra Club,
Clean Air Task Force, Abt Associates.