TCEQ’s Role in Responding to Emergencies

As the agency with the words “environmental quality” in its name suggests, TCEQ plays an important role in protecting the state’s public health and natural resources. As our mission statement proclaims, our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.

Still, misconceptions remain about just what TCEQ does, and what authority we have, particularly during emergencies such as hurricanes and tropical storms, industrial fires, and other disasters.

In general, TCEQ’s role in such situations is to support first responders, including local fire and police departments and medical personnel. We coordinate with the Texas Division of Emergency Management on the implementation of the state’s emergency plan.

TCEQ personnel work alongside members of the 6th Civil Support Team
TCEQ personnel work alongside members of the 6th Civil Support Team

TCEQ also works with other local, state, or federal agencies as needed. For example, as a member of the Texas Homeland Security Council, TCEQ assists in recovery efforts involving critical infrastructures and key resources, including water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants, chemical plants, low-level radioactive waste, refineries, and dams.

Depending on the nature of an emergency, TCEQ collaborates with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Railroad Commission of Texas, and the Office of the Attorney General, as well as with federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In many disasters, TCEQ’s real job starts after the initial incident has concluded. Once an area is safe to enter, agency personnel evaluate environmental impacts and assist local governments and facilities in identifying needs to protect human health and the environment. TCEQ typically takes the lead in overseeing cleanup activities in the aftermath of calamitous events to ensure responsible parties appropriately restore stricken areas.

Hurricane Laura

Sometimes the best illustration of emergency response can be seen in a disaster that never transpires. In late August 2020, as Hurricane Laura barreled toward the Texas coast, TCEQ marshaled its resources and manpower to prepare for the worst. Many agency personnel had vivid memories of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey three years earlier.

As it turned out, Laura made landfall just east of the Texas-Louisiana border, sparing Texas the brunt of the storm. Still, the experience demonstrates the importance of disaster readiness.

On Aug. 26, the day before Laura hit, TCEQ issued a news release highlighting the many strategic assets it had in place, beginning with the establishment of a Mobile Command Post and Emergency Management Support Team. For example, the agency deployed air monitoring vans to the area to identify emissions released following the shutdown of refineries and other industrial facilities. (Following the storm, TCEQ publicly posted its air monitoring data.)

Agency personnel also stood ready to implement emergency response plans and provided guidance to local government officials on how to fortify water and wastewater systems and brace for potential flooding.

Thankfully, Texas dodged the worst of the storm – this time.

For more about TCEQ’s emergency response to Hurricane Laura, visit the Incident Response Page and view this story map recapping the agency’s activities.

Winter Storm 2020

A more recent example of TCEQ’s emergency response efforts came during the unprecedented February 2021 winter storm, in which roughly half the state’s population was out of water or under a Boil Water Notice for several days following massive power failures.

While TCEQ doesn’t own or operate any of the state’s 7,000 public water systems, we oversee protection of water resources and provide hands-on guidance to local officials who operate the water systems.

Throughout this crisis, TCEQ staff, in the agency’s Austin headquarters and in regional offices across the state, worked around-the-clock to help public water systems get back up and running. Our regulations provided local officials a detailed roadmap of what needed to be done to ensure drinking water was safe for their residents – namely, to flush their distribution systems and have water samples tested by an accredited lab as a condition for lifting the Boil Water Notice.

We also created a severe weather incident page to assist local officials; installed a hotline to help water systems connect with a lab for testing; issued a news release and provided regular updates on social media; and posted informational videos.

It was a rough several days, but pre-crisis planning and adherence to established protocols paid off, and water service was restored.

The experience led TCEQ to examine what worked and what didn’t during the crisis. Executive Director Toby Baker published an op-ed candidly acknowledging vulnerabilities in the state’s water infrastructure and vowing to implement changes to prevent it from happening again.

Coordination with other state agencies

In addition to the agencies listed above, TCEQ also works with the Texas General Land Office to respond to inland oil spills and releases of other pollutants. TCEQ also works with the Texas Department of Transportation on incidents involving the transportation of hazardous chemicals, and with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife regarding environmental issues affecting wildlife.

Learn more about TCEQ’s role in responding to emergencies.

Jurisdictional misconceptions

While TCEQ has jurisdiction over many air, water, and waste management programs, it does not have authority over all areas that may be affected by an emergency, including oil and gas production, asbestos abatement, mold assessment, and abandoned water wells. Learn more.