Effort will build on current agency activities to bolster public participation and language access
Some issues have a slow fuse, simmering just below the surface, until the heat forms a flashpoint that can no longer be ignored. Such is the case with environmental justice – a cause that advocates have doggedly pursued for decades.
Efforts to protect people of color and low-income residents who often live in communities near sources of pollution have found their way to center stage and are now a top priority in discussions about environmental policy in statehouses and in the halls of Congress.
Recognizing the importance of the issue, TCEQ has launched an initiative aimed at better understanding the environmental justice concerns of Texans to help ensure that everyone enjoys the same protection from environmental and public health hazards and has equal access to the services and decision-making processes that provide for a safe place to live and work.
The initiative, which builds on the informal work of TCEQ personnel over many years, is made up of leaders from across the agency. The group, which has just begun its work assigning roles, developing a series of objectives, and outlining an action plan, is focused on maintaining the momentum of current agency efforts to enhance public participation and language access to TCEQ programs, services, and activities.
The group will also focus on historical efforts at the agency, working with a Mickey Leland Environmental Intern Program intern to catalog more than 20 years of historical documents and other materials on EJ issues.
TCEQ’s new Chief Clerk, Laurie Gharis, will help coordinate the Environmental Justice Initiative. She has high hopes for the new program.
“We want to learn from the past and actively implement thoughtful plans to develop a more sustainable future,” she says.
The first step, Gharis adds, is understanding the special challenges facing EJ communities by reaching out to hear their concerns. The agency also will employ EJSCREEN, a tool developed by EPA that combines environmental and demographic indicators in maps and reports. Those efforts will enable the team to determine what tools it may have or need to address concerns expressed by EJ communities and others.
Any changes resulting from the initiative, she notes, “have to be integrated into a new way of doing business.”
Gharis, who as a college professor taught courses on environmental issues and has considerable experience engaging the special needs of unique communities, has already begun contacting groups representing EJ communities. Over time, she hopes to meaningfully incorporate issues of importance to local residents into TCEQ programs and policies.
“I try to listen more and speak less,” Gharis says. “I work hard to be open, attentive, and thoughtful, and to recognize that not all communities are starting at the same point.”
At present the initiative includes only TCEQ employees, but Gharis says the group will consider how to establish relationships and active lines of communication within EJ communities and to involve environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations who are affected by or interested in EJ issues.
Laurie Gharis has a Ph.D. in Forestry and Environmental Resources, a Master’s in Public Administration, and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. Dr. Gharis has considerable experience working with diverse groups of stakeholders and has taught courses on natural resource and environmental issues. As Chief Clerk for TCEQ, Dr. Gharis responds to public correspondence on matters pending before the commission. She also coordinates the agency’s Environmental Justice efforts, a role that includes establishing and enhancing communication channels with environmental justice communities and their advocates