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Poll: Environment Worries Texans

BY Randy Lee Loftis
by Randy Lee Loftis on 11/13/00.

Fewer than one in five Texans think their local environment has gotten better over the last 10 years - and one-third think it has gotten worse, according to a Scripps Howard Texas Poll to be released Monday.

An overwhelming majority - as high as 92 percent - say they are concerned about environmental problems ranging from pollution of drinking water to global warming. On nearly every environmental topic, most Texans say they are very concerned, the poll found.

Texans trust the state's environmental agency to protect the environment more than they trust federal or local agencies, the poll found - and they trust large corporations least of all.

The Scripps Howard Data Center questioned by telephone 1,000 randomly selected Texas residents from Oct. 9-31. The margin of error for the whole sample was plus or minus 3 percentage points and greater for subgroups broken down by age, race, region and other factors.

"The good news is that people definitely are concerned about the environment," said Ty Meighan, director of the Texas Poll, based in Austin.

The poll, conducted in the weeks before the presidential election, didn't ask whether Texans thought Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore would do a better job of protecting the environment - although the Texas environment became a hot campaign topic.

Mr. Gore repeatedly attacked Mr. Bush's environmental performance, asking crowds outside Texas whether they wanted their local air to look like Houston's. Mr. Bush said he had steered a reasonable course during his six years as governor, trying to improve the environment without imposing unnecessary regulations.

But the poll detected little apparent optimism about environmental trends in Texas. It found that just 18 percent of Texans believe that the overall quality of the environment in their localities has gotten better during the last 10 years.

About 33 percent said it has gotten worse, while 45 percent said it was about the same.

People who backed each presidential candidate said the poll reinforced their points of view.

Peggy Venable, a supporter of Mr. Bush's and executive director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, said the results suggest that Mr. Gore's criticisms didn't resonate with Texans.

"It's amazing that these numbers [reflecting concerns] aren't higher, considering what's been going on around here lately," Ms. Venable said. Most environmental indicators show improvement, she said - "even Houston's air."

But Ken Kramer, executive director of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter, said the poll shows that Mr. Bush was out of touch with the environmental concerns of most Texans. The Sierra Club endorsed Mr. Gore.

The poll found that Texans were most concerned about pollution of drinking water, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. About 92 percent of those questioned said they were concerned about pollution of surface waters, with 73 percent of them saying they were very concerned.

Worries about drinking water pollution were almost as high, with 88 percent expressing concern and 72 percent saying they were very concerned.

Global warming drew the least concern, but even then, 70 percent of the respondents said they were concerned about it. About 47 percent said they were very concerned about climate change from pollution and other human activities.

The poll suggested that recycling is catching on among Texans, with 60 percent saying their households recycle aluminum cans. But household recycling rates for other materials were much lower, ranging from 47 percent who said they recycle newspapers to a low of 27 percent who said they recycle glass.

On the question of which political party they trust to protect the environment, Texans were almost evenly split, with 46 percent trusting Democrats and 45 percent trusting Republicans. They said they trusted Congress even less, 44 percent.

The state's environmental agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, has the trust of 60 percent of those polled, the most of any entity listed. "That's refreshing," said commission Chairman Robert Huston.

Mr. Huston said Texas has made great strides in the last 10 years in protecting drinking water, is doing well at protecting lakes and rivers but has hit a plateau in improving the air - but he added that state plans before the EPA will renew progress.

He said every environmental agency faces the task of adopting traditional anti-pollution rules to fit the public's broader concerns about traffic, land use and other urban worries. "It's a quality-of-life issue," he said.

Federal agencies such as the EPA and local government agencies had the trust of 52 percent of those polled. At the bottom for trust in protecting the environment were large corporations, the poll found.

Only 37 percent said they trust large corporations to do the job, while 31 percent said they trust them not at all.

That's not surprising, said H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that promotes free-market policies. "People have been sold [a view of] capitalism as a heartless, soulless entity," Mr. Burnett said.

Agreeing with poll findings that state agencies are trusted most to protect the environment, Mr. Burnett said the public is pessimistic because "environmentalists have been very successful at selling disaster."

Not so, said Mary Kelly, executive director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, an Austin-based think tank that promotes stronger environmental protection. She said people know the environment is in trouble because they can see it for themselves.

"People can feel that their air is worse," she said. "I think that's significant."