Sierra Club TV Ads on Texas Distort the Real Environmental Record

Recently, voters in the Seattle area were treated to a spate of distortions and half-truths in a campaign commercial run by the Sierra Club. In their political attack ad, this special interest group charged that “Texas leads the nation in air pollution, in toxic chemicals released and in factories violating clean water standards.”

What the ad doesn’t tell you is that ozone violation days in Texas fell by 25 percent between 1995 and 1999. This improvement is all the more impressive considering the Sierra Club itself admits that Texas Gov. George Bush inherited a “mess” from his predecessor. Somehow this slipped the minds of the ad writers.

The claim that Texas “leads the nation” in toxic chemicals released is simply a flat-out falsehood. On May 11 of this year, the EPA released its most up to date Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). Rather than leading the nation, Texas actually came in 5th, with toxic releases only one-fourth the level of the leading offender when measured in absolute terms.

However, comparing TRI data in absolute terms for large states like Texas or California with data for small states like Delaware or Rhode Island provides little context for measuring toxic releases. For that reason, some groups — including the Sierra Club — measure toxic releases on a pounds-per-person basis. When looked at in this fashion, Texas actually drops to 28th, with 15.8 pounds of releases per person. Even Tennessee ranks higher, with more than 25 pounds of toxic releases per person.

Finally, with regard to the Clean Water Act, the attack ad only tells part of the story. It is true that Texas has more expired permits than any other state, with 135. Given that this is only 23 percent of its permitted facilities, however, Texas has a record that is as good or better than 29 other states, a fact reported by the group Friends of the Earth.

In seven states, unlike Texas, Clean Water Act permits are administered by the EPA rather than state authorities. Texas has a record as good or better than all of these states. In fact, 100 percent of EPA-administered permits in Washington, D.C. are expired. If the Sierra Club is really concerned about water quality in America, and not just Texas-bashing, it seems as though they need to pick a new target.

None of this is to suggest that Texas does not have room to improve the quality of its environment, or that it should not address its remaining challenges. Making the air and water cleaner and safer is part of an ongoing, nationwide process in which all states need to participate.

With a presidential election season upon us, voters will be subjected to an increasing amount of polluted rhetoric and bogus claims — none of which will actually bring us closer to our common goal of a healthy environment. It is discouraging indeed that self-proclaimed defenders of the environment are actually more concerned with dabbling in presidential politics than with improving the quality of our lives.