AUSTIN — They didn’t convince lawmakers to get the lead out of the water in Texas schools’ drinking fountains, but environmentalists did claim a few wins in the just-ended legislative session.
“One of the most notable water victories this session was the effort to stem ... legislation that would have undermined the ability of landowners, canoeists and kayakers, and hunters and anglers to protest environmentally damaging and unnecessary surface-water projects,” Chris Mullins, the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter legislative and policy consultant, said in a statement. “The worst bill was dammed up in a Senate committee, other bills were submerged in the House and an effort to eliminate the requirement that surface water projects be consistent with the state water plan was diverted.”
Still, water- and air-quality issues clearly didn’t top leaders’ priority lists in the 85th Legislature.
“You’ll see local governments not able to hold polluters accountable,” because of environmental bills that passed or failed to get traction during the session, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “Which means dirtier air and water.”
One example of a problematic water issue: According to recent research, 386 of 594 schools in Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth that were tested for lead in their drinking water measured levels of more than one part per billion.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that state and local governments ensure that school water fountains don’t exceed water-lead concentrations of one part per billion.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead,” the World Health Organization reports on its Web site. “Even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and in some cases irreversible neurological damage.”
None of the bills aimed at addressing lead in drinking water at Texas schools, including one to require lead testing at schools, passed.
As for air quality, Metzger contrasted actions in the 2017 session to 2003, when lawmakers doubled the state’s mandate for renewable energy, and 2005 when they doubled the mandate for energy efficiency.
Both sessions took place during the administration of then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who now heads the U.S. Department of Energy.
“No longer are we seeing those kinds of cutting-edge,” efforts, Metzger said. “The environment is becoming politicized.”
Among the bills that environmentalists fought unsuccessfully was a measure prohibiting tax incentives for wind energy facilities within 30 miles of a military base.
Texas is the nation’s No. 1 wind-energy producer.
While the 40 percent of Texas wind farms that have been built within the 30-mile limit won’t be affected by the measure, opponents are worried about future wind-farm development.
Also passed was House Bill 1643, which authorizes jail time for people who fly drones over places such as farms and drilling sites.
The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association supported the bill.
“The important thing for us was protecting the welfare of those animals,” said Jeremy Fuchs, the association’s director of public communications. “It can spook cattle.”
Fuchs also said the ability to fly over sites such as oil and gas wells could reveal “proprietary information.”
But environmental groups said they’re afraid the law will hamper researchers’ efforts to document pollutants such as methane from gas wells.
“Overall, it was a pretty bad session,” said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
There was, however, good news related to air quality: reauthorization of the Texas Emissions Reductions Program, which includes a $2,500 rebate on electric vehicles.
That, coupled with a $7,500 federal tax credit, drives prices for some electric vehicles competitive into the range of conventional cars.
“Teslas are still pretty expensive,” Metzger said. “But it might make a difference for someone that might be looking at a Nissan Leaf.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.