AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Sunset Advisory Commission on Thursday approved recommendations to make the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) more effective and transparent.

The Sunset Advisory Commission – comprised of five Texas senators, five representatives and two members of the public –  exists to enhance government accountability by objectively evaluating state programs and services. The commission voted on recommendations produced by Texas Sunset Advisory Commission staff that aim to make TCEQ a more transparent organization.

“I would say the two areas that were improved today were transparency and public access,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

After the hearing, the TCEQ will be required to post drafts of permits it distributes to organizations, such as factories, online. 

”We will continue to work with the Sunset Commission and the Legislature as we move through the Sunset process,” a representative from TCEQ said.

“When you open (or expand) a new factory or business… you are required to get a permit for the right to pollute,” Reed said. “That permit determines how much pollution is allowed into the environment and into the community,” he continued. 

 The recommendation that passed Thursday will allow the public to understand better what risks to health are considered acceptable when TCEQ administers a permit.

Further, before the meeting Thursday, Sunset Advisory Commission staff pointed out that while the TCEQ is critical in protecting the health of Texans and the environment, the organization does not make it easy for the public to engage in the permitting process. The commission voted to pass a resolution that will allow the public to comment on a specific permit, even after the official public hearing session has concluded. 

Another resolution passed raised the maximum amount TCEQ can fine businesses for violating the terms of their permit. The commission voted to raise the amount from $25,000 a day to $40,000. 

“In egregious situations, where there are major violations and harm to the public, to place a larger fine, I think, is going to be important for deterrence,” Reed said.

Adrian Shelley of Public Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for public policy, said the problem, in his opinion, is that TCEQ is not going after the businesses violating these permits often enough. 

“(The fine) gives a bigger stick for the most egregious cases,” Shelley said. “And when the agency comes around to our way of thinking – that violators of the law should be punished – it is going to have the tools to do that,” he said

Shelley said that the action taken by the Sunset Commission was a step in the right direction but that reform to TCEQ has a long way to go. 

“What we really want is an agency that treats this mission as protecting the public from pollution,” Reed said. 

“There are so many ways to do that, like refusing to issue permits in overburdened communities, writing stronger terms into the permits that it does (and) getting serious about enforcing against violations of the law,” Shelley continued.

Reed, of the Sierra Club, said that his organization along with other environmental nonprofits have filed citizen suits against refineries violating pollution laws. He said they have had to do this because of what they consider a lack of enforcement from TCEQ. 

“Because we’ve threatened to go to court (and) because we have the evidence, those industries have settled with us and made major reductions in their pollution,” Reed said. 

For example, due to a citizen suit initiated by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas in 2010, ExxonMobil Corp had to pay a $14.25 million fine over air pollution at its Baytown, Texas crude oil refinery.