A New Sheriff in Texas

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gone are the Bush administration years when each henhouse, each federal agency, had its own fox -- its own regulator -- to guard it. From the Department of the Interior, including the National Forest Service, to the Environmental Protection Agency, those who regulated the corresponding industry were their most loyal servants.

Now foxes have been substituted by watchdogs, regulators committed to enforcing the law and protecting our communities from the ravages of environmental degradation.

One of these new environmental sheriffs is Al Armendariz, administrator of EPA's Region 6, which comprises Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and 66 Tribal Nations.

When he started his new job, Armendariz found a toothless agency that transformed looking the other way into an art form while the region generated 35 percent of the country's global warming emissions.

At the same time, his arrival encountered the open hostility of the largest and most influential state in the region, Texas, which sued the EPA over its finding that CO2 is a danger to public health. Also, its chief environmental regulator is a global warming denier.

"Region 6 should be leading the way in protecting the climate," Armendariz says. "Instead, Texas officials are attempting to slow progress with unnecessary litigation."

On the other hand, Armendariz, a third-generation Mexican-American who is only 40, is optimistic about the defeat of this status quo.

"More and more Fortune 500 companies are greening their products and small businesses are discovering innovative new products," he says. "Environmentalism is growing and each of us as consumers are making a difference. I predict that those clinging on to the status quo will find themselves and their companies obsolete."

But before reaching that future, Armendariz has enormous challenges to confront. And one of the largest is pollution coming out of dozens of coal-fired power plants that are poisoning the air of thousands of communities. According to a League of United Latin American Citizens study, 80 percent of Latinos live dangerously close to one of these plants.

"Clearly this administration has prioritized recognizing and reducing the harmful pollution from using coal," he says. "Our efforts include new air quality standards, limits on mercury emissions, and strict oversight of permits. Never before have we seen the EPA take action on so many parallel clean air laws. All of these actions will reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants across the country."

Armendariz, a respected civil engineering college professor, is very familiar with toxic pollution. He was born in El Paso, Texas, close to the ASARCO lead smelter, which during more than a century spewed thousands of tons of lead and other heavy metals into the air. Thanks in part to his contribution, the EPA has denied a permit for the smelter to be reopened.

"All around the country we are faced with problems caused by industry and people living too close to one another," he laments. "It is an extremely difficult problem. Our first goal in addressing pollution is to help people have a good place to live, not relocate communities."

Armendariz, who acknowledges that it will take time to erase ASARCO's terrible legacy, visited El Paso earlier this year to meet with leaders of communities punished by this industrial pollution.

"It was clear to me that everyone --including EPA -- has to do more for the community," he says. "We started with a candid discussion about what EPA can and cannot do. Sometimes environmental justice discussions are the most difficult when people need help that falls outside one organization's authority. We will stay involved and engaged with the community as the clean-up moves forward."

Another crucial issue for Armendariz is the Murphy Oil spill that took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and caused significant damage to the St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

"EPA policed this clean up activity that was conducted by the company responsible for the damage," he says. "We believe the polluter should pay and EPA should be close-at-hand monitoring the progress.

And speaking of progress, Armendariz is greatly concerned about the costs, both to the economy and the nation's health, of our oil and coal addiction, and is convinced that the future belongs to clean, renewable sources of energy.

"At present we spend billions of dollars for foreign oil, and old polluting industries cause large rises in health care costs to U.S. taxpayers. A green, renewable economy will keep money in America and lead to job creation," he concludes.

We are feeling safer with this new Texas sheriff.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.