AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has suspended more than 200 state laws and regulations since Hurricane Harvey smashed into the Texas Gulf Coast in August.
In an effort to speed recovery from the largest disaster Texas has ever faced, Abbott has shelved at least 214 regulations meant to prevent air and water pollution, preserve hospital safety and even to inhibit the spread of disease among horses.
“Governor Abbott took these actions to expedite aid to Texans and to help ensure supplies that were needed could be delivered as quickly as possible. These rules were suspended in order to expedite debris removal, help get fuel to affected areas and ensure Texans were getting the medical care they needed,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.
Officials in hard-hit communities praised Abbott and his redtape cutting, saying it has made the long, difficult road to recovery significantly smoother.
But critics worry that loosening regulations, particularly environmental rules, could worsen toxic situations along the coast where refineries and other facilities have spewed dangerous pollutants into the air and water.
“These waivers of environmental laws definitely could have compounded the impacts to public health,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “If you don’t have to follow the rules, then you may not do so.”
The suspensions started within days of the storm, with Abbott announcing Aug. 31 that residents of storm-affected regions would be temporarily exempt from rules relating to vehicle registrations, titles and inspections.
“Making sure that all Texans impacted by this storm can fully recover is my number one priority, and I want to make sure that these victims are not dealing with burdensome rules and regulations,” Abbott said in a news release announcing the suspension. “I will continue to use everything at my disposal to get the victims of the storm what they need to get their lives back on track.”
Days later, when Texans worried about a potential gas shortage flocked to corner stores to fill their tanks, Abbott suspended rules to make it easier to transport fuel.
He also put a hold on hotel taxes so that newly homeless storm victims would spend less on shelter. And he relaxed hospital rules so that facilities damaged by the storm could transport patients to other hospitals even if those facilities were at capacity.
As he visited damaged coastal regions with the Commission to Rebuild Texas and its leader, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, Abbott promised mayors and county judges that he would suspend any rule that got in the way of recovery.
“If any state rule or regulation is standing in your way, let me know,” he said to a group of leaders gathered in Victoria in early September. “I’m going to get rid of it if it’s the right thing to do.”
The governor’s made good on that promise, Sharp said.
Removing hundreds of tons of debris from downed trees and waterlogged homes and buildings has been a massive challenge for local leaders, Sharp said. Abbott has waived rules capping landfill capacity and restrictions on burning to make it easier to remove debris so rebuilding can continue.
Sometimes, he said, the governor suspends the rule before his staff even has time to draft a proclamation. “It’s real interesting to work for [Abbott],” Sharp said. “It does not take him very long to make up his mind.”
Aransas County Judge Burt Mills said Harvey destroyed more than a third of all the buildings in his county. Trying to dispose of all that debris is a gargantuan task. The county has set up massive grinders to turn destroyed trees into mulch. But all that mulch needs someplace to go, Mills said.
Abbott and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality helped, he said, by clearing red tape and allowing the county to transport the mulch to a nearby location.
As the work continues more than five weeks after Harvey made landfall, Mills said he’s grateful for the state’s help. But he said people in Aransas County, which suffered the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath, are growing weary of the long recovery process as they try to piece their lives back together.
“Some of them are getting a little tired of the bureaucracy,” he said. “When you explain it to them, they just shrug their shoulders and say they understand, but can you speed it up a little bit.”
In Orange County, where Harvey’s floodwaters deluged some 28,000 homes, Judge Brint Carlton said Abbott’s relaxation of landfill regulations has helped debris-removal efforts.
The governor, he said, has also extended court deadlines because the county’s courthouse is still too damaged to open for business.
Carlton said he has asked residents to be patient, but many are struggling as they see piles of debris remaining in their streets and continue waiting for temporary housing.
“Something this large and this devastating is going to take a while” even with the governor’s intervention, Carlton said.
“There is no way to clean all this up in two or four weeks.”
While the suspensions may help speed recovery in some areas, environmental advocates worry that shelving protections could result in even more harmful long-term damage for people in areas affected by Harvey.
Metzger said the governor’s suspension of rules gives chemical refineries no incentive to ensure that they safely shut down and prepare for major storms.
His organization has discovered increased levels of dangerous toxins such as benzene in regions affected by the storm.
Residents of the town of Crosby have already filed lawsuits in the wake of a chemical explosion caused by the storm. And Metzger said more than 30 million gallons of sewage overflowed in flooded regions.
“We potentially could have avoided some of those impacts to human health had the governor not waived these laws,”
Metzger said. “It endangered human health and was unnecessary.”
Caroline Sweeney, a deputy in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s office of legal services, disagreed with Metzger’s assessment. Refiners and wastewater operators will have to prove to state regulators that they did all they could to prevent harm to people and the environment.
“They will have to make arguments to us that they have used best management practices,” Sweeney said. “This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.”