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Supplemental Environmental Projects have direct impact on the ecosystem

Sept. 24, 2018 – Good things come from environmental penalties.

By Marty Otero, TCEQ External Relations

Illegally dumped tires pose health risks to communities and are prime targets for cleanup with the help of a SEP.
Illegally dumped tires pose health risks to communities and are prime targets for cleanup with the help of a SEP.
TCEQ photo

In Van Zandt county, where agriculture is the mainstay, crews worked to remove 15,000 tires that were illegally dumped in the Jackson community. Across the state, 3.58 tons of household hazardous waste and 16.89 tons of electronic waste were properly disposed of and 61.01 tons of trash was cleaned up. At the Armand Bayou Nature Center, volunteers and staff work to protect, restore, and enhance 2,500 acres of unique and vanishing ecosystems is southeast Harris County: coastal tallgrass prairie, forested wetland and the tidal marsh stream. These are all examples of SEP projects.

Community volunteers work to prepare plants for propagation and planting at the Armand Bayou Nature Center.
Community volunteers work to prepare plants for propagation and planting at the Armand Bayou Nature Center.
Photo courtesy of Lyman Brown

When a facility or plant is found to be in violation of an environmental law, they are often fined by the TCEQ. However, state law allows a business to put a portion of the fine to work closer to home or across the state, improving the environment. This option is a SEP—Supplemental Environmental Project—that has a direct and measurable environmental benefit in communities across Texas.

Gitanjali Yadav, senior attorney with the TCEQ, comments that “SEPs allow for enforcement penalties to be diverted from the [state’s] general revenue and instead be put towards projects that enhance the environment in communities affected by environmental violations. These projects address pollution reduction and pollution prevention that protects public health. In addition, SEPs may also assist in providing environmental justice in low-income or underserved communities.”

She adds that “applying part of a penalty to a SEP is completely voluntary, but it would be great if more companies participated. A total of $2,060,277 in penalties was contributed to pre-approved SEP projects last fiscal year. Air quality SEPs received $1,352,386 of the total. Waste and water quality SEPs received $707,891.”

The SEP program offers three types of SEPs: pre-approved, custom, and compliance.

Pre-Approved SEPs: direct environmental benefit

Pre-Approved SEPs are those where the respondent contributes to a third-party SEP. Pre-approved SEPs are direct-benefit, meaning they directly benefit the environment. These provide significant, immediate, and lasting improvements to the quality of the environment, preventing or reducing further environmental damage.

Staff and contractors perform prescribed burns at the center.
Staff and contractors perform prescribed burns at the center.
Photo courtesy of Lyman Brown

Armand Bayou Nature Center, Inc. — SEP funds have allowed the center to expand its restoration efforts to address the continuing challenges of the watershed it protects. ABNC uses methods such as prescribed burns, invasive chipping, broadcast application of herbicides, herbicide spot treatment, greenhouse and nursery irrigation, and plant propagation and planting. The ABNC’s greenhouse and plant nursery houses native plants that are cultivated and used to restore the Coastal Prairie, Tidal Marsh, and Forest Wetland habitats.

“These projects are invaluable to our program for accomplishing our large-scale restoration efforts. The volunteers' time and efforts help leverage SEP contributions. Our service learning projects work with high-school students, college students, community-based projects, and a dedicated team of ABNC volunteers,” comments Mark Kramer, conservation director and chief naturalist, at the center.

Texas Association of Resource Conservation and Development Areas, Inc. — RC & D works with rural city and county government officials and private businesses across the state to conduct tire collection events where residents can drop off tires for proper disposal and recycling. They also clean sites where tires have been illegally disposed, where the responsible party is financially unable to clean up the site, or where a responsible party cannot be identified.

Jerry Pearce, executive director of RC & D, states that “the health risks associated with illegal dumping are significant. Areas used for illegal dumping may be easily accessible to people, especially children, who are vulnerable to the physical hazards posed by abandoned tires.”

Pearce adds, “this is what we are all about with this program. Helping residents of rural Texas to enjoy life and have safe and healthy living conditions.” RC & D collected and disposed of 33,848 tires across the state last year.

In the past year a large business was fined, and as part of their fine a cumulative contribution of $90,000 was made to RC & D to purchase a new lower-emissions school bus for a school district.

Custom SEPs: respondents using their own resources

Another type of SEP is a Custom SEP where the respondent performs the project using their own resources to fund a project unrelated to their violations. These types of SEPs are more detailed and require the appropriate resources to complete the SEP, including but not limited to licenses, permits, personnel, and equipment, and the ability to perform the SEP.

Compliance SEPs: geared toward local governments

And then there are Compliance SEPs, which allow certain government organizations who are facing an enforcement action to perform a project to achieve compliance with environmental laws or to remediate any harm caused by violations.

All respondents in the TCEQ enforcement process are eligible to contribute to a third-party SEP or perform a custom SEP. Only applicable local governments or financially-qualified local governments can participate in compliance SEPs.

SEPs provide a positive outcome

The TCEQ encourages all respondents to consider undertaking a SEP. However, the TCEQ must evaluate each case individually to determine whether a SEP is appropriate and how much of their penalty will be offset.

A third party that is interested in obtaining funds to implement an environmental-enhancement project must meet certain criteria. The third-party administrator SEP application is available on the TCEQ’s website.

SEPs generate goodwill and provide a positive outcome from enforcement matters. SEP projects improve the environment and benefit public health where people live and work every day. Respondents can make up, in a direct way, for harm done in the community they are a part of, and SEPs advance the goals of cleaner air, water, and soil throughout Texas.

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