North Texas
2:10 am
Tue February 2, 2010

New EPA Chief Brings Environmentalist Philosophy

Dallas –

Expectations are high as SMU engineering professor Al Armendariz prepares for Tuesday's swearing-in as this region's new EPA administrator. Armendariz's work in the environmental community has raised hopes and concerns that he might clamp down on industry. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports.

On the 13th floor of a Dallas high rise the doors open to a conference room, and friendly banter flows into the hallway.

The EPA's new, soft-spoken administrator, Al Armendariz, has been meeting with representatives of petroleum and chemical companies, industries he'll help regulate.

Lobbyist Pam Giblin leaves the meeting saying she believes Armendariz will be open to industry's point of view.

Giblin: I think that he has all the signs of someone who wants to be a problem solver. We are optimistic he is going to use his science hat because he has such a strong science background

But Armendariz's activist hat is making some in business and state government nervous.

The 39-year old environmental and chemical engineer has criticized the state's top environmental agency- the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality- for approving plans that allow too much industrial air pollution. Agency Chairman Bryan Shaw says he's concerned.

Shaw: I'm concerned by his background. I think it is critical that position not be used as a podium for more activism.

Armendariz's so-call activism is linked to studies of industrial pollution he's done for grassroots groups. He conducted a study for the Environmental Defense Fund that documented high levels of smog produced by gas drilling in the Barnett Shale. He served as a technical advisor for Downwinders, a group which has long challenged the operation of cement kilns.

In fact it was Downwinders organizer Jim Schermbeck who handed Armendariz's resume to President Obama's top EPA administrator Lisa Jackson during a meeting last June.

Schermbeck: It was a long shot when we started the campaign to get him appointed. The grassroots folks are particularly elated because we've never had anyone in this position before that saw things from our point of view. Al's coming of age in the environmental movement basically occurred through our ranks. He was about the only expert in Texas we could go to and get information from and he would do reports (for us) for free. .

The El Paso native is aware of the expectations and tensions churning around him as he balances his responsibilities and passions.

Armendariz: In the past I've been an environmental advocate and I saw my job as pushing government, pushing regulated interests to do the things that are available to clean the environment I continue in my current job with the same philosophy. I think industry right now in the state is nervous and one of the reasons is the rules of the road are unclear. There are state rules and state requirements that don't appear to meet federal rules and federal requirements.

Just how Armendariz will bring Texas's weaker environmental regulations into federal compliance is a big unknown. The EPA could simply take over Texas's air permitting program, but Armendariz says that's not his agenda.

He says he'll encourage everyone involved to work together and embrace his philosophy, that good environmentalism is good economic development.

Armendariz: Having clean air and water and safe food is good for the economy.

Email Shelley Kofler