Sen. Brian Birdwell

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will have the ability to increase fines on water supply violations as a result of legislation that goes into effect Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 530, authored by state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and sponsored in the House by state Rep. John Wray (R-Waxahachie), was prompted in large part by constituent complaints received from Ellis County.

“I authored Senate Bill 530 because of issues with a water system in Ellis County,” state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) wrote in an end of legislative session newsletter. “Many constituents were not receiving reliable drinking water and brought it to Rep. John Wray’s and my at-tention during the interim.”

SB 530 increases the civil and administrative penalties for violating the rules that implement the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Once the new measure goes into effect, a penalty of up to $5,000 may be assessed per violation. The increased penalty does not apply retroactively but applies to violations occurring on or after its Sept. 1 effective date.

“Currently, these penalties are limited to a minimum of $50 and a maximum of $1,000 for each violation,” Birdwell said. “In past instances, some public water suppliers have not made the necessary improvements to infrastructure, monitoring and operations after being monetarily penalized and ordered to do so by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on multiple occasions.

“These increased penalties will serve as a tool to stop public water suppliers from treating small monetary penalties as a cost of doing business and to incentivize actual construction or performance of needed improvements to these water systems,” Birdwell said.

Legislative passage

SB 530 drew bipartisan support and saw a fairly straightforward path through the 86th Legislature.

Filed by Birdwell on Jan. 30, the bill was initially referred to the Senate’s Water & Rural Affairs Committee. Birdwell requested the bill’s transfer, however, and it was sent to the Natural Resources & Economic Development Committee, which received testimony March 20. 

Testifying for the bill’s passage before the committee was Kenneth Clemons, a member of Texans in Ellis County for Drinkable Water. Registering on a “for” position but not testifying were a Harris County commissioner, a League of Women Voters of Texas representative, a conservation director with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club and two individuals. 

Testifying on the bill without taking a position was a TCEQ official.

The bill was reported favorably without amendments and read in the full Senate March 27, where it was passed without dissent and sent over to the House.

The bill was read for the first time in the House on April 1 and referred to the Environmental Regulation Committee, which held a public hearing April 24. Legislative records indicate a Sierra Club representative, a Public Citizen representative, the Travis County Commissioners Court and six individuals registered a “for” position but did not testify. A city of Dallas official registered an “against” position but did not testify. A TCEQ official was on hand but also did not testify.

Left pending at that time, SB 530 was reported favorably without amendments out of committee May 14. The measure was then read for the second time in the House on May 20, with final passage occurring on its third reading May 21, with 139 yea votes, four nays and the speaker not voting. 

SB 530 went to the governor’s office May 25, with Gov. Greg Abbott signing it into law June 7.

Fiscal impact

A report prepared by the Legislative Budget Board estimates a positive impact of more than $2.8 million to the state’s general revenue related funds through the biennium ending Aug. 31, 2021. The analysis took into consideration the average number of fines levied by the TCEQ and the potential for those to be increased to the new maximum of $5,000 each.

“[T]he agency has administered an average of 365 enforcement orders per year for violations [that] occurred from fiscal years 2014 through 2018 with each order assessing an average of $1,222 in civil penalties due to an enforcement order potentially having one or more assessed civil penalties of $1,000 or less,” the LBB’s report reads, noting also, “Based on information provided by TCEQ, this estimate assumes that TCEQ would assess the maximum civil penalty for each violation, that only one civil penalty of $5,000 would be assessed for each enforcement order and that the average amount of 365 enforcement orders would continue each fiscal year.”

The LBB report further notes that an Office of the Attorney General analysis indicates the bill’s provisions “could be accomplished by utilizing existing resources (with) no significant fiscal implication” to local government anticipated.

The TCEQ does “retain the flexibility to consider a range of penalties utilizing its penalty policy,” a Senate Research Center bill analysis reads. 

Carroll Water Supply

Ellis County-based Carroll Water Supply users were among those who had filed complaints with the TCEQ and raised concerns with their legislators. A recent TCEQ commissioners meeting saw the approval of two agreed orders signed by the utility that involved complaints from Sept. 10-Oct. 8 and from Oct. 18-Nov. 1 as listed on one order and for the dates of Oct. 20 and Oct. 25 as listed on the second order. Penalties for the two orders were assessed at $1,319 and $627, respectively.

The Sun spoke with Ellis County-based Carroll Water Supply operator/manager Buster Bramall about the new legislation and the two orders. 

Bramall said he was hired about 2-1/2 months ago by the utility and the focus is on bringing the system into compliance. He noted he has 30-plus years of experience in the water supply industry and the majority of that experience has involved working with wells.

Significant effort is being made, said Bramall, who believes the work can be accomplished within the next six months.

“We’re already making a lot of progress,” he said. “We’re working diligently on it.”

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