The role of municipalities in air toxics regulation: The Houston experience

Rebecca Jensen Bruhl, The University of Texas School of Public Health


The federal regulatory regime for addressing airborne toxic pollutants functions fairly well in most of the country. However, it has proved deficient in addressing local risk issues, especially in urban areas with densely concentrated sources. The problem is especially pronounced in Houston, which is home to one of the world's biggest petrochemical complexes and a major port, both located near a large metropolitan center. Despite the fact that local government's role in regulating air toxics is typically quite limited, from 2004-2009, the City of Houston implemented a novel municipality-based air toxics reduction strategy. The initiatives ranged from voluntary agreements to litigation and legislation. This case study considers why the city chose the policy tools it did, how the tools performed relative to the designers' intentions, and how the debate among actors with conflicting values and goals shaped the policy landscape. The city's unconventional approach to controlling hazardous air pollution has not yet been examined rigorously. The case study was developed through reviews of publicly available documents and quasi-public documents obtained through public record requests, as well as interviews with key informants. The informants represented a range of experience and perspectives. They included current and former public officials at the city (including Mayor White), former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staff, faculty at local universities, industry representatives, and environmental public health advocates. Some of the city's tools were successful in meeting their designers' intent, some were less successful. Ultimately, even those tools that did not achieve their stated purpose were nonetheless successful in bringing attention and resources to the air quality issue. Through a series of pleas and prods, the city managed to draw attention to the problem locally and get reluctant policymakers at higher levels of government to respond. This work demonstrates the potential for local government to overcome limitations in the federal regulatory regime for air toxics control, shifting the balance of local, state, and federal initiative. It also highlights the importance of flexible, cooperative strategies in local environmental protection.

Subject Area

Environmental Health|Public health|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Bruhl, Rebecca Jensen, "The role of municipalities in air toxics regulation: The Houston experience" (2012). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3518951.