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In the summer of 2018, dozens of residents of Manchester — a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Houston where nearly half of residents have limited English proficiency, according to US censuses — attended a meeting about the project. of a refinery to increase the pollution emitted in their neighborhood.
Notices of the meeting, held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, were printed in English only. There were not enough headsets for all the residents who needed to hear Spanish translation provided by interpreters. Residents left confused or frustrated.
The meeting was one of the leading examples cited by environmental groups when they filed a civil rights lawsuit against the TCEQ, prompting an investigation by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
After years of alleged discrimination against Spanish speakers with limited English proficiency, the TCEQ presented its plan to stakeholders this month to translate key agency documents and provide interpreters at public meetings – in part of a deal the agency made to avoid potential civil rights violations that could jeopardize some of its federal EPA funding.
The TCEQ has scheduled a series of public meetings this spring to solicit feedback on how best to make its work accessible to communities with limited English proficiency, including millions of native Spanish speakers in Texas. But the plan was already finalized before those meetings began, leaving community advocates unsure whether their input will make a difference.
A TCEQ attorney told the public at a recent stakeholder meeting that the plans are “living” documents. She also said the agency had already solicited and responded to public comment in a more formal process in the fall – when it created a rule requiring companies to provide “competent” interpreting services during public meetings for environmental permits so that people who do not speak English. can fully participate. (Businesses will have to comply with this rule from May 1.)
But Spanish speakers and community advocates say the agency has failed to address their biggest concerns, including how “competent” interpretation will be defined. They say TCEQ has largely ignored calls to ensure translators and interpreters have the skills to communicate the complex environmental laws and procedures involved in licensing companies to emit air pollutants, discharge pollution into water, eliminate hazardous waste and more.
It’s important for the agency to allow people who don’t speak English to understand its work, advocates say, because the public has the right to question, comment on or protest new sources of pollution in their neighborhoods that may affect people’s health.
Clear standards for translators and interpreters would ensure that people who speak limited English can fully participate, said Shiv Srivastava, policy researcher at Fenceline Watch, a small environmental advocacy group focused on language access for communities disproportionately affected by pollution.
In Texas courts, for example, the state must provide a qualified translator to explain court proceedings to defendants and other participants who do not speak English. The Texas Department of Transportation also guarantees language services at its public meetings and assesses the proficiency of interpreters with specialized terms and concepts in both languages.
Gary Rasp, a TCEQ spokesperson, said the agency has not developed specific standards for interpretation and translation services. The agency’s current plan includes a list of acceptable translators, which may include bilingual TCEQ staff members to interpret real-time meetings, or online translation services to translate official agency documents. But community advocates say this could lead to poor translations.
“TCEQ is literally trying to do the bare minimum by throwing something through Google Translate,” Srivastava said.
TCEQ executives, however, wanted to move quickly, even if all the details were not settled.
“Sometimes you have to power your ship just based on your aspirations,” TCEQ commissioner Bobby Janecka said at a meeting in August when commissioners approved the rule.
TCEQ Commissioner Emily Lindley agrees. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here,” Lindley said. “Hopefully during implementation, the CEO’s office will work hard to address many of the concerns we’ve heard.”
Amy Browning, an attorney with TCEQ’s environmental law division, told attorneys in a public webinar on March 3 that TCEQ will consider criticism raised by the public at the meeting, which included potential issues with electronic translation services and calls to expand the definition of “vital”. documents” to include toxicological risks. However, there is no formal process to compel the agency to respond.
The language access plan is part of TCEQ’s agreement with the EPA to take several steps rather than suffer the rest of what would be a lengthy civil rights investigation. The EPA is still monitoring the state agency’s efforts. Browning, TCEQ’s attorney, told attorneys on the March 3 call that the EPA had already reviewed the agency’s language access plan.
Isabel Segarra Treviño, who helped file the 2019 civil rights lawsuit against TCEQ when she worked as an attorney for an environmental advocacy group, said that in her five years as a TCEQ staff, she had often been called upon to do extra work as an interpreter because she was one of the few bilingual staff lawyers.
“This situation is repeated throughout Texas, where the agency has reason to know that it should provide documents in Spanish and it is not,” said Segarra Treviño, who is now an assistant county attorney. of Harris.
Segarra Treviño said language barriers go far beyond what the TCEQ has even begun to consider in its policies.
“You don’t just need an interpreter, you need someone who can really tackle the technical aspects of these apps and provide culturally appropriate interpretation,” she said.
During the March 3 webinar, the first public meeting to seek public comment on the plan, separate phone lines were available in English and Spanish. Leticia Gutierrez, Director of Government Relations and Community Outreach at Air Alliance Houston, was on the line in English and began making comments in Spanish: “Sí, buenas tardes, mi number es Leticia –”, a- she started, but was quickly interrupted by the moderator TCEQ.
“I’ll stop you there,” said TCEQ director Mehgan Taack. She explained that bilingual participants could not speak in Spanish when they were on the English phone line.
“It’s better if you join the Spanish line or if you can speak in English,” Taack said.
In English, Gutierrez asked if she could speak both languages.
“I would prefer one or the other,” Taack said, then apologized. “We’re doing our best with our systems, but they’re still not quite perfect.”
Disclosure: Air Alliance Houston and Google financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list here.