Texas officials charged with protecting the environment and public health have for years made arbitrary subtractions to the measured levels of radiation delivered by water utilities across the state, according to a series of investigative reports out of Houston.
Those subtractions, based on the test results' margin of error, made all the difference for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ): without the reduction, demonstrated levels of dangerous radiation would have been in excess of federal limits for years.
This was being done in direct contravention of an order by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which told state regulators in 2000 to stop subtracting the margin of error.
The findings are part of an investigation by Houston CBS affiliate KHOU.
Confronted by reporter Mark Greenblatt, TCEQ staffer Linda Brookins claimed that the radiation was "natural" and people shouldn't be concerned. She also refused to read on camera the EPA's order to stop subtracting margins of error from radiation test results.
KHOU called it "Texas math," in part two of its ongoing series.
Thanks to the TCEQ's under-reporting of radioactive content, one particular water provider in Harris County was able to skirt needed maintenance for years, even though uncensored tests showed radiation was almost always above legal limits.
Independent tests, the station noted, showed that some of the radiation contained harmful alpha particles, which can cause cell mutations and increase the risk of cancer.
The practice of under-reporting radiation continued until last year, when the EPA once again demanded Texas comply with the law.
The state, governed a large majority of Republicans, has long flouted the EPA's air quality standards, with TCEQ officials claiming the federal agency does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
"What was illegal and a bad idea yesterday is illegal and a bad idea today," TCEQ chairman Bryan W. Shaw told The Dallas Morning News. "We won't see any environmental benefits from this. We'll just see the additional bureaucracy associated with permitting in this state and across the U.S."
In an editorial, the paper called Republicans' fight to protect industry over environmental regulations a "dangerous roll of the dice" when it comes to federal dollars, noting that new regulations require the state to create a permitting authority to govern emissions, but it refuses. When the new rules take effect next year, the state's energy industry could effectively be brought to a standstill, with no new construction being permitted.
And now water standards, it would seem, may be the next major clash between Texas regulators and federal authorities.
"Is this what [Governor] Rick Perry means when he talks about standing up to the feds?" The Texas Observer asked.
This video is part one of an investigative series by CBS affiliate KHOU, aired Nov. 9, 2010.
This video is part two of an investigative series by CBS affiliate KHOU, aired Nov. 10, 2010: