Language Accessibility and Environmental Racism in Texas

After a nearly two-year-long legal battle, the state of Texas has acceded to complaints regarding language accessibility and environmental racism. Back in 2019, three different environmental law organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), noting that the agency was not offering adequate language access services.

On Aug. 25, the TCEQ voted to guarantee that individuals with limited English proficiency will have equal access to information published by the agency, as well as have the opportunity to voice their concerns and participate in decisions affecting their local environment. The complaint was filed in Nov. 2019 by two national advocacy groups, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, and one local organization, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), on the grounds that not providing translated information violates federal law.

“Federal civil rights laws are clear,” said Isabel Segarra Treviño, staff attorney at Earthjustice, in 2019. “State agencies cannot use federal dollars and offer some communities more access to information than they provide to others.”

The TCEQ is one of the largest state environmental agencies in the nation and is responsible for protecting the state of Texas from environmental hazards — thus, the TCEQ is heavily involved in the siting and regulation of facilities that produce pollution, such as waste sites and oil refineries. Across the country, these facilities are disproportionately located near communities of color, who tend to suffer adverse health consequences — Texas is no exception. According to Earthjustice, the predominantly Latino community of Manchester (located in Houston), for example, is surrounded by 30 different chemical plants and waste sites.

The decision will go into effect beginning Sept. 16, and will offer expanded language access services for communities of Spanish speakers and other languages as well. When the rule becomes effective, the TCEQ will begin providing interpreting services at all public meetings and will also commission translations of documents so that residents with limited English proficiency have equal access to information regarding decisions the agency makes.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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