According to US censuses, residents of Houston’s Manchester borough have limited English skills

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — In the summer of 2018, dozens of residents in Manchester — a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Houston where nearly half of residents have limited English skills, according to the U.S. Census — attended a meeting about a refinery plan to increase pollution in their neighborhoods.

Notices for the meeting, held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, were printed in English only. There were not enough headphones for all the residents who had to listen to Spanish translation from interpreters. Local residents were confused or frustrated.

The meeting was one of the prime examples cited by environmental groups as they filed a civil rights lawsuit against TCEQ that sparked an investigation by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

After years of alleged discrimination against Spanish speakers with limited English skills, TCEQ this month unveiled to stakeholders its plan to translate key agency documents and provide interpreters at public meetings — part of an agreement the agency reached to address potential civil rights abuses to avoid that could jeopardize some of its federal funds from the EPA.

TCEQ has scheduled a series of public meetings this spring to solicit input on how best to make its work more accessible to communities with limited English skills, including millions of native Spanish speakers in Texas. But the plan was already in place before these meetings began, leaving fellowship advocates unsure if their input will make a difference.

A TCEQ attorney told the public at a recent stakeholder meeting that the plans were “living” documents. She also said the agency had already solicited and acted on public comments during a more formal process in the fall – when it set out a rule requiring companies to provide “competent” interpretation services at public meetings for environmental permits, so people who don’t speak English can fully participate in speaking. (Companies must comply with this rule from May 1st.)

But Spanish speakers and community advocates say the agency hasn’t addressed their biggest concerns, including how it defines “competent” interpreters. They say TCEQ has largely ignored requests to ensure translators and interpreters have the skills to communicate the complex environmental laws and procedures involved in companies’ permits to emit air pollutants, discharge pollution into waterways, dispose of… hazardous waste and more.

Enabling people who don’t speak English to understand its work is important for the agency, supporters say, because the public has a right to question new sources of pollution in their neighborhoods that can affect people’s health , to comment or to protest.

Clear standards for translators and interpreters would ensure people with limited English skills can participate fully, said Shiv Srivastava, a policy researcher at Fenceline Watch, a small environmental advocacy firm that focuses on language access for communities disproportionately affected by pollution.

For example, in Texas courts, 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 interpreters’ proficiency with technical terms and concepts in both languages.

Gary Rasp, a spokesman for TCEQ, said in a comment that 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 to interpret meetings in real-time, or online translation services to translate official agency documents. But community advocates say it could result in subpar translations.

“TCEQ is literally trying to do the bare minimum by throwing something over Google Translate,” Srivastava said.

However, the TCEQ leadership wanted to act quickly, even if all the details had not yet been worked out.

“Sometimes you have to fuel your ship with aspirations alone,” TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka said during an August meeting when commissioners approved the rule.

TCEQ Commissioner Emily Lindley agreed. “Let’s not make perfect the enemy of good here,” Lindley said. “I hope that during implementation, the Office of the Executive Director will work hard to address many of the concerns we have heard.”

Amy Browning, an attorney in TCEQ’s environmental law practice, told attorneys during a public webinar on March 3 that TCEQ will consider criticisms raised by the public during the meeting, including potential problems with electronic translation services and calls for an extension of the definition of “vital”. Documents” to include toxicological risks. However, there is no formal procedure to oblige the agency to respond.


The Voice Access Plan is part of TCEQ’s agreement with EPA to take multiple actions rather than endure the rest of a lengthy civil rights investigation. The EPA continues to monitor the state agency’s efforts. Browning, TCEQ’s attorney, told attorneys on the March 3 conference call that EPA has already reviewed the agency’s voice access plan.

Isabel Segarra Treviño, who helped file the 2019 civil rights lawsuit against TCEQ while working as an attorney for an environmental advocacy, said that during her five years as TCEQ’s attorney, she was often asked to do additional work as an interpreter because she was a was one of the few bilingual female lawyers.

“This situation is being repeated across Texas, where the agency has reason to believe it should be providing materials in Spanish, and it is not,” said Segarra Treviño, who is now Harris County’s assistant district attorney.

Segarra Treviño said language barriers go well beyond what TCEQ has even begun to consider in its policies.

“You don’t just need an interpreter, you need someone who can really delve into the technical aspects of these applications and provide culturally appropriate interpretation,” she said.

Separate phone lines were available in English and Spanish for the March 3 webinar, the first public meeting to solicit public input on the plan. Leticia Gutierrez, director of government relations and public relations at Air Alliance Houston, was on the English line and began making comments in Spanish: “Sí, buenas tardes, mi nombre es Leticia –” she began, but was quickly interrupted by the TCEQ moderator .

“I’ll stop you there,” Laurie Gharis, Chief Clerk of TCEQ. She explained that bilingual attendees could not speak Spanish when speaking on the phone in English.

“It’s better if you can join the Spanish line or speak English,” Gharis said.

In English, Gutierrez asked if she could speak both languages.

“I’d prefer one or the other,” Gharis said, then apologized. “We’re making the best of our systems, but they’re not quite perfect yet.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates and collaborates with Texans on public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. According to US censuses, residents of Houston’s Manchester borough have limited English skills

Dais Johnston

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