While a roomful of diners polished off their cheesecakes during a gala banquet inside the Austin Convention Center earlier this month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality handed out its annual top honors—the Governor’s Texas Environmental Excellence Awards. In a recorded video, Governor Greg Abbott praised the winners, in nine categories, for giving “their time, their talent, their treasure to the high calling of protecting our state’s natural resources.”
Among the honorees was Samsung Electronics, recognized for an innovative wastewater management program at its Austin semiconductor manufacturing plant. The South Korean conglomerate had devised a way to remove copper from the facility’s wastewater stream. The new filtration system reduces both the volume of sludge Samsung sends to landfills and the chemicals required to treat the wastewater. What’s more, the company now makes $35,000 a year reselling recovered copper.
Left unsaid during the awards ceremony was the fact that TCEQ, the state’s environmental regulator, was actively investigating Samsung because of a wastewater discharge last year that turned a neighboring creek the shade of orange Gatorade. The results of the investigation have not yet been released.
And the trouble Samsung may have gotten itself into with the regulators isn’t even the first time in the past year that it’s dumped pollutants into a neighboring body of water. In May 2021, an electrical problem shorted out two pumps at the semiconductor plant, causing tanks holding wastewater with sulfuric and hydrochloric acid to spill into a containment pond. Then it rained—a lot. The pond overflowed, and about 65,000 gallons of the noxious liquid escaped from the Samsung campus into a tributary stream that leads to Harris Branch Creek and ends up in the Colorado River.
TCEQ looked into the matter at the time and agreed with Samsung’s lawyers that it was an unpreventable “act of God.” The agency closed its investigation without assessing any fines. At the time, Texas was wooing Samsung, which was deciding where to build a giant new chip-making plant that promised to create two thousand jobs. Taylor, a town northeast of Austin, was in the running, but so were Phoenix and Buffalo. State leaders surely didn’t want to let Arizona or, God forbid, New York, snag the prize.
Then, in November, Samsung made the kind of announcement that economic development planners usually only dream about. It would build the new plant in Taylor. With an estimated $17 billion construction cost, it represented the largest-ever direct investment in Texas by a foreign entity.
Yet, at the time of the announcement, Samsung’s semiconductor plant had already sprung another, much larger wastewater leak. This one began sometime last September and wasn’t contained for 106 days. It sent as much as 763,000 gallons of “acidic waste” into a stormwater pond, then Harris Branch Creek, then the Colorado River, according to a memo prepared by city of Austin officials. The spill turned that tributary of Harris Branch Creek orange and killed fish, freshwater clams, and damselflies. A TCEQ spokesman confirmed to Texas Monthly that the state has an ongoing investigation into the spill.
Samsung spokeswoman Michele Glaze said, “While we regret the release, we stand firm in our continued efforts of environmental stewardship.” She added that the company intended to take steps to prevent future releases.
Samsung didn’t discover the spill until January 14—months after it had begun. A day earlier, a judging panel for the Texas Environmental Excellence Awards had met and recommended this year’s winners, including Samsung. The panel was chaired by the TCEQ’s head of external affairs and Abbott’s top policy adviser on environmental issues. TCEQ and the governor’s office later approved the winners.
In a written statement, TCEQ noted that Samsung “had completed the innovation for which they were recognized” last fall, before the agency knew about the spill, adding, “Our investigation into the spill is a separate matter.” The governor’s office told me, essentially, that the recommendation for the award was made before the spill was discovered.
Texas isn’t known for its heavy-handed environmental regulations. Just this week, Abbott promised to ensure that the state remained a top destination for companies by cutting taxes and “rolling back unnecessary regulations.” But, even for Texas, giving an award to a company for wastewater innovation while simultaneously investigating the same company for its wastewater spills reeks of cognitive dissonance.
“It is certainly a stain on the award for Samsung to be investigated for unauthorized wastewater discharge,” said Gina S. Warren, codirector of the Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center at the University of Houston Law Center. “It doesn’t on its face rise to a conflict of interest, but it doesn’t look great.”
What message does it send to TCEQ investigators determining whether Samsung deserves a penalty to watch the agency’s three commissioners shake hands with Samsung officials and congratulate them at a fancy banquet?
It is as if Texas is saying: Come to Texas! Bring your investment dollars and jobs! And if you leak a bunch of acid, turning a creek orange, you can still win an environmental award! Is this the message Texas wants to be sending? Apparently so.