With Texas producing more wind power than any other state, you would think that our representatives in Congress would be fighting for this growing industry that employs over 8,000 Texans. However, Mitt Romney and his Republican allies in the House of Representatives have decided that ending the Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), a vital incentive that has helped fuel the wind boom, is more important than protecting these jobs in a proven, clean technology that powers more than 2.5 million homes in Texas.
This week, the National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club released a poll conducted by Project New America and Myers Research to “gauge Latino voters’ opinions on a range of environmental issues.” The results clearly show an increase in environmental awareness among Latinos, and they are now significantly more concerned about these issues than the American public at large.
Latinos Overwhelmingly Support Green Energy
A whopping 86% of respondents prefer that the government invest in clean renewable energy like solar and wind, while only 11% favor investments in fossil fuels. 83% agree that “coal plants and oil refineries are a thing of the past. We need to look toward the future and use more energy from clean sources.”
Toxic Pollution Is A Grave Concern For Latino Voters
61% said air and water pollution were the top two environmental issues for them and their families. A huge 94% said they believe they can help curb this toxic air and water pollution by conserving energy. Also, 72% agree that “environmental regulations protect our health and our families by lowering toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, carbon dioxide and other life-threatening pollution in our air and water.”
Latinos Are Concerned About Global Climate Change
77% of voters polled believed that climate change is already happening, while another 15% say it will happen in the future. Compare this to only 52% of total Americans who believe climate change has begun, according to a Gallup poll taken in March
Latinos Love Public Outdoor Spaces
94% said outdoor activities like fishing, picnics, camping, and visiting national parks are important to them. In fact, 69% said they would support the designation of more public land by the President. 92% believe that they “have a moral responsibility to take care of God's creations on this earth - the wilderness and forests, the oceans, lakes and rivers.”
This poll clearly shows that the protection of our health and our natural areas is of great concern to a large and growing segment of the US population. To Latinos, and to many other Americans, the protection of our bodies and our natural areas is a critical moral and social issue.
Last week, the Sierra Club announced that former EPA administrator Dr. Al Armendariz will join the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign using his “scientific expertise working on air, water, and climate science to help move Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas off coal-fired electricity and toward an economy powered by job-generating clean energy sources such as wind and the sun.” Armendariz is most famous for being forced to resign in April after Sen. James Inofe unearthed a 1 minute 51 second clip of an hour long 2 year old video of Armendariz speaking at a town council meeting in Dish, Texas in Denton County, during which he likened his enforcement strategy to a Roman conquest:
It is kind of like how the Romans used to conquer villages in the Mediterranean - they'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they'd find the first five guys they saw and they'd crucify them. Then that little town was really easy to manage for the next few years.
The video prompted a storm of faux right wing fury which quickly led to the resignation. At the time of that meeting in Dish, however, there was no publicity and no anger over his comments.
Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard does not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), ending 10 years of rancor between conservationists, cattle ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and law makers. Instead of seeking ESA protection (which carries the potential for fines and land seizures), the Department of the Interior has opted for a partnership between landowners in the far southeast corner of New Mexico, and adjacent counties in Texas and the government to insure that the lizard’s very specific habitat is protected. The agreement will protect about 650,000 acres of the lizard’s habitat by allowing landowners and oil producers to pay into a system that will be monitored by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the agreement proves unsuccessful, the lizard could still be place under ESA protection.
The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard occupies an extremely limited ecological niche. It lives only amongst the root systems of the shinnery oak, a small tree that grows in sand dunes along the western edge of the Permian Basin. This ecosystem constitutes one of the smallest ranges occupied by any reptile species in the US, and is particularly threatened by several factors: the encroachment of oil and gas drillers into the area whose well pads and roads disrupt the shinnery oak dunes, and by cattle ranchers who cut down the trees (they are poisonous to cattle) and allow mesquite trees to invade the ecosystem.
While the limited range and numerous habitat threats made the lizard a prime candidate for ESA protection, the lag time between species designation and actual federal regulation can have serious detrimental effects in areas which are already experiencing development. Landowners will often seek to destroy habitat before federal inspectors arrive rather than deal with the consequences of regulation, as this excerpt from the New York Times Magazine explains:
In a working paper that examines the plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the economists John List, Michael Margolis and Daniel Osgood found that landowners near Tucson rushed to clear their property for development rather than risk having it declared a safe haven for the owl. The economists make the argument for "the distinct possibility that the Endangered Species Act is actually endangering, rather than protecting, species."
Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club was skeptical of the decision, and released this statement questioning the viability of the voluntary agreement that was reached:
If indeed the voluntary agreements with landowners to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard will be adequate to maintain the species, then they put the lie to the rhetoric from a number of Texas and New Mexico politicians who made outrageous claims about the alleged economic impacts of listing the species. But let's be clear that these agreements are voluntary. That means that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will have to be active in seeing that these agreements are carried out and have the desired results, but the agency will not have the power to enforce the agreements. That's the real difference between listing or not listing a species as endangered - not the specific actions to protect a species, which may well be the same in a voluntary agreement or an agency mandate, but the ability to make sure those actions take place. Basing the fate of the dunes sagebrush lizard solely on voluntary actions puts the species at greater risk.
Other conservationists and Democratic figures were less pessimistic about the outcome. In a conversation with the Las Cruces Sun-News, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said, “This is a great example of how voluntary cooperative agreements are being used to help protect a habitat and a species, while allowing oil and gas development to continue in southeastern New Mexico. I hope this process can serve as a model for the future.”
The Environmental Defense Fund, a conservation group that encourages private-public partnerships, noted that over half of all endangered wildlife inhabits privately held land, and lauded the agreement as step in the right direction. “The pro-active approach embraced here by industry, landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service is an important component in meeting the needs of our nation in a way that benefits wildlife, is cost effective and respects landowners.”
Secretary Salazar was confidant that the agreements will protect the species, saying “My goal as secretary of the interior is to implement a 21st-century conservation agenda. And when I see in southeastern New Mexico and in northern Texas 650,000 acres-plus being placed into conservation, that's a huge conservation victory. And when I see most of the lizard habitat being protected, it's a huge conservation victory.”
On May 14th, Texas District Court Judge, Stephen Yelenosky, released a letter stating his intended ruling in a lawsuit seeking to reverse an air pollution permit which would allow the massive Las Brisas power plant and port addition to be built next to downtown Corpus Christi. The permit, issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), allows the proposed 1,320 megawatt power plant to emit massive emissions of toxic pollutants into the air.
Environmental Integrity Project attorney Erin Fonken, representing the Sierra Club in the lawsuit, said:
The court has announced that it intends to rule against the TCEQ because, in issuing the permit, TCEQ committed a number of critical legal errors. Among the legal errors are TCEQ's failure to require the new power plant to comply with the Clean Air Act's protective air toxics standards and the failure to adequately account for the millions of tons to petroleum coke that will be dumped and piled on site before it is burned in the power plant's main boilers.
A Valero Refinery Looms Over Refinery Row Neighborhoods Where Las Brisas Would Be Built
Las Brisas (the name is Spanish for, ironically, “the breezes”) would be located in the thin stretch of land between IH-37 and the Nueces River known as “Refinery Row.” In addition to 16 massive refineries and several chemical plants, Refinery Row is home to a number of small neighborhoods that contain a large portion of the city’s African-American population.
One of these neighborhoods, Dona Park, has a history as one of the most polluted places in the state. Residents of Dona Park have lived for years with dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium pollution from the Encycle metal smelter located, literally, across the street from this modest community. While a 2011 TCEQ study of Dona Park residents and soil did not show unsafe levels of these toxic pollutants, a 2011 StateImpact Texas interview with local residents shows a deep distrust of that assessment. “There's a lot of birth defects, learning disabilities caused by the lead," said longtime resident Tammy Foster. "You've got kids born with no ear, miscarriages, cancer, Alzeheimer's, mysterious tumors on pets. Just all kinds of bizarre things.”
If Las Brisas were built, it would emit “approximately 12 million tons per year of greenhouse gases, as well as thousands of tons per year of dangerous pollutants that contribute to smog pollution and health impacts such as asthma attacks and heart disease,” according to the Sierra Club. As it is a plant built on speculation and not to meet current needs, the plant faces strong opposition from city officials, business owners, and local residents.
“The Las Brisas proposal is still the wrong answer for Corpus Christi,” said Flavia de la Fuente, with Sierra Club. “The city is taking such strong steps toward being a more livable, sustainable place. Proposals to further tie Corpus Christi to dirty coal and petroleum coke industries, like Las Brisas and potential coal export projects, are a step in the wrong direction. This court decision is great news for the leaders and residents who are working so hard to build a brighter future for Corpus Christi.”
US Representative Blake “Ducky Pajamas” Farenthold (R - 27th District), however, is a big fan of Las Brisas. He considers attempts to halt construction on the petroleum coke fired behemoth to be “another example of backdoor regulation.” There are several Democrats running to unseat Farenthold (including Ronnie McDonald, Rose Meza Harrison, and Jerry Trevino), but the 27th looks to be a strong Republican district this cycle.
In a significant victory for landowners and environmentalists yesterday, a state District Court judge overturned a three year old decision by the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) which would have denied nearby residents and the Sierra Club the right to a contested case hearing over a radioactive waste dump just north of Midland. Two weeks ago, the dump, operated by Waste Control Specialists LLC and owned by uber-republican donor Harold Simmons, won final approval to begin accepting “low-level” nuclear waste (low-level does not mean not dangerous) from 36 states across the country. The ruling mandates a new TCEQ hearing where two neighbors of the dump can prove how they are impacted by the dump and why the site is flawed.
Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lonestar Chapter of the Sierra Club, spoke about the judge’s decision:
[The ruling is] a stunning rebuke of TCEQ's decision to deny citizens the right to show how dangerous radioactive disposal would be in West Texas. This ruling confirms what we have been saying all along. The Sierra Club and its members in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico deserve the opportunity to show that radioactive waste dumped at the WCS site could impact people in the area through airborne radioactive particles and potential groundwater contamination.
The dump has been particularly controversial in recent weeks after State Rep Lou Burnam (Ft Worth) released previously confidential documents proving that several wells drilled near the site contained significantly more water than they should have. One of these wells sits over the vast Ogalalla Aquifer, the largest underground water feature in the US. The new hearing will allow lawyers for the Sierra Club to present this evidence before the TCEQ. Two of the three TCEQ commissioners are Rick Perry appointees.
Rose Gardner, one of contestants in the case and a rancher who lives within 4 miles of the dump, was grateful for the decision, “I'm very glad about the judge's decision today, since we'll now have a hearing where we can fully examine radioactive risks to our land and water. We now have more livestock than ever before and having the WCS radioactive waste dump nearby threatens our health and safety.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of the Texas Office of Public Citizen talks about the man behind the steaming pile of radioactive waste:
This case is of national significance because the dump's biggest investor is Harold Simmons, one of the largest contributors to Republican political campaigns and attack ads. He helped to fund the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and the "Obama is a Muslim" attack ads. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Simmons has spent $18 million so far this election cycle and plans to spend a total of $36 million before the end of this cycle. Why would he spend that kind of money? The amount and types of waste could be vastly expanded by a Republican President or Congress thus increasing the amount of money Simmons can make off of the dump and increasing the funds he has available to donate to future political campaigns. And if anyone doubts that his political spending will pay off in favorable treatment, all they have to do is look at how successful he's been in Texas.
Harold Simmons is such a nice guy, he was once sued by his own daughters for making illegal political contributions in their names. He was also the primary backer of Oliver North’s and John Poindexter’s legal defense fund during the Iran-Contra Affair, and has been fined repeatedly for exceeding campaign contribution limits.
An EPA Administrator is ‘crucified.’ An election in El Paso might hang on a bridge. Spills, fines, and lawsuits abound. The future might not be so bleak after all. All that, and more, in this week’s environmental roundup for Texas, the nation, and beyond!
Al Armendariz, the EPA’s Region 6 Administrator based in Dallas, was forced to resign after a video surfaced in which he likens his enforcement strategy to a Roman conquest, “they’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they crucified them.” Needless to say, those comments have not gone over well with members of congress or the oil and gas industry in Texas. Debbie Hastings, Executive VP of the Texas Oil & Gas Assoc, claims in a recent Op-Ed that Armendariz’s statement is part of a larger “federal undercurrent to undermine the oil and natural gas industry, which promotes our nation’s energy independence, provides millions of jobs and pays billions in taxes.” EnergyWire is convinced that the feud between the Texas energy industry and the EPA will continue despite the resignation.
The 16th Congressional District Democratic primary contest might hang on the construction of a new international bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The incumbent, Silvestre Reyes, claims as many as 5,000 El Pasoans will be displaced by the bridge. There is a slight problem for Reyes. According to Roy Gilyard of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (which would be tasked with proposing the bridge in question), there is no current activity to build a new international bridge. Reyes’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, called the controversy “the worst kind of pandering. [Reyes] is using lies to create anxiety and play upon that to try to win votes.” O’Rourke has called for the construction of a new bridge, which, he believes, will increase international trade and keep El Paso competitive with other inland ports.
After last year’s wildfire season burned nearly 4 million acres in Texas, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples announced the creation of the Texas Wildfire Prevention Task Force. The task force is a partnership between the Ag Commission, the Texas Forest Service, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, and researchers at Texas A&M. It seeks to identify high fire risk areas and eliminate the risk through preventative measures, like controlled burns, before wildfires occur.
Four Southeast Texas marine-based entities have filed suit against BP, alleging that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill “has had detrimental effects on the Gulf’s marine and coastal environments and is to this day affecting business and their ability to generate revenue.” This follows last week’s $7.8 billion settlement in another suit against BP, and federal charges brought against a BP engineer for supposedly trying to cover up the extent of the spill.
Flint Hills Resources, a Kansas based refining and chemical company that is “wholly owned by Koch Industries,” was fined $46,450 by the TCEQ for incorrect valve settings which led to the release of 4,875.5 pounds of hazardous organic compounds into the air from its chemical plant in Port Arthur. At a different Flint Hills facility in Corpus Christi, a leak was reported in an orthoxylene unit last week which led to the plant’s shutdown. The extent of the leak remains unclear.
Port officials say there is no risk for an oil spill after a 750 tanker collided with a drilling rig on Wednesday off the coast of Port Aransas. There were also no reported injuries from the incident.
While Houston remains the worst city in the US, outside California, for ozone pollution, its air quality has improved significantly, according to the State Of The Air 2012 report from the American Lung Association.
Austin’s transit agency, CapMetro, added a cool new toy this week. It is a zero emissions hydrogen fueled bus that has previously operated in Columbia, South Carolina. A privately owned hydrogen fuel station will fuel the bus.
The Sierra Club has filed suit against dated coal-fired power plants across Oklahoma. According to Whitney Pearson of the Sierra Club’s OK chapter, all coal plants in Oklahoma emit excess emissions, and the EPA needs to “end the free pass that large polluters currently have which allows them to emit unlimited amounts of pollution during certain phases of their operations. Because people need to breathe all the time, limits of the amount of pollution that polluters can emit need to apply all the time.”
Amory Lovins, an “energy theorist,” claims in this TED Talk that ending the US dependence on fossil fuels will actually be easier, and more cost effective than most of us realize. His central point is that once industry, individuals, academics, and the military start moving beyond coal and oil we won’t need federal regulations or acts of congress to help us along. He also believes that this movement will begin soon. I hope, one day, to share his optimism.
A recent study shows that exposure to toxic chemicals can have risks over a much longer time frame than most of us realize. Bruce Blumberg, a biologist at UC-Irvine, says, “it’s not just ourselves that are at risk. We’re condemning our descendants to have increased risks, too.”
Greenland’s glaciers are still melting, but the rate of that meltdown is not increasing as fast as some climate scientists had predicted. Earlier doomsday scenarios had the sea level rising by as much as 6 meters (20 feet) by 2100. Now it looks, as if Greenland’s melting will only cause a 2 meter rise. The vast majority of the Earth’s population lives less than 100 meters above sea level, so any rise could have a profound effect on millions of people.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Sierra Club filed suit against Energy Future Holdings Corp, and its subsidiary, Luminant (formerly TXU) in Federal Court in Waco earlier today. The lawsuit targets excessive emissions of particulate matter, or soot, emanating from from Luminant’s Big Brown coal-fired power plant in Fairfield, Texas, northeast of Waco. Soot contains mercury and other toxic metals, and can contribute to asthma, heart disease, respiratory illness, and contributes to “thousands of premature deaths every year.”
Luminant is no stranger to controversy. It was purchased in the nation’s largest ever leveraged buyout in 2006, and has proceeded to lose money ever since. It has already been sued, at least, once over excessive emissions at another plant, Martin Lake, in 2010. Three of Luminant’s North Texas coal plants (Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello) are ranked among the nation's top ten worst polluting industrial facilities. Those three plants alone account for 25% of all industrial pollution in Texas and 46% of all pollution related to power generation in the state (there are over 125 large power plants in Texas according to the EPA)
Big Brown “ranks among the top polluting coal fired power plants across the country dumping harmful emissions upon rural people, our land, and our drinking water. With state regulators unwilling to address the pollution problems created by Big Brown, a citizen suit is necessary to expose, prevent, and protect those of us, in this rural area of Texas, who must live with the outdated and dirty operations going on at the Big Brown power plant," said Vicky Prater, with COPPS for Clean Air, and a resident of nearby Navarro County.
Luminant self-monitors its plants, and according to the company's own data, the Big Brown plant has violated the requirements of its own air permit thousands of times. What's troubling is that Luminant's Big Brown plant has very lenient pollution standards compared to other power plants, and the plant is still pumping out more than three times the legal limit. That impacts the health and wellbeing of Texans. For far too long Luminant has failed to clean up its harmful pollution and chosen not to install pollution controls, even as many other power plant operators were cleaning up their plants. Those days are over and in order to bring Big Brown into compliance, Luminant must decide if it will clean up the power plant or retire it.
More than 450 Austin residents joined together this Sunday to celebrate Earth Day and urge the City of Austin to transition away from coal fired energy as quickly as possible. They took part in the city’s largest ever aerial photo, forming the words “Move Beyond Coal.” Austin’s City Council recently pledged unanimously to move Austin off of coal. At this time, Fayette Coal Plant still remains operational.
Austin Residents Celebrate Earth Day With The City's Largest Ever Aerial Photo
Ian Davis, of the Lonestar Chapter of the Sierra Club said, “We want Austin to be the Clean Energy Capital of the World, but to truly lead, the city of Austin needs to transition away from its old, expensive, and polluting Fayette coal plant. This fall, Austin Energy will release findings from its study to see how soon our city can transition away from the plant. All the Austinites who participated in today’s aerial photo, as well as the thousands who have signed petitions and taken action, will be calling on city leaders to remember their pledge.”
Despite the downpour Austin received last night, the Austin Water Utility knows that it will last only so long. So, they're trying out any new idea that comes to them in order to preserve.
Under current conservation rules, commercial watering regulations require a once-per-week watering schedule, but otherwise allow the water to flow as much as it can during that one week period. This causes automatic sprinkler systems to run on rainy days, and it's not necessarily ideal for the businesses, either. The Statesman reported on a different approach:
Under a pilot program the Austin Water Utility is starting, perhaps a few dozen apartment complexes and large commercial properties will be allowed to water when they like. But those businesses will have to stick to a monthly water limit.
The details are to be worked out over the next few weeks, chief among them being how much water each property can use.
But the basic point is to change the watering question from "when" to "how much." If it works - there are technical and practical hurdles to clear - the city could expand the program in a couple of years.
"The idea is not to ease up on our conservation efforts, but to see if this can help save even more," said Daryl Slusher, an assistant director for the Austin Water Utility. "We don't have a clear idea how much this will save; that's why we want to test it out first."
The idea for such a program has been around for several years and was part of a smorgasbord of proposals in a water conservation plan adopted by the city in 2009.
There's no telling if this will work, especially because the budget has yet to be set. A key component to keep the eye on, if all statistics are made available, is how the budget allowance would compare to what has been used in the current system.
This is all just part of the Austin Water Conservation Plan (which can be found here), but Austin should be applauded for following through on innovation. With the water troubles that we've had for the past few years -- we need to try everything.