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Next Decade enviro sensitive

It would be hard to imagine a project more damaging than NextDecade’s proposed Rio Grande LNG export terminal near Port Isabel, the largest of the five LNG export terminals proposed for the Brownsville ship channel.

The 1,000-acre industrial complex would be among the largest LNG terminals in the United States and would sprawl along Highway 48 from Brownsville to Port Isabel for two and a half miles.

Four 17-story high LNG storage tanks would tower over six enormous natural gas liquefaction “trains”—block mazes of pipes that stretch for hundreds of yards. At only six miles from South Padre Island, the plant would be an industrial blight on the horizon for residents and tourists alike, threatening property values and nature and beach tourism industries that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and support thousands of jobs.

NextDecade’s plans call for two 300-megawatt gas-fired power plants built onsite to power their operations in addition to two gas-fired turbines within each liquefaction train. This is an astounding amount of energy produced and consumed. In fact, Rio Grande LNG dwarfs Brownsville Public Utility’s Silas Ray Power Plant in its power production and use and, operating at full capacity, could rival the new Tenaska Brownsville 800-megawatt power plant.

But Valley residents will be getting none of the energy and all of the pollution.

schematic

Although NextDecade has not reported the pollution they expect Rio Grande LNG to emit, we can easily estimate it based on the expected emissions report by Sabine Pass LNG, another equally large six-train export terminal near Port Arthur that is under construction. Rio Grande LNG could pump out 5,790 tons per year of nitrogen oxides—the chemicals that give smog its brown color and cause respiratory irritation. That’s 300 times more than Brownsville’s Silas Ray power plant emits. It could spew 8,837 tons per year of poisonous carbon monoxide, which is especially harmful to pregnant women and their fetuses. That’s a 15 percent increase in overall carbon monoxide pollution in Cameron County.

We also could expect 305 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year. VOCs such as benzene and toluene are powerful carcinogens and neurotoxins. The only safe level is zero. Significant emissions of particulate matter and sulfur dioxide are also associated with a plant of this size.

Residents would also be forced to accept the risk of this inherently dangerous fuel. LNG is dangerous because it is such a concentrated source of fuel, and the Rio Grande LNG export terminal will be storing and shipping so much of it. In the event of a spill LNG evaporates and can form a flammable vapor cloud that can drift along the ground for miles before igniting. LNG fires burn so hot that first responders cannot approach, and the fires must burn themselves out.

Rio Grande LNG will also use fuels such as propane and ethylene in the refrigeration process to cool the gas, and these are even more volatile than the methane itself.

NextDecade will send out an estimated six to seven fully-loaded LNG carrier ships each week which will pass within a third of a mile of crowded Isla Blanca Beach and within one mile of Schlitterbahn, putting the county park and water park in the high- and medium-hazard zones developed by Sandia National Laboratories in the case of an intentional breach. Rio Grande LNG’s liquefied natural gas terminal will be built just 2.7 miles from Port Isabel. This is just outside Sandia’s 2.2-mile outer hazard zone, but it violates the three-mile hazard zone recommended by chemical engineer and LNG safety expert Dr. Jerry Havens.

The risks to the public do not end there. The Rio Grande LNG plant would be fed by NextDecade’s new 139-mile long double pipeline with pipes 42 inches in diameter, which would bring natural gas from outside of Corpus Christi through the ranchlands, the Valley and along Highway 48. Along the route, they would build two additional compressor stations to keep the pipeline gas at high pressures. According to the company, this pipe will slice through land owned by 150 families, who will be forced to make way for the double pipeline and its 120-foot right-of-way or have their property condemned under eminent domain.

The gas in these pipelines will not be odorized, making leaks difficult to detect by the public and putting more people at risk. And Texas is sorely lacking in state pipeline inspectors. The Railroad Commission, charged with pipeline safety in Texas, says that it does not have enough inspectors to ensure pipeline safety in the state.

Rio Grande LNG would have harmful effects on wildlife, too. The site’s position between the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge makes it a key component of the wildlife corridor, a decades-long project to connect the Valley’s few remaining areas of habitat. The noise, lights, and activity of the facility would impede wildlife travel, including that of the endangered ocelot, far beyond the terminal’s boundaries.

Over half of the proposed terminal site is made up of wetlands, areas that act as marine nurseries to support fishing stocks. These are so valuable that they are protected by the Clean Water Act. But this protection is limited because the Army Corps of Engineers will allow Next Decade to “mitigate,” often by attempting to recreate or remediate wetlands elsewhere. Such trades are regularly criticized by ecologists who note that the many functions of natural wetlands are not so easily replaced.

“In LNG, everything is big,” according to Kathleen Eisenbrenner, the CEO of NextDecade LNG, and in fact, her Rio Grande LNG project is enormous—a monster that threatens to consume everything that is good about our coastal Texas home—our clean air, our security, and our natural fish and wildlife habitats.

fast-track-tpp

By Scott Nicol

The White House has been pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which it calls “the most progressive trade agreement in history.”  But rather than increasing protections for working Americans and the environment, the TPP undermines U.S. labor and environmental laws.

The U.S. Senate, including Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz, recently voted to give President Obama “fast track authority” to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership in secret, with no public or Congressional input.

The Rio Grande Valley’s U.S. Representatives Hinojosa and Vela have said that they oppose fast track, and they deserve applause for taking that stance.

But Representative Cuellar recently penned an op-ed arguing in favor of TPP, saying “I have been a strong supporter of this partnership.”  And when fast track came up for a vote Cuellar was one of just a handful of Democrats who voted for it.

Instead of shilling for multinational oil and gas corporations, Representative Cuellar should stand up for the working men and women who elected him, and air they breathe and the water they drink, and work to defeat “fast track” in the U.S. House.

More than 600 “corporate advisors,” representing multi-national corporations, have been involved in writing the TPP, but the general public has not been allowed to see what they have written.  Members of Congress who read it can be prosecuted if they reveal its contents to the American public.

If this is such a great deal why aren’t we allowed to see it?

Last year a draft version was leaked, and its provisions would undermine workers, the environment, and the rule of law in the United States.

The TPP would allow private foreign corporations to sue sovereign nations for cash compensation, and to overturn any law that they claim would cut into their “expected future profits.”

For example, the Clean Air Act limits the amount of mercury, benzene, and other hazardous pollutants that a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal can emit upwind from an elementary school.  But if that proposed LNG terminal is owned by a company from a TPP country, that company could sue the United States to overturn the law rather than limit its emissions.

Texas LNG, which wants to build an LNG export terminal less than two miles outside of Port Isabel, is partly owned by Samsung.  Samsung is headquartered in South Korea, and South Korea will likely sign on to the TPP.

Multi-national corporations could also sue to overturn worker safety regulations that were intended to prevent their employees from being injured or poisoned on the job on the grounds that they incur cost, and therefore cut into “expected future profits.”

The ability of locals to have a say in whether an LNG export terminal is built in their community would also be curtailed.  Currently the Department of Energy must determine whether or not a proposed LNG export terminal is in the public interest before it can be built.  TPP would grant them automatic approval if their owners claim that the gas was destined for a country that has signed the treaty.

This is why Representatives Hinojosa and Vela have said that they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and why Representative Cuellar should as well.

Under current law the deck is already stacked in these facilities’ favor.  We should strengthen protections for workers and communities, not allow foreign corporations to overrule U.S. sovereignty and sweep away U.S. laws.

Representative Cuellar should reverse course and oppose “fast track” and the larger Trans Pacific Partnership, and fight to preserve laws that protect workers from injury and children from pollution.

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Putting Port Isabel in the Evacuation Zone

Texas LNG’s liquefied natural gas plant will be built less than 2 miles from Port Isabel. This is within the 2.2-mile outer hazard zone developed by Sandia National Laboratories for LNG tanker ships.[1] And it violates the 3-mile hazard zone recommended by chemical engineer and LNG safety expert Dr. Jerry Havens.[2]  A March 2014 explosion at a smaller LNG plant in Washington State forced an evacuation of hundreds of people within a two-mile radius. Luckily the fire burned itself out and the LNG did not ignite, but a local fire chief noted that if it had, everyone within three-quarters of a mile would have been killed.[3]

LNG Processing and Transport Is Inherently Risky

Texas LNG’s storage tanks will be holding enormous quantities of natural gas, so in the event of an accident or intentional breach, the results could be catastrophic.  When LNG is spilled it quickly converts back into a gas and forms a flammable vapor cloud that can drift for some distance. If the cloud encounters an ignition source it will burn back to the LNG spill.  LNG fires burn so hot that first responders cannot approach.[4]  The LNG refrigeration process also uses fuels such as propane and ethylene to cool the gas, and these are even more volatile than methane.

Fouling the Air of Our Coastal Communities

Because the pipeline quality natural gas requires further refining before undergoing the liquefaction process, the Texas LNG will produce emissions such as cancer-causing volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide.  The prevailing winds in the area blow out of the south southeast.  This means that more often than not, any released will be blowing across the homes, businesses and schools along Highway 100.

No Economic Boon for South Texas

South Korea will get the bulk of the skilled construction jobs not South Texas, because Texas LNG intends to build the liquefaction facility in South Korea and ship it to the Port of Brownsville on a barge.[5] The Cameron County Commission is also expected to grant a ten-year tax abatement for all LNG companies, ensuring that all of Texas LNG’s profits will go to distant shareholders instead of local schools, fire departments and roads.

 LNG Threatens Our Existing Jobs

The massive industrialization and pollution that LNG will bring could erode important economic drivers such as commercial fishing, shrimping, and beach and nature tourism. Thousands of jobs here in the Rio Grande Valley depend on clean air, clean water and high quality fish and wildlife habitat.

Texas LNG will build two storage tanks that will each be 150 feet tall, sitting on a 15 foot high foundation.  These will be lit up all night long, and the flare stack that rises above them will periodically belch flames.  This will be visible for miles around, including the causeway and South Padre Island’s hotels.  People travel from all over Texas and the Midwest to visit our island paradise.  Will they continue to do so when the area is as industrialized as Corpus Christi?

Loss of Critical Habitat for Fish and Wildlife

The Texas LNG site contains numerous wetlands that will be filled in, as well as starkly beautiful coastal prairie and dense brush that will be bulldozed and paved over.  Its pollution, bright lights and heavy traffic will also degrade Bahia Grande, the largest wetlands restoration project in North America and an important aquatic nursery.

More Dangerous and Dirty Fracking

The Energy Information Agency estimates that 60 percent to 80 percent of U.S. gas exports will come from a ramp-up of production.[6] Three-quarters of that new production would come from shale through horizontal drilling and fracking. Building LNG terminals in the Port of Brownsville would therefore lead to a tremendous increase in fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale region, with devastating consequences. Already rural south Texas is being transformed into an industrial zone. Scarce Texas water resources are being depleted, and in some instances permanently contaminated, and the pollution associated with fracking is making people sick.[7] Increased seismic activity has followed the expansion of fracking, and is increasingly being linked to fracking in general and injection wells in particular.

[1] “Guidance on Risk Analysis and Safety Implications of a Large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Spill Over Water.” Sandia National Laboratories, Dec 2004.

[2] Ted Sickinger. “Gas explosion at LNG facility in Washington prompts concerns about proposed export terminals in Oregon.” The Oregonian, 1 Apr 2014.

[3] Kristi Pihl, “Evacuation Area Near Plant to Be Reduced.” Tri-City Herald. 31 March 2014.

[4] “Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Import Terminals: Siting, Safety and Regulation.” Congressional Research Service, 27 May 2004.

[5] “Texas LNG Overview Greenfield Barge-based LNG Liquefaction & Export Project” Slideshow.txlng.com. Dec 2013.

[6] U.S. Energy Information Agency, “Effect of Increased Natural Gas Exports on Domestic Energy Markets,” Janhttp://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/fe/pdf/fe_lng.pdf

[7]  Jim Morris, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer, “Big Oil and Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of SouthTexas,” Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel, 18 Feb 2014.

Printable Version of this factsheet

Texas LNG Comment form

Annova LNG is proposing to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal in the Port of Brownsville.  They are hosting an “Open House” about the project tonight from 4 to 7 pm at the Brownsville Events Center.  Here are some images from the site and some important facts to know.

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The Worst Possible Place for Heavy Industry

The land Annova LNG has leased encompasses 650 acres of the Loma Ecological Preserve.  Lomas on the preserve have been called “miniature Galapagos Islands”[1] and are such critical wildlife habitat that until recently Annova’s LNG terminal site was leased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife as a part of the wildlife corridor. In 1998 an ocelot was documented in this area as it crossed the ship channel traveling north. The ship channel presents no obstacle to the endangered cats, but the bright lights and noise of the LNG plant will prevent them from moving back and forth between the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The Annova site contains numerous wetlands that will be filled in, as well as starkly beautiful coastal prairie and dense brush that will be bulldozed and paved over.  It’s also directly across from the Bahia Grande, the largest wetlands restoration project in North America. Annova plans to dredge a turning basin and widen the ship channel in front of the Bahia Grande Restoration Channel. Dredging increases turbidity and can stir up toxic sediments.

Already On Track to Be the Largest Polluter in Cameron County

Annova LNG has not reported their expected air pollution emissions, but we know that all liquefied natural gas export terminals are major sources of hazardous air pollutants.  We can roughly estimate the level of Annova LNG’s pollution by comparing its planned production capacity with that of other LNG export terminals currently under construction in the U.S. [2]

The emissions associated with Annova LNG’s .93 billion cubic feet per day production of LNG:

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) 1209 tons per year  67 times what the Silas Ray Power Plant produces
Carbon Monoxide (CO) 1860 tons per year  People with heart disease are especially susceptible.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 60 tons per year  Carcinogens and neurotoxins: There is no safe level of VOCs.
Greenhouse Gases (GHG) 1.7 million tons per year  35 times the carbon footprint of the Silas Ray power plant
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 4 tons per year  Causes acid rain which could harm nearby marine environments
Particulate Matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5) 78 tons per year  Cameron County already has high levels of particulates

A Record of Pollution

Annova LNG is owned by Exelon, the same company which owns the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant. In 2006, it was revealed that Exelon had failed to report multiple instances of radioactive tritium leaking into the groundwater during a decade of operating the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station in Illinois.[3] In 2010 they paid more than $1 million to settle lawsuits arising from over two dozen leaks of tritium at three Illinois nuclear power plants.[4]

LNG Threatens Our Existing Jobs

The massive industrialization and pollution that LNG will bring could erode important economic drivers such as commercial fishing, shrimping, and beach and nature tourism. Thousands of jobs here in the Rio Grande Valley depend on clean air, clean water and high quality fish and wildlife habitat.  The lights and fiery flare stack will light up the sky within sight of South Padre Island’s beachfront hotels and condos, and the smog-producing emissions will foul the air.  Those are not the sights and smells that draw tourists.

LNG Processing and Transport Is Inherently Risky

When LNG is spilled it evaporates and can form a flammable vapor cloud that can drift for some distance. If the cloud encounters an ignition source it will burn back to the LNG spill.  LNG fires burn so hot that first responders cannot approach.  A March 2014 explosion at an LNG plant in Washington State forced an evacuation of hundreds of people within a two-mile radius. Fortunately the fire burned itself out and the LNG did not ignite, but a local fire chief noted that if it had, everyone within three-quarters of a mile would have been killed.[5] The LNG refrigeration process also uses fuels such as propane and ethylene to cool the gas, and these are much more volatile than methane.

Annova LNG Will Not Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes

Annova LNG’s parent company has opposed the Federal Wind Production Tax Credit, saying that, “Exelon has long believed that there is no need to promote subsidies for proven technologies,”[6] but that has not stop Annova LNG from seeking to avoid paying local taxes.  The Cameron County Commission is considering a significant tax abatement, ensuring that all of Annova LNG’s profits will go to distant shareholders instead of local schools, fire departments and roads.

Download a PDF of this factsheet:

Annova LNG–Pave Paradise and Put up an LNG Plan

Send a comment to FERC:

FERC Comment Guide for Annova LNG

FERC Comment Form Annova LNG

[1] Richard C. Bartlett. Saving the Best of Texas. University of Texas Press, 1995.

[2] Based on published emissions estimates for Sabine Pass LNG: Sabine Pass Liquefaction LLC et al., FERC DKT. PF13-8, Draft Resource Report 9 at 11-12, Table 9.2-10. http://www.cheniere.com/CQP_documents/SPLQ%2011-15- 10_FERC%20draft_resource_reports_2%20_thru_9.pdf

[3] “ Madigan, Glasgow File Suit For Radioactive Leaks At Braidwood Nuclear Plant” Illinois Attorney General’s Office, 16 Mar 2006. http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2006_03/20060316.html

[4] “Attorney General Madigan / State’s Attorneys Reach Agreement with Exelon on Nuclear Power Safety.” Illinois Attorney General’s Office, March 11, 2010.  http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2010_03/20100311.html

[5] Kristi Pihl, “Evacuation Area Near Plant to Be Reduced.” Tri-City Herald. 31 March 2014. http://www.tricityherald.com/2014/03/31/2904040/natural-gas-facility-on-fire-near.html

[6] “Exelon’s Public Policy Positions.”  http://www.exeloncorp.com/performance/policypositions/overview.aspx

env studies

BY DR. LYNN VINCENTNATHAN

Our UTPA/UTRGV Environmental Studies Program came about, appropriately enough, organically.  When I attended a campus webinar on sustainability in the fall of 2009, I discovered that several other faculty in attendance had also been teaching environmental-related courses in diverse programs across campus.  We got together right afterwards and realized that together we may have enough environmental courses across the curriculum to start an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Minor.  So what that webinar did was bring about an exhilarating fusion of faculty bent on making a difference by promoting environmental literacy.

The importance of a program in Environmental Studies is enormous, since it is humans who are causing environmental problems, who are affected by them (not to mention others of our ecological community), and who need to address them.  Environmental issues are social science, humanities, health and welfare, and business issues, just as much as they are science issues.  Collectively our initially tiny group had that expertise to bring it together – or at least we were determined to develop that expertise by finding other environmentally-conscientious faculty across campus willing to develop environmental courses in their fields.  What is needed in our society, we felt, is a deep and holistic understanding of the environment’s profound role in our lives and our profound role in the environment.  This knowledge is for everyone in all professions and spheres of live, not only for scientists.

By Fall 2011 we started our Environmental Studies Minor.  In addition our dedicated and creative Environmental Studies Committee has been hosting guest speakers, Earth Day events, and environmental films for the whole campus and the larger RGV community.  Last year we had our first Environmental Studies Symposium in late October, drawing a huge audience.  We plan on having our second one this Fall.

Our list of courses keeps on growing and slowly but surely our enrollment in the minor is growing.  Some UTPA administrators have made it a point to hire faculty who can teach environmental studies.  Now with the UTPA-UTB merger, we are bringing in environmental studies courses at the Brownsville campus, such as the English elective, “Living, Reading, Writing Nature in Costa Rica,” and helping to start others.

Next year we plan to propose an Environmental Studies Major and perhaps some small graduate programs – a graduate certificate in Environmental Studies and a minor “course cluster” for the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies.  For more information about our programs and events go to www.utpa.edu/env_studies.

Would you like to support our efforts to grow our UTRGV Environmental Studies Program and educate our students for a world in which environmental understanding is increasing critical?  You can donate to the program or to the Environmental Studies scholarship fund here.

BY STEFANIE HERWECK

IMG_7283The first thing we noticed was the smell, slightly sulphur at first, as we were driving into town.  As we got closer the air took on an acidity that we could feel in our eyes and taste on our tongues.

When we arrived on the west side of Port Arthur we didn’t just smell the pollution, we saw a sickly brown stripe across the sky streaking its way over the marshes and beach to the south.

There are refineries here, including Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the nation, smack up against neighborhoods. There are piles of coke and coke-fired power plants belching black smoke.  The Veolia incinerator is here burning, among other things, toxins which were manufactured for Syrian chemical weapons.

The combined emissions from these sources mean that cancer mortality rates in Port Arthur are 25 percent higher than the state average.  Long-term exposure to a stew of chemicals punctuated by intense individual releases that trigger warnings has wreaked havoc on the families who live in West Port Arthur.  And the oil and gas industry here hasn’t been an economic boon to the residents—more than a quarter live in poverty.

This is a sacrifice zone.

Like many other areas along the Gulf Coast, and inland in the shale gas frack zones, Port Arthur has been given over to the fossil fuel industry.  The air and water, along with the health and safety of the residents, have all been sacrificed for big oil and gas.

Petrochemicals and profits are shipped out.  Pollution and poverty remain.

As we passed over the ship channel bridge, the latest industry conquest loomed on the horizon.  Across the Sabine River which divides Texas from Louisiana, cranes moved like an insect’s legs around Cheniere’s Sabine Pass LNG facility.  The plant was originally built to be an import facility, but when the practice of hydrofracking increased domestic gas supplies and drove prices down, Cheniere began the process of converting Sabine Pass into an export terminal.

trains

The Sabine Pass LNG refrigeration “trains” under construction. When construction is complete six trains will purify and liquefy up to 3.6 billion cubic feet per day of fracked gas that is piped to the facility. You can see the 377-foot flare in the center of the photo.

The five Sabine Pass storage tanks hold the equivalent of 17 billion cubic natural gas.  That's a quarter of what the U.S. uses each day.

The five Sabine Pass storage tanks hold the equivalent of 17 billion cubic natural gas. That’s a quarter of what the U.S. uses each day.

tanker

We found the LNG tanker Methane Rita Andrea already berthed at Sabine Pass.

The best view of the 1,000-acre Sabine Pass LNG facility is from the Texas side of the river, as tall impoundments obscure much of the plant on the Louisiana side.  They look like the levees that line the Rio Grande, but instead of blocking the advance of flood waters they were raised to corral a pool of liquefied natural gas or other flammable liquids should there be an accidental release.  LNG is extremely hazardous, because once ignited, it burns so hot that firefighters cannot approach, and people a mile or more away must be evacuated due to the risk of deadly thermal radiation.

When construction is completed later this year, the plant will purify and then liquefy fracked gas by cooling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, which condenses it down to 1/600th of its volume.  The liquefied gas will be loaded onto ships for export to countries where gas prices are higher.  When all six of its refrigeration “trains” are complete, the facility will be capable of exporting 3.6 billion cubic feet per day of LNG.

Mercury, carbon dioxide, sulphur and water will be removed from the gas in these scaffold-like “trains.”  Propane, ethylene, and the methane itself will be used as “cryogens” to cool the gas.  Because natural gas is continually warming and “boiling off,” Cheniere will relieve pressure by intermittently burning excess gas from a flare tower 377 feet tall.

Cheniere is not the source of the toxic soup that Port Arthur’s residents currently breathe, of course, because the facility is not yet online.  But when it begins shipping gas it will add smog and carcinogens to the mix.  In fact, in its environmental assessment documents, Cheniere reports that the facility will be a major source of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and greenhouse gases.

The Brownsville Navigation District is currently courting 5 proposed liquefied natural gas export facilities that, if built, would line the Brownsville ship channel just outside of Port Isabel.

Together their expected output could be as much as or greater than Sabine Pass LNG, which means that they could emit similar levels of toxins, including 5,790 tons of nitrogen oxides, 8,837 tons of carbon monoxide, and 305 tons of volatile organic compounds each year.  All three of these will have serious impacts on human health.  They could also emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases, and pump ton after ton of smog-causing, asthma-attack-inducing particulates into the air.

By inviting these LNG facilities into the Rio Grande Valley, we are sacrificing the very air that we breathe.

We may also be sacrificing our existing economy.  Imagine how the sight of burning flares amid a brown cloud will impact tourism on the island.  Will people still come here to go birding when the air burns their throat?

And when those “clean” economic drivers decline, will we, like Port Arthur, court dirtier and dirtier industries to fill the void?

We have seen in Port Arthur that fossil fuel companies do not make good neighbors.  They will transform Brownsville, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island, both through direct emissions of toxins and smog, and indirectly, as our economy and quality of life come to mirror Port Arthur’s.  And as fracking to feed these export facilities ramps up in South Texas and Northern Mexico, they will have a similar, devastating effect on our region.

Valley residents have a choice: we can stand up for our clean air and reject the LNG export facilities, or we can become the next sacrifice zone for big oil and gas.

Concerned citizens are meeting regularly in Brownsville and in McAllen to fight LNG. Find out more at Save RGV from LNG on Facebook or email lrgvsierraclub@gmail.com. 

BY STEFANIE HERWECK

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The Bahia Grande or “Big Bay” between Brownsville and Port Isabel, Texas was once the center of a vast coastal wetland and prairie habitat.  Its waters were an important nursery for aquatic life, and its islands supported flocks of breeding shorebirds. Birds of prey used the skies above to hunt songbirds flitting through the grasslands.

When the Brownsville ship channel was carved into the shoreline beginning in the 1930s, the bay was cut off from Gulf waters and dried up. Any fish that were able to survive there during wet years were subject to mass die-offs when the unreplenished waters evaporated. Dust from the dry bay bottom was picked up by winds and sandblasted the vegetation off the surrounding prairie, which meant fewer birds. The same dust caused terrible sandstorms in nearby Port Isabel that affected people’s health.

A restoration project for the Bahia finally began in 2005.  A channel was dug from the Brownsville ship channel that allowed the Bahia to flood. Some tidal flow was restored in 2007 when the Bahia was connected to smaller basins–the Laguna Larga and the Little Laguna Madre.  At 22,000 acres, the restoration project is the largest in North America, and was undertaken by a partnership of more than 65 groups.

The restoration is ongoing.  There is still not enough tidal flow through the basins and the salinity is unnaturally high, so more and larger flow channels are in the works.  In 2013, encroaching brush was removed from the prairie to make better habitat for bird species, in particular the endangered Northern aplomado falcon and its prey.

The aplomado is the centerpiece species of the Bahia Grande, and it’s at the center of yet another restoration story. Aplomado falcon numbers plummeted in the early part of the 20th century due mainly to habitat loss, and 1952 saw the last breeding pair in the United States.  The species was federally listed as endangered in 1986. Recovery efforts through the 1990s and 2000s included a captive breeding program that released more than 1,500 birds, and currently more than 30 breeding pairs have been documented in South Texas.

The coming of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to the Bahia Grande neighborhood could bring an abrupt end to these stories of restoration, however. The Brownsville Navigation District has leased a site on the East boundary of the Bahia Grande Unit to Texas LNG, LLC, between the refuge and the City of Port Isabel. A second site has been leased across Highway 48 from the refuge by Next Decade LNG between the highway and the ship channel, and a third, that of Annova LNG, is located across the ship channel from the Bahia.  A fourth company has leased land further to the west. (See a map.)

These LNG companies intend to pipe large quantities of fracked gas across the Valley to these sites where it will be refined and cooled down to -260 degrees F in order to liquefy and condense it to 1/600th of its original volume.  The liquefied gas will then be piped onto enormous tankers in the ship channel and exported to Europe and in China where gas prices are higher and the companies can make higher profits.

The plants they propose to build adjacent to the Bahia Grande would pump out massive quantities of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases. Large quantities of earth would have to be dredged to create turning basins for the ships and to fill in wetlands, and this could create runoff that interferes with the fragile flow of the Bahia Grande Unit’s basins.  Bright lights from the plants will flood the area at night disrupting sensitive wildlife.  Furthermore, each LNG facility will flare gas from a 200- to 500-foot tower, creating more pollution in the form of soot and unburned material, as well as posing an extreme hazard for birds.

The bottom line is that these heavy industrial complexes are fundamentally incompatible with the sensitive habitat and wildlife of the Bahia Grande.  If we are proud of the tremendous work that has gone into restoring the bay and into bringing the Northern aplomado falcon back from the brink, we need to oppose the LNG export terminals with all our might.

Members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and the Save RGV from LNG citizens’ group took a tour of the Bahia Grande which is recorded in the slideshow above.

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