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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.

LNG report coverThe Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club issued a report on the environmental impacts of the five proposed liquified natural gas export terminals in the Port of Brownsville.  You can read it in full: The Environmental Impacts of Liquefied Natural Gas in the Rio Grande Valley.

Four liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals are slated for the Port of Brownsville, and the Brownsville Navigation District may grant leases for more. These plants will refine natural gas piped from the Eagle Ford Shale gas fields and then supercool it to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it liquefies and condenses to 1/600th of its normal volume. This processing will make it possible to ship the gas overseas to Europe and China where gas prices are higher and companies can reap more profit.

LNG and the fracking boom which will fuel it have been touted by some of our elected officials as a new economic engine for the Rio Grande Valley, transforming the region into a “new Middle East.”  However, it will bring industrial pollution and the risk of disaster to the Rio Grande Valley on a scale we haven’t seen before:

  • LNG relies on an inherently risky technology, and disasters do occur.
  • Dangerous emissions will threaten the health of our most vulnerable citizens.
  • LNG facilities will emit tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change and sea level rise that threaten our coastal communities.
  • The export terminals’ proposed locations in undeveloped natural areas means a loss of essential wetland and upland habitat that could have grave consequences for marine and terrestrial wildlife species, including the endangered ocelot.
  • The environmental degradation caused by LNG could have serious impacts on the Rio Grande Valley’s vibrant industries of nature and beach tourism and commercial fishing.
  • LNG plants, with their fifty-foot-tall flares, bright lights, visible emissions and dust, will be a blight on our communities and degrade our quality of life.
  • Exporting natural gas will encourage the destructive practice of fracking that is already damaging the environment and human health in other south Texas communities.
  • Analysts have determined that exporting natural gas will raise domestic gas prices which in turn will cause home energy rates and prices for consumer goods to increase and will discourage U.S. manufacturing.

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BY STEFANIE HERWECK

The first thing you notice are the roiling orange flames spewing out of slender pipes, creating a black smoke that dilutes into the brownish air above. Tall, soot-covered silos shoot skyward out of a maze of dirty pipes. In the foreground, squat tanks are marked with rust stains and posted with warning signs which you can just make out. There’s an acrid, chemical smell in the air, and your breathing instinctively becomes shallow.

You’re in Beaumont. You’re in Port Arthur. You’re near the Houston Ship Channel. Or you’re driving through Corpus Christi. And you’re trying to get out of there—to get past the unhealthy industrial hellscape of petrochemical plants as soon as you can.

If you’ve traveled through Texas’ other coastal cities, you’ve had this experience.   And if you’re like me, you probably thought to yourself, thank God I don’t live here.

Unfortunately, petrochemical plants like these could be coming to us here in the Valley. The Brownsville Navigation District has leased land for four liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals which are now awaiting permits.  A fifth lease is reportedly in the works.

The terminals proposed for the Port of Brownsville would first remove impurities from the gas and then supercool it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it liquefies and condenses to 1/600th of its volume. The liquefied gas can then be loaded onto tanker ships bound for Europe and Asia.

These refining and refrigeration processes release harmful emissions that will pollute our air and water and put our most vulnerable populations—children and the elderly—at risk.

Although none of the LNG companies coming to the Port of Brownsville have released estimates of their expected emissions, we can calculate rough amounts of the pollutants they will emit by comparing them to a recent report on the expansion of Louisiana’s Sabine Pass LNG facility. Sabine Pass LNG’s expansion will allow it to process 1.4 billion cubic feet per day. Together, the four Brownsville LNG facilities awaiting permits have stated that they will process 5.6 billion cubic feet per day.

Sabine Pass LNG reports that with its expansion in place it will produce 1,820.83 tons per year of nitrogen oxides (NOx). If we assume similar emission rates for the Brownsville LNG projects, we can expect 7,296.33 tons per year of nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides make up the poisonous “brown cloud” that you see in large cities like Houston. They worsen asthma symptoms and damage lungs. They also contribute to acid rain and harm marine life. The amount the Brownsville facilities will emit is approximately equivalent to the total NOx emissions produced annually by all the vehicles in Cameron County.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)is another contributor to acid rain, and the refineries can be expected to emit more than 24 tons per year, a 9% increase in the total Cameron County emissions of SO2.

Based on the Sabine Pass LNG expansion, the four LNG projects at the Port of Brownsville can also be expected to emit 362 tons per year of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that contribute to smog and pollute water. Some, like benzene and toluene, are carcinogens. Indeed, a possible cancer cluster being investigated in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas has been linked to benzene emissions from nearby natural gas drilling.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poison produced when fossil fuels do not burn completely. It can be particularly harmful to pregnant women, fetuses and babies, and people with heart conditions. Using the Sabine Pass expansion as a guide, we can estimate that the Port of Brownsville operations will add 11,222 tons per year of carbon monoxide, an approximately 20% increase in Cameron County’s total annual CO emissions.

We can also expect the proposed LNG plants to emit 455 tons per year of particulate pollution, consisting of particles small enough to be inhaled. These cause respiratory problems and aggravate heart problems. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to particulates.

The Port of Brownsville’s LNG refineries will also pump out an estimated 10.1 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To put that in perspective, the EPA lists only two large-facility sources of GHG in Cameron County, the Silas Ray Power Plant and the Municipal Waste Dump. Together they produced 130, 815 tons of GHG in 2012. As a region that is on track to suffer potentially catastrophic impacts of drought, stronger storms and sea level rise from global warming, we should work to minimize, not supersize, our carbon footprint.

Politicians like Congressmen Vela and Cuellar have called LNG a windfall for the Rio Grande Valley. What they don’t talk about are the toxins that that wind will bring.

Instead of silently accepting their LNG sales pitch, we need to speak up and initiate a community conversation about what the coming of LNG could mean. Are we ready for the smoky flares and the brown clouds? Are we comfortable living and raising our children where poisons and carcinogens blow in the wind? Are we really willing to sacrifice our clean air and water?

It’s a momentous decision that we should all be involved in.

IMG_9289BY KAREN HOLLESCHAU

When the Exxon Valdez struck a reef on March 24, 1989, spilling at least 500,000 barrels of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska, the entire world took notice. I was a first-grade teacher just starting out in Weslaco. My little students and I read the newspaper and magazine articles about the spill and the ensuing clean-up efforts from our elementary classroom. The children were dismayed at the photos of the oil-drenched otters and birds in their Weekly Reader magazines. In Science, they attempted to wash oil from plush toys with Dawn dishwashing liquid to see if it really worked. It did.

My Uncle Jack had been a meteorologist in Valdez for many years. He described it to me as the most beautiful place in the world. The water was so clean and pure that he could see clear to the bottom.

The April 1989 Earth Day would soon be here, and the children were looking forward to a reading of The Lorax and baking, decorating (and eating) an Earth Day cake. We planned to pick up litter in a nearby park and have a picnic afterwards. It was a wonderful day. The children’s hopes were renewed. They believed that such a terrible thing as the oil spill would never happen again.

Then we received the announcement that the annual Just Say No to Drugs week-long activities would begin in two weeks. The culminating event would be a balloon release. Over one thousand bright red helium-filled balloons would be sent soaring over the skies of Weslaco. Coincidentally, (or was it?), my little students found some pictures in a National Geographic Magazine of sea turtles and seals being strangled by plastic six-pack rings and choked by balloons that had been floating in the sea.

Once again, the children were dismayed and hurt, even tearful to such a degree that I had to remove the pictures from the magazine. They wanted to take action. The most timely and easiest idea was to make posters that would educate the rest of the student body, teachers and administrators about what can happen when balloons end up in the ocean. Poster-making became the focal point of every day. The energy and excitement in the classroom was palpable. Children who were not ordinarily interested in academic learning suddenly couldn’t wait to get to class and didn’t want to go home at the end of the day. We put the posters up all over the school. It never occurred to me to ask for permission.

To sum it up, the balloon release was canceled to the dismay of our counseling staff. I was called into the principal’s office (he was actually delighted by it all) and walked out smiling. The children were filled with joy. They were astonished that six-year- olds could affect real change in the world and make it a better place. I’ve been training tiny activists ever since, but it has never been as effective as that spring in 1989 when my first graders prevented over 1,000 bright red balloons from potentially choking a sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Several years ago I visited Prince William Sound. To my untrained eye, it is still a stunningly beautiful place, and nature has come a long way towards healing itself, but 25 years later there are still traces of that terrible day.)

Karen is a member of the LRGV Sierra Club Executive Committee. 

 

 

 

Aerial View South Hook January 2009The 5 proposed Port of Brownsville LNG plants are among 40 natural gas export operations being advanced across the country.  If these proposals are approved the United States may become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.  This in turn will raise domestic natural gas prices and expand the dangerous and destructive practice of fracking.  It will have serious implications for public health, the environment and climate change.
For this reason, the Sierra Club has taken the following actions:
  • The Sierra Club has developed a report entitled “Look Before the LNG Leap.”  The report demands that the Department of Energy undertake an environmental study that includes the cumulative impacts of ALL of the proposed LNG export facilities rather than allowing them to go through environmental review as individual projects.   READ IT HERE>>>
  • The Club has filed Motions to Intervene, Protest, and Comment for each and every LNG plant filing with Department of Energy.  In these motions they ask the Department of Energy to require an environmental review before granting the application, and they argue that the Department of Energy should find the application inconsistent with the public interest.  You can read the motions for 2 of the 5 Brownsville LNG projects HERE>>> and HERE>>>.
  • Along with other environmental organizations, the Sierra Club has petitioned the Department of Energy to revise the nearly 30-year-old policy guidelines for approving natural gas exports. You can read the press release and petition HERE>>>

The Port of Brownsville hopes to become a production and export hub for liquefied natural gas (LNG).  They have leased land in the ship channel totaling almost 1000 acres to 5 different LNG operations.  Each of the companies involved is working through the permitting process at this time.

If these developments are allowed to proceed, their activities would have an extreme environmental impact,  including emitting toxic gases and particulates that damage human health, deforestation and destruction of critical habitat for the endangered ocelot, and the acidification of our Gulf waters and sensitive wetlands.  Furthermore, processing this extremely flammable gas would also expose members of the surrounding communities to hazards from unforeseen disasters, as we have seen with recent LNG explosions in Washington and Wyoming.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club visited the proposed sites on Saturday, and we bring you this virtual tour that includes the plans for four of the five sites and what they look like on the ground:

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Mark Pena with members of Ciclistas Urbanos in Edinburg

We congratulate Julia Jorgensen and Mark Pena as the new co-chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.  By way of introduction, we’ll be running their stories about how they found their way into the Sierra Club. We talked to Mark Pena about cities, cycling, and Valley environmentalism.

What are the formative experiences that shaped you as someone who cares deeply about the environment?

My memories growing-up in the Valley are filled with a lot of time spent outdoors.  As a child, I remember my father frequently taking us hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.   I developed an even deeper appreciation for the environment through my love of gardening.  I owe this to a beloved aunt who taught me a lot about plants, trees and gardening.   She was a lifelong native of the Valley.  She grew up on a ranch near San Manuel, north Edinburg, and she imparted her wonderful love and respect for nature to me and my siblings.  I spent a lot of time outside with my aunt and through her came to appreciate the simple beauty and wonders of nature.

Which environmental issues do you find yourself engaging with most?  Why?

Over the years I have come to love and appreciate cities and urban life.  So these days, I find myself engaging most on issues of urbanism, livability and the overall sustainability of our communities.  It’s our human habitat and the environment that affects us directly each and every day of our lives.  Cities can be wonderful place and offer inhabitants with great choices and opportunities that inspire happiness and creativity.  The auto-centricity of our cities has deprived us of many of these benefits.  I believe we can create better communities, and it’s simply a matter of developing political will and strong leadership.  It’s a challenge I welcome and enjoy.

How did you come to found Ciclistas Urbanos?

In 2008 I was serving as the Chairman of the City of Edinburg’s Environment Advisory Board.  At the time, the board was exploring and formulating recommendation to make the city more bike-friendly.  Part of the solution was to encourage more cycling in the community, and one of the ideas that came about was to create an organization that could be a part of this effort and be an advocate for cycling and cycling facilities and amenities in the community.  It sounded like a fun way to achieve something positive for our community, so it was an effort I decided to take on.  The rest is history.

Talk about the role of cycling as a pro-environment choice.  What’s so great about it?

I believe cycling is a key to improving the livability of our communities.  One of the major challenges for many of our cities, especially in the U.S., is their auto-orientation.  With livability and sustainability as our goals, we’ve got to discover ways to make it easier and more fulfilling for people to get around their communities using various modes of transportation.  This not only involves automobiles, but also includes bikes, public transit, and walking – the most basic form of transportation.   A bike makes it possible to get somewhere a little faster than walking.  This is especially attractive in our cities which tend to be overly spread-out.   When a city begins to improve things for cyclists, it has a domino effect of making the community better for everyone.   Of course, aside from being a healthy and clean form of transportation, riding a bike is tremendous fun.

What role should environmentally-aware people play in local policy of the RGV?  What role do you feel like you play?

The Valley continues to experience tremendous growth.  Like most of the country, suburban sprawl is the predominant growth pattern of our communities, gobbling up precious farmland and perpetuating an unsustainable built environment which taxes both the natural and financial resources of our communities.  For the health and economic success of our region, it’s imperative that environmentally aware people play a major role in formulating the local policy of the Rio Grande Valley.  Having the fortune of educational opportunity, I feel obligated to do my part to help make a difference in our community.  Also, as a parent I feel a responsibility to impart to my children an appreciation and respect of the environment and an obligation to help improve our community for everyone.

Do you think there is a native Valley environmental ethic?  Do you think that there are shared values inherent in RGV culture that we can tap into in order to nurture that ethic and a more sustainable way of life?  What are those values and where do they come from?

Because of our ranching and agricultural history and tradition in the Valley, I’ve always felt that Valleyites have a special connection with the environment.  Even if we haven’t experience life on a farm or ranch, many of us have grandparents, parents, or other family members who have.  I do sense however that over the last 40+ years, this special connection is disappearing.  So few families and children now ever experience and develop an appreciation for nature.  For this reason, it’s important we ensure that cities include parks and other natural areas, so that people never lose this invaluable sense and connection of being a part of natural world.

What are the most hopeful things you see happening here the in the RGV?

Although growth in the Valley is posing economic and environmental challenges for our area, it has also brought about new opportunities for cities to develop better, more sustainable ways of do things.  Livability and quality of life are now greater priorities in our communities.   Brownsville, McAllen and Edinburg, the 3 largest cities in the Valley, each have active urban forestry programs.  Making streets safer for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians is a conversation happening more frequently among our local governments and transportation agencies.  Complete Streets and Road Diets, ideas which ensure that roads are designed for everyone, are now part of the vocabulary of our city leaders and transportation officials.  Cities have either adopted or are considering adopting Form Based codes to improve the quality of the built environment and make our cities more walkable and appealing.  Our public transportation systems are being expanded and offering a sustainable, alternative mode of transportation for everyone.  Wonderful things are happening, and I’m glad the Sierra Club is a part of it.

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