Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

corpus-christi-petroleum-natural-gas-processing-plant-new

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.