Archive for April, 2011

By Stefanie Herweck

Every year, more Texas communities add an Earth Day festival to their calendar.  This year the City of El Paso began a new annual Earth Day event.  Longer established Earth Day festivals like Vida Verde in McAllen expand and attract more visitors every year, providing thousands of border residents with positive experiences and general information about living more sustainably. 

Unfortunately, an important component of the original Earth Day has been lost.  Earth Day began as a serious bid to bring environmental issues to our politicians’ attention.  In 1970 Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and Republican Representative Paul McCloskey helped create the day as a way to counter the fact that, “The state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country.”  

Capitalizing on the networks created by the first Earth Day protests, student organizers released a “Dirty Dozen” list of members of the U.S. House of Representatives whose voting records ran counter to the goals of protecting and preserving our nation’s natural resources.  When the next election cycle rolled around thousands turned out to educate voters about the “Dirty Dozen.”  Two of the representatives lost their primaries.  Five more were defeated in their re-election bids. 

The environment quickly became an important national issue in the eyes of Congress.  As a result, in 1970 Congress amended and strengthened the Clean Air Act.  The Environmental Protection Agency was born in December of that year, and the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law soon afterward.  The Marine Mammals Protection Act was passed in 1972, along with legislation which came to be known as the Clean Water Act.  In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.

These were historic advances, but in the intervening years Earth Day has moved away from propelling legislation and holding politicians accountable, and become a superficial celebration.  We nostalgically don our tie-dye t-shirts and visit festivals, complete with corporate sponsors and fast food vendors, while our country’s commitment to environmental protection erodes away.

Nowhere is this superficiality more obvious than the Earth Day event to be hosted this week by the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg.  “El Dia del Mundo” is sponsored exclusively by Shell Oil Company, and features “exciting speakers, representing Corporate America, discussing the innovative technological processes implemented at their respective companies to become more environmentally friendly.”

Shell hardly exemplifies an environmentally friendly corporation.  Here in Texas, their Deer Park refinery in Houston is the third largest source of air pollution in Harris County, and in 2008 Shell settled a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas for the refinery’s repeated violations of the Clean Air Act.  

Shell is also heavily invested in exploiting the Canadian tar sands.   Tar sands are bitumen deposits that can be turned into oil.  The deposits lie under pristine tracts of arboreal forests.  The process requires large amounts of energy and water, and releases toxins into the environment.    And it may be coming to Texas.  A pipeline has been proposed to bring the tar sands across the United States to be processed at Texas refineries. 

Last year, in another attempt to develop “unconventional” oil and gas fields, Shell, bought and began drilling on 250,000 acres in the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation that stretches underneath South Texas from the Texas-Mexico border counties of Webb and Maverick eastward.  Shell’s operation there will require hydraulic fracturing of the rock in order to extract natural gas.  Also known as ‘fracking,’ this is a process that will use enormous quantities of scarce south Texas water, and has been blamed elsewhere for groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.

Rather than allowing a polluter to co-opt Earth Day in an effort to “greenwash” their corporate image, Texans need to recapture the spirit of the first Earth Day.  The first Earth Day featured teach-ins to educate people, not just about interesting wildlife and household energy efficiency, but about how industrial practices and the extraction and use of fossil fuels were destroying ecosystems and threatening human health. 

Even as Earth Day festivities have spread, public understanding about issues such as climate change has decreased.  A recent Gallup poll shows a decline in the percentage of people who are concerned about global warming, down to 51 percent from a high in 2006 of 66 percent.

Human-caused global warming is settled science, and its impacts are already being felt.  The past decade was the warmest since records began to be kept in the 1880s, ice is melting worldwide, and sea levels have been rising 3 mm per year since 1993.  People need opportunities to learn these and other facts and to explore the science behind them.  Earth Day celebrations sponsored by the fossil fuels industry are not likely to provide these.

Earth Day has also lost its political edge.  While Shell donated a small amount to UTPA to sponsor the Earth Day event, they donate much, much more to politicians, and last year spent $10.4 million  to lobby Congress.

Under the influence of these lobbyists, and with campaign coffers filled with money from polluters, the environment has become once again a “non-issue” for our politicians.  They are working for polluters instead of for the people and the environment that we depend on. 

In Congress the Environmental Protection Agency is under assault.  Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison are doing their part for the fossil fuel industry by cosponsoring a bill that goes against science and blocks the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as air pollution.

Republicans also want to slash the agency’s budget by $1.6 billion or more, essentially leaving polluters free to dump contaminants into the air, the water and the soil.  The savings from these cuts pale in comparison to the estimated $20 trillion that a well-funded EPA would save us in health costs between now and 2020. 

At the state level, Governor Perry and his appointed commissioners at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are waging a legal war on the EPA because it is finally requiring Texas polluters to follow the same rules that apply to the rest of the nation.  Just last week, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the TCEQ, but Republicans tacked on two amendments that strip Texans of their rights to challenge proposed pollution control permits that threaten their families and communities.

Earth Day has been successful at getting people to stop and think about our environment, to recognize that the Earth is the only home we have.  But if we truly want to preserve our planet, its diversity of life, and ourselves, we need to educate ourselves about the environmental threats we’re facing and take concrete steps to address those problems.

What can you do to recapture the political activism of the original Earth Day?  Hold policymakers accountable, by keeping up with the impacts their proposed policies will have on the environment and the health of our communities and natural areas.  Call or write Senators Cornyn and Hutchison and tell them to support the EPA in their mission to protect public health and the environment.  Contact your state elected officials and let them know that Texans deserve a voice when it comes to allowing polluters into our communities.  If your elected officials are consistently voting against the environment or champion destructive, pro-pollution policies, work to get them voted out of office.

Keep tabs on corporations and educate yourself about their practices.  When a corporation proposes a development in your community, find out everything you can about the plan.  If you have concerns take them to your elected officials and regulatory agencies.  Attend corporate- sponsored “green” events, such as the one at UTPA, but come with tough questions.   

Your actions will have greater impact when you work with others who share your goals.  Joining a national environmental organization will allow you to be a part of a political force to turn the tide and make the environment a political issue once more.  Become active in a local group or simply come together with people in your community around local projects like protecting a park, cleaning up a body of water, preserving native habitat, or lobbying city officials to shift to renewable energy, establish bike lanes, and plant trees.

When the Earth Day festivals are over, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to protect our environment.  Life literally depends on it.


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Ten conservation organizations have sent a letter to Internation Boundary and Water Commission regarding the agency’s proposal to clear vegetation from the banks of the Arroyo Colorado through the City of Harlingen.   This action is likely to have negative impacts on wildlife, on the quality of life offered by the City, and on the economy of the Rio Grande Valley.  The letter expresses the groups’ concerns and lays out their expectations as IBWC begins the process of evaluating the environmental impact of this proposal.

Here is a PDF of the letter as sent: Letter to IBWC regarding the Arroyo Colorado 

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The State House voted to add two amendments to the Texas Council on Environmental Quality Sunset Bill that would curtail the rights of Texans to challenge permits that allow companies to pollute their communities.  You can read the details here:  http://www.texasobserver.org/forrestforthetrees/house-republicans-make-it-harder-for-citizens-to-fight-polluters

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Reps. Gonzalez, Lucio, III, Olveira, Martinez, Munoz voted against this amendment. 

Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City who voted yes,  and Rep. Aaron Pena of Edinburg, who was notably absent during the vote.

This will be a Sierra Club vote of record: the way the representatives voted on these amendments will be used to analyze their environmental records as a whole.

The TCEQ bill strips Texans of their right to challenge polluters who want to move in to their communities

 Here is the statement of Ken Kramer, Director, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, on the House Approval of the TCEQ Sunset Bill (House Bill 2694) on Second Reading and the Adoption of the Chisum Assaults on the Public’s Right to Contest Pollution Control Permits 

“The House floor action on the TCEQ sunset bill today was a historic low point in legislative activity on environmental issues. It represents a failure of the majority of state representatives to protect both public health and the rights of their constituents to a clean environment. 

“The TCEQ sunset bill as filed in the House represented a balanced piece of legislation that reflected the recommendations of the Texas Sunset Commission after a thorough and careful review of the state’s major environmental regulatory agency. Key amendments to the bill on the House floor today have undermined that balance and have given polluters the best present they could have asked for to celebrate Earth Day later this week. The most egregious changes in the TCEQ bill were those that undercut or in some cases eliminate the rights of Texans to contest proposed pollution control permits that pose a threat to their communities and their families.

“There is hope that the bill as it moves to the Senate will be cleaned up to make it the balanced legislation it started out to be. If the TCEQ sunset bill isn’t cleaned up in the Senate, neither will the state of Texas be cleaned up.”

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 Kick off your Earth Day celebration by attending a screening of Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars on Wednesday, April 20 at 7:00 pm in the University of Texas Pan American Student Union Theater.  Narrated by Robert Redford, this award-winning film follows the story of Texans fighting a high-stakes battle for clean air.  It centers around the unlikely partners—mayors, ranchers, lawyers, cities, citizens, green groups, and CEO’s—that came together to oppose the construction of 19 coal-fired power plants that were slated to be built in Eastern and Central Texas and that were being fast-tracked by Governor Perry.  After the film there will be a panel discussion about Texas’ continued reliance on coal and the path toward clean energy.  Hosted by the UTPA Environmental Awareness Club, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, and the UTPA Office for Sustainability.  To get to the UTPA Student Union Theater, take the main campus entrance on University Blvd. and use the parking lot on the left side.  Walk past the Visitor Center toward the Bronc statue to get to the Student Union.

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