Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

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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Plastic bag on a South Padre Island beach

By Madeleine Sandefur

Co-Chair, LRGV Sierra Club Sustainability Committee

What do Honolulu, Austin, Brownsville, South Padre Island and Laguna Vista have in common?  “Laguna what?” you might say–and that would be completely understandable, as our little town is not even listed on most Texas maps. We don’t even have our own zip code; we share one with our neighbor, Port Isabel.

However, we do have this in common with the more recognizable cities mentioned above: we recently banned plastic bags from our community!

I’ll be the first to admit that it is much easier to get plastic bags banned in a smaller community than in a large city.  What helped our cause is that I asked our city manager a year and a half ago to form an Environmental Quality Committee.  Initially, our aim was to have Laguna Vista declared a “Cool City,” when the Sierra Club was working on that initiative, and we did get that accomplished.  On the very evening when the town council voted affirmatively on that item, I was enormously lucky to meet two very dedicated “greenies” who agreed not only to serve with me on that committee, but they later joined the LRGV Sierrans:  Yolanda and Walter Birdwell.

At first, progress on some of the Cool City goals was painfully slow and oftentimes frustrating.  I believe what helped us was patience, persistence, and showing our willingness to help with other projects the city wanted to accomplish.  For example, we volunteered to organize Earth Day events for two years running.  We helped with a youth workshop the city manager co-hosted with another environmental organization.

Little by little, the city manager realized that we didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk; we were DOERS.  In meeting after meeting, we brought up the subject of a bag ban, and we encountered resistance.  We argued that it would be a lot easier to put a ban in place now, when there were very few active businesses, rather than waiting for what surely will be a flurry of new development when the Second Causeway will land practically at our doorstep.  In fact, that’s where some of the resistance came in; they were afraid that it would keep businesses from setting up shop.

Finally, we took the initiative and did a survey.  It was in three parts: two in-person ones (one at the recycling station on a Saturday morning; the other going door-to-door in a neighborhood), and one was conducted by e-mail.  It showed that 87% of those questioned were IN FAVOR of a ban.  We also knew that the only convenience store in town, Stripes, was already subject to a ban in Brownsville and South Padre Island, and we had been advised that we would not encounter any resistance on that front.

Armed with this knowledge, and with support from the chair of the Parks Committee and her husband (who happens to be a city councilman), we again approached our city manager and asked him to put the item on the agenda.  The clincher was when apparently, our city manager contacted the Stripes’ area manager and asked him how he would feel about a ban, and he apparently told him “Do it!”

And so it was that the ordinance “banning the use of plastic carry-out bags within  the corporate limits of the Town of Laguna Vista” was approved unanimously on first and second reading, and will be in effect on a voluntary basis from today until January 1, 2013, when it will become mandatory.

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Sea grass, Texas Parks and Wildlife photo

By Jim Chapman

LRGV Sierra Club Conservation Committee Co-Chair

The idea of putting a second causeway across the Laguna Madre to South Padre Island has been considered and kicked around for many years.  Now, the Federal Highway Administration along with TXDOT and the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority (created to make toll roads) have come up with a plan, which is detailed in a hefty Draft Environmental Impact Statement document.  A public meeting was recently held to explain the project and receive public comments.

The Draft EIS is required to, among other things, list all the reasonable alternatives, and associated impacts, and give its preferred alternative.  In this case the preferred alternative is a 7.9 mile bride bridge over the Laguna Madre, beginning a little north of Andy Bowie Park, making landfall near Holly Beach, and then leading into Highway 100 between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos.  While improving access on & off the Island is a valid need, the current plan does not merit our support.  Here are some reasons why:

  1.  The Draft EIS is inadequate.  It understates likely impacts to fragile and essential seagrass beds and the benthic ecosystems on the bay bottom. Seagrasses, which are already in serious decline, are essentially irreplaceable.  The Draft also understates likely impacts to ocelot/jaguarundi habitat on the mainland.
  2. Stated impacts are too vague & general.  For example, specific impacts of the bridge itself and its construction cannot be assessed, because both the specific design and its construction methods “would be determined during the final design phase, after a final decision on the EIS.”  This is the reverse of the way it should be.  Instead of detailing specific impacts and what they propose to do to avoid, minimize or mitigate those impacts, we repeatedly get the following:  “The proposed project’s impacts to estuarine wetlands would be minimized by design undertaken in consultation with the USFWS and TPWD and by compliance with federal and state laws.  As a result the proposed project would not substantially contribute to significant cumulative impacts to wetlands.”  This is wistful and positive thinking instead of actual analysis, and is not acceptable.
  3. Two other alternatives are quickly dismissed, though both would be vastly less expensive and much less environmentally damaging.  One would be to widen the existing causeway, along with improving traffic flow at both ends of the bridge.  The other would be a much shorter 2nd causeway where the original Queen Isabella Causeway used to be.  This is the shortest distance between the mainland and the Island.
  4. Using the Draft EIS’s own figures, when you add together the habitat impacts to the Piping Plover, the ocelot & jaguarundi, the Aplomado Falcon, and sea turtles, the Preferred Alternative (#6) is the worst of all the alternatives.

We encourage you to look at the Draft EIS on-line, and send in your comments to to SPI2ndAccess@hntb.com or fax to (956) 554-7509.  (Brief comments are better than none at all.)  They are due on August 15.

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The Isla Blanca All Stars on a Sunday evening clean up

By Madeleine Sandefur, Chair of the LRGV Sierra Club Sustainability Committee

As the sun sinks lower on Sunday evenings at the Isla Blanca County Park on South Padre Island, chances are you will encounter a group of LRGV Sierrans who have taken on a seemingly thankless task: picking up trash!

Official estimates peg the number of weekend visitors to Isla Blanca at 6,000-7,000.  Anyone who has been there during the summer months knows that there are mountains of trash left by uncaring beachgoers.  Our group, called the Isla Blanca All Stars, picks up a lot of it, but the REAL mission is to get a message across, which we proclaim on our t-shirts in both English and Spanish: “Respect your beaches; pick up your trash!”  We try to instill some “pride of ownership” – we are, after all, owners of these beaches!  Additionally, we educate the public about the devastating effects litter can have on marine life, such as sea turtles and dolphins, with whom we share the ocean.

This effort was started last Summer with just 3 or 4 volunteers, and has since grown to just shy of a dozen.  Coincidentally, it is quite an international group, with 3 foreign countries represented; volunteers are therefore able to address beachgoers in both English and Spanish.  The goal is to recruit more young people and involve area high school students – we fully realize that it is the younger generation who has to be taught the importance of helping our environment.

Overall, we feel we have had some success in getting out these messages.  Parents have sent their kids over to bring us their trash; some people have thanked us for doing this.  Others have asked us how much we get paid… and when we tell them we are volunteers, their eyes register surprise.  Still others think that the park entrance fee absolves them from having to pick up and leave their trash in the barrels the county provides!

Our nickname was bestowed on us by the Surfrider Foundation’s South Texas chapter and their president, Rob Nixon, who has fought this battle for a long time.  He was instrumental in recently obtaining a commitment from the Cameron County Commissioners, the County Parks Department, and the Constable for this precinct to provide more oversight and start enforcing the litter laws on county beaches.  Additio-nally, our group met with the Director and Assistant Director of the Parks Department and asked them to provide more trash barrels, more frequent pick-ups, and requested that they re-visit the possibility of instituting  the “Cash for Trash” program, which has been very successful on the northern part of the island, at Isla Blanca Park also.

If you live in the Lower Laguna Madre area, or are just visiting the beach one weekend, we would love to have you join our group!  Our motivation and mottos are simple: “The person who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic — the person who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the person who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done. ” (Theodore Roosevelt) –


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Meade)

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By Stefanie Herweck

For the first time in many years, coal plants produced more electricity in Texas than any other source, accounting for almost forty percent of our power in 2010.  In fact, Texas consumes far more coal power than any other state.

Living along the Rio Grande, more than a thousand miles from Appalachian coal mines and 200 miles from the nearest coal-fired plants, it’s easy to forget about our dependence on this dirtiest of all fossil fuels.  And it’s easy to ignore the damage we’re doing by using coal.

After all, how many of us stop a moment before flipping the light switch to think about entire mountaintops being blasted away to get to a thin vein of coal beneath?

Mountain top removal mining has leveled hundreds of mountains, and rubble from their tops has been scraped off and dumped into valleys and streams below.  The blasting creates a barren wasteland atop the newly formed plateau, and the waste rock pollutes entire waterways, burying them at the headwaters.

The coal from these mines and from other surface and underground mines is then washed to remove impurities.  This process leaves a toxic slurry as a waste product.  Every year 90 million gallons of slurry is either injected underground, becoming a threat to the drinking water of hundreds of communities, or poured into surface impoundments which sometimes rupture, causing a tragic loss of life and long-term environmental catastrophe.

Still more lives are lost in the mining process itself.  The workers who extract the coal for our power plants to burn are at extreme risk for pneumoconiosis, or black lung.  The CDC estimates that 12, 000 miners died of black lung in the ten years prior to 2002.

But that far away devastation wasn’t on our minds when we bumped up the thermostat last week to get just a bit warmer.  There aren’t any coal mines along the Texas-Mexico border, after all, and the closest coal-fired power plants are near Victoria and San Antonio.

In fact, the Coleto Creek Power Plant in Victoria has made the news in recent months.  Farmers and scientists contend that the sulfur dioxide the plant emits has been slowly killing the surrounding vegetation, including the trees in area pecan orchards.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest human-caused source of sulfur dioxide, which leads to the formation of acid rain and damages plants, making them vulnerable to disease, insects, and extreme weather.

The smokestacks of the Coleto Creek plant are also responsible for particle pollution, or soot, one of the most deadly types of air pollution.  The sulfur dioxide that they release reacts in the air to form tiny particles which can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where our bodies absorb them as readily as they absorb oxygen.  Soot can trigger heart attacks and strokes, cause irregular heartbeats, and lead to premature death.   In 2004, the Clean Air Task Force found that nearly 24,000 people a year die from particle pollution associated with power plants.

2010 brought a dubious distinction to another coal-fired plant in South Texas.  The San Miguel plant is near Christine, Texas, off Highway 281 an hour south of San Antonio.  San Miguel made the Environmental Integrity Project’s list of top mercury polluters, with the fourth highest mercury emission rate in the entire United States.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that rains down on streams and lakes, accumulating in the fish and seafood that we eat.  In our bodies it acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.  Children and unborn babies are extremely vulnerable to even low levels of mercury exposure, which can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and kidney disorders.

Just up the highway from San Miguel on the south side of San Antonio is the J.K. Spruce 2 Power Plant, which just came online in 2010.  Located near an older, notoriously dirty coal plant called Deely, the Spruce 2 is a darling of the Texas pro-coal lobby.  It features state-of-the-art pollution controls, leading officials to tout it as one of the cleanest coal plants in the country.  Even with the latest technology, however, the Spruce 2 spews out thousands of tons of airborne pollutants every year.

The pollutants the Spruce 2 manages to keep out of the air do not go away, but are trapped by filters and other pollution controls as sludge waste.  This sludge, along with other byproducts made up of parts of coal that do not fully burn, is known as coal combustion waste.  Combustion wastes are laden with toxic doses of deadly chemicals like lead, arsenic and mercury.  Most coal plants store this dangerous waste onsite in surface impoundments or dispose of it in nearby landfills, where leakage can occur and polluted runoff can contaminate ground and surface water.

More than 120 million tons of this waste is produced each year by U.S. coal plants.  Ironically, as coal plants make efforts to clean up the pollution they emit into the air, their solid and liquid waste production grows.

The problem of where and how to safely store this waste doesn’t come up as we turn on our computers and our TVs.   We don’t shudder as we push the power button, thinking of the impact of new plants proposed for South Texas.

The latest proposed plants are the beautifully named White Stallion Energy Center and the Las Brisas Energy Center, in Bay City and Corpus Christi respectively.  White Stallion will burn both coal and petroleum coke, a petroleum byproduct similar to coal.  Las Brisas will burn petroleum coke.

Both recently won permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to build their facilities despite assertions from administrative law judges, TCEQ’s own staff, the Environmental Protection Agency, elected officials, and citizens’ groups that the plant developers are not doing enough to protect public health and safety from dangerous emissions.

To gain a foothold in these South Texas communities, these developers touted the new, cleaner technologies that the plants will employ.  But as residents learned more about how dirty even the newest coal and coke-fired plants are, a tide of opposition has risen.

Even though it is easy to forget about our dependence on coal here along the Rio Grande, we have good reason to join with our fellow South Texans in opposing these new coal and coke plants.

If the plants are built and come online in South Texas, they will add to the over 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired plants in the United States.  Carbon dioxide is a primary culprit in global warming, and coal plants are responsible for 33percent of our total energy-related carbon dioxide pollution, the highest of any fossil fuel.

The negative effects of carbon dioxide and global warming are already being observed around the world.  Left unaddressed, warming will lead to such global problems as water shortages, widespread malnutrition, loss of life and property from more intense weather events, widespread flooding and loss of land in coastal areas, loss of biodiversity, and changes in precipitation patterns.

Unchecked, global warming could also have devastating impacts on our communities here on the coast and along Rio Grande.  As ice sheets melt and warmer ocean water expands, the resulting sea level rise could permanently inundate South Padre Island and other coastal communities.  Warmer waters are expected to intensify the hurricanes that already threaten the Rio Grande Valley and make them even more deadly.  Drought conditions and unpredictable rainfall patterns could cripple the agriculture that is the backbone of our economy.

For the long-term health of our communities, our country, and our world, it is critical that border residents become conscious of where our energy comes from.  We must open our eyes to the harmful effects of our dependence on coal, and the impacts of coal mining, pollution, wastes, and coal’s significant contribution to global warming.  We should demand that our regulatory agencies do their jobs, and protect public and environmental health.  We must reject dirty coal and become a part of the clean energy solution.

And border residents are uniquely poised to do so.  We do not have to sacrifice our health or our environment to turn on the lights.  With abundant solar and wind energy available in South Texas, we have the opportunity to lead the nation in renewable energy development.  It is time we move beyond coal and invest in a cleaner future.

Originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian .

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