Posts Tagged ‘pollution’


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.


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.


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. 


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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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By Stefanie Herweck

They drift in the breeze like white, yellow and blue parachutes and look almost lovely, until they are caught and shredded by a fence, tangled in a tree, or stretched wet and filthy over a drain grate.  They are plastic bags, and they have become a part of the scenery in the Rio Grande Valley, accumulating everywhere, even in rural and natural areas far away from the nearest stores.

Plastic bags have become such an everpresent eyesore that citizens are increasingly willing to trade their small convenience for bag-free streets, sidewalks, and parks.  Dozens of U.S. cities have banned single-use plastic bags or imposed fees for them.  Our own Valley communities of Brownsville and South Padre Island have been at the forefront of the effort to stop the plastic bag blight in Texas, with each passing an ordinance that charges consumers a fee for their use.

These ordinances are gaining traction in part because plastic bag litter is so visible and so unsightly.  Discarded bags blowing around set back efforts to keep our cities clean, and they trash our pristine natural areas.  But plastic bags also have negative impacts that we don’t see—impacts that are far more threatening to the environment and human health.

Every year countless animals die from encounters with plastic bags.  They become entangled in the bags, like the raptor that I witnessed trying desperately to disentangle its talons on a South Padre Island beach a few years ago.  Animals also ingest the bags.  One of the Valley’s premier species, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, can mistake plastic bags floating on the tide for jellyfish and eat them, causing intestinal blockage and even death.

And millions upon millions of bags are floating out there.   They drift on the currents, where exposure to sunlight makes them brittle, causing them to crumble into smaller and smaller pieces.  The plastic does not break down into its component elements; it just fragments into more and more pieces of plastic that are smaller and smaller.  These plastic bits float just below the surface of the water and collect in high concentrations in the mid-ocean gyres, where currents spiral together and the world’s plastic waste accumulates.

This plastic soup is made more poisonous because plastic is oliophilic, meaning that it attracts oil.  Thus it absorbs other oily pollutants that it encounters such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, and motor oil.  When the now highly toxic plastic bag fragments reach a small enough size, they are consumed by zooplankton and filter feeders, and the bag enters the food chain along with the deadly toxins that it absorbed.  Fish eat the plankton, bigger fish in turn eat them, and the plastic and chemicals climb the food chain.  Trace amounts of these chemicals are found in humans, suggesting that we are ultimately consuming the toxin-laden plastics that we so carelessly threw away.

The landfill and the recycling bin are not much more appealing options.   It is costly to get the bags to the landfill.  A study in Austin found that the taxpayers of that city pay $850,000 a year to put plastic bags in landfills and clean them up as litter.  Plastic bags are more likely than other trash to escape from landfills on the wind.  Since the bags do not biodegrade, they remain intact for 500 to 1,000 years, ever threatening to contaminate surrounding lands and streams.

The cost to recycle plastic bags outweighs their value, so often they are not recycled, even when placed in bins set aside for this purpose.  It is estimated that only 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled, and few new bags have recycled content.

Single-use bags, like all plastic, are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.  Fourteen plastic bags contain enough petroleum to drive a car a mile.  We throw away 380 million of them each year—equivalent to dumping 12 million barrels of oil.  Plastic bags give us the pollution of petrochemicals, but none of the energy.

Plastic bags in a field across from Bicentennial Park in Edinburg

Recognizing the harm that single-use bags bring with them, McAllen is the latest city to propose a bag ban.  The Texas Retailers Association and its members oppose the ban.  This week McAllen City Commissioner Scott Crane announced that McAllen’s ban would be put on hold for 90 days while retailers like HEB and Wal-Mart create a voluntary education program.  Just such an outreach effort took place in Austin in 2008 and 2009, but it fell short of its goals.  So, in March Austin is expected to pass an ordinance to first impose fees for, and then ban outright, single-use plastic bags.

As in Austin, McAllen’s voluntary effort is unlikely to succeed.  In the meantime a delay in banning single-use bags will mean that their pollution continues to pile up.

It’s time to stop thinking of single-use bags, as “disposable.”  The fact is that the plastic bag you carry groceries home in today will outlive you.  Your great-grandchildren won’t be able to see it, but its pollutants will still be in the soil that they walk on and the water that they swim in.  Along with their great-grandmother’s eyes or their great grandfather’s smile, they will inherit the plastics and toxins that we bequeathed them, just so that we wouldn’t have to remember to bring along a reusable bag.

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