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Texas State employees have the option to give to charities of their choice through a workplace giving campaign and September is the start of their campaign season.  We want to remind you that throughout the coming year, many communities will be recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Harvey and if you have a workplace giving campaign, you can help charitable organizations throughout the year by having your contributions withheld each pay period.

EarthShare of Texas vets conservation and environmental organizations for hundreds of workplace giving campaigns throughout Texas, of which Public Citizen is one.

Flooding in Bay City, TX post Hurricane Harvey landfall.

UT Professor Kerry Cook, Jim Marston (EDF), Reggie James (Sierra Club), Luis Castilla (Public Citizen) and Adrian Shelley (Public Citizen)

This speech was delivered by our Texas Office director Adrian Shelley at the kickoff event for our Texas Climate Tour.

Dear Friends and Allies,

Thank you for coming today. I would especially like to thank Mayor Steve Adler and the City of Austin for hosting us this morning. I would also like to thank our speakers, including Mayor Adler, Jim Marston with the Environmental Defense Fund, Reggie James with the Sierra Club, Professor Kerry Cook with the University of Texas, and of course, our press officer Luis Castilla.

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. How we act now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change will define us for generations to come. Our leaders in Washington D.C., and even here in Austin, are not willing to face the threat of climate change. This means that we must act now to do everything that we can.

Luis began planning this trip well before any of us knew what was in store for Texas. Now Hurricane Harvey has ravaged our coast, claimed dozens of lives, and displaced tens of thousands of people. My hometown of Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and though the recovery effort will last many years and cost many hundreds of billions of dollars, the city will never fully recover. Harvey has left a deep scar on the Gulf Coast that will not soon heal. Our leaders in Texas have said the cost of reducing CO2 is too great, but now we see that the cost of inaction is far greater.

The tragedy of Hurricane Harvey unfolded over several days in full view of the entire nation. But there is another tragedy occurring on the Texas Gulf Coast. Every day lives are shortened by the impact of the fossil fuel industry. Each day in Houston, in Corpus Christi, in Port Arthur, and in other towns along the coast we see the impacts of this tragedy. Asthma attacks, cancer, and shortened lives are the daily result of a nationwide disaster caused by our reliance on fossil fuels. Climate change is only the biggest of these impacts, but we must be mindful of their daily cost on our most vulnerable brothers and sisters across the state.

Houstonians will recover from the unprecedented disaster that was Hurricane Harvey. They have done so before. But what will happen after the memory of this storm fades? Will we prepare for the next one?

As a nation, we need to rise to this challenge. If our lawmakers in Washington D.C. won’t act, then we need to act for them. As Luis travels across Texas, he will spread the message about what is possible today. Cities occupy only two percent of the world’s landmass, but they consume 2/3 of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions. And with 90 percent of the world’s urban areas situated on coastlines, cities are vulnerable to climate change impacts, such as rising sea levels and powerful coastal storms.

So what can cities do? They can start by counting their carbon pollution emissions. Then they can set targets for reducing those emissions. And they can make actionable policy decisions, such as purchasing renewable energy, amending building codes to promote energy efficiency, and electrifying transportation.

We are part of a movement happening in cities across America. Some of our targets are huge, including the biggest and dirtiest coal plants in the nation. We are looking to do nothing less than transform energy generation and transportation in the United States. With such ambitious goals, taking personal actions isn’t enough—you must also lend your voice to the chorus calling for large-scale action on climate change.

Right now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the chorus is loud. Everyone wants to see something happen. We want to feel like the situation is under control. But we can’t risk losing the energy that has come out of this tragedy. Like we did after Ike, after Katrina, and after Allison. Let’s not find ourselves in this same situation when the next tragedy occurs.

As Luis travels across Texas, meeting Texans where they are, he has an important message for everyone: climate change is a local issue. Its impacts are local. It affects our friends, our families, and ourselves. And its solutions are local. They begin with us, right now.

So even as we begin to put the lessons of Hurricane Harvey behind us, we must ask ourselves: what can I do? What can I do today, to prepare for tomorrow?

As individuals, there are things we can do: You can start today, by recycling, replacing old lightbulbs with LEDs, and turning down your air conditioning. You can schedule an energy audit of your house, which will help you to reduce the energy you use and save you money. You can plan to purchase solar panels for your roof, or buy a more efficient vehicle—even an all-electric one. Most of these solutions will save you money over time.

You’ll find something that you can do. It might feel small today, but it will be a little bit bigger tomorrow. And bigger still the day after. And when you add your voice to the chorus demanding action on climate change, you will become part of something even bigger. You will see how local actions can have a global impact.

Together we can and we must make this transition. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on us taking action – now.

Thank you.

Luis beginning his Texas Climate Tour in a Tesla Model S on loan from Trammell S. Crow.

 

South Texas plant over looking Matagorda Bay

Guest Post submitted by Karen Hadden, Executive Director, Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition; Susan Dancer, President, South Texas Association for Responsible Energy; and Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear, Director, Reactor Oversight Project  

Two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project (STP) near Bay City, Texas should be shut down immediately in order to protect public safety in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, warned three watchdog groups today. With additional rainfall and increased flooding risks anticipated, the groups are calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Governor of Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – the Texas Grid Operator – and utility owners of the nuclear reactors to take action immediately.

“A county-wide emergency evacuation notice was issued last week for all residents to be out ahead of Harvey’s landfall,” said Susan Dancer, President of the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy. “In an even more aggressive move Sunday night, the Bay City Mayor and Matagorda County Judge issued mandatory evacuation orders effective immediately as Bay City is expected to be ten feet under water in a flood of a scale we’d never even imagined, much less experienced. I loaded up my animals and fled my Bay City home, not even taking time to take any possessions with me.  As we tried to flee, water was already flowing across many roads.  Our 911 system is down, as are our police and fire department’s phone and dispatch systems. No emergency services are available. All businesses are shuttered and most are taking on water. Refineries have shut down.

“It’s an outrageous and reckless decision that the nuclear reactors are still running. Why aren’t they in cold shutdown with only a skeleton crew? Where is the concern for employees and their families? Why is corporate profit being prioritized over caution and good judgment?” asked Dancer.

“Sometimes the unimaginable really happens, as we learned from the disaster in Japan. This storm and flood is absolutely without precedent even before adding the possibility of a nuclear accident that could further imperil millions of people who are already battling for their lives,” added Dancer.

“The Colorado River is cresting extremely high and flowing at 70 times the normal rate. It’s expected to approach flood stage (44 feet) near Bay City today, and exceed flood stage on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.” said Karen Hadden, Director of SEED Coalition, “Flood waters reaching the nuclear reactors could make operation increasingly dangerous and the rains are expected to continue. There is plenty of reserve capacity on our electric grid, so we don’t have to run the reactors in order to keep the lights on. With anticipated flooding of the Colorado River, the nuclear reactors should be shut down now to ensure safety.”

“Both the NRC and the operator have previously recognized a credible threat of a severe accident initiated by a breach of the embankment wall that surrounds the 7,000-acre reactor cooling water reservoir,” said Paul Gunter, Director of the Reactor Oversight Project with Beyond Nuclear in Takoma Park, MD, referencing a 12-mile long earth and cement dike that surrounds South Texas Project’s Main Cooling Reservoir. The top of the cooling reservoir wall is at 67-feet above mean sea level with the reactor site situated below at 29-feet above mean sea level. The NRC is not providing a status report on the water level in the reservoir where the normal maximum operating level is 49-feet above mean sea level.

“However remote, it’s simply prudent that the operator put this reactor into its safest condition, cold shutdown,” Gunter concluded.

Utilities in Houston, San Antonio and Austin own the nuclear reactor and operate it as South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company (STPNOC). South Texas Project is seeking to get re-licenced for 20 more years. “Are these nuclear reactors being run at increasing risk just to prove to the public that it can stay open?” asked Karen Hadden.

The watchdog groups pointed out that the Fukushima disaster showed the world that an energy asset can turn into a multi-billion dollar liability overnight. “We should do all we can to prevent such a mistake. Governor Abbott, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and STPNOC should take action now to ensure that the reactors shut down now, before the deluge of hurricane floodwaters hits, risking an emergency situation,” concluded Hadden.

NOTE: Please stay safe and take precautions to protect yourself and your family from Hurricane Harvey. Resources are available at https://www.fema.gov/hurricane-harvey.

Harvey is the first hurricane since Ike in 2008 to threaten the Texas Gulf Coast. Warnings have been issued from “Brownsville to Beaumont” and Governor Gregg Abbott has issued a preemptive disaster declaration for 30 Texas counties. As Texas braces for the storm, Harvey is a stark reminder that the Gulf Coast is vulnerable to severe storms and the impacts of climate change.

The specter of climate change looms over any severe storm forecast today. We can’t ascribe a particular storm to the effects of global climate change, but we do know that climate change may be responsible for an increase in Hurricanes in the Atlantic. Harvey is a reminder that the Texas Gulf Coast,  must prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Some of the doubt about the real risks of global climate change has been sown by leaders of industry. The accusation that “Exxon knew” about climate change decades before it admitted the risk to the public was recently bolstered by research published in Environmental Research Letters. The research supports the conclusion that ExxonMobil willfully hid research conclusions about climate change from the public for many decades.

Whether or not ExxonMobil publicly admits the risk of climate change, the company would do well to prepare for its effects. ExxonMobil operates the second largest oil refinery in the nation, the Baytown Refinery and Complex, with a daily capacity of 560,500 barrels.

Harris County places portions of the ExxonMobil Baytown complex within the 100-year floodplain, shown below in light blue:

Comparing this map to the Google Earth map of the region, you can see a tank farm within the 100-year floodplain:

Zooming in on the outlined area above, we see perhaps three dozen tanks and two petcoke storage pits in the threatened area:

Research organizations in Houston have been modeling the potential impacts of severe storms on the Houston Ship Channel. At Rice University, the center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters has a model of the potential impacts of Tropical storm Harvey. The SSPEED Center predicts sea level rise of several feet in places (for now, no storm surge is predicted in Houston):

We don’t know if this storm, or the next one, will finally tests Houston’s resiliency. What we do know is that our nation’s largest petrochemical complex is vulnerable to severe storms. We also know that climate change will make these storms more frequent, and more dangerous. If we do not prepare ourselves for their impact, we can only hope to recover from their consequences.

Again, please take all necessary steps to protect yourself and your family. Stay safe and visit https://www.fema.gov/hurricane-harvey.

Tuesday evening, the Texas special legislative session abruptly when the House gaveled out sine die signalling they were finished with the special session with one final day still available, leaving several items left undone on Gov. Greg Abbott’s to-do list for lawmakers.  Among them property tax legislation.

However, lawmakers may be back in Austin sooner than you think — but for an entirely different reason. A federal court ruled unanimously Tuesday that two of Texas’ 36 congressional districts are unconstitutional, and ordered that the political boundaries be redrawn ahead of the 2018 elections. The  three-judge panel in San Antonio ruled that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. The judges found that Hispanic voters in Congressional District 27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were “intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.” Congressional District 35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — was deemed “an impermissible racial gerrymander” because mapdrawers illegally used race as the predominant factor in drawing it without a compelling state interest, the judges wrote.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has three days to decide whether he wants state lawmakers to draw a new map — which would inevitably lead to another overtime round at the Capitol — or if he wants to send the issue back to court. Regardless, two things still remain on the table: A new map could shake up multiple congressional races across the state, and the drawing of one could delay the next election cycle.

But for now, all of us who watched hours of cringe-worthy testimony and floor debates get a break from the legislature, but not from the heat.

Back in March of this year, the state of Texas sued several federal agencies in the Fifth Circuit over the federal government’s failure to complete the licensing process for a nuclear waste storage repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, saying it violated the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  They did this in order to facilitate the licensing of a Texas high-level radioactive interim waste storage facility in Andrews, TX at the Waste Control Specialist (WCS) site.
Recently WCS withdrew it’s license application, however Holtec International, a nuclear fuel manufacturing and management company based in Florida, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a temporary storage facility that would consolidate spent fuel rods from across the U.S. at a single site about 15 miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, just over the border from the WCS site in Texas.

The lawsuit, brought by Texas seeks to force an up-or-down vote from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the licensing of the repository at Yucca Mountain stating that a 2012 court-ordered deadline for a final licensing decision has been “wholly ignored” by the federal government. The defendants include the U.S. Department of Energy, the NRC, the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Nevada, which was allowed to intervene in May, told the court in its filing on July 31st that Texas was trying to get the judicial branch to “solve the nation’s decades-old nuclear waste quagmire” by usurping the authority of two executive branch agencies — the DOE and the NRC — and Congress.

In this action, Nevada is represented by the state’s attorney general’s office, Charles J. Fitzpatrick, Martin G. Malsch and John W. Lawrence of Egan Fitzpatrick Malsch & Lawrence PLLC, Antonio Rossmann and Roger B. Moore of Rossmann and Moore LLP and Marta Adams of Adams Natural Resource Consulting Services LLC. 
The state of Texas is represented by Ken Paxton, Jeffrey C. Mateer, Brantley D. Starr, David Austin R. Nimocks, Michael C. Toth, Andrew D. Leonie, David J. Hacker and Joel Stonedale of the Texas attorney general’s office and Robert J. Cynkar of McSweeney Cynkaw & Kachouroff PLLC. The administration is represented by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eric Grant and Department of Justice attorneys David Shilton, Ellen Durkee and David S. Gualtieri. The case is Texas v. U.S. et al., case number 17-60191, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
UPDATE:  Public Citizen’s legal team argued our case forcefully.  But it’s all up to the judge now, who could rule — either for or against us — any day.  Either way, there is likely to be an appeal and you can bet we will continue to need your support.

On August 10th, we appear before a judge to argue Public Citizen v. Donald J. Trump.

In the case, we’re challenging Trump’s deregulatory executive order.

The order aims to make it harder for the government to protect our air and water, guarantee the safety of our food, ensure our cars are safe, protect workers from on-duty hazards, address climate change and much more.

Before we argue the case before the judge, I wanted to take a moment to explain the stakes.

It’s not just what the deregulatory order would do on its own, as horrible as that is.

The order is the centerpiece of one of Trump’s overriding objectives:

Empower Big Business to pollute, cheat, rip off, endanger, discriminate and price gouge free from governmental restrictions.

Trump can’t stop talking about this.

On his fifth day in office, Trump told a gathering of CEOs that environmental protections are “out of control,” and promised to roll back regulations.

A week later, he met with Big Pharma CEOs. In place of his tough talk about medicine prices, he promised to eliminate 75 to 80 percent of FDA regulations — a far more extreme position even than Big Pharma’s.

He’s kept up the talk in his endless meetings with CEOs.

Unfortunately, it’s not just talk.

Trump and his cronies are doing real damage:

  • On his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order freezing all pending regulations.That act alone delayed the start date on important public protections years in the making.
  • At the end of January, Trump signed the deregulatory order at issue in Public Citizen v. Donald J. Trump.The order prevents agencies from issuing new safety, health or other regulatory protections unless they eliminate two on the books. Without considering the benefits of the rules, the costs of the new rule must be fully offset by the costs of the eliminated rules.If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is.
  • In February, Trump signed an order directing agencies to review rules and make recommendations for cuts.The New York Times reports that these reviews are “being conducted in large part out of public view and often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.”
  • The administration worked with the Republican Congress to use an obscure procedure to repeal more than a dozen rules adopted at the end of the Obama administration.The first such measure was an anti-corruption rule.Also sacrificed were rules on internet privacy, toxic pollution of streams and workplace health and safety.
  • On a case-by-case basis, Trump has moved to repeal many of the Obama administration’s most important rules.These include protections against predatory for-profit colleges, a retirement advice rule that will save consumers $17 billion a year, Obama’s main climate change rule and much more.
  • Last month, the White House budget office reported that the Trump administration has withdrawn or suspended 860 pending rules.

This is all part of a grand design.

To let corporations do as they will.

Even if it means more dangerous cars. More bank rip-offs. Preventable injuries at work. Dirtier air and poisoned water. Contaminated food. Preventable, avoidable and unnecessary death, disease and suffering.

And the deregulatory executive order is at the heart of the scheme.

We are doing everything we can to block Trump’s project to permit corporations to pollute and plunder.

Please chip in today to help us fight Trump’s plan.

Donate now or even join our monthly giving program.

Thank you for anything you can contribute!

Robert Weissman, President
Public Citizen

Texas Director Adrian Shelley speaking at a VW Settlement community engagement meeting in Fort Worth.

Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal led to a $14.7 billion dollar settlement. Basically, what Volkswagen did was install what are called “defeat devices” which were programmed to run differently during emissions tests so that they appeared to be much less polluting than they actually are. In some cases, NOx (nitrogen oxides), which is not only harmful but is also a precursor to ground-level ozone, was up to 40 times higher than what the cheating emissions tests revealed!

By cheating on emissions tests, Volkswagen harmed public health, causing at least 59 premature deaths and over $450 million in health and social costs (Barrett, 2015). The settlement provides Volkswagen with a chance to compensate owners of vehicles impacted by the defeat devices, mitigate some of the harm done, and reduce future harm using zero emissions technology.

Details of the Settlement

The Volkswagen Settlement is essentially divided into three parts: a personal vehicle buyback program, an environmental mitigation program to reduce the harm done, and a zero emissions vehicle investment commitment to prevent more harm and promote zero emissions technology.

More information on the personal vehicle buyback program can be found at VW’s settlement website http://www.VWCourtSettlement.com. If you have an eligible vehicle, you may also be eligible for additional funds through the Bosch VW Settlement (https://www.boschvwsettlement.com/en/Home/FAQ).

The Environmental Mitigation Trust will be administered at the state level and will fund projects to upgrade and replace dirty diesel engines. Texas will receive $209 million dollars. Once a beneficiary is designated, projects will be determined. We are collecting feedback on these projects, discussed below.

The third fund is the Zero Emissions Vehicle Investment Commitment, also known as Electrify America. VW will be allocating $2 billion dollars toward zero emissions infrastructure and educational campaigns to promote their use. The City of Houston is among the first round of cities to be supported by this fund.

Community Engagement

Public Citizen, alongside Houston coalition partners Coalition of Community Organizations, t.e.j.a.s., and Air Alliance Houston hosted informational meetings regarding the Volkswagen Settlement at Austin High School in Houston and at the Houston Area Research Center in the Woodlands in May and June. Given that both the Houston area and the Dallas-Fort Worth area are in non-attainment for ozone and that this settlement could help improve air quality in both regions, we hosted additional informational meetings last week in Dallas and Fort Worth with our co-sponsors Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness Group, Liveable Arlington, and Arlington Conservation Council, Fort Worth Sierra Club Group and the Dallas Sierra Club Group.

While some other states have had a formal community engagement process, an agency of the State of Texas has yet to hold public meetings regarding the settlement. That’s where Public Citizen and other organizations have stepped in to gather important feedback from community members in regards to what sorts of projects hold the most interest. These projects are limited to those that reduce NOx emissions through engine upgrades or replacements, such as replacing old freight trucks, school buses, dump trucks, etc. A portion of the funds will be available for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

If your group, city, or region is interested in learning more about the Volkswagen Settlement, please contact Stephanie Thomas at [email protected] to learn about upcoming community meetings.

Excerpted from Ecowatch.

In the late 1600s, France took over the western part of the island of Hispaniola from Spain, dividing the island into what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic (DR). Like a science experiment gone wrong, the border now demarks not only linguistic differences, but also an entirely different quality of life. In 1960, both countries experienced essentially the same rainfall patterns and enjoyed the same geography, availability of natural resources and land productivity. The countries had nearly the same per capita real GDP.

However, by 2005, the DR’s per capita real GDP had increased threefold, while Haiti’s had plummeted. Now, the average person in the DR can expect to live a full 10 years longer than their neighbor in Haiti. The percentage of the population below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption is 44.5 percent in Haiti, compared to 15.4 percent in the DR. The probability of dying under the age of 5 per 1,000 births in Haiti is 76, while in DR, the number is less than half of that. The DR has become a magnet for tourism, while Haiti has become a social, political and economic tragedy. What happened?

In 1950, forest clearing for plantations and wood exports in Haiti had largely ended, but wood harvesting for charcoal continued. A mere 30 years later, forest cover had diminished from 25 percent of the total land area to a meager 10 percent. It decreased again to 4 percent of the land by 1994.

Across the border, the DR initially suffered from deforestation as well. Tree cover plummeted from 75 percent of the land in 1922 to 12 percent by the 1980s. However, massive reforestation programs and a conscious shift to alternative energy sources (besides charcoal) allowed the trees to rebound. The nation established 13 national parks and restricted access to important forest reserves. Today, forest covers 28 percent of the country.

Forests prevent soil erosion. Sturdy trunks slow winds. Roots hold the soil in place and improve soil permeability. They allow water to percolate into underground aquifers, decreasing surface water runoff. Leaves lessen the impact of heavy rains and reduce flooding. Dead trees, leaves and bark add organic matter to the topsoil, completing nutrient cycles and replenishing the land. Forests act as natural buffers as well, slowing floodwaters and shielding the coast from hurricane surges. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 3,000 people in Haiti, while the DR lost 19. While other factors undoubtedly contributed to these numbers, the ability of forested coasts and watershed areas to mitigate hurricane damage is undeniable.  

The United Nations estimates that “50% of the (Haitian) topsoil has been washed away into the ocean” and that damaged lands have become “irreclaimable for farming purposes.” Although nearly 60 percent of the Haitian people work in the agricultural sector, the country still must import nearly half of its food.

While Haiti has also suffered from serious political strife since 1960, environmental degradation remains one of its greatest challenges. We cannot continue to view environmental policies as counter to economic growth and human happiness, but as necessary to achieve them. Climate change and an ever-increasing population mean that decisions have to be made now.

The time to think sustainably has come and that applies to Texas too.  The misguided bills that have been proposed during the current Texas Special session (HB 70 by Workman and SB 14 by West – Relating to a property owner’s right to remove a tree or vegetation.) are an example of policies that can negatively impact our state.

In central Texas the number of days above 100 has increased 37.7 days since 1970.  If this trend continues, the drought of 2011 could become the norm for the state.  Trees are one of the ways we mitigate some of the impacts of climate change.  This is especially true in urban areas where large expanses of hardscape (roads, parking lots and buildings) contribute to heat island effects.  These are the areas where local tree ordinances make a big difference.  So contact your Texas Senator and Representative and ask them to vote against HB 70 and SB 14. If you don’t know who represents you click here.  

San Antonio rally to support signing on to the Climate Mayor’s pledge. Photo by Brendan Gibbons /San Antonio Express-News

With the recent election of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and six new council members, San Antonio is much better positioned now than it was a few months ago to take a leadership role in combating climate change.

At its first meeting, the newly sworn in council adopted a resolution committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting the goals the U.S. set in the Paris Climate Accord under President Obama. As a result, Mayor Nirenberg added his name to a pledge from over 350 U.S. mayors in the Climate Mayors association, stating their commitment to climate action, even though President Trump has committed to remove the U.S. from the agreement.

Local action to reduce greenhouse gas emission is more important than ever, both to compensate for the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and because the climate crisis is becoming more and more urgent all the time. A majority of Americans live in cities, and cities – especially large cities like San Antonio – have the ability to directly control or influence systems that are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. Cities have control over energy codes for buildings, local transportation planning, land use plans, and waste collection. And some cities – including San Antonio – have the added benefit of owning their own municipal electric utilities.

San Antonio has taken the first step of publicly committing to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the U.S. meet the commitment it made to the rest of the world. The next step is to set specific goals for greenhouse gas reductions and develop a plan to make that possible. Because there is a lot of infrastructure that isn’t controlled by cities that will continue driving up greenhouse gas emissions under Trump’s industry-friendly policies, cities are going to have to be very aggressive to keep the U.S. as a whole on track to meet its Paris goals. Even before Trumps election, cities have been adopting aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals and plans to meet those goals. In 2014, the Austin City Council adopted a goal for the entire Austin community to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner, if possible.

Now is the time for the San Antonio City Council to keep up the momentum by adopting an aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goal for the community and starting the process of developing a climate action plan to achieve the adopted goal. Given that San Antonio controls the electric utility that serves the city, a net zero greenhouse gas goal should be given strong consideration. Both adequate funding and a framework that will allow broad and meaningful community participation in development of the plan will be important.

Public Citizen is part of a coalition working to promote adoption of a San Antonio climate action plan. If you live in San Antonio and want to get involved in this work, email me at [email protected]

UPDATE – The Senate Business & Commerce Committee will meet at 9:00 AM, Saturday, July 22, 2017 in the Texas capitol hearing room E1.016 to hear testimony on SB 14 by Hall – relating to a property owner’s right to remove a tree or vegetation.  If you are in Austin  this weekend, considering stopping by the capitol and testifying or even just registering your position against this bill at one of the House registration kiosks in the capitol extension.  (do this before the hearing starts at 9:00 AM to make sure your position is documented.

Contributed by Citizen Rita

Recently in Dallas, two developers made the mistake of butchering trees on two different sites causing an uproar in both North (pictured) and South Dallas. This action currently violates Dallas’ tree ordinance which could be put in jeopardy if Governor Abbott gets his way. Photo by Rita Beving

This week marks the start of the Special Session at the Texas Legislature.  Governor Abbott has put forward a wish list of twenty agenda items including a bill that would prevent cities from regulating what property owners can do with trees on private land.

Already during the 85th legislative session, bills attempted to take an axe to local control and city tree ordinances including one by Representative Workman (HB 1572) who devised a bill to allow trees to be cut down if the owner felt a tree(s) posed a “fire risk.”  Other bills such as one by Senator Kolkhorst (SB 744), would have given developers more latitude in a city that imposes a tree mitigation fee by allowing developers to apply for a credit if they plant trees elsewhere, instead of paying the mitigation fee.  Both bills failed to become law, though Kolkhorst’s bill made it all the way to the finish line, only to be vetoed in the end by Governor Abbott.

Perhaps the Governor’s veto pen was triggered with an aspiration to deal trees a more fatal blow with a sweeping bill in the Special Session to take total local control away on all city tree ordinances across the state.  Abbott has tapped Senator Bob Hall of Rockwall, who unsuccessfully tried to take away cities ability to have bag bans, as his champion to carry the tree ordinance ban in the Senate (SB 14).  In the House, Abbott recruited  Representative Workman, the author of the failed tree fire risk bill, and whose roots (pardon the pun) are in the construction business, to head up the efforts (HB 70).

There are more than 50 cities in Texas with ordinances that protect trees on private property that would be affected if this proposed legislation passed.

Thwarting the preservation of mature trees is not only short-sighted but also short changes the value of a property.  Numerous national surveys including one by the University of Washington show that towering trees increase the value of a property by 7 to 19 percent.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one healthy tree next to one’s home can provide the cooling effect of ten air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.  According to the USDA Forest Service, trees properly placed around a building can reduce air conditioning costs by as much as 30% and can save between 20 to 50% of the energy used in heating.

Trees help our urban climate in many ways.  They keep cities cooler and reduce air pollution, as less fossil fuel is needed to generate electricity to air condition buildings. Trees also help clean the air by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.  Additionally, trees contribute to improving the health of our local communities by collecting and hold dust pollution.

Management Information Services has estimated that the average value of the 60 million plus street trees in this country have an average value of $525.00 per tree.

So what’s not to like about trees, especially beautiful mature ones?

Well, critics speculate that Governor Abbott wants this bill partially out a personal vendetta against the City of Austin which told him that he couldn’t chop down a pecan tree in his backyard without replacing it or paying into the reforestation fund.  It’s also been said that the Governor thinks protecting trees is a “socialist” view and that it “violates private property rights.”

Tell Governor Abbott he needs to see the forest through the trees and realize the “green” in “green.” Abbott shouldn’t use a personal incident to destroy the value that the rest of us see and realize on our properties by taking away the power of local municipalities to pass and execute their tree ordinances.

Urge your Texas Legislator to block any attempts during the special session to eliminate cities’ abilities to protect old growth trees to cool our homes and in turn, our cities.

The state of Texas allows industrial facilities to repeatedly spew unauthorized air pollution — with few consequences

For more than two decades, Dennis Gallagher was a proud Shell employee.

During his 22 years working at the energy juggernaut’s sprawling, 80-year-old complex in this Refinery Row suburb of Houston, he learned to oversee different parts of the massive chemical plant and refinery. The facilities manufacture not only oil but a variety of hazardous chemicals that — if mishandled — could easily explode and level the 2,300-acre compound, located less than a mile from residential neighborhoods.

Until two years ago, the Michigan native’s only truly bad day at work was in 1997, when a gas compressor exploded and he was “picked up like a leaf” and blown back 25 feet. Then came what should have been a quiet Sunday in August 2015, when everything went wrong.

A critical pump failed. A small tank overfilled. Then more than 300,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene — a highly explosive chemical and known human carcinogen used to manufacture rubber — escaped into the atmosphere.

It was the largest malfunction-related air pollution event in the Houston area that year — in less than an hour, the plant spewed 258 times more butadiene into the atmosphere than allowed by state law — and air pollution watchdogs say it was one of the most dangerous they’ve seen.

An internal investigation later noted that the amount of hydrocarbons released that day was more than eight times higher than the amount released during the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 people and injured 180 others.

There was no explosion that day. But Gallagher says the incident cost him his job and maybe his health. He struggled with chest pains and balance issues afterward — the latter is a known side effect of butadiene exposure — and had to take a year off. When he came back, Gallagher said he was put on probation for the incident and, after a minor screw-up during a routine re-training, promptly fired.

And yet it cost Shell Chemical, a subsidiary of the fifth-largest company in the world, next to nothing.

State records show the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental regulatory agency, fined the company just $25,000 — the maximum allowed for an air permit violation under state law — and required it to execute a “corrective action plan,” which called for mostly refresher training.

It’s a scenario that plays out again and again in Texas when industrial polluters spew noxious chemicals into the air during malfunctions and other unplanned incidents, exceeding the emission limits of their state-issued air permits.

A Texas Tribune analysis of self-reported industry data shows that thousands of such rogue releases occur at Texas industrial sites each year. They are known generically as “emissions events”— a term that refers to both malfunctions or “upsets” and unplanned “maintenance, start-up or shutdown” activities.

Whether they are truly unavoidable is a point of dispute.

Read the full article by the Tribune here.

The Center for Nonprofit Studies at Austin Community College has developed a series of “civil” discussions of the significant issues which Austin, TX faces entitled Civil Society.  This is a moderated discussion exploring significant issues confronting our society.

Public Citizen applauds ACC’s efforts in advancing civil dialogue and greater awareness of the critical role nonprofit organizations play in our communities, we honor the passion, persistence, and life changing results of those who make the Austin community stronger, more inclusive, and more vibrant.

Episodes 3 and 4 can be viewed below and you can watch previous episodes and find resources at:  nonprofitaustin.org/civilsociety

Civil Society Episode 3: 
Diversity and Equity in Central Texas
As recently as 2014, Austin was rated the 10th most segregated city in America. In 2015, the Martin Prosperity Institute named Austin the most economically segregated metro area in America. Texas is well represented on that list: San Antonio is #3, Houston is #4, and Dallas is #7. This episode explores what this means for African Americans in Central Texas.
Civil Society Episode 4:
Digital Divide in Central Texas
Right now, a majority of Austin residents have access to computers and the internet. Most of us are logging in on a daily basis, specifically with mobile technologies, but there is a segment of the population, that represents the digital divide. These are people who do not have access to, or knowledge of how to use computers and the internet, making it harder to get a good job, to have access to social programs or even keep in touch with family and to make ends meet overall. In this episode we talk about what Austin is doing to close that gap.
Barry Silverberg and Lisa Bussett, CNS Director and Coordinator, are co-Executive Producers; Julie Niehoff and CJ Niehoff, principals of Distance Learning Media, LLC, are Moderator and Director.  All programs utilize ACC television studios and staff, to record and broadcast the shows.

You can watch episodes and find resources at:  nonprofitaustin.org/civilsociety

Map of air monitoring sites in Austin. Light blue sites monitor for ozone.

On June 12, Governor Greg Abbott signed a $217 billion budget for Texas into law. Abbott also exercised line-item vetoes to eliminate $120 million from the budget. Among those cuts were $87 million for the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, a voluntary program that helps low-income Texans replace their old, polluting vehicles with newer ones.

Continuing the assault on clean air, Abbott also cut $6 million for air quality planning in certain areas of the state (see pdf p. 5). The governor’s comment on this funding cut is worth quoting in full, beginning with the item vetoed and then the comment in italics:

  1. Air Quality Planning. Amounts appropriated above include $6,000,500 for the biennium out of the Clean Air Account No. 151 in Strategy A.1.1, Air Quality Assessment and Planning, for air quality planning activities to reduce ozone in areas not designated as nonattainment areas during the 2016 17 biennium and as approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). These areas may include Waco, El Paso, Beaumont, Austin, Corpus Christi, Granbury, Killeen Temple, Longview Tyler Marshall, San Antonio, and Victoria. These activities may be carried out through interlocal agreements and may include: identifying, inventorying, and monitoring of pollution levels; modeling pollution levels; and the identification, quantification, implementation of appropriate locally enforceable pollution reduction controls; and the submission of work plans to be submitted to the TCEQ. The TCEQ shall allocate $350,000 to each area and the remaining funds to each area based on population in excess of 350,000. The grant recipients shall channel the funds to those projects most useful for the State Implementation Plan (SIP).

This program funds, among other items, bicycle use programs, carpooling awareness, environmental awareness campaigns, and locally enforceable pollution reduction programs in near non-attainment areas, which can be funded at the local government level. Resources in the Clean Air Account should be prioritized to directly address problems in our non-attainment areas of the state so that we are better positioned to combat the business-stifling regulations imposed on these areas by the Environmental Protection Agency. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.

This is an unfortunate description of air quality planning activities and of the purpose of the Clean Air Account itself. So what are “air quality planning activities to reduce ozone in areas not designated as nonattainment areas”?

Ozone is a harmful pollutant that is linked to everything from asthma attacks and difficulty breathing to heart attacks, stroke, and premature death. Ozone is formed in the atmosphere through the mixing of other pollutants that are emitted by vehicles and industrial sources such as refineries. There are two areas of the state—Houston, and Dallas—that do not meet the federal air pollution standards for ozone. These are our “nonattainment” areas. There are many other areas in the state—including San Antonio and Austin—that do meet the federal ozone standard but still have numerous bad ozone days throughout the year. These areas, especially San Antonio, risk worsening air quality and an eventual “nonattainment designation” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Such a designation would subject the area to decades of regulation and costs that could reach the billions.

All of us have seen the ozone action day announcements.  Those alert at-risk citizens (like children, the elderly and those who have certain health risks) to curtail their outside exposure to mitigate the negative health impacts.  Local air quality monitors are what alert us to those dangers.

In order to keep the “near-nonattainment” areas clean and healthy (and to avoid the federal designation), Texas appropriates several million dollars for air quality planning activities. This money enables these areas to participate in programs like the ozone Early Action Compact. So far, these programs have been successful, though San Antonio may inevitably face a nonattainment designation as it grows.

Surely Governor Abbott understands the importance and success of these air quality planning activities. Describing the program as consisting of “bicycle use programs, carpooling awareness, environmental awareness campaigns, and locally enforceable pollution reduction programs” is an obvious straw man. Bicycle and carpooling programs—while important in their own right—are not all that goes into air quality planning.

Air quality planners in Houston demonstrate how that city’s air monitors operate.

In Austin, for example, the city maintains eight ozone monitors in addition to the two maintained by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). These additional monitors help with air quality forecasting. They also help us to better understand large-scale impacts on air quality to our region by sources such as the Fayette power plant to the southeast, or Dallas to the north.

San Antonio just announced that it will shut down six ozone air monitors and lay off four staff members in response to the governor’s cuts. This is truly unfortunate for the people affected and for air quality monitoring and pollution prevention. If data is never collected, the ability to paint long-term pictures and identify trends in air pollution is lost for that time period. San Antonio may one day refund its program, but its former employees will have moved on, and the data will have been lost forever.

On the same day, San Antonio made this announcement, the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition in Austin held an emergency meeting to discuss how it would respond to the proposed funding cuts. The Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) has asked its member counties and cities to consider an additional financial contribution to support ongoing air quality planning activities in Austin. CAPCOG proposed tiered levels of funding that would alternatively fund more or less the region’s activities.

At the meeting, CAPCOG members seemed to understand the importance of a funding level that would keep all staff in place and all air monitors active. Cuts will definitely have to be made (to, for example, the regular maintenance schedule for those monitors) but if CAPCOG’s members do approve the appropriate tier of funding, then air quality planning programs in Austin will remain largely intact.

We hope that Austin is able to continue its important work by keeping Austinites safe from dangerous ozone pollution. Governor Greg Abbott may not recognize the importance of this work right now, but we hope that he does some day and that these shortsighted cuts do not continue.

Last week, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), succeeded in rushing his Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste dump legislation past the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee he chairs.

Now the bill (HR 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Acts of 2017) moves on to the full U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Full committee mark up is currently expected to take place next Wednesday, June 28th.

If passed there, it would then move on to the full House floor for consideration. If ultimately passed into law, H.R.3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, would launch unprecedented thousands of truck, train, and/or barge shipments of irradiated nuclear fuel, through 45 states, bound for Nevada. These shipments would pass through the heart of many major cities. They would also pass through 370 of the 435 congressional districts across the U.S.!  But before that, it would expedite the opening of centralized interim storage sites for radioactive waste in Texas and/or New Mexico, multiplying the risks.  WCS has applied for a site in Andrews County Texas and the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, working with Holtec, has applied for a site near Hobbs and Carlsbad, NM.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry just dropped a bombshell proposal this week, at a U.S. House hearing, to also do interim storage at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site, before ultimately burying the wastes at Yucca, all against the state’s will, without its consent.

Each shipment, whether to a permanent storage site or one of the proposed “interim” storage sites, represents a potential Dirty Bomb on Wheels risk, whether due to severe accident or intentional attack. The hazardous gamma radiation that could be emitted would expose persons who are too close (e.g. living along the shipping route, getting stuck next to a shipment in traffic, etc.) to a myriad of health impacts.  Transportation routes to either the proposed west Texas or New Mexico interim storage sites would likely have nuclear waste traveling through the DFW metroplex area, Houston and San Antonio, depending upon where the waste originated.  This is an issue that Texans should weigh in on.  Dallas, Midland, San Antonio and Andrews County have already passed resolutions asking that radioactive waste not be transported through  their communities.  What can you do?

Urge your U.S. Representative to block this dangerous legislation, by voting against HR 3053 and urging their U.S. House colleagues to do the same.

The bill itself: http://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF00/20170628/106210/BILLS-1153053ih.pdf

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