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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Six years ago, Public Citizen and our partners founded the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), which advocates for the health and well-being of residents of communities on the Houston Ship Channel. The coalition also includes Air Alliance Houston, the Coalition of Community Organizations, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Recently, we had an opportunity to convene the HPCC in Houston to discuss our work. One purpose for the trip was to introduce our new Press Office, Angel Amaya, to Port Houston. Port Houston is the largest exporting port in the nation and the center of Houston’s petrochemical industry.

We started at Morgan’s Point Cemetery, the oldest continually operated cemetery in Harris County. It is the small green square in the middle of the photo above. Surrounding the cemetery is the Barbours Cut terminal and turning basin. This is one of two container terminals at Port Houston. Goods from all over the world come into Barbours Cut on very large vessels packed with shipping containers. One ship can carry as many as 4,500 containers. (There are even larger ships, the so-called “Post-Panamax” ships, that can carry as many as 9,000 containers, but they are too large to enter Barbours Cut.) The containers are offloaded by cranes (top of photo) and moved on to trucks and trains to be shipped around the country. Many of the engines that operate at a terminal like Barbours Cut–including marine vessels, cranes, short-haul equipment, drayage trucks, and locomotives–use polluting fossil fuels such as diesel. The Healthy Port Communities coalition advocates for replacement of these polluting vehicles with newer, clean technologies. Many funding opportunities are available for these replacements, including the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan.

A container terminal like Barbours Cut is probably what most people think of when they think of what goes on at a port. There is plenty of container traffic at Port Houston, but in fact this represents only about 15% of the total traffic.

The rest of the traffic consists of bulk products, most of them petrochemical. We visited many of the industrial facilities that produce these petrochemical products. One of the most infamous petrochemical facilities on the Houston Ship Channel is the Pasadena Refinery, owned by the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras.

Pasadena Refinery is notoriously troubled. In recent years, its woes have included explosions with injury, protests by environmental groups and concerned neighbors, lawsuits by environmental groups, and international bribery scandals. It was recently announced that Petrobras is trying to sell the refinery, although it is unclear who would want to buy such a dangerous liability.

We also visited Hartman Park in the community of Manchester, sometimes referred to as “Houston’s most polluted neighborhood.” Our friends at t.e.j.a.s. have advocated for years for the people of Manchester. When our new Press Officer Angel visited Hartman Park, she was struck by this mural:

Created by children living in Manchester, the mural perhaps unintentionally shows how intrusive polluting facilities are in the lives of people living on the Houston Ship Channel. An idyllic scene of children playing in a park is flanked by industrial stacks spewing pollution into the air. The mural is a stark reminder of what life is like for some of our most vulnerable neighbors in certain parts of Texas.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is advocating on the behalf of those neighbors who live in Houston. We finished our trip to Houston with a meeting of HPCC member groups. One topic of discussion was the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC). The CCAC was created after the Port of Houston Authority Sunset Review in 2013. Public health advocates had asked for representation on the Port Commission itself, with the addition of a new seat representing community interests. That recommendation was rejected by the state legislature, although certain other reforms were implemented. After the sunset review was complete, some advocates continued to call for more representation of community interests at the port. Longtime port community advocate Sen. John Whitmire joined this call, asking the new Port of Houston Authority Chairman Janice Longoria to act. Chairman Longoria responded by creating the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition has had members and allies on the CCAC since it was created. Although we appreciated the move, in the years following we have not seen the CCAC be an effective body advocating for public health protections. This is in part due to the manner in which it was created and operates. In order to improve the CCAC, we have compiled a list of recommendations:

 

  1. The existence of the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC) should be codified in statute, regulation, or by memorandum.
  2. The chairs on the CCAC should be designated for particular constituencies or neighborhoods, including the chair already designated for the Healthy Port Communities Coalition.
  3. The representative for each chair should be selected by each corresponding constituency, via a process of their choosing.
  4. The CCAC should have the authority to set agenda items for CCAC meetings.
  5. CCAC members should be given time to make presentations at CCAC meetings. Port Houston should be required to formally respond to any presentations and answer any questions posed.
  6. The CCAC should have the authority to make information requests and pose questions to Port Houston. The Port Commission should be required to respond.
  7. The CCAC should be given monthly opportunities to report on its work to the Port Commission.
  8. The CCAC should be able to recommend studies to be conducted by Port Houston. If Port Houston declines to undertake a recommended study, it should clearly state its rationale for doing so.

To her credit, Chairman Longoria did implement #7 above at the request of one of the CCAC members (a t.e.j.a.s. employee). But for the most part, the CCAC still functions as an isolated body whose members serve at the pleasure of the chairman. We believe that the above reforms would make the body a more effective advocate for portside community residents. This would lead to a port that took better care of its neighbors and served as a better steward of public health and the environment.

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This year, Public Citizen was proud to be a sponsor of Air Alliance Houston’s State of the Air Gala.

A partner in Public Citizen’s Healthy Ports Community Coalition, Air Alliance Houston (AAH) focuses on creating a healthier Houston by preventing pollution before it happens. Right now, Houston currently has 24,000 lane-miles of roadways which carry more than 465 million tons of goods each year. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, freight traffic is expected to increase by 56% over the next 20 years. And if we don’t do anything about it now, pollution is going to get a whole lot worse. Despite improvements over the past few decades, Harris County still receives an “F”  from the American Lung Association for ozone pollution!  We thank all of you who joined us in celebrating the work of Air Alliance Houston at the State of the Air Gala.

Funds raised through this event will support AAH’s programs, allowing them to continue their research, education, and advocacy work to advance the public health of Houston area communities by improving air quality.

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Note: Today Governor Greg Abbott designated the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as the lead agency to administer $209 million of funding from the Volkswagen (VW) settlement. The money is intended to remedy harm caused by illegal emissions from VWs by reducing air pollution through purchase of clean vehicles. The Healthy Port Communities Coalition and its members are asking for that money to be spent on electric vehicles and infrastructure.
TCEQ’s press release: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/news/releases/gov-abbott-selects-tceq-to-distribute-209-million

Statement of Adrian Shelley, Director, Public Citizen’s Texas Office

Governor Greg Abbott has a chance for a trifecta here: create jobs, reduce pollution, and lower operating costs for local governments. The Volkswagen settlement can make this possible. Because Volkswagen polluted Texas with illegal emissions from diesel vehicles, the top priority for using settlement funds is to remove old, dirty diesel vehicles from the road. These vehicles should be replaced with all-electric vehicles (EVs) in order to save lives and help Texas meet federal air pollution standards.

The Volkswagen settlement funds also provide an economic opportunity for Texas. Texans build trucks, heavy duty equipment, and batteries. Texans have the technical know-how to build electric vehicle infrastructure. Electric vehicles built and sold in Texas will consume energy produced in Texas. Furthermore, these vehicles will get cleaner as electricity production in Texas gets greener. Compressed natural gas vehicles aren’t going to get any cleaner over time—they will still continue to produce the carbon dioxide and methane emissions responsible for climate change. EVs also save money over the life of the vehicles because their fuel and maintenance costs are much lower. There is no comparison: Electric Vehicles are the best option for Texas.

Investing in electric vehicles and infrastructure now will reduce costs in the long term. Government fleets will pay less for fuel. EVs can be charged with clean, renewable energy produced right here in Texas. This is the future, and Governor Abbott has an opportunity to seize it now.

Statement of Rev. James Caldwell, founder and executive director of Coalition of Community Organizations:

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition implores the Governor and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to leverage funds from the Volkswagen penalties to purchase electric vehicles, which are the cleanest vehicles available today, to reduce emissions and to help provide relief to communities breathing in toxic air every day.


Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., with an office in Austin, Texas.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition advocates for the health and welfare of Houston Ship Channel communities, and includes Air Alliance Houston, the Coalition of Community Organizations, Public Citizen, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

 

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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.

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Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

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After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

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Freight ShuttleOn September 9th, Adrian Shelley and I went to Bryan, Texas, to watch the unveiling of the Freight Shuttle System (FSS), a technology  currently being built and tested by Freight Shuttle International. Dr. Stephen Roop, chief scientist at Freight Shuttle International and and professor at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, opened the unveiling with a press briefing sharing his vision. The FSS is an electric, autonomous shuttle powered by a linear induction motor, providing low friction to the steel wheels running on steel lines, similar to train tracks. The FSS combines elements of truck and train transport – single shuttles run on a track similar to a train track, and according to Dr. Roop’s vision, those tracks would be elevated from other modes of transportation to reduce congestion, provide a strong level of predictability and non-stop service, and reduce infrastructure damage often associated with truck transportation. 

Dr. Roop noted the emissions of the FSS are tied to the source of power. What that means is that the FSS itself would generate no point-of-source pollution like the cancer-causing pollution created by diesel engines currently on the road. Furthermore, because the FSS would operate under DC voltage, it could be tied easily to renewable energy. In that way, the FSS could take advantage of the increasing access to renewable energy in Texas and potentially be net zero in terms of carbon pollution.

Adrian and Stephanie with Freight Shuttle

Adrian and Stephanie with Freight Shuttle

The FSS is not designed to transport hazardous or toxic materials, and although it could possibly be used to transport people, it is intended now to be separate from people – that is to be contained within a separate line so that the roads and highways can be used for people, not cargo.

The Port of Houston Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with Freight Shuttle International and is planning to use the FSS to transport cargo between its container terminals, Bayport and Barbour’s Cut. Freight Shuttle International stated that the FSS line could be operational within 3 years.

 

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HPCC-Dee-Blast-Zone-768x1024

Dee Arellano (t.e.j.a.s.) shows the oil train blast zone for East Houston.

The news of the fiery explosion of two trains in Panhandle, Texas broke as organizers in Houston were discussing how to reduce the high risks of accidents involving toxic trains in Houston. That day, June 28th, two trains collided, resulting in a fiery explosion, the presumed death of three workers and the hospitalization of another. The trains in Panhandle, TX, were fortunately not carrying crude. However, the collision and explosion reminded us of the importance of standing up for safety in rail transport during the Stop Oil Trains Week of Action, July 6th – 12th.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) kicked off the week of action on July 6th with a press conference and a community meeting to discuss the risks that we Houstonians face as a result of rail traffic within our communities. This was especially poignant as less than a week earlier, on June 28th, two trains collided near Panhandle, TX, leaving 1 employee injured and 3 employees presumed dead. Fiery and fatal incidents over the past few years have increased concerns around rail, public safety, and chemical security, and we shared our concerns with media (“Exigen a autoridades frenar la contaminación por el transporte de combustible” and “Crude-by-Rail Plummeting In Texas But Critics Insist Risk Of Accidents Remains“) and with community members. From our discussion, community members wanted to find out more information about exactly what kind of chemicals are transported through their neighborhoods to better understand the risks. The HPCC is taking a stand against oil trains because we are concerned with hazardous, flammable materials coming into the Houston area. Toxic trains put Houstonians at risk through the possibility of explosion and by polluting the air with cancer-causing diesel and other toxic gases, through collisions, and by trapping folks behind stalled trains. One person reported being trapped behind a train for 90 minutes! (more…)

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Columbia Gorge Oil Train DerailmentFollowing last week’s derailment in the Colombia River Gorge of a 96-car train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, former National Transportation Safety Board chair, Jim Hall, said, “carrying crude oil by rail is just not a good idea.”  Read his piece in the Oregonian here.

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The Uber/Lyft debate has been raging in Austin for months, but do you know what you’ll actually be voting on?  Voting is a right, but being an informed voter is a responsibility.

Proposition 1 is a vote on rules and regulations in Austin for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. If you vote AGAINST Prop. 1, you’re voting for the City of Austin’s proposed safety rules. If you vote FOR Prop. 1, you’re voting for Uber and Lyft’s proposed regulations that they personally drafted in retaliation to the Austin City Council’s ordinance. While a lot of the rules in the two ordinances are the same, there are some very important differences as well. To make it easier for voters to understand, we’ve highlighted the differences in the ordinances, and therefore what Austin residents are really voting on at the polls on May 7.

Key:

  • AGAINST PROP 1 – City of Austin’s regulations
  • FOR PROP 1 – Uber and Lyft’s regulations
  • TNC (Transportation Network Company) – an organization, whether a corporation, partnership, sole proprietor, or other form, which provides on-demand transportation services for compensation using an online-enabled application or platform to connect passengers with drivers.
  • ATD (Austin Transportation Department) – section of the Austin government that addresses transportation needs and challenges, as well as public safety.

Austin Proposition 1 Comparison Table

The regulations the City Council passed in December requiring stricter rules than currently in place for Uber and Lyft are not absurd. People who operate pedicabs or horse carriages in the city already have to get fingerprinted. Make no mistake; this is not an issue of keeping Uber and Lyft in Austin. That’s not what the vote is for on May 7. The City Council isn’t kicking anyone out; they’re just leveling the playing field for all TNCs by making sure they follow the same rules.  And if these particular companies choose not to do business here, Austin Uber and Lyft drivers will soon be provided with new transportation companies to drive for.

Uber and Lyft have already pumped $2.2 million into this campaign, which is evident in their abundant advertising. This is supposed to be a local issue, but it’s quickly becoming a perfect example of why Citizens United should be repealed. Vote “No” for Prop. 1 and show corporations that they can’t write their own rules and buy local politics in Austin.

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As a global industry, aviation produces 2% of the planet’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Its outlook isn’t good either, because it’s projected to grow by 3-4% each year as the industry expands. While air travel has become 70% more efficient per seat-mile than when jets first began operating in the 1960s, the industry’s growth has resulted in higher overall CO2 emissions.NASA Armstrong

NASA’s project LeapTech is in the process of testing a new approach to powering flight. The concept is called distributed propulsion, and it’s the future of low-carbon aviation. Paul J Willett - We Love The Stars Too Fondly (with truck)The project features a 30-foot airplane wing – the kind found on a small plane. The new wing design has 18 electric motors with small propellers along its leading edge.

Engineers attached the wing to steel supports on a Peterbilt truck, and have been simulating takeoff and landings at the Edwards Air Force Base in California. They have driven the wing-truck contraption down the runway at more than 70 miles-per-hour.

The idea behind distributed propulsion is to take the engines from their usual position hanging below the wings and put them elsewhere. Because jet engines are complex, heavy devices, distributed propulsion designs almost always involve simpler and smaller electric motors.

Paul J Willett - We Love The Stars Too Fondly (close-up)Distributing the motors around the plane (instead of in just one spot) has aerodynamic advantages. The position of the motors on the leading (front) edge of the LeapTech wing results in accelerated airflow over it, which increases lift at takeoff and landing. Because of this, the wing can be made narrower, which reduces drag and improves efficiency at cruising speeds.

In terms of reducing an airplane’s carbon footprint, the key is cutting down on the plane’s weight and drag, and reducing the engine’s excess fuel burn. Some planes have been partly redesigned. In the coming years, Boeing will introduce the 777x, a variant of their 777 model. However, the new design of the 777x features composite wings and more efficient engines than the traditional 777. But the basic design of airplanes still remains the same – a tube and wings.

Besides NASA’s LeapTech project, there have been other innovations in airplane technology. Engineers have made planes lighter by using composite materials, jet engines have become more efficient, and alternative biofuels are increasingly being used. Better management of airplane traffic at airports and in the air has also reduced emissions. Many of the aviation industry’s improvements involve changes to existing planes though – like replacing older engines with more efficient models, or adding winglets to wings to reduce drag and improve efficiency.

In the future, NASA thinks that planes could be powered by hybrid gas-electric systems or by batteries. Potential designs could have lighter wings that can quickly shape to handle turbulent air. Other concepts could eliminate the conventional tube and wing design for one that blends the two elements.

For NASA, the next step is modifying an actual aircraft to operate with batteries and wing motors. NASA’s LeapTech project uses batteries, but the modified aircraft will only be able to make short flights because of the current limitations of batteries. All-electric planes may never be a practical option, but a hybrid turbine-battery design could be a reality.

Despite these scientific advancements, emissions from the aviation industry are still growing at a rapid pace. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, projects that the worldwide commercial fleet will double to 40,000 airliners in the next 15 years. A recent report from the European Parliament revealed that international aviation could be responsible for more than 20% of global CO2 emissions in the near future. Aviation emissions impact cloud formation, ozone generation, and methane reduction, so the report’s projection isn’t a good sign.

In order to deal with the rising growth of the aviation industry, we must make drastic changes to airplane design to protect the environment. NASA’s LeapTech project is a step in the right direction towards making airplanes more eco-friendly, and more airplane engineering companies should take note.

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If you’ve used a taxi or similar transportation service in a major U.S. city recently, you’ve probably heard of Uber or Lyft. Uber and Lyft are two mobile ride hailing companies that were both founded in San Francisco, California. Uber was founded in March 2009 and Lyft was founded in summer 2012. They facilitate peer-to-peer ridesharing and operate under the transportation network company (TNC) label. By summer 2015, Uber’s net worth was valued at $50 billion and Lyft’s net value was $2.5 billion.

Council Member Ann Kitchen Getting Fingerprinted - Photo by Jay Janner, Austin American Statesman

Council Member Ann Kitchen Getting Fingerprinted – Photo by Jay Janner, Austin American Statesman

Uber and Lyft are great options for carpooling, for not having to deal with parking your car downtown, or for worrying about drinking and driving. They also provide convenience by simply using your smartphone to order and pay for a ride. So what’s all the fuss with them about? This past December, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that, among other things, required all transportation network companies (TNCs), which includes Lyft and Uber, to fingerprint their drivers for background checks. The December ordinance set benchmark goals of having 25% of drivers fingerprinted by May 2016, with gradual increases, and then 99% compliance by February 2017.

South Congress Capitol View – Photo from Wikimedia

South Congress Capitol View – Photo from Wikimedia

Public safety officials support of the fingerprinting ordinance as necessary for safety. Without fingerprinting, drivers could slip through the background check using false identities.  Lyft and Uber are opposed to fingerprinting their “contractors” because they think their background checks are sufficient and that the ordinance opens the door to future regulation that they believe hampers innovation. Taxi drivers, pedicab operators and horse carriage operators are already subject to the same regulations though.

City Council Committee Meeting – Photo by Laura Skelding, Austin American Statesman

City Council Committee Meeting – Photo by Laura Skelding, Austin American Statesman

Lyft and Uber say that if fingerprinting happens, they’re leaving town. They don’t want to be subjected to regulations they think might stifle future business decisions or that defines them as taxi-like companies. If they’re associated with taxi services, they’ll be subjected to an array of additional rules. This is ironic because Uber and Lyft are in fact very similar to taxis: they provide transportation for passengers and receive payment in exchange. They are “taxi-like” and thus should be subjected to the additional regulations they want to avoid.

What about who the actual drivers are? According to Ben Wear (Austin American Statesman February 15, 2016, pg. B3):

At least ten Austin women filed complaints last year about sexual assaults – seven against ride-hailing drivers, three involving taxis. While the two companies use background checks that look at all 50 states, and they bar applicants with crimes of violence or theft, those background checks only look back seven years. So, someone could have committed a rape or even a homicide 10 or 20 years ago, even in Texas, and the ride-hailing companies likely would not find out about it.

In an undercover investigation, NBC Chicago hired several drivers and ran their own personal background checks on them. They found numerous tickets and questionable driving history. One driver had 26 tickets and one driver was an ex-con who had priors going back two decades including burglary, drugs, and assault. There are clearly people getting through their background check system that shouldn’t be driving for hire. Having the fingerprint submissions that the City Council proposed would make it easier for law enforcement to identify lawbreakers.

A political action committee (PAC) called Ridesharing Works for Austin formed in response to the fingerprinting mandate. The PAC made a petition to fight back against the City Council’s new TNC rules, and they gathered three times more signatures than they needed. The City Council could then either overturn the fingerprinting ordinance passed in December, or place it on the ballot of the next available election for the voters to decide. They went with the latter, so it’s up to Austin voters to decide on May 7.

The Uber and Lyft situation in Austin is a local example of a problem America is experiencing at a federal level – big money in government. The reason Uber and Lyft were able to gather so much support for their petition is because they contributed at least $50,000 in cash and services to the Ridesharing Works PAC. The PAC had canvassers go out, knock on Austin residents’ doors, and gather signatures. Many rideshare drivers also had the petition available in their vehicles for passengers to sign during their rides. Many inaccurately explained the issue to Austin residents as simply “Uber/Lyft vs. the city of Austin”. They told residents that the City Council is forcing Uber and Lyft to leave town, when in reality, if the two companies do leave, it’ll be on their own accord.

The money behind the petition against the fingerprinting ordinance is from big corporations. And those corporations are essentially funding Lyft and Uber’s campaign against safety regulations in Austin. This is exactly what we want to avoid in politics, and it’s happening right here in our city. Corporations coming up with their own rules and going to city hall to demand them is not the way government is supposed to work. It’s a government by the people and for the people, not by corporations and for corporations. If Uber and Lyft succeed in getting the fingerprint mandate overturned, it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. As citizens of the United States of America, we need to question how money from big corporations like Uber and Lyft is influencing our local legislation. Austin voters should consider this when they head to the polls on May 7th.

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Firefighters training for oil train disaster at A&M facility

Firefighters training for oil train disaster at A&M facility

Rural Texas communities are having to consider preparing for a first responder nightmare scenario, a train derailment involving the ever increasing number of trains carrying crude oil (or bombs on rails).  As the amount of  crude oil being shipped by rail increases, it is only a matter of time before Texas experiences an accident involving exploding rail cars.  This could take place in a rural area on the way to Houston, or right in the midst of the city of Houston.

Read about the firefighter training facility located on the outskirts of the Texas A & M campus.  Known as “Disaster City”,  firefighters from around Texas and other states are learning techniques for fighting fires and rescuing people when this scenario happens.  See Forest Ethics interactive map at http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston.  See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston. From Forest Ethics

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HOUSTON – Public Citizen, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, the Texas Campaign for the Environment and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition co-hosted a neighborhood meeting in Houston’s East End on June 27 to discuss the dangers posed by oil trains passing through the community and call for stronger safeguards.

Between two and six million gallons of highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale pass through the Houston metropolitan area every week in fundamentally unsafe rail cars. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) report found than an oil train explosion in a major population center like Houston could cost billions of dollars in property damage and injure or kill thousands of people.

About 30 people attended the June 27 meeting including Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, state Rep. Maria Delgado, a representative from state Rep. Carol Alvorado’s office and several public affairs representatives from the rail industry. The meeting was held at the Immaculate Conception Church on Harrisburg Street.

To gain deeper insight into the problems oil and chemical trains pose to East End residents, Public Citizen interviewed Bridgette Murray, a local resident who attended the meeting.

PC: Start by telling us a little about yourself and your community.

BM: I am a registered nurse, spending my adult life taking care of other individuals, and I am now the primary caretaker for my elderly mother.

My family has had a presence in the Pleasantville area since 1957. I returned to the community 20 years ago because I felt safe returning to the neighborhood surrounded by individuals that were like my family in many regards. I chose to live in a community that contributed to my upbringing and support, and I remain active in my community to ensure a better quality of life.

Pleasantville continues to be a community with 78 percent occupancy by actual home owners. In spite of the industrial build up on our periphery, we have easy access to both I-10 and 610 freeways. This is a landlocked community with three rail line entrances (two of them Union Pacific).

PC: Why are you worried about trains in your neighborhood? How do these trains put your community at risk?

BM: The trains have been with us from the beginning. But we recently experienced an incident of a Union Pacific train that blocked all three entrance and exit points to the community for nearly one hour, and the other exit was under construction. If we encounter a train derailment in our community, over 3,000 individuals will not be able to safely evacuate.

In addition, a significant percentage of our community is within one mile of the blast zone. My own home is within half a mile. Not only are we concerned about the oil trains, but the use of rail for other hazardous materials left unattended on the rail line without notification is a growing concern.

PC: What changes would you like to see to fix these problems?

BM: Let’s start with improved safety. How often are rail lines inspected and serviced? I am aware that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending changes to the cars used for transporting oil, but this is after the fact. In the agency’s own words, “Accidents demonstrate that the DOT-111 tank cars moving these flammable liquids are not up to the task.”

It is my understanding from prior events, allowing the trains to burn out is the standard approach. In our community that will mean death for many. Implementation of NTSB’s recommended preventative measures should be considered critical.

The community successfully petitioned and partnered with The Metropolitan Organization of Houston for another entrance without rail to improve access for emergency vehicles. But much more needs to be done.

Again, in NTSB’s own words: “Preventing tragedies similar to Lac-Mégantic and Cherry Valley will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, and preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs. Adequate emergency preparedness is also crucial. One of the first steps industry can take is to appropriately plan and select routes to minimize the amount of hazardous materials that travel through highly populated areas.”

PC: If you could send a message to the train, oil and chemical companies, what would you tell them?

BM: Safety always seems to follow the profit margin. Lives do matter and residents living near rail lines should be protected. The increase in oil trains should also come with increased safety in how, where and when oil is transported. There should be more community outreach to high-risk areas regarding emergency evacuation training and education.

Living near the Port of Houston, I accept the risk that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security speaks of regarding terrorist threats, but I do not accept as reasonable a sanctioned domestic threat of oil train cars when there is something that can be done to improve the situation. My only request is that industry demonstrates some respect for middle and lower income America.

PC: Thank you for sharing your story.

BM: Thank you for keeping the public informed about this major issue.

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Last week, federal regulators passed new safety rules governing crude by rail, which has boomed because of the growth in U.S. oil production. Just days later, another oil train derailed in North Dakota, punctuating the need to more robust regulations that have so far been enacted. Six of the oil tankers caught on fire, causing the small town of Heimdal, ND to be evacuated. Thankfully the accident didn’t occur in a more populated area.

ND Oil Train Explosion

Oil train explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota – photo from KX News, Bismarck

Nearly 450,000 tankers of crude oil moved through North America last year, up from 9,500 in 2009 – a 4,700% increase in five years. In spite of the new rules, with this increase in traffic, we can expect to see more accidents involving oil trains.  So far in 2015, there have been 5 major accidents involving oil trains.  While most have occurred in relatively unpopulated areas, it is only a matter of time until an accident occurs in an urban area like Houston as trains head to Gulf Coast refineries and perhaps to major ports for export (if the ban on crude oil exports is lifted).

This chart was provided by Forest Ethics.

Date and type Location Impacts Fuel Source Link to Story Cars affected
2/14/2015

Derailment

Gogama, ON, Canada Six day fire – “The accident occurred at 38 mph. Initial impressions are that the Class 111 tank cars, which were compliant with the CPC-1232 standard, performed similarly to those involved in the Lac-Mégantic accident which occurred at 65 mph.” Canada http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/medias-media/communiques/rail/2015/r15h0013-20150223.asp 29
2/16/2015

Derailment

Mount Carbon, WV Explosion, spill into Kanawha River, multi day fire. Two homes destroyed US Bakken http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20150216/DM01/150219449 27
3/5/2015

Derailment

Galena, IL Explosion, multi day fire. Almost into Mississippi River US Bakken http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fires-finally-dwindling-days-after-illinois-oil-train-derailment-n319666 21

5 burned

3/7/2015

Derailment

Gogama, ON, Canada Explosion, multi day fire, river pollution. Toxic inhalation issues. Canada http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/medias-media/communiques/rail/2015/r15h0021-20150317.asp 39
5/6/2015

Derailment

Heimdal, ND Fire, fuel spill, evacuation US Bakken http://www.valleynewslive.com/home/headlines/North-Dakota-Town-Evacuated-After-Train-Derailment-302754661.html?device=phone&c=y 10

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Opinions

Opinions

Parras: Trains carrying oil an accident waiting to happen:  Officials should back federal efforts to strengthen crude transport safety
By Juan Parras | Houston Chronicle | March 27, 2015 | bit.ly/1BWIv2U

Crews work to clean up a wreck after an 18-wheeler collided with a train at the HWY 290 frontage road and Tegle Road Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Cypress, TX. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Crews work to clean up a wreck after an 18-wheeler collided with a train at the HWY 290 frontage road and Tegle Road Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Cypress, TX. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

It’s no secret that Houston is an oil-train derailment waiting to happen and that people would be killed in the disaster, possibly dozens or even hundreds of them.

In the most recent of many derailments of trains carrying highly flammable Bakken oil, 21 cars went off the tracks near Galena, Ill. The disaster sent fireballs into the air and caused a blaze that lasted for days. No one was killed or wounded; it happened in a wooded area outside of town.

In Houston, we would never be so lucky.

Sixty-six to 200 Bakken oil train cars go through our city every week – about 3,500 to more than 10,000 every year, according to Texas Department of Public Safety. The rail lines that carry them run from northwest Houston right through downtown and then split into multiple tracks in the East End before reaching the Houston Ship Channel and refinery district.

Living in Houston is like sitting on top of an oil-train time-bomb, and all it takes is a drive along the freight-train tracks to see that.

Downtown, the tracks run by family courts, the county jail, the District Attorney’s Office, juvenile court, and the University of Houston-Downtown campus, not to mention the high-rise buildings that employ thousands of people. When an oil train derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed. How many would die if there were a derailment on a weekday in downtown Houston when the streets are crowded with students, families and workers?

Going east from downtown, the freight train tracks pass through Midtown, Eastwood, the Navigation/Jensen area and the Third Ward with its huge complex of Section 8 housing. The tracks pass condos off of Navigation and Canal, the soccer stadium, the baseball stadium and then move into the Second Ward, Magnolia and finally on to the Manchester community. In all of these areas, the tracks cross major streets multiple times. The tracks border people’s backyards, pass within 100 feet, even 50 feet of schools, churches, community centers and playgrounds. If the Galena derailment happened in the East End, the fiery fallout would rain down on people’s houses.

In 2013 and 2014, there were eight oil train derailments (more…)

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