Eggs can be used to filter microplastics and salt out of water, researchers have discovered.The humble egg is a staple at breakfast tables around the world.But it could prove an unlikely ally in the battle against plastic pollution, scientists at Princeton University have found.According to their ground-breaking new research, freeze dried and super-heated egg whites can remove salt and microplastics from seawater with 98 per cent and 99 per cent efficiency respectively.“The egg whites even worked if they were fried on the stove first, or whipped,” said Sehmus Ozden, first author on the paper published in Materials Today.How can scientists use egg whites to filter water?Egg whites are a complex system of almost pure protein.When they are freeze dried and heated to 900 degrees Celsius in an environment without oxygen, they form an interconnected structure of carbon strands and graphene sheets.This ‘aerogel’ structure acts like a very tightmesh sieve, sifting nasty microplastics or salt out of the water.You’ve got to break a few eggs to filter microplasticsThe scientists tried a number of different options before they got to eggs.Professor Craig Arnold – one of the researchers on the paper – found inspiration for the experiments during a lunchtime faculty meeting.”I was sitting there, staring at the bread in my sandwich,” he said.”And I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of structure that we need.”The team initially tried to use bread mixed with carbon to filter microplastics. None of these methods worked very well, so the researchers kept removing ingredients.”We started with a more complex system, and we just kept reducing, reducing, reducing, until we got down to the core of what it was,” Arnold said,“It was the proteins in the egg whites that were leading to the structures that we needed.”Are egg whites a scalable solution to microplastic pollution?Microplastics – tiny particles of plastic up to 5mm long – are everywhere. According to a recent study, people inadvertently consume up to five grams of micro and nano-plastics every week.The phenomenon could have dangerous health implications.The tiny particles linger in human blood, lodge in the organs, and pollute foetuses. Emerging research suggests they may be able to induce carcinogenesis in cells, the process that triggers cancerous mutations.Eggs alone are not going to solve this problem – humans have produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s. But if the research group can refine the fabrication process, they could help with water purification on a larger scale.While store-bought eggs could form part of the solution, the researchers are also looking into producing synthetic proteins with the same filtering qualities.It could have significant benefits, Ozden says – not least being significantly cheaper than existing options.“Activated carbon is one of the cheapest materials used for water purification. We compared our results with activated carbon, and it’s much better,” he said.
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Clifford Lau sat low against the wind as Captain Evan Clark’s 16-foot skiff sped along the southern shoreline of the Ohio River. Beneath steely spires and a towering webwork of pipes, valves and flashing lights, an outfall came into view. A steady stream of water poured out of a pipe beneath Shell’s new petrochemical plant and onto a rocky shore encircled by an orange plastic buffer.
As Clark steered the skiff closer on Oct. 27, an acrid scent wafted off of the river’s surface. “There it is,” said Clark, who had noticed the odor earlier that morning. “Can you smell it?” Orange and yellow leaves lapped against the hull as the small boat drifted to the edge of the outfall and Lau, a chemist, stood to prepare his equipment.
“Oh yes,” Lau replied. They couldn’t be quite sure what it was. A solvent, perhaps? It warranted further investigation.
The chemist lifted the lid off of a large, clear plastic bucket and fixed a bag to a valve on the underside. He attached a tube to the top and extended it across the bow and toward the water’s surface. The bag began to inflate, capturing an air sample that would later be tested for contaminants.
In Beaver County, as Shell’s hulking petrochemical plant slowly scales toward full capacity, a growing network of local citizens is doggedly watching the facility. Among the communities surrounding the cracker plant, as it’s known, residents are organizing to keep tabs on their new industrial neighbor. Some are installing air monitors and cameras on their homes, and others are gathering samples from the water’s edge. Many are documenting their experiences and observations as the plant spurs changes to their neighborhoods.
SCENES shines a spotlight on youth around the world that are breaking down barriers and creating change. The character-driven short films will inspire and amaze, as these young change-makers tell their remarkable stories.Plastic was hailed as a miracle material that transformed our modern way of life. Designed by American scientists, driven by the desire to help solve all of society’s issues. Ironically, decades later, plastic is a global environmental issue damaging our ecosystem. The problem is widely known. Some people are doing their bit by decreasing plastic waste, using metal straws and opting for reusable groceries bags.An environmental ocean protection group in the Netherlands decided to take action and created The Great Bubble Barrier. This technology stops plastic trash before it can reach the ocean.The Gateway to the OceanAnne Marieke Eveleens co-founded The Great Bubble Barrier in 2019. The concept arose from a shared love of water and a desire to protect the environment. “The Great Bubble Barrier is a system that we place in rivers to prevent plastic that pollutes those rivers from flowing into the ocean,” Anne tells Scenes.Her co-founder Philip Ehrhorn expressed his dissatisfaction with the pollution issue and desire for a solution. “I spend a lot of time in and around the water. And inevitably, at some point, you’ll see plastic. And once you start seeing it, you’ll see it everywhere,” explains Philip.Ground-breaking TechnologyIn an effort to halt plastic waste, Philip invented a trash-catching technology. The team developed a system that catches plastic over rivers’ full width and depth.”The Bubble Barrier system is mainly composed of three components: the barrier curtain itself, the catchment system that collects the plastic, and then the waste compressor,” explains Phillip.While this system may seem complicated, Anne explains it is a simple concept using air bubbles to filter, trap and remove plastics from waterways.”Rivers and waterways are like the highways of plastic pollution. Most of the plastic in the ocean has travelled through rivers, and that’s why we want to stop it right there,” says Anne.Research and DevelopmentThe Plastic Soup Foundation, a non-profit marine conservation organisation, is working with The Great Bubble Barrier team to research plastic pollutants.According to Maria Westerbos, the organisation’s founder, this research is crucial to identifying the source of ocean pollution. “If you know what causes the pollution, you can act on it and stop it before it enters the water,” Maria tells Scenes. Surprising findsThe pollutants found in the ocean are often surprising, even to those who study them. “One example of a plastic item we commonly find is laminated restaurant menu cards,” says Philip. A less harmful alternative to plastic menu cards is paper. Replacing plastic with paper may seem strange from an environmental standpoint, but its impact can be profound.Often small plastic particles can cause enormous damage to ocean life. Philip explained to Scenes that his research helps inform people about contaminants that are easily avoidable.Maria at The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that humans produce 500 billion kilos of plastic per year.Philip explains, “Once in the environment, it will stay there for years, probably centuries”.The plastic in the oceans is not just suffocating marine life but also affects humans. Recent studies by the University of Hull found microplastics inside human organs and bloodstreams.Anne explains that this crisis requires immediate action to save our oceans and humanity. “If we don’t stop it right now, we expect to have even more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050,” she says. A Silver Bullet SolutionWhile The Bubble Barrier is an innovative, energy-efficient and non-invasive solution, Philip says there is no “single silver bullet solution” to solve this crisis.”It’s going to take years, and it’s going to take more than a bubble barrier system to solve the problem,” he explains.Next StepsThe Great Bubble Barrier is a significant first step towards confronting ocean plastic pollution. The team is working tirelessly to expand the reach of their technology. “Our ambition is to roll this out internationally, to start making more impact,” Philip tells Scenes.With plans to expand to Portugal, Germany and parts of Asia, the Great Bubble Barrier team hopes to end plastic pollution in oceans worldwide, one bubble at a time.
The decision to include Coca-Cola as a major sponsor of this year’s United Nations climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, has angered many climate activists, who cite a recent report that says the company’s production of plastics is increasing.The beverages giant, which was named the world’s leading polluter of plastics in 2021, has increased its use of new plastics since 2019 by 3 percent to 3.2 million tons, according to an annual report issued this month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has united 500 organizations in a “global commitment” to reduce plastic waste.Activists note that the majority of plastics are manufactured using fossil fuels like crude oil, coal and natural gases. The British government, which hosted the previous round of global climate talks last year in Glasgow, took a stricter approach to corporate responsibility issues, barring fossil fuel companies from sponsorship arrangements.A delegate from last year’s conference, Georgia Elliott-Smith, called to revoke Coke’s corporate sponsorship in an online petition, which garnered more than 238,000 signatures in the lead-up to the summit.“Plastic is suffocating our planet and, year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters — Coca-Cola,” Ms. Elliott-Smith wrote on the petition’s webpage.“Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars greenwashing their brand, making us believe that they are solving the problem,” she said, adding that “behind the scenes,” the company had “a long history of lobbying to delay and derail regulations that would prevent pollution, keeping us addicted to disposable plastic.”In an email, a Coca-Cola representative, who did not give their name, said the company shared the goal of eliminating waste from the ocean and appreciated efforts to raise awareness about this challenge.“While we recognize that we have more work to do, we believe that effective climate solutions will require all of society to be involved including governments, civil society and the private sector,” the press officer said.The company says it plans to make its packaging recyclable worldwide by 2025, according to its Business & Environmental, Social and Governance Report, published last year. Coca-Cola also produced 900 prototype bottles in 2021 made almost entirely of plant-based plastic, excluding the cap and the label.But the progress report released by the MacArthur Foundation this month has cast doubt on its environmental ambitions, revealing that the target of shifting all packaging to reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025 will “almost certainly” not be met.“The report clearly shows that voluntary commitments from companies to address plastic pollution have failed,” said Graham Forbes, a global project leader focused on plastics at Greenpeace. “Instead of tackling the plastic pollution crisis, big brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Mars actually increased the amount of plastic they create since the EMF Global Commitment was launched in 2018.”
Every year, about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded globally, making them the most littered item on Earth. Around 90 percent of cigarettes have filters made of a biobased plastic called cellulose acetate, which can take up to 14 years to decompose. Nevertheless, cigarette butts are still considered hazardous solid waste, even if they are thrown away properly.
In recent years, non-menthol cigarettes have become less prevalent, but menthol cigarette use did not decrease nor change significantly. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a ban on menthol in cigarettes and other characterizing flavors other than tobacco in cigars to reduce cigarette use, pushing menthol cigarette users to stop smoking.
A menthol ban such as this may minimize health disparities since vulnerable populations have a higher tendency to use menthol cigarettes. Almost 40 percent of smokers across the country prefer menthol over non-menthol cigarettes. Still, this preference is disproportionately high among Black people, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, and those with mental health problems. Menthol cigarette use also persists among racial/ethnic minority youth.
Although the FDA intended to reduce disease and death from cigarette use, research shows that a menthol ban can also benefit the environment.
Fewer smokers mean less cigarette litter
According to a Tobacco Control letter, adopting the FDA’s menthol ban would offer substantial environmental benefits because it would reduce 3.8 billion cigarette litter annually.
This has already worked in Canada. The country started banning menthol cigarettes from 2015 to 2018, leading many smokers to quit. The authors used the quit rate from Canada’s menthol cigarette ban to estimate that a similar ban in the US can cause 1.3 million smokers to quit. They then multiplied it by 11.9, the average daily number of cigarettes smoked among US adult menthol smokers, and by 365 to get the yearly reduction of cigarettes smoked—5.8 billion.
[Related: Ocean plastic ‘vacuums’ are sucking up marine life along with trash.]
“We multiplied 5.8 billion total fewer cigarettes smoked per year after the ban by the published estimate that 65 percent of cigarettes are littered in the US,” says Lorraine V. Craig, dissemination manager of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the study. “This resulted in our estimate that the proposed US menthol cigarette ban would lead to 3.8 billion fewer cigarettes being littered per year.”
If each cigarette butt weighs about 0.2 grams, 3.8 billion fewer cigarette butts off the streets and beaches will reduce 755,502 kilograms of waste every year. That is equivalent to the amount of plastic waste produced by about 7114 Americans yearly, given that the average American generates about 106.2 kilograms of plastic waste annually.
Tobacco harms the environment throughout its life cycle
Smoking cessation is known to lower the risk of premature death and cardiovascular diseases. Still, policies that reduce tobacco consumption won’t just bring down the public health and economic costs related to smoking. According to the authors, they may also reduce the environmental harm of tobacco across its entire life cycle.
Cigarettes pollute the land, water, and air during the growing and cultivation of tobacco, the production and use of cigarettes, and the discarding of packaging and cigarette butts, says Craig. About 600 million trees are chopped down to clear land for tobacco crops, and 24 billion tons of water are required to make cigarettes. Meanwhile, the production and consumption of tobacco contribute 84 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
“Carcinogenic chemicals and toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are commonly found in cigarettes and can leach into waterways and the soil,” says John Hocevar, director of the oceans campaign for Greenpeace USA, who was not involved in the study. “Once plastic microfibers [from filters] enter waterways, they act as magnets for polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic chemicals, which bind to the fibers and make them even more dangerous.”
[Related: The FDA is prepping its biggest cigarette crackdown since the ’60s.]
Animals like whales, oysters, and corals may also ingest vast quantities of microplastics in the water. Not only will they suffer from the toxic chemicals, but they will also have a more challenging time meeting their nutritional needs, he adds.
“If cigarettes cause such widespread and multifaceted devastation to the environment, then tobacco control policies that reduce smoking would have a corresponding benefit to the environment by reducing that devastation,” says Craig.
Controlling cigarette use ultimately benefits the environment
Eliminating toxic chemicals in tobacco production would potentially make cigarette waste less harmful, but it would not keep plastic microfibers out of the environment, says Hocevar. Therefore, it’s best for the environment if governments can control cigarette use.
“The study calls attention to the problem of cigarette butts as a leading source of plastic pollution and the potential for menthol bans to reduce single-use plastics,” says Geoffrey T. Fong, principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the Tobacco Control study.
Policymakers can reduce cigarette litter further by vigorously implementing tobacco control policies of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global tobacco control treaty, says Fong. Countries bound by the treaty are obligated to implement measures to reduce tobacco use, like regulating the content of tobacco products, requiring the disclosure of ingredients, and placing prominent graphic health warnings on tobacco products.
Policy action to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes may also be an effective measure to reduce single-use plastic pollution, says Fong.
“Any policy that reduces the number of smokers will lead to reductions in cigarette litter,” he adds. “It’s killing two birds with one stone. Or said in a different way, it is a win-win situation: strong tobacco control policies reduce smoking and reduce environmental damage.”
Blue whales, the largest creatures on Earth, are ingesting 10 million pieces of microplastic daily, scientists estimate.
With plastic waste rapidly accumulating in the world’s oceans, researchers sought to gauge how much is consumed by humpback, fin, and blue whales off the U.S. Pacific Coast. All three feed by gulping up mouthfuls of krill and other tiny creatures and then pushing the seawater out through a bristle-like filter called a baleen. In the process, they are prone to swallowing large amounts of plastic.
Scientists estimated the weight of plastic ingested by tracking the foraging behavior of 65 humpback whales, 29 fin whales, and 126 blue whales that were each tagged with a camera, microphone, and GPS device that had been suction-cupped to their back.
Accounting for the concentration of microplastics off the Pacific Coast, scientists estimate that humpbacks whales who favor krill over fish likely consume around 4 million microplastic pieces each day, or up to 38 pounds of plastic waste. Fin whales swallow an estimated 6 million pieces each, amounting to as much as 57 pounds of plastic. And blue whales eat an estimated 10 million microplastic pieces, or up to 95 pounds of plastic waste. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.
“They’re lower on the food chain than you might expect by their massive size, which puts them closer to where the plastic is in the water,” Matthew Savoca, a marine biologist at Stanford University and a coauthor of the study, said in a statement. “There’s only one link: The krill eat the plastic, and then the whale eats the krill.” While other marine creatures are at risk of consuming microplastics, Savoca said, “The unique concern for whales is that they can consume so much.”
ALSO ON YALE E360
Why Bioplastics Will Not Solve the World’s Plastics Problem
Microplastics are everywhere, even in Pennsylvania’s cleanest waterways.According to a new report by the activist and research group PennEnvironment, tests for the presence of microplastics conducted in 50 of some of the cleanest streams and waterways throughout the commonwealth found the pollutants present in every single one.Microplastic pollution was found in all high-quality waterways tested in a study led by environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment with analysis by researchers at Drexel University.A new report by the group shows the extent of the proliferation of plastic residue throughout the environment from various sourcesRepresentatives from local advocacy groups and PennEnvironment gathered at Monocacy Park to discuss the report and push for greater environmental regulation against easily discarded plasticsLocal representatives from the Sierra Club, Bethlehem Environmental Advocacy Council and Monocacy Creek Watershed Association on Wednesday joined those from PennEnvironment to discuss the report and how it pertains to local waterways and the environment in the Lehigh Valley at Monocacy Park.Microplastics are plastic pieces less than 5mm long, or smaller than a grain of rice.They have been found in people’s lungs, blood and excrement after being ingested. They have even been found in the deepest parts of the ocean and on the top of Mount Everest. Scientific studies theorize that its proliferation may pose health risks to wildlife and humans due to toxins within plastics in addition to being a widespread pollutant.“Plastic doesn’t biodegrade,” PennEnvironment Field Director Flora Cardoni said. “So while something like an apple core or a piece of paper will break down into organic compounds and components over time, plastic doesn’t do that. Instead, plastic just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.”
PennEnvironment is the statewide chapter of the advocacy group Environment America.Fifty waterways were selected among what the state Department of Environmental Protection deems to be Exceptional Value, High Quality and Class A Cold Water Trout streams. Water samples were collected from them in 2021 and 2022 by PennEnvironment staff and partners, then analyzed by environmental researchers at Drexel University.In the Lehigh Valley, waterways such as the Lehigh River, Little Lehigh Creek, Saucon Creek, Bushkill Creek, Monocacy Creek and more were examined. Each was found to contain different microplastic fragments, fibers or films – often residue from discarded or degraded plastic products such as clothing, hard plastics, bags, flexible packaging and cosmetic products.Different types of pollutants were found in different waterways, but all had some form of microplastic pollution.That was in spite of the report’s observation that many waterways had little to no visible litter at the point of access.“It’s alarming how plastics have invaded all facets of our lives and are present in many forms in all 50 waterways tested,“ Monocacy Creek Watershed Association board member Michael Harrington said
Even though some plastics may be recycled, there are logistical and legal barriers to the process. A recent report from Greenpeace claims only about 5% of plastics recycled are turned into new products.“The Monocacy and many other waterways in the Lehigh Valley are impacted by urbanization and development,” Sierra Club digital organizer Rachel Rosenfeld explained at the event.“The creek runs through the city of Bethlehem and has regularly flooded in more densely populated parts of town during heavy rainfall events. Stormwater runoff carries its materials over impervious surfaces like plastic waste, excess nutrients and sediment.”Plastic bag bans already are being implemented in parts of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, and other states including New York.“Plastic itself has only been around since the 1950s,” Cardoni said. “We didn’t really think of all the consequences that might have. I believe it’s just been a bigger problem as more and more of our life becomes plastic, as we have moved from a glass milk jug to a plastic bottle.“Even Snapple has moved from glass to plastic. Plastic bags are everywhere, except for in places that are banning them.”To address the issue, the advocacy and research group recommended phasing out single-use plastics, passing producer responsibility laws that shift the burden of waste onto product manufacturers and sellers, updating the recycling law Act 101 to improve Pennsylvania’s recycling capabilities and reducing the use of so-called “fast fashion,” which often are produced with plastics.The group also calls on lawmakers to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and plastics producers.You can view the full report here, as well as a map of sampling locations’ data.Read more from our partners, WLVR.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Five years ago, when ExxonMobil came calling, city officials eagerly signed over a large portion of their water supply so the oil giant could build a $10 billion plant to make plastics out of methane gas.
A year later, they did the same for Steel Dynamics to build a rolled-steel factory.
Never mind that Corpus Christi, a mid-sized city on the semi-arid South Texas coast, had just raced through its 50-year water plan 13 years ahead of schedule. Planners believed they had a solution: large-scale seawater desalination.
According to the plan in 2019, the state’s first plant needed to be running by early 2023 to safely meet industrial water demands that were scheduled to come online. But Corpus Christi never got it done.
That hasn’t stopped the city and its port authority from pursuing broader plans to build out a next-generation industrial sector around Corpus Christi Bay and make this region a rival to Houston, home to the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, 200 miles up the Gulf Coast.
As efforts to cut carbon emissions fall desperately behind the timetables established in decades’ of global climate accords, Corpus Christi is planning a massive expansion of its hydrocarbon sector, aimed at delivering oil and gas from Texas’ shale fields to global markets for decades to come.
All that’s missing is the freshwater. Now the commitments city officials made over the past five years are coming due. Exxon’s plastic plant started operations this year and will eventually consume 25 million gallons of water per day, even as the region’s water plan foresees demand exceeding supplies in this decade.
A mural depicts sea life on a chemical tank at a Citgo refinery. Credit: Dylan Baddour
This summer, severe drought and heat pushed Corpus Christi into water use restrictions. Yet the desalination plans remained years away from completion, hung up on questions from state and federal environmental regulators—the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—over the ecological consequences of dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of salty brine per day into Corpus Christi Bay.
“I would love nothing more than to get right in front of their faces—the state, TCEQ, EPA, all of those agencies—and say, ‘Hey people! Do you realize that we need this permit now? We provide water for 500,000 people,” Corpus Christi mayor Paulette Guajardo told the city council in July, answering complaints over years of delays. “This is of urgency. We have to have this permit.”
Today the pursuit of desalination has become an increasingly desperate race to meet incoming demands. The number of plants proposed for Corpus Christi Bay has grown to five—two for the City of Corpus Christi, two for the Port of Corpus Christi and one for a private polymer manufacturer.
Last month, the TCEQ issued its first wastewater discharge permit to a plant proposed by the port, despite a challenge from the EPA signaling what could be a long legal fight ahead.
Regulators and scientists worry that each plant’s discharge of tens of millions of gallons of hyper-salty wastewater per day could disrupt major reproductive cycles for a host of aquatic species, which rely on the half-salty waters of the coastal bays for larvae to mature.
All together, environmentalists say, the five plants’ discharge, coupled with the water pollution and ocean freighter traffic from the industrial boom they would unleash, may constitute a near-fatal blow for life in the bay, whose once-teeming ecosystems have nursed communities on its banks since long before Corpus Christi.
While plant developers have put forth analyses showing their discharge won’t affect ambient salinity or wildlife, Paul Montagna, a department chair at the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t see how you can add brine to a salty system and not increase the salinity, I just don’t understand how that could happen,” he said from his corner office at the university, with two-story windows looking out to the bay. “I’ve read the engineering studies and I just don’t get it.”
Montagna agrees that Corpus Christi needs desalination, he just wants the brine piped a dozen miles offshore and released into the open Gulf instead of the shallow, almost stagnant bay. The idea is supported by scientists but dismissed by developers as too expensive.
Other activists hope to block desalination altogether with an aim to hold up the buildout that has unfolded here in recent years, fueled by a spate of new pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Permian Basin and the Eagleford Shale since 2010, and by Congress’ lifting of the oil export ban in 2015, which have made Corpus Christi the nation’s top port for crude exports. One piece remains for the growth to continue.
“That’s the chokehold,” said Isabel Araiza, a professor of social work at Del Mar College and founder of a group called For the Greater Good. “In order to bring heavy industry in they’re going to need water.”
Speaking Out Against Desalination
Six days after Exxon accepted Corpus Christi’s offer of water in 2017, the city authorized an application for state funding to develop preliminary plans for a seawater desalination plant.
When Steel Dynamics came seeking water in 2018, Corpus Christi offered another 6 million gallons a day, citing “plans for additional water sources in the planning and implementation phase.”
But that wasn’t exactly true. The preliminary plans had yet to be shared with city council and implementation remained years away at best.
A great blue heron flies past the Corpus Christi skyline. Credit: Dylan Baddour
When the plans were presented in 2019, they noted Exxon’s demand scheduled for 2022 and Steel Dynamics’ after that.
“Large increases in water demand are projected to occur in 2022,” the city’s presentation said. “Based on supply and demand projections, the first desalination plant needs to be operational (supplying water) in early 2023.”
The council voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Activists quickly pushed back. Araiza, the leader of For the Greater Good, stood outside Fry’s Electronics on Black Friday speaking out against desalination.
“It’s for industry, not for us. And we pay for it,” she remembers telling shoppers.
Araiza, whose family has been in Corpus Christi for a century, hoped to engage the public in such big decisions about the city’s future, which she said were too often made by small cliques of business elites for their own benefit. Her family had been in the area for a century. On her dad’s side she was the first generation in memory not to pick crops.
Growing up in the 1970s she rode buses across Corpus Christi as part of belated integration of white and Hispanic schools. She earned a Ph.D. from Boston College, then returned home to organize and teach.
“What’s happening with industry and water is symptomatic of a bigger problem,” she said. “Our way of life is problematic: consumerism, disposable products, single use plastics.”
Araiza joined a budding activist movement that was heaping challenges on the desalination plans, forcing a slate of environmental permit applications through tedious administrative reviews.
Council member Mike Pusley, a retired petroleum geologist and former Exxon employee, was not impressed with the city’s progress. At a meeting in April 2021, he told the Corpus Christi water department its original plans, long delayed, were no longer sufficient.
“I can assure you that within the next five years, you’re going to have several Exxons here, and you’re not going to be ready with a plan. We’re not going to be ready. We’re not going to be ready at all with the water,” he said.
‘How Did They Get Ahead of Us?‘
While desalination plans fell further behind, the water supply was shrinking. The city’s reservoirs dipped to 40 percent of capacity as drought and heatwave grew acute this summer, prompting new restrictions and $500 fines for anyone caught running a sprinkler more than once per week.
Meanwhile, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority had jumped into the race and claimed a clear lead, threatening the city’s historic monopoly on the regional water supply.
Fisherman at a jetty in the Gulf of Mexico at North Padre Island, across the bay from Corpus Christi, on a Wednesday afternoon in October. Credit: Dylan Baddour
“It’s taking way too long for this to happen. The port has out-warriored us, they’ve out-lobbied us, they’ve out-engineered us,” Pusley said. “How did they get ahead of us? We’re the regional water supplier.”
“They spent more money on lawyers and lobbyists,” responded Mike Murphy, chief operating officer for the Corpus Christi water department, who moved to the city in 2021.
(The port’s lobbyists and lawyers wouldn’t secure their first controversial permit, issued by the Industry-friendly TCEQ over the EPA’s objections, until September.)
“This drought we’re in right now, there’s no solution for it but conservation,” said Corpus Christi manager Peter Zanoni, who moved to the city in 2019, to the council.
Conservation, however, only applies to residents in Corpus Christi. According to a 2018 city ordinance, high-volume industrial users can pay $0.25 per thousand gallons consumed for exemption from restrictions during drought. Most pay it. While citizens face fines for sprinkler use, large facilities continue consuming millions of gallons per day.
A Proliferation of Energy and Industrial Projects
The fight for water comes at a time of rapid industrial growth around Corpus Christi.
In the last five years, Valero and FlintHills expanded their refineries. Cheniere Energy built the region’s first export terminal for liquified natural gas and plans to double its output. Vostalpine built a plant that makes iron briquettes. Three huge, adjacent crude export terminals have cropped up on the bay, operated by Enbridge Inc., FlintHills and Buckeye Global Marine Terminals. Elon Musk wants to build a lithium refinery.
Dolphins surface while a crude tanker docks at an Enbridge export terminal on Corpus Christi Bay. Credit: Dylan Baddour
“When we started being able to sell oil [abroad], the amount of new industry that moved to this area was phenomenal,” said Montagna. “I think there has been more change in this region in the last four years than there had been in the last 20.”
This year, Exxon opened its plastics plant, turning ethane, a form of natural gas, into ethylene and polyethylene, building blocks for plastics, on 1,300 acres across the bay from Corpus, in San Patricio County.
When the plant uses its ground flare—sportsfield sized units for burning off chemicals—Elida Castillo can see the sky glow orange from her house in the small town of Taft, about eight miles away, near a cemetery where her great, great grandparents are buried. Sometimes, she said, the sheriff posts on Facebook saying not to be alarmed. No one ever tells the community what chemicals are being burned.
“Our aim is to block the infrastructure that industry needs to cut our roots and establish its own roots here,” said Castillo, who this year launched a Texas branch of Chispa, a national Latino organizing project.
Elida Castillo on a city street near her home in Taft. Credit: Dylan Baddour
The port is pursuing its own $650 million expansion plan, including an 75-foot-deep channel running 11 miles into the Gulf to enable the world’s largest oil tankers to cross Corpus Christi Bay. A colossal, new billion-dollar bridge (by the same builders of a bridge that collapsed in Florida in 2018) will allow them into Corpus Christi Harbor and its port.
The two desalination plants proposed by the port would produce up to 80 million gallons a day.
The port declined to answer questions about projects in the pipeline, industrial water demand projections or plans for desalination.
Port CEO Sean Strawbridge, who came to Corpus Christi seven years ago and made $650,000 in 2021, told a meeting of the Ingleside City Council in August last year that the port began pursuing desalination plans after he “got a call” from someone who “decided to invest here and they’ve got a large project going on. Basically said, ‘What the heck is going on with your water situation down there?’ And the port commission decided to take a leadership role.”
A Century of Rising Salinity
Whether the port and the city ultimately get the permits they need for their desalination plants will depend upon forthcoming environmental assessments of Corpus Christi Bay, where the deadly effects of rising salinity are not theoretical—they are the lived experience.
These placid, shallow waters, sheltered from the Gulf by more than 200 miles of barrier island, once teemed with shrimp and oysters that had nourished bayside communities for thousands of years. Today dolphins still splash and great herons still stalk the wetlands, but the bounty of shellfish is gone.
In Nueces Bay, an inland appendage of Corpus Christi Bay, oysters died off in the late 1930s. Two dams on the Nueces River, and two railroads across its delta, were reducing freshwater flows.
Mullet swim in the shallow water of Corpus Christi Bay near Ingleside. Credit: Dylan Baddour
A great egret hunts while crude oil tanks at a trio of new export terminals stand on the far shore of Corpus Christi Bay. Credit: Dylan Baddour
“Oysters did not come back,” said a 2011 report from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. “Because the salinities were too high.”
Fifty years later, the shrimp were vanishing too. Two much larger dams stopped any freshwater at all from reaching the bays, turning Nueces from vibrant river delta to a shallow, stagnant mudflat where evaporation leaves extra-salty water and few living things.
“It was saltier than seawater,” said Montagna. “It became evident that the bay wasn’t producing shrimp or oysters anymore.”
The bays, formed by rivers that flowed to the ocean until the 21st Century, distinguish Texas’ coast from the successful examples of seawater desalination in California, where plants release brine into the deep, open Pacific. In Corpus Christi, developers want to discharge into a shallow, almost stagnant body. It takes one year for the contents of Corpus Christi Bay to be replaced by new water, Montagna said. The brine is going to accumulate, he said.
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They say everything is bigger in Texas — and that includes the scale and brazenness of voter suppression efforts. The 2020 election saw record turnout in the Lone Star State, an 8% increase from 2016 overall and a 9% increase among nonwhite Texans. In a healthy democracy, such a substantial jump in voter participation — especially in a state plagued by notoriously low turnout — would have been cause for celebration.
But Texas Republicans only saw peril. Echoing former President Donald Trump and the national hysteria over election fraud — the same Big Lie that led to the failed Jan. 6 coup attempt — Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session of the state Legislature in the summer of 2021 to rush a slate of new voting restrictions into law. The fact that a multimillion dollar audit of the 2020 election by the Texas secretary of state found no evidence of widespread voter fraud did not deter the passage of SB1, with the Orwellian title of the Election Integrity Protection Act. “Senate Bill 1 ensures trust and confidence in our elections system,” Abbott said at the signing ceremony on Sept. 7, 2021, “and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
For Black and Latino Texans, who have fought against disenfranchisement for generations — and who have paid an especially high price for the environmental and public health damage wrought by the unregulated oil, gas and chemical industries that are among the perennial top donors to Republican campaign coffers — the timing and intention of SB1 could not have been more clear: It had nothing to do with “election integrity” and everything to do with limiting the influence of likely Democrat voters, especially Texans of color.
“It didn’t make any sense,” said Bridgette Murray, a registered nurse, environmental activist and community organizer from Pleasantville, on Houston’s east side. “We were in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re saying people can’t use a drop box?”
“They make people believe their vote doesn’t mean anything. Nothing ever changes, so why bother?”
~ Elida Castillo, CHISPA Texas
Houston is in Harris County, where election officials expanded access to the polls in 2020 with measures like extended early voting, curbside and drive-through voting, 24-hour voting and broader availability of mail-in ballots, all of which made voting easier for working-class people and people who were concerned about exposure to COVID-19. Harris County’s voting access efforts were successful: Turnout jumped about 25% from 2016, equivalent to more than 300,000 additional voters casting ballots. But activists like Murray have good reason to worry that turnout won’t be so high in 2022: SB1 restricts or bans most of the measures used in Harris County to expand access to the polls. In Murray’s opinion, SB1 is just “another tool in their toolbox” to keep Texans of color from the polls — and she has witnessed the effects firsthand.
Now 69 years old, Murray, who is Black, has watched for decades as her neighborhood, Pleasantville — once a bustling community of Black laborers, professionals and small business owners — has been walled in by highways, railyards, truckyards, chemical storage facilities and other industrial businesses. In 2012, Murray founded a nonprofit called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS) to organize Pleasantville residents to work for better air quality, reduced exposure to toxins from industrial facilities and improvements to flood mitigation, but she says she remembers a time when her neighbors could work with their elected officials to get results.
“It wasn’t unusual for there to be over 90% voter turnout back in the day, and it was basically the power of the vote that helped get a lot of the infrastructure improvements that we needed in our community,” said Murray, who cast her first vote in 1971 at age 18. “Our community leaders were able to get the funding to close open ditches, to make use of green spaces. There were a lot of infrastructure improvements at that time.”
But over the course of her life, Murray has witnessed her community’s voice in regional and state politics diminished to a whisper due to voter suppression and gerrymandering. “Voter suppression means that communities that need those dollars for infrastructure improvements can’t get them,” she said.
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The history of voter suppression in Texas is as old as the state, and for more than a century, it was Democrats — anti-Reconstructionists and Jim Crow segregationists among them — who used tactics such as poll taxes, white primaries and terrorism to keep Black and Latino Texans from exercising the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy. But the tables have turned. Now, it’s Republicans who are driving voter suppression, and the momentum of their anti-democratic efforts is accelerating.
“The Republican Party doesn’t want Black people to vote if they are going to vote 9-to-1 for Democrats,” Texas Tea Party activist Ken Emanuelson told the crowd at a Dallas County GOP event in early June 2013. Later that same month, with its 5-4 Shelby v. Holder decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act meant to protect racial minorities from discriminatory voting laws. Locked and loaded in anticipation of the ruling, Texas enacted the nation’s harshest voter identification law the very next day.
Shelby v. Holder also emboldened proponents of aggressive partisan gerrymandering after the 2020 census, who used a tactic known as “cracking and packing,” which splits up voting blocs and then crowds them into a few districts. In Texas, this process was seen as a way to undercut the growing voting power of nonwhite Texans. “They make people believe their vote doesn’t mean anything,” said Elida Castillo, who was born and raised in Taft, Texas, across the bay from Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. “Nothing ever changes, so why bother?”
The notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals tends to intervene to keep restrictive voting laws on the books and has only become more aggressive with the addition of six Trump appointees. (Only four of the 5th Circuit’s 16 judges were appointed by Democrats; a Joe Biden nominee is awaiting confirmation for the vacant 17th seat.) Numerous lawsuits challenging Texas voter suppression laws on the grounds that they violate nonwhite citizens’ constitutional rights under the 13th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act have been successful in the Western District of Texas, but time and again, the 5th Circuit has stepped in to block the lower court’s decisions.
Texas has added about 4 million new residents since 2010, and 95% of the newcomers are nonwhite.
As a result, prospects have dimmed for the kinds of substantial gains in the Texas Legislature that could move the needle on environmental policy — from climate change mitigation and resilience to green energy transition to environmental justice. “Gerrymandering has impacted us greatly,” said Castillo, who lives in San Patricio County, which used to be part of Senate District 21 — stretching north from the Rio Grande Valley with zig-zag boundaries clear up to far South Austin — but which is now in Senate District 20 as a result of 2021 redistricting. “You don’t always have an open polling location in your community, especially in more rural areas,” Castillo said. “They have varied hours and they’re usually not convenient for the greater population who actually work, so they’re totally inaccessible and inconvenient.”
Because of the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, it was the first time since 1965 that new district maps were drawn and implemented in Texas without preclearance from the federal government. An analysis by the Texas Tribune found that the new maps protect Republican incumbents, dilute the power of nonwhite voters and increase the number of districts where Trump would have won in 2020.
Castillo works as a pro-democracy and environmental activist for CHISPA Texas, a project of the League of Conservation Voters. Like Bridgette Murray in Houston, she has seen her hometown and its surrounding areas overrun by industrial facilities — in her case, a massive plastics plant owned jointly by ExxonMobil and a Saudi partner, and a Chiniere Energy gas liquefaction plant, to name just two.
Castillo said industrial growth in San Patricio County, where she lives, has exploded as a result of the lifting of the oil export ban in 2015; four years of regulatory free-for-all under the Trump administration; and, most recently, with the surge in global demand for liquid natural gas caused by the war in Ukraine. In her work with CHISPA, Castillo helps Corpus Christi-area residents understand the environmental and public health issues that affect them as a consequence of industrial activity, and she helps them make their voices heard in public comment sessions about matters like air quality and water usage permitting.
“I want politicians who aren’t going to constantly sweeten the pot by giving these industries so much money and pushing back when they come with greenwashing pipe dreams,” Castillo said, referring to proposals from major energy companies for carbon capture and sequestration facilities in San Patricio County. “They’re being proposed by the same industries that are causing these problems. It’s like a robber saying, ‘I know I broke into your house, but hire me to fix it.’”
* * *
As Texas becomes younger, less white and less rural, Republicans have reason to worry that organizing efforts by Castillo, Murray and others like them will weaken their stranglehold on state politics. The state has added about 4 million new residents since 2010, and 95% of the newcomers are nonwhite. About 85% of the growth has occurred in the cities and suburbs of just four metropolitan areas — Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin — all of which chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020.
Harris County, where Murray lives, is the third-most diverse county in Texas and one of the fastest growing. In 2018, Harris County voters elected Colombia-born Democrat Lina Hidalgo to the position of Harris County judge. She has used her power of the purse to increase funding for the county’s Fire Marshal’s Office (to bolster its hazmat team) and its Pollution Control agency. Under Hidalgo, both agencies have stepped up enforcement against industrial polluters. Hidalgo has also teamed up with Houston-born County Attorney Christian Menefee, who was elected in 2020, to seek damages from major polluters in court.
It’s not hard to understand why the powerful Texas Republican politicians — who take in millions in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry — would view outspoken reformers like Hidalgo and Menefee with alarm. Abbott alone took in more than $12 million from the industry in the lead-up to the 2022 Republican primaries. In the same period, industry donors gave more than $800,000 to Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, the senior member of the agency responsible for regulating oil and gas companies.
The more voters in places like Harris County get to the polls, the more likely it is that Democrats who share Hidalgo and Menefee’s commitment to holding the oil and gas industry accountable and taking strong action to mitigate the risks associated with climate change will win a statewide election. That day seems to be getting closer with every election cycle. In 2018, Harris County voters helped make Beto O’Rourke’s bid for Ted Cruz’s U.S. Senate seat the most competitive performance by a Democrat in a statewide race since 1994.
O’Rourke, who is currently running an underdog campaign against Greg Abbott in the 2022 gubernatorial race, has pledged to fasttrack the state’s transition to green energy and prioritize climate change resilience. He’s trailing by a wide margin, but a Democrat running in one of the less publicized statewide races — the race for land commissioner — may have a shot at victory.
Harris County voters helped make Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate bid the most competitive performance by a Democrat in a statewide race since 1994.
Democrat Jay Kleberg is running against Republican Dawn Buckingham to head the General Land Office, which oversees state public lands, the Alamo and veterans’ homes. In recent years, the agency has also overseen allocation of federal recovery funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which brought devastation to huge swaths of the Gulf Coast. Houston and its surrounding areas bore the brunt of damage totaling an estimated $125 billion. But in 2021, when outgoing Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced the recipients of the first round of $1 billion in federal relief funding, the city of Houston got nothing.
Houston’s inexplicable exclusion from relief allocations prompted lawsuits and, eventually, in March 2022, a letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threatening an investigation and a potential referral to the Justice Department. HUD’s letter claimed the GLO’s process for awarding funds “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” and “disadvantaged minority residents with particularly disparate outcomes for Black residents.” As of October 2022, the matter is still tied up in litigation and bureaucratic disputes.
Kleberg has said that he would have directed at least 50% of the first round of relief funds and mitigation funds to Houston and that he would use the GLO’s resources to make the Gulf Coast more resilient to climate change. A second round of $1.2 billion in relief funds is still pending, and if Kleberg wins the race for land commissioner this month, he will have an opportunity to make future disbursements more equitable.
Like many of her fellow Houstonians, Bridgette Murray is frustrated by the delays, and she does not have much hope that help will come any time soon. She watched as Interstate 610 drained flood water into Pleasantville like a funnel during Hurricane Harvey. The water was trapped for days due to the storm surge in the Houston Shipping Channel, causing severe damage in residents’ homes and contaminating groundwater.
“The city did submit a proposal to the General Land Office to address upgrading the storm water system in our community and creating detention,” Murray said, “but none of the projects submitted by the city of Houston were approved. So like so many communities, we’re still waiting for relief.”
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