Beaver County citizen scientists prepare to hold Shell to account

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.

Meet the team using bubbles to keep Amsterdam's rivers clean

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 climate argument for banning menthol cigarettes

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.”

Corpus Christi sold its water to Exxon, gambling on desalination. So far, it's a losing bet

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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How voter suppression and gerrymandering by the Texas GOP derails environmental justice

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.”

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

Can you trust the label? Fast fashion under increasing scrutiny over greenwashing

Laura McAndrews has seen and heard some things that the fashion industry wouldn’t want the public to know.For many years, it was her job to find factories to produce millions of items of clothing for big American brands like The Gap and Anthropologie.She started to worry about the environmental impact of clothing just as these multinational companies began accelerating into fast fashion.When she was asked about organic cotton in 2005, she found out just how easily sustainability could be dropped as a priority.”They were like, ‘Laura, look into how we get organic,'” she told ABC podcast, Threads.”I give them my little presentation … and they were like, ‘You know what? We just did some market research. No-one’s asking for it. No-one cares about it unless you can get us organic for the same price as everything else. Let’s just not do it.'”This period of her career changed her perspective on the industry.Dr McAndrews, now an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, sees a lot of the sustainability and environmental claims about clothing as little more than public relations spin to improve the image of brands.It’s a practice known as “greenwashing”, where companies misrepresent the extent to which a product is environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical.”Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that gives you a reason to buy,” Dr McAndrews said.”Like putting a green tag on it, giving you a pretty little story – and now you feel good about your overconsumption. There’s nothing good about it.”Is greenwashing really that bad?As consumers become aware of the environmental cost of fast fashion, brands are finding new ways to market their clothing as sustainable.They might spruik the fast-growing nature of bamboo or lower carbon footprint of organic cotton, or tout the benefits of recycled polyester (more on that later).But the end results aren’t always what they’re made out to be.Earlier this year, high street retailer H&M was scrutinised for its use of bogus environmental scorecards for its clothing.

Most 'home-compostable' plastic doesn't fully break down in compost bins, UK study finds

Most certified “home-compostable” plastics do not fully break down in home compost bins, a UK citizen science project has found.Key points:More than 900 people across the UK participated in a home composting experimentAround 70 per cent of plastics certified as “home compostable” remained as fragments or microplastics after a yearThe researchers say home composting is not an effective method of disposal for compostable packagingThe project also showed that while 85 per cent of people surveyed were “enthusiastic” about buying compostable packaging, many were confused by what “compostable” meant.The study was published in Frontiers in Sustainability.Danielle Purkiss from University College London, who ran the study, said even when people correctly identified certified home-compostable plastic and placed it in their home composter, most of those plastics remained in large fragments after a year, and many lingered as microplastics.Some barely broke down at all.”We have photos [of home compost-certified plastic] that people have submitted after 12 months where you can still read the home compost certification label on it, which is ironic,” Ms Purkiss said.”There were plastic bags that were still so intact you’d probably be able to hold your shopping in them.”Plastic not so fantasticThe world’s appetite for plastic has increased dramatically in the past couple of decades. Since the turn of the millennium, global plastics production — and ensuing waste — doubled.Around half of the 353 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in 2019 ended up in landfill, while just under a quarter was “mismanaged”, meaning it was burned in open pits or ended up in waterways, oceans or dumped on land.And while plastics that make their way into the environment do eventually break down, the process can take hundreds of years, and involves them first eroding into microplastics that permeate every corner of the globe.In an attempt to tackle plastic pollution, many countries, including Australia, are phasing out single-use plastics and replacing them with recyclable, reusable or compostable options.Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 1 minute 43 seconds1m 43s

Single-use plastics banned in NSW but compostable products no longer alternative option for businesses

Single-use plastic items including straws and some takeaway packaging are banned in NSW from today, forcing businesses to transition towards more environmentally friendly products made from materials such as bamboo and paper. Key points:Single-use plastic items such as straws, plates and bowls are banned from November 1Biodegradable alternatives such as cardboard will still end up in landfillWork is underway to create safer compostable alternative products for consumers to useBut new EPA regulations mean these “eco” alternatives cannot currently be composted and will end up in landfill like their plastic counterparts.The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) recently clarified its guidelines around what was allowed in green compost bins, banning items such as cardboard and certified compostable packaging after research found that some products contained chemicals like PFAS, which can be harmful to human and animal health.More than 40 councils in NSW currently run compostable food and organic waste (FOGO) programs and all councils in the state will need to adopt FOGO schemes by 2030.But for NSW Far South Coast cafe owner Peter Haggar, restricting items such as cardboard and compostable packaging from FOGO bins will make the transition away from single-use plastics problematic.”They’ve sort of closed a door on a way out, or an exit route, from single-use plastics,” he said.”They’re going to have to do something about it because single-use plastics aren’t just [used] in hospitality. They’re also in medicine in a big way.”

How Australia is seeing a 'big shift' on plastic waste

Clean Up AustraliaBy Phil MercerBBC News, SydneyOn Tuesday, Australia takes another step towards reshaping its throw-away society.A range of single-use plastic, including straws, cutlery and micro beads in shampoo, will be banned in its most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), in a bid to reduce waste.”Australia has been very active over the last few years in moving to ban single-use plastics. We now have bans in place in over half of Australia’s states and territories,” says Shane Cucow, the plastics campaign manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society.”It’s been incredible progress considering just two years ago not a single state and territory had banned single-use plastics.”Australia has complex record with plastic waste. Though it has long been accused of inaction, the country has also seen celebrated examples of leadership.One of the forefathers of the anti-waste movement was Ian Kiernan, a Sydney-born property developer who became a professional yachtsman.In the 1980s, he had an environmental epiphany in the waters of the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean during a solo race around the world.”He was horrified by the amount of pollution, particularly plastic,” explains one of his daughters, Pip. “So, that was the impetus to come back and do something about it.”In 1989, Ian Kiernan launched Clean Up Sydney Harbour, a community effort to tackle litter in one of the world’s most famous waterways.”He was worrying that no-one would turn up, but 40,000 Sydneysiders turned up,” Ms Kiernan tells the BBC.This video can not be playedTo play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.A year later it became a national event, and Clean Up Australia Day was born.”It is absolutely quintessentially Australian in that we are great volunteers but we don’t like being told what to do. Clean Up Australia is about empowering you. You chose where you clean up. We’ll give you the tools,” adds Ms Kiernan, who’s the chair of the organisation her father set up, which attracts a million volunteer waste warriors each year. “He’d be encouraged to see that we are phasing out problematic single-use plastic items. But he would equally be frustrated that we are still producing and wasting so much plastic across the world.”The man who wanted to clean up the worldDo single-use plastic bans work?Can seaweed help end plastic pollution?In June, NSW banned lightweight plastic bags. Other items included in Tuesday’s ban include single-use plastic drink stirrers and cotton buds, as well as expanded polystyrene containers for take-away food.Queensland will disallow many of these products in September 2023, along with heavyweight plastic shopping bags under a proposed “five-year roadmap”. Victoria will act sooner, and will ban “problematic single-use plastics from sale or supply” from 1 February 2023.The pace of legislative reform might be impressive, but Australia’s mission to tame its plastic waste problem has a long way to go.”We’re just at the start of our journey. Across the board Australia’s plastic packaging recycling rate is still just 16%. Our national target is 70%,” Mr Cucow says. “So, we are a very long way from actually recovering and recycling all of our plastic in Australia.”Australia is so far behind in terms of recycling our plastic packaging and one of the big barriers is soft plastics, which are very difficult to recycle. That’s a legacy of decades of neglect.”Getty ImagesA global comparison of plastics waste management placed Australia 7th among 25 nations for its overall efforts to control plastic pollution, behind European countries, Japan, the UK and the US. Australia was rated 1st for “promoting safe and informed plastic usage” but 16th for “efficient collection and sorting channels”, said the report released in October last year.About a third of Australians live in NSW. The state’s environment minister, James Griffin, has acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead.”The amount of plastic in our oceans is predicted to outweigh the amount of fish by 2050. That is a horrifying prediction and a call to action to ensure our wildlife… can have a brighter future,” he said.Mr Griffin asserted the state’s bans would “prevent 2.7 billion items of plastic litter from entering the environment over the next 20 years”.In June, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, reported some good news that plastic pollution littering the coast had fallen by 29% compared to 2013.For Britta Denise Hardesty, a senior principal research scientist in its Oceans and Atmosphere unit, it was a “heartening” discovery and a sign that government policies were working.”We are starting to see a real change in our relationship with plastic,” she told the BBC, noting a “really big shift” in state government practices, including buy-back or cash-for-containers schemes reward individuals for recycling bottles and other items.”We are starting to put a price on plastic where we actually treat plastic as a valuable item, as a commodity rather than just as waste. Think about aluminium. It has intrinsic value and we don’t tend to find it lost to the environment,” she said.”I don’t foresee that we are going to have a plastic-free future. I’d like to see us designing with a legacy mindset, designing products for longer-term and thinking about what is the next life of that product going to be.”For Pip Kiernan, her late father’s mission goes on more than 30 years after it began. “He predicted all those years ago that plastics would be the scourge for our generation and he was right,” she says.More on this storyVideo shows plastic entering food chain11 March 2017The man who wanted to clean up the world17 October 2018Plastic-eating superworms offer hope for recycling10 June

This scientist uses drones and algorithms to save whales — and the rest of the ocean

OFF THE COAST OF SANTA BARBARA — Just yards from the Fish 1, a 22-foot research vessel, a humpback whale about twice the size of the boat hurled itself out of the water, sending shimmering droplets in a broken necklace of splash.In the other direction, a hulking cargo ship, stacked high with containers, crept closer.About this seriesClimate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.Aboard the Fish 1, a slight figure whose face is crinkled from years in the sun and saltwater, looked from one to the other. Ocean scientist Douglas McCauley wanted to see whether the near real-time detection system he and his colleagues had developed, Whale Safe, could avert collisions between whales and ships in the Santa Barbara Channel.The tool represents one of the ways McCauley, who heads the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara, is working to protect the ocean even as it becomes more industrialized. By collecting data from several sources — an acoustic monitoring buoy that listens for whale songs, identifies them according to species with an algorithm and sends that information to satellites; a predictive habitat model for blue whales; and sightings logged in an app — Whale Safe forecasts to ships the chances of meeting a whale. Then, it grades shipping companies on whether they actually slow down to 10 knots or less during whale migrations, from May 1 to Dec. 15.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“We can literally watch all of the ships in California and across the whole ocean; we are better positioned than ever before to try to track damage as it occurs, or before it occurs,” McCauley said a few days later in a Zoom call from the French Polynesian island of Moorea, where he is spending a month researching coral reefs. “We are in trouble if we don’t do something different, and I realized that if I kept sticking my head literally underwater or stayed in the lab, these problems weren’t going to fix themselves.”Humans have worked in the seas for centuries: fishing, seafaring and more recently, drilling for oil and gas and the development of offshore wind farms. Shipping lanes cross almost every surface of the sea, except for shrinking swaths of the Southern and Arctic Ocean.But as development has intensified and the planet has warmed, the 43-year-old McCauley has ventured into the gray area between scientific research and advocacy to try to fix these problems — or at least make them visible.A cargo ship is seen in the distance near the Channel Islands on Sept. 30.
He is trying to save the whales; collect plastic; explore the links between climate change, overfishing and nutrition in the South Pacific; warn about the dangers of seabed mining; track sharks using drones and artificial intelligence; and calculate the benefits to people, animals and the planet that come from protecting broad swaths of the sea.“One of Doug’s compelling traits as a scientist is that he is keen to explore outside the box,” said Benjamin Halpern, a UCSB professor of marine biology and ocean conservation who has worked with McCauley for about a decade. “He is a very creative thinker, and able to think differently about the solutions to problems and what kinds of research and science can help inform those.”[These whales are on the brink. Now comes climate change — and wind power]In meetings with corporate executives and political leaders, McCauley has made a consistent argument: Protecting the sea is in our interest, since it already does a lot of the work for us.In 2020 McCauley led a report that provided a framework for marine protected areas on the high seas, finding that such refuges could be powerful tools for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate resilience. Even port and fishing communities, he argued, depend on an ocean that is still wild and alive.“We have a globally unique chance to talk about this before it’s too late,” he said.California sea lions swim near the Channel Islands in California on Sept. 30. Humpback whales swim near the Channel Islands. Ship strikes killed 80 whales annually in three of the past four years, but the toll is probably much higher than reported.
Dolphins swim near the Channel Islands in California.California sea lions swim near the Channel Islands in California on Sept. 30.