Beaumont State Rep Files Oyster Reef "Land Grab" Bill

Categories: Environment, Texas

Photo by Daniel Salazar
A bill filed by state Rep. Joe Deshotel may change how water land rights are handled.

Last week, just before the filing deadline, state Rep. Joe Deshotel filed House Bill 3335, a bill innocously described as "relating to the regulation of oyster resources." However, there's a lot more to HB 3335 than that. With this bill, the lease for a controversial project, viewed by supporters as an attempt to save the Texas oyster reefs and by opponents as a bid to control the bulk of the Texas oyster reefs, could become legal.

We're talking about Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, commonly known as STORM.

STORM is the brainchild of Tracy Woody and his father-in-law Ben Nelson, the owners of Jeri's Seafood, a company that oysters from Smith Point, as we wrote in a feature story earlier this year. Back in early 2014, Woody and Nelson set up a separate company, Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (aka STORM). Then they obtained a 30-year lease through the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District for more than 23,000 acres of submerged land in Trinity and Galveston bays. And then, after they had secured the lease, Woody and Nelson started informing the other oystermen who held oyster reef leases in those waters that STORM now held the rights to that submerged land and the oyster reefs on it.

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Not Everyone Is Thrilled With Memorial Park's Master Plan

Memorial Park Conservancy
Everyone loves Memorial Park but that doesn't mean they agree on what's best for it.

The Memorial Park Conservancy is finishing up gathering public input on the new master plan that will govern how the park evolves over the next 20 years, but not everyone is thrilled with the changes the conservancy is pitching.

While the officials with the Memorial Park Conservancy say these changes are for the good of the park, some critics say the plan is just something cooked up by the Memorial Park Conservancy to design the park the way they see fit. "They don't own the park. You own the park and we own the park, but they think they own it. They justify everything they do. They make it sound good," Jorge Figueroa, an emphatic critic of the master plan, says.

The master plan will be enacted over a 20-year period and by the time it's done it will have reshaped the park in a lot of ways. Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, says that these changes will help the park continue to evolve and thrive even as the city continues to grow up around it.

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As Promised, Obama Vetoes Bill to Force Keystone XL Pipeline

Thumbnail image for texas-keystone-xl-pipeline.jpg
In a move that should surprise absolutely no one, President Obama today followed through on his promise to veto a Republican-led bill that would have forced approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. It was the first major veto of his presidency.

The proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, which would ship some 830,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands crude down to Port Arthur, has been debated ad nauseam throughout much the Obama presidency. While industry has trotted out suspect jobs figures and insisted that the pipeline could ween us off big, bad, scary Middle-East oil, environmentalists have called Keystone a defining moment for action against climate change.

In a letter announcing the veto, Obama chided Congress for attempting to override the State Department review and approval process. He even threw a bone to the loud environmentalist movement that's clamored against the pipeline (notice his passing reference to the "environmental" issue):

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EPA: Tanking Oil Price Means Keystone XL Could Impact Climate Change

Since it first reared its head in 2011, the Keystone XL oil pipeline has become the glaring symbol of a much larger debate about how we balance the recent North American energy boom with growing concerns that the unchecked burning of fossil fuels could ultimately cook our planet to death.

In the ensuing four years, during which time the Obama administration has effectively avoided the question, industry groups have trotted out fuzzy jobs figures while crowing that the 1,179-mile pipeline, which would ship some 830,000 barrels a day of crude from the Alberta tar sands down to Port Arthur, would help ween us off big, bad, scary Middle-East oil. Meanwhile environmentalists, to crib a line from NASA scientist James Hansen, have warned that "if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over" for the climate.

But over time, a new argument became popular in industry and moderate circles alike: the Keystone XL doesn't really matter anymore.

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Baker Botts Snitched on a Potential TCEQ Whistleblower

Kate Ter Haar via Flickr
On April 30, 2014, Kent Langerlan used his personal Gmail account to email an attorney with the Houston-based law firm Baker Botts, saying he might have information to blow the whistle on his employer, the Texas Commission on Environmental quality.

An investigator with the agency, Langerlan told a Baker Botts attorney that his girlfriend (now fiancée) Audra Benoit worked in enforcement in TCEQ's Beaumont office before the agency fired her in February 2013. Claiming TCEQ forced Benoit to do work "that was unlawful and against state and federal regulations," Langerlan wrote, "Ms. Benoit and I have a huge amount of documentation that validates her argument."

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UPDATED HISD History Teacher Accused of Choking Student

Categories: Crime, Environment

HISD's Jane Long Academy

(See update at the end of this post)

The Houston Independent School District has accused a Jane Long Academy history teacher of choking a student in class, according to a statement the district sent out this afternoon.

HISD began investigating Scott Christopher Matthews -- who, according to the school's website, teaches seventh grade Texas history and eighth grade American history -- after an incident in the classroom last Thursday. "Matthews was accused last Thursday of choking a student in his classroom," according to a statement from the district. "School administrators responded immediately, aiding the student, removing the teacher from the classroom and notifying HISD Police and Child Protective Services." District officials did not disclose the age of that student.

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Federal Court Finds Baytown's Funky Smell Isn't Exxon's Fault

The illustrious sign of the company in question.

Environmentalists took a swing at oil giant ExxonMobil's Baytown complex way back in February. On Wednesday they found out it was a miss when a federal district court ruled that ExxonMobil's numerous violations of the Clean Air Act couldn't be conclusively linked to the health problems of people living around the company's Baytown refinery.

Specifically, U.S. District Judge David Hittner accepted Exxon's claims that about 10 million pounds of air pollution (comprised, of course, of carcinogens, other toxic pollutants, and respiratory irritants) released in violation of clean air laws could not be conclusively linked to any unpleasant effects in the surrounding communities, according to a statement from Environment Texas and the Sierra Club.

Hittner also accepted Exxon's argument it should not be held responsible for failing to prevent the more than 4,000 separate equipment malfunctions and other events -- an average of more than one a day for eight years -- that each resulted in the release of illegal pollutants from the Baytown Complex from October 2005 through 2010.

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River Science Expert Says Buffalo Bayou is in Good Shape

Categories: Environment

Photo by Max Burkhalter

G. Mathias Kondolf climbed up the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou with a small smile on his face. Kondolf, one of the leading fluvial geomorphologists in the world (he's a river scientist) and one of the most vocal opponents to a method of river restructuring called natural channel design, was brought on by local environmentalists who are still hoping to stop the Memorial Demonstration Project from happening. Kondolf was brought to give his opinion on the state of Buffalo Bayou. Knocking the mud and river muck off his boots after a tour of the waterway on Friday morning, Kondolf's smile widened.

As both a leading river science expert and as one of the leading voices speaking out against the so-called natural channel design approach to rivers, Kondolf, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley College, is always getting invitations to come check out various projects across the country. He took the people with Save Buffalo Bayou, a nonprofit organization that is in opposition to the project, up on their offer to assess Buffalo Bayou because the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue their ruling on whether or not to permit the Memorial Demonstration Project. So there is still a chance to have an impact on what is happening, he says.

The Memorial Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed a few years ago. Harris County Flood Control has put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control have each chipped in $2 million.

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Two Companies Settle Over San Jacinto River Waste Pits, Jury Clears Lone Holdout of Liability

Image by Andrew Nilsen
Harris County's years-long legal battle to wring billions of dollars out of companies the county says are responsible for the San Jacinto River's toxic legacy ended with whimper Thursday. Following a four-week trial, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office settled with two of three defendants just as the case was set to go to closing arguments. The two companies agreed to pay $29.2 million, which, after attorneys fees and expenses, amounts to just $20 million that will be split between the state and county -- a far cry from the $3.7 billion the county initially sought in its lawsuit.

Mix in the fact that after the settlement was reached a jury cleared the lone holdout company of any responsibility, and it's hard to chalk this up as a clear win for the county in its bold fight to make companies pay fouling the San Jacinto River.

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Vote on Buffalo Bayou Takes Place Behind Closed Doors

Categories: Environment

Image courtesy of the Harris County Flood Control District

A handful of people clustered in the dim hallway outside Room 100 in the building that houses the Harris County Flood Control District.

The clock nosed to 2 p.m. and everyone allowed in the meeting -- the members of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force, each of whom is allowed one guest -- slid past two deputies from the Precinct 4 Constable's Office and into the room. In the minutes leading up to the meeting, a man was questioning everyone (or so it seemed) who walked into the door, politely but firmly informing each that this meeting was not open to the public.

The door swung shut behind them leaving about half a dozen people in the hall.

"So what are we going to do now?" A.C. Conrad, a longtime environmental activist, says.
"Well, we could sing a song?" Olive Hershey, a longtime activist on behalf of Buffalo Bayou, stared over at the door with narrowed eyes, looking unamused.

The door was thick and heavy, the kind you couldn't have heard through if you'd had your ear smashed against it. Of course, because the officers were standing in front of the door, no one was getting anywhere close to it.

The task force was slated to vote on whether to support the Memorial Demonstration Project, previously reported on by the Houston Press. "The task force wasn't elected. No one voted for them. They don't have the right to make decisions about our bayous," Hershey says.

While the whole thing was being sold officially as a completely run-of-the-mill non-public meeting, it was weird to see people questioning everyone who pulled into the parking lot, to see law enforcement watching everyone walk into the building and then settling in to guard the door of a meeting that is usually so sparsely attended that the matter of whether it's public has never been an issue until now.

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