River Science Expert Says Buffalo Bayou is in Good Shape

Categories: Environment

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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

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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

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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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TCEQ Scientist Says the Smog Is Fine Because Texans Stay Indoors

Categories: Environment

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has never exactly been on point when it comes to, you know, protecting the environment (this is Texas after all, land where the only good environmental regulation is a nonexistent one) but the state agency came out with a doozy this week.

See, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering changing the regulations governing the acceptable limit of smog (more politely known as Ozone) after a panel of scientists reviewed the current standards of 75 parts per billion and decided unanimously that the standard was too high. The EPA subsequently issued a mandate that will lower ozone air quality regulations to 60 parts per billion which will likely put a whole bunch of Texas cities into non-attainment, according to TCEQ toxicologist Dr. Michael Honeycutt.

Honeycutt, the top toxicologist in the state, is the one leading the charge against making any changes at all to air quality standards. He and a bunch of TCEQ scientists have followed in the footsteps of Republicans in Texas and across the country in vowing to oppose EPA air quality changes until the end of time.

First and foremost, according to Honeycutt, it will cost a whole bunch of money to get Texas air pollution rates down to the new lower regulatory levels. Besides, he explained in an article posted on the TCEQ website, smog is only a problem if you go outside. Specifically:

"Ozone is an outdoor air pollutant, because systems such as air conditioning remove it from indoor air. Since most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, we (and the people in the epidemiology studies used to justify lowering the standard) are rarely exposed to significant levels of ozone."

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Harris County, Industrial Companies Meet in Court Over Toxic Waste Dump

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Photo from the EPA
An aerial photo shows the 20-acre San Jacinto River Waste Pits situated beside Channelview and Highlands.

On Thursday Harris County attorneys went head-to-head with Fortune 500 companies they blame for polluting the San Jacinto River nearly 50 years ago.

With $3.7 billion worth in penalties and attorneys' fees on the line, the county's opening statements in the long-awaited environmental enforcement trial hinged on the responsible companies' intentional abandonment of a former waste dump. The companies counterargument: environmental regulations weren't enforced until well after they started dumping.

The fact of the matter is there are currently 20 acres of toxic paper mill sludge sitting in the San Jacinto River, nicknamed the Waste Pits. They were created when the Pasadena-based Champion Paper contracted with McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation to dispose of its industrial waste in a man-made enclosure inside the river, bounded by clay levees. After the Waste Pits filled, McGinnes elected to abandon them. Over time, carcinogenic chemicals leaked out into the river system.

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Warmer Gulf Waters Are Messing Things up for Texas Sea Turtles

Categories: Environment

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Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife
Free the way a sea turtle was meant to be.

You'd think the warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico would be a good thing for sea turtles -- the turtle equivalent of excellent weather -- but the warmed-up waters may be causing problems for the creatures, according to researchers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

Every year there are sea turtles that need rescuing along the Texas coast, especially right after a sudden temperature change, but lately researchers have noticed an uptick in the number of sea turtles needing aid. Last fall, they helped out more than 500 sea turtles, many of whom had gone into shock because of the sudden cold snaps causing water temperatures to drop.

Traditionally, sea turtles migrate to warmer waters as the seasons shift but in recent years the Gulf waters have stayed pretty comfortable for longer periods of time, and many turtles didn't bother to migrate, which would have been fine if the weather had stayed all comfortable and warm. But it didn't, of course, and neither did the waters off the Texas coast, and that didn't go so well for the sea turtles caught in the climate-chang crossfire, according to Tony Amos, a Marine Science Institute fellow and director of Animal Rehabilitation Keep. Plummeting temperatures translated to sea turtles slipping into shock and the risk that they would develop pneumonia or be killed from the cold.


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San Jacinto Dioxin Case Kicks Off

Categories: Crime, Environment

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Photo by Susan Du
Highlands residents still fish in the San Jacinto River despite the EPA advisories against eating fish and crab.

The trifecta of lawsuits filed against companies for allegedly dumping toxic paper waste into the San Jacinto River finally came to trial on Monday. Waste Management, International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation are accused of allowing dioxin, a "cancer-enhancer" chemical, to leak uninhibited into a river system where people have been swimming and fishing since the 1960s. They stand to pay damages worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Harris County and local residents if they are found liable.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued all three companies for $2 billion in penalties for failure to disclose and clean the waste. His move opened the floodgates for suits from dozens of Vietnamese fishermen who depend on contaminated San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay fisheries for their livelihood. Residents of Highlands filed a third lawsuit, claiming they never would have moved beside the river if they knew about the toxic waste dump underneath the surface.

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Red Tide Season Is Upon Us: Oysters and Fish Beware

Categories: Environment

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Photo by Jules Morgan
Won't somebody think of the oysters? (Everybody is.)

Beware the red tide. That may sound like a pseudo-biblical warning, but the nasty algae that goes by that name is already popping up in Texas waters this season. And you know what this means: Oyster season, that magical time of the year when we can eat raw oysters fished out of Texas waters, is in danger.


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That Stinky Seaweed in Galveston Could Soon Be Edible

Categories: Environment

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Jerald Jackson
Unless you're without a sense of smell (and thus lucky in this case) you've probably noticed that Galveston kind of smells like it's on the edge of the bowels of something unspeakably nasty these days because of the many tons of seaweed that have washed up on our hallowed shores.

Scientists have been working on a plan to deal with all of this disgusting seaweed -- it's actually called sargassum and the folks on Texas and Louisiana shores have been wrangling with it for months. You might have looked at all this seaweed and wondered what in the world would be done with it. Well, Tom Linton and Robert Webster, researchers at Texas A&M-Galveston, are working on a plan.

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Environmentalists Rally Around Lawsuit to Scrub San Jacinto Waste Pits

Categories: Environment

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Photo by Susan Du
Environmental activist Jackie Young of Texans Together gathers protesters in front of the Waste Management headquarters. Pending an actual "solution for pollution," the county attorney will push on with his suit to collect billions in fines.

As Houston corporate lobbyists fight a county lawsuit seeking to penalize companies for carcinogens plaguing the San Jacinto River, environmental groups have pledged to keep hounding their headquarters with angry rhymes.

In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued Waste Management, International Paper, and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corporation for $2 billion in penalties for the cancer-causing dioxin that's leached out of the San Jacinto Waste Pits for nearly half a century. But Waste Management and International Paper say they only inherited the property after it had been polluted, so they're not liable to pay for full remediation.

Champion Paper and its contractor McGinnes Industrial Maintenance created the Waste Pits in the 1960s, when barges carrying with sludge from a paper mill in Pasadena dumped their contents in pits on the river's west bank. Over time, erosion, rising water and the companies' total abandonment caused part of the Waste Pits to submerge underwater, contaminating the San Jacinto River within a half-mile radius. The pits are currently covered by a temporary cap, which Waste Management and International Paper support leaving in place as a much cheaper alternative to a thorough scrubbing.

The pollution is so extensive that the EPA named the Waste Pits a Superfund site -- part of the federal government's program to repair the nation's concentrations of uncontrolled hazardous waste.

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