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George W. Bush and the Environment

A closer look at Texas

Greenpeace, activists, water tower, banner, President Bush, Crawford

Three Greenpeace activists climbed the water tower and hung a 30 foot tall banner with a message for President Bush, who was resting at his ranch a few miles away in Crawford, Texas on April 13th ,2001.

Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/Getty

LANELL ANDERSON TAKES TO the road early this warm spring morning for a tour of Houston real estate. Perfectly coiffed and smartly turned out in a black pantsuit and a black Lexus, cell phone bleating every few minutes, Anderson is an independent real estate agent – seven closings this month alone. But we are not taking a standard home tour today. As we head north on a high bridge over Buffalo Bayou, the Houston Ship Channel sprawls ahead in all its petrochemical glory. It is this horizon-spanning complex of refineries, power lines and chemical factories that makes the Texan economy bigger than all but ten of the world’s sovereign nations.

The sight is literally breathtaking. An odor like cat urine seeps through the Lexus’ advanced AC and filtration system. “That would be caused by acrolesin,” Anderson says. It’s one of hundreds of toxic chemicals routinely discharged into the region’s air by some 300 facilities. Xylenes, styrene, 1,3-butadiene, methyl isocyanate – Anderson, tosses off the names of carcinogens, mutagens and just plain bad-to-breathe gases. Her knowledge is born of volunteering for the last ten years with citizens’ environmental groups across Texas.

A tall plume of black smoke billows from a refinery. “They call that an ‘upset,’ ” Anderson explains – “venting something they can’t control and burning it off into the atmosphere. The black smoke is when the chemical just overwhelms the pilot flame that’s supposed to burn it. Lots of upsets around here.”

She turns the Lexus down a residential street on Houston’s east side that has clearly seen better days. She slows down by her old home, the one she bought in 1981 “because we could afford a bigger lot out here. I remember the chemical odors, so strong that two or three times a year they would awaken me out of a sound sleep at night.”

Anderson’s parents lived nearby, until her mother died of bone cancer and her father succumbed to respiratory disease. She and her two sisters all struggle with a variety of autoimmune and respiratory diseases. “I wonder, if I had only known more, could I have somehow protected my family?” she asks. “Do I believe what’s happened to us is from the air pollution? Yes. Is it provable scientifically? That would take a lot of time and money. Am I bitter? You’re damn right.”

Anderson, along with other citizens, is negotiating with two chemical companies for a voluntary cut in emissions of benzene, a carcinogen – with no help from the governor’s environmental agency. She is not impressed with Gov. George W. Bush’s claim that “the air in Texas is cleaner” than when he was first elected in 1994. Texas still leads the nation in toxic-chemical emissions, with 108 million pounds a year of airborne toxins. The state has continued a trend that began in 1987 of reducing such emissions, but at a slower rate than other big industrial states.

The airborne-toxins figures do not even include Texas’ record-breaking measures of smog. As Anderson drives back to Houston through another petrochemical suburb, Deer Park, she points out how just last October 7th, the girls’ cross-country team at Deer Park High School was overcome by fits of coughing. This happened on the same day that Houston capped a smog season so intense, it surpassed Los Angeles as the nation’s lousy-air champion – the first time in half a century that another city had won that dubious distinction. Protesters waved signs on a Houston street during rush hour: “We finally beat L.A. – Houston No. 1 in air pollution,” one said.

Bush’s Texas nabbed the smog title by stalling on cleanup while cities like Los Angeles made significant progress. A California oil refinery, for example, contributes only a fifth as much to smog as one in Texas does. While California’s environmental agencies have made reducing pollution a priority, Bush’s officials have been lobbying Congress not to punish Texas for its violation of environmental laws. Among the first bills signed by Bush as governor was one that dismantled a key plan to reduce smog in Texas through a centralized network of auto-exhaust inspection stations. Bush and the legislature agreed with angry motorists and talk-radio hosts that the Environmental Protection Agency was sticking its nose where it didn’t belong and that inspections would be too inconvenient.

Whatever the environmental problem, Bush typically insists that mandatory regulations are ineffective and that businesses should be persuaded to institute voluntary reforms. On the presidential campaign trail, Bush often touts his flexible approach. “The command-and-control structure out of Washington, D.C., won’t work,” he said recently in Pittsburgh. “The idea of suing our way or regulating our way to clean air and clean water is not effective policy.” But it is the laissez-faire policies that Bush has pursued that have proved to be dramatically ineffective.

LUPE CORDOVA, 35, AND HER family live in an industrial east Houston neighborhood. Jessica, 15, suffers from asthma caused, she believes, by the local air pollution. Stephen is a fourth-grader who suffers from rashes, bronchitis and a sensitivity to his neighborhood’s pervasive chemical smells – “They make me throw up,” he says. Stephen shows me the school calendar the kids from Woodland Acres Elementary School put together last year. The pages feature photographs of polluted air, land and water surrounding the school. Lupe, who is part of a group called Mothers for Clean Air, says she sent the calendar to the governor and legislators to show them how local schools were being impacted by the pollution. “All we got was a letter from Bush’s office, commending our work on the calendar. We didn’t do it for a pat on the back. We did it to show people what we’re living in.”

A few miles south, in Lake Pointe Forest, an upper-middle-class Houston subdivision, residents are just as frustrated. A group of neighbors have gathered in the comfortable living room of Tamara Maschino’s home. This is NASA country, where many of the neighbors work at Mission Control at the nearby Johnson Space Center. Homes sell from the low hundreds of thousands on up. It is usually safe territory for Republican candidates.

But the talk in the living room tonight is about asthma and cancer and nosebleeds – too many adults and kids are experiencing problems. “Here’s my latest experience,” Maschino says, showing color photos of a large black chemical cloud that cast its pall over the subdivision for hours last February. She says her husband’s medical-technology company is having trouble attracting people to the area because of the pollution.

In fact, half of Texas’ 20 million people now breathe air that on many days doesn’t meet federal health standards. Linking illness to specific air pollutants is complicated by additional factors like smoking and heredity. But a 1999 study by the city of Houston found that 435 deaths may be caused per year by pollution there. It noted that $3 billion is spent annually on pollution-related health costs.

A recent poll showed that eighty-nine percent of Texans think air pollution is a “serious” or “very serious” concern; and eighty-two percent, their governor’s “cleaner” claims not withstanding, think it has gotten worse during the last five years. But air quality is not the only public-health anxiety. Perhaps a third of the state’s rivers and streams don’t meet water-quality standards. Endangered species have suffered, and acquisition of public lands has stalled as the Bush administration allied itself with private-property-rights groups like Take Back Texas.

If George W. Bush is leaving a mess in Texas, he did inherit one, and arguably he has made some improvements, such as rejecting plans for a nuclear-waste-disposal facility in west Texas. He also signed and lent critical support to a bill last year that made dozens of the state’s most polluting power plants reduce their air emissions, according to its sponsor, Dallas Democrat Steve Wolens (the bill lets the utilities pass cleanup costs on to ratepayers). And it’s not Bush’s fault that the Texas legislature has grown considerably more conservative on environmental issues in the last decade.

On the other hand, the environment has never been a priority with George Bush. “Not on his radar screen” is the phrase one hears the most. A reading of his 253-page book on his life and political career, A Charge to Keep, uncovers a single sentence on air and water pollution (he thinks corporations should be responsible about it). The only mention of wildlife is the protected songbird that Bush mistakenly shot on a dove hunt cum media event. “He comes from an oil-and-gas background, all his cronies are from big business, and he doesn’t second-guess what they tell him on environmental policy,” says Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter in Austin. Bush’s appointees to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state’s leading environmental agency, reflect his pro-business philosophy. They have included Ralph Marquez, formerly with the Texas Chemical Council and Monsanto; Barry McBee, an oil specialist from a Dallas law firm; Robert Huston, a former environmental consultant to Texas industry; and John Baker Jr., a former Texas Farm Bureau director. Stuart Henry, an Austin lawyer who has been litigating citizens’ environmental complaints since 1971, says the current TNRCC commissioners “are the most pro-business, anti-regulatory group I’ve seen in such positions in my thirty years of practice.”

As a glaring example, critics point to Crown Central Petroleum’s refinery in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, which has been repeatedly fined for air-quality violations. Despite twenty years of pleas by Houston air-quality officials that Crown reduce its sulfur emissions, the TNRCC recently let Crown install a cheaper and less-effective liquid-filtration system.

Bush and his TNRCC appointees showed how they would deal with big business when they were faced with their first pollution-related crisis. In Bush’s second year as governor, it became apparent to top officials at the TNRCC that without drastic action, the state’s metro areas would never meet looming federal clean-air deadlines. This could mean huge penalties, like the loss of federal highway money and the curtailing of industrial development. More than a third of industry-caused pollution was coming from 832 facilities that had been “grandfathered,” or exempted from tougher cleanup standards, back in 1971. Just the smog-causing potential of the exempted factories and refineries – by no means their total pollution load – was equivalent to an extra 17.3 million cars, double the number actually on Texas roads. “They had gotten a nearly thirty-year free ride,” says Peter Altman, executive director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

Jeff Saitas, the TNRCC’s executive director, says that in 1996 his agency developed “a series of options from mandatory to voluntary” to end the exemptions. Ralph Marquez, the Bush-appointed TNRCC commissioner, recalls his first conversation around then with the governor: “He said, ‘If we can make a significant impact, let’s do it,’ and then he said, ‘Can it be done voluntary?’; and I said, ‘Yes, sir.'” In 1999, the Texas legislature passed Bush’s voluntary plan, known as the Clean Air Responsibility Enterprise program, even though some contended that a tougher bill would have passed.

It was discovered later that the grandfathered companies had participated in private meetings with Bush officials that led to the CARE bill. The companies, along with their lawyers, gave $640,000 to Bush’s re-election race for governor. They have contributed another $1.1 million to his presidential campaign. Industries now have until 2001 to enroll in CARE’s cleanup plans, which allow the use of older pollution-control technology and are vague about actual reductions. But despite a major effort since 1997 by the governor and TNRCC to get grandfathered industries to volunteer early, enrollment has been sluggish, and air-pollution reductions credited to the program total only about 15,000 tons – out of hundreds of thousands of tons emitted. The EPA will decide by the end of the year whether to withhold federal highway funds. TNRCC’s Saitas says, “It’s not fair to call it a failure yet. It’s not a big percentage of emissions, but the important issue is that we have issued more than 100 permits [out of more than 700 needed] . . . bringing these grandfathered plants into the system.”

Saitas, a Georgia Tech graduate who has headed TNRCC since 1998, has a philosophical difference with his agency’s critics: “What we’re interested in is compliance, not enforcement. We don’t want [TNRCC] to be like those old speed-trap towns. We’re not interested in saying, ‘Look how many tickets I wrote, look how much money I collected.’ It’s a question of being effective, with limited resources to do investigations and monitoring.”

But Neil Carman, the Sierra Club’s clean-air expert, says, “The real question is, How much are we reducing pollution?” As an example of the weakness in Bush’s new voluntary system, Carman, a former air-quality inspector for the state, points to Alcoa’s giant aluminum smelter at Rockdale, some forty-five miles northeast of Austin, in rural Milam County.

With 1,400 workers, Alcoa is the county’s biggest employer, and its taxes made up thirty-five percent of last year’s county budget. The smelter’s power plant has been exempt from Texas environmental laws for decades. Currently the plant’s output is equal to about a million automobiles in its annual emissions of smog-forming pollutants. The company has agreed to reduce these by a third, even though technology is available to make much deeper reductions.

But nitrogen oxides that form smog represent only a fifth of the smelter’s pollution load. More than half is sulfur dioxide (which can cause serious respiratory damage and acid rain), and Alcoa will not reduce that by an ounce. When air-quality monitors along a public highway showed unhealthy levels of sulfur dioxide, the state just let Alcoa move the road. After that, “They built a taller smokestack to spread the sulfur pollution farther away and had their lobbyists donate hundreds of thousands to Bush’s campaigns – anything but really clean up,” says Billie Woods of Neighbors for Neighbors, the two-county citizens group fighting Alcoa. Alcoa says that all its monitoring of the region shows the air meets health standards, and TNRCC is satisfied that Alcoa’s emissions-reduction program is in full compliance with the law. But residents complain that the air is so dirty it causes respiratory ailments and is so acidic it eats the galvanized surface off barbed-wire fences.

Woods and Travis Brown, president of Neighbors, walk to the edge of a brown, monotone moonscape covering several square miles of the central Texas hill country. “That country there used to be a picture – creeks and woods and fields full of wildflowers,” an oldtimer, Walter Wentzel, said the day before. But for decades it has been Alcoa’s strip mine – source of the lignite, a low-grade, high-sulfur coal that fuels its smelter. Two giant excavating machines work the lignite seam. Each is twenty stories high and able to scoop 150 tons of earth with each bite from a pit that descends 200 feet.

Air-quality experts say that if Alcoa had to meet stringent pollution limits, it is unlikely it would burn, or mine, the low-grade lignite – “like burning dirt,” Brown says. The company would only say that it meets “all Texas and federal air-quality laws.” It told the Texas legislature and TNRCC in 1999 that it could not afford to operate the plant with cleaner fuels, such as Texas’ abundant natural gas. Yet Alcoa was flush enough to buy out a competitor, Alumax, for $3.8 billion, in 1998. Then, in 1999, Alcoa bought Reynolds Metals for $5.8 billion in stock and debt. And now, protected from more modern and restrictive pollution standards by the CARE program, the company is preparing to open up new lignite pits that eventually will strip the country-side for another twenty square miles over the next thirty years.

It is just hitting home what this will mean for hundreds of landowners like Russell Bostic, whose family has lived on a pretty, hill-country spread in the county next to Milam since 1901. “Alcoa [which owns his land’s mineral rights] said they would be in my front yard in three years,” he says, looking out across his acreage of rolling meadows studded with glossy green post oaks and black oaks and wildflowers nodding in a late afternoon breeze. If the plan goes through, the aluminum company will also pump a huge volume of water from beneath the land as it mines, selling it to San Antonio, 120 miles away, and likely exhausting local wells.

“All of it is tied to Alcoa’s dirty air,” Bostic says. “They say they will compensate us for losing wells and reclaim the land, but they never can put it back.”

IT IS IN LAND-RELATED ISSUES that Bush’s environmental record may be most suspect. The state loses a quarter million acres a year of prime farmland and other open space to development. It is forty-ninth among states in per capita spending on parks, despite a booming population that’s expected to double to 40 million by 2050. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is headed by Andrew Sansom, formerly director of the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a respected private-land preservation organization. “We do conservation within the context of a limited-government philosophy, or we don’t do it at all,” Sansom said in November.

In 1995, Gov. Bush pushed through a so-called takings bill. This is a law that property-rights advocates still only dream of achieving at the federal level. Watered down somewhat by the legislature, it lets landowners sue over government actions that reduce the value of their property. This could mean that if a landowner has to curtail ranching or farming practices that are causing pollution, taxpayers will pay him to comply with environmental laws.

The department currently does everything it can to avoid listing species as endangered, a process that could lead to protecting enough habitat to allow them to recover, says Dean Keddy-Hector, a former zoologist with the department’s Texas Natural Heritage Program. “To the public, it might look like we still have a qualified staff, but we have become a reactive agency [with] very little proactive protection of wildlife,” said a staffer who works in a different section of the parks department. Sansom says Bush hasn’t focused on expanding public lands because he had to focus on “repairing a park system that was about to go under when he came to office.” He notes that the governor has commissioned a wideranging report on the department’s future needs.

“This is a state that has no real environmental movement; that has very, very frugal fiscal policy; also an incredibly strong private-property movement and a strong belief in limited government,” Sansom says, adding, “So that’s the deal, and if you take what’s happened in my world in that context, I’m pretty proud of what [Bush] has accomplished.”

Certainly Sansom is not referring to Bush’s record on water quality. According to the Environmental Working Group, Texas has the worst record in the country for inspecting companies that are known violators of the Clean Water Act. It spends so little on protecting its waters from pollution – forty-sixth among the states – that “almost nothing is known about the quality of 25,000 out of 40,000 miles of the state’s permanent rivers and streams,” according to the Texas Environmental Almanac. Bush has declined to push for an increase in the amount of fees the TNRCC can collect from municipal sewage plants and other water polluters to investigate water quality.

The monitoring that does exist shows that thirty percent of waters don’t meet state standards. TNRCC argues that many of these waters were arbitrarily assigned higher levels of water quality than they could ever meet and plans to downgrade standards in some areas. The agency has angered bass fishermen across the state by proposing a downgrade on waters feeding Lake Sam Rayburn. The lake is one of the state’s top fishing lakes and was the site of a large bass die-off in the summer of 1998, due to a parasite that flourishes where water quality is poor. Ed Parten, vice president of the Texas Association of Bass Clubs, says, “We’ve petitioned Bush on this till we’re exhausted, but he’s not interested.”

Bush frequently states that “market-based solutions” and not “lawsuits and regulation” are the way to clean air and clean water. But decades of environmental progress, from banning DDT and PCBs to reining in acid rain and smog and protecting wetlands, came about only because of lawsuits and regulation. Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, worries that, “If Bush applied his ‘Texas knows best’ standard to the rest of the nation, thirty years of environmental progress could be jeopardized in only four years.”

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