Plastic bags are killing horses and cows across the state. What’s Texas to do?

Texas Tribune
By Lara Korte
Original article here

Photo: Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Kristie West was driving down the highway in rural South Texas when she saw it.

The drive from her ranch to the nearby town of Poth was usually uneventful. But on that day in 2017, West saw something that made her slam on the brakes of her pickup.

A white plastic bag had flitted into a horse pen behind a house where a young palomino was grazing. Someone who doesn’t work with livestock probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But West trained horses, and she knew the colt would treat the bag like a toy.

She quickly pulled into the yard and raced to the front door. A man answered.

“I said, ‘Do you care if I run out to check on your horse?'” West recalled. He said it was fine. “That’s all I said. I ran behind his house just as the horse took off running.”

When West got to the pen, the colt had already swallowed the bag, and she could see that he was suffocating. He then bolted, jumping a barbed wire fence. West ran after him. But she was too late.

“He was dead,” she recalled.

The prevalence of such incidents has prompted states and cities across the country to enact regulations to curtail the use of plastic bags, which can suffocate and cause fatal digestion blockages in livestock and wild animals. But in Texas, the regulation of plastic bags — grocery or otherwise — is all but nonexistent, and recent developments indicate it will remain that way.

Last year, the Texas Supreme Court struck down the city of Laredo’s plastic bag ban, effectively ending about a dozen similar policies in other Texas municipalities.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Eva Guzman agreed with her colleagues but said the state Legislature should clarify whether plastic bags can actually be banned and described the pollution as “an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem.” Earlier this year, Democratic state lawmakers attempted to do that, but the legislation they filed never even received public hearings.

Meanwhile, the absence of municipal regulations means many Texans have reverted to using plastic bags once again. And some say the litter is getting worse.

Although retailers like H-E-B still encourage customers to bring reusable bags to the store — the grocery chain also did away with the thin, single-use bags altogether in Austin — the wispy receptacles quickly reappeared at stores that had briefly switched to paper sacks before the court ruling, and the sight of plastic bags wafting down the highway remains a common one.

With little state regulation and a full stop from the state’s highest civil court, what’s a rancher to do?

“I don’t know what they could do,” West said. “The biggest thing is the people — that they just need to quit littering.”

Since the incident with the Palomino colt, West has been doing her part to raise awareness of how lethal plastic bag litter can be. For two years, she’s worked with the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas to distribute bumper stickers that warn people in bold red letters that “plastic bags KILL animals.” For its part, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has its own anti-litter awareness campaign, called “Take Care of Texas.” (The well-known “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign was developed in 1985 by an Austin ad agency for the Texas Department of Transportation).

The TCEQ, which is also responsible for enforcing the state’s litter and dumping laws, does a number of things to combat littering, such as sending $5.49 million every year to councils of government across the state to fund public awareness campaigns, community trash pickups and litter surveillance. Between 2016 and 2017, that funding bankrolled more than 230 such projects across the state.

But environmental groups say it’s not enough.

Andrew Dobbs, legislative director at Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the state needs to ban single-use plastic bags or the problem will continue.

“Picking everything up is not really a solution at all, right?” he said. “You’re much better off unloading the gun than you are trying to wear a bullet-proof vest.”

Texans and environmental groups from across the state filed amicus briefs in support of the Laredo bag ban. One of them was Billy Easter, a rancher who lives near Wichita Falls.

Easter runs 200 head of cattle on 1,400 acres. He owns 2 miles of land along U.S. Highway 281, where he said he is constantly pulling plastic bags off barbed-wire fences. He said he’s lost cattle to plastic bags and that oftentimes ranchers don’t notice their livestock has swallowed one until it’s too late.

“These cows in the pastures, you don’t see them every day,” Easter said.

Although Easter and others urged the court to allow cities to make the bag ban choice for themselves, the state supreme court sided with the merchants. In its ruling, the court said that single-use bags are considered garbage and fall under the state’s solid waste disposal law, which preempts municipal ordinances.

But in her concurring opinion, Guzman urged the Legislature to take “direct ameliorative action” and change the laws to better address environmental concerns.

“Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning — it will invite one,” she said.

Two Democratic lawmakers attempted to heed that call earlier this year.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed legislation during this year’s legislative session that would have exempted single-use plastic bags from the Solid Waste Disposal Act, specifying that they do not quality as a “container or package.” That would have freed up municipalities to regulate them again.

Hinojosa argued that the law needed to be clarified because the original intention of the act was to regulate styrofoam and other manufacturing waste that went into landfills, not plastic bags.

“My bill sought to make absolutely clear that the statute is not meant to include single-use plastic bags in order to ensure local plastic bag ordinances are not preempted,” she said in an email.

Last year’s court ruling was the latest in a string of mostly legislative moves that have eaten away at local control. For cities like Brownsville, one of the municipalities that had to stop enforcing its ban on single-use bags after the court ruling, it’s frustrating that the state has not allowed communities to have control over their own environments.

Lawmakers “don’t want the federal government to tell them what to do, but they turn around and want the state to have control over the communities,” said Arturo Rodriguez, Brownsville’s public health and wellness director. “It’s a bit ironic because municipalities need to be able to exercise their due diligence within their domains.”

So why won’t the Texas Legislature take up the single-use plastic issue?

Jose Aliseda, a former Republican state representative, is the district attorney for Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties, where he also runs cattle. Aliseda said he believes the plastics industry is too large and powerful to be swayed by the concerns of the agricultural community.

“The honest truth is there’s not enough of us,” he says of ranchers. “Yes, we’re a big part of the economy, but as far as the number of people, there’s not that many ranchers and farmers in the whole country.”

Chemical companies spent between $840,000 and $1.4 million on lobbyists during the 2019 legislative session, according to filings from the Texas Ethics Commission. The Texas Chemical Council, which represents the industry, declined to comment.

The Dow Chemical Co., one of the world’s foremost producers of plastic, didn’t respond to requests for comment about its Texas lobbying goals, but public records show the company spent the highest amount of any chemical company — between $275,000 and $459,000.

When asked about plastic lobbying efforts, a Dow spokesperson said the company participates in the political process in compliance with state and federal laws. Dow has several initiatives to end plastic waste, said spokesperson Ashley Mendoza, and promotes “post-use solutions” of plastics.

Some chemical groups take issue with the term “single-use” plastic bags and say they have many secondary uses, such as small trash can liners. Mendoza pointed to a 2019 study from the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that found carryout bag bans in California resulted in greater numbers of heavy plastic garbage bags.

Some bag ban opponents say it’s up to retailers to prevent litter or that it’s the responsibility of each individual Texan. But the way Aliseda sees it, as governments across the country face mounting pressure to take action on environmental issues, Texas will eventually have to face the problem plastic inflicts on Texas agriculture and make a choice on how to deal with it.

“The state has to decide what’s more costly of the two options,” he said, “forcing the people that use the plastic bags or make plastic bags to change, or continue to basically be a nuisance on agriculture.”

Recycling trashed: City audit confirms 1,300 tons of recyclables were sent to a landfill

KHOU News Houston
By Jeremy Rogalski
Original video story here

HOUSTON — An internal City of Houston audit confirms what KHOU 11 Investigates uncovered about the handling of curbside recyclables: 2.6 million pounds ended up at the landfill in the first five months of this year.

The 12-page report, drafted by Chenella Queen, Senior Auditor for the Solid Waste Management Department, identified a total of 532 mishandled incidents across every sector of the city from January to June.

The 1,301 mishandled tons were about 11 percent of all recycling properly collected during that time.

The scope of the audit covered more than 11,700 documents related to daily driver work performance as well as landfill disposal data.

It also included interviews with solid waste truck drivers, supervisors, a senior superintendent, deputy assistant directors, deputy directors and Harry Hayes, the Solid Waste Management Department director.

It stated that solid waste drivers did an “excellent job” of documenting their activities in daily work logs, but supervisors failed to react or respond to entries that showed policy violations.

The report never states that management directed employees to haul recyclables off to the dump. One environmental watchdog said that doesn’t add up, given the number of incidents over so many months.

“From my experience, this is not the case of rogue drivers,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“I would put money on the fact that this was some level of supervisor that was directing people to do this,” Schneider said.

The audit suggested in some cases, mixing recycling with garbage was a consequence of sloppy practices rather than intentional rule breaking.

“A process should be put in place and strictly enforced which identifies partial loads remaining on trucks overnight or through the weekend,” Senior Auditor Queen wrote.

“In several instances employees unknowingly used a “parked” truck that contained either garbage or recycling and took that unit to their work route, thereby mixing the load unknowingly” Queen wrote.

But another audit finding pointed to a more deliberate disregard of city policy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner had a memo issued April 24 threatening “immediate disciplinary action” for any employee violating recycling rules.

Despite that directive, the audit found 106 mishandling incidents after the memo was issued.

“I think the mayor needs to seriously look at a change at the top,” Schneider said. “Firing a few truck drivers does not solve the problem at this department.”

In a cover letter to Mayor Turner, Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said he “will administer corrective action per city/department policies.”

Hayes said that discipline will cover employees and members of the management team.

He did not say how many workers would be punished or how high up the discipline would reach.

Commissioners Pass Resolution for Dallas County Environmental Protection

By Ken Kalthoff
Original video story here

Dallas County Commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday calling for tougher and faster environmental protection from the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ).

The resolution cited three Dallas County problems where commissioners said they believed the TCEQ has failed to properly protect people.

“We are asking TCEQ, please do your job,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said.

The resolution received unanimous support from all five Dallas County Commissioners. Republican J.J. Koch joined the four Democrats in voting for the measure.

“No more excuses. Democrats and Republicans, we all have to work together,” Garcia said.

Corey Troiani with the Texas Campaign for the Environment said his group was lobbying other counties and cities to follow Dallas County’s lead.

“And with support from counties across the state, from officials across the state, we’re going to build that power with TCEQ and show them that they can’t say no to all of us,” he said.

The three cases cited in the Dallas County resolution are Blue Star Recycling Company’s so-called “Shingle Mountain” in southern Dallas, the former Lane Plating and Del Fasco Forge sites.

Resident Davante D. Peters lives near the Lane Plating site on Bonnie View Road in southern Dallas, where a youth baseball field is just downhill from the closed business.

“Me being a resident, I didn’t know about it until I got active,” Peters said. “So a lot of the residents still don’t know what’s going on right in their neighborhood.”

Lane Plating and the former Del Fasco Forge Company site on 28th Street in Grand Prairie have both been designated federal Superfund priority sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup of toxic pollution and ground water contamination.

Del Fasco Forge made practice bombs for the U.S. Navy and Air Force before it closed in 1998. It is surrounded by 100 homes and a middle school. The building has been leased for other businesses since.

The county resolution said the TCEQ did not require cleanup of toxic contamination that it discovered at both sites.

“TCEQ, I’ve said it publicly in our hearings, they are the problem,” County Commissioner John Wiley Price said.

National NAACP Environmental Justice Director Jacqui Patterson visited the Shingle Mountain site off S. Central Expressway Tuesday with neighbor Marsha Jackson.

“I went to Houston this weekend, had a great time. As soon as I got home, as soon as I came home, my head started hurting and I started getting sick, nauseated,” Jackson said.

Patterson said illness was a common complaint of neighbors who live near environmental hazards.

The TCEQ granted Blue Star Recycling a permit to operate the shingle recycling operation, but only for storage of a fraction of the material that wound up there.

“Enforcement is one of the biggest issues. You have rules on the books, but you don’t have the means of them being monitored or enforced. So, companies will often do as little as they can do until they are actually forced to do what they’re supposed to do,” Patterson said.

Last month a judge gave new executives with Blue Star Recycling six more months to complete a cleanup. Jackson said the company never really started to clean up in the three previous months the company was given by the judge to get the job done.

“The judge doesn’t have to live next to Shingle Mountain. Miss Jackson does and her neighbors do,” Dallas NAACP Vice President Kevin Felder said.

Patterson said the NAACP would pursue new legal action.

“We will be talking with our general counsel to get their input on next steps to really make sure that Miss Jackson and her neighbors are no longer in harm’s way,” Patterson said.

A group of activists gathered at Jackson’s home Tuesday for what they said was the start of a new war to remove Shingle Mountain.