Waste pits activist meets with environmental head in D.C.

Baytown Sun
By Christopher James

Environmental activist Jacquelyn Young continues to advocate for the cleanup of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, this time taking the fight to Washington, D.C.

In late January, Young joined community leaders from across the country in the nation’s capital to meet with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Albert Kelly, head of the Superfund Taskforce, along with other EPA officials.

Andrew Dobbs, policy director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, presented EPA officials with a stack of personal written letters at the meeting, asking to cleanup the waste pits. The hundreds of letters served as quite a statement to EPA officials.

“Administrator Pruitt came in for part of the meeting and talked about our site nonstop,” said Young. “This site, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, is at the forefront of that man’s mind when it comes to Superfund.”

The San Jacinto Waste Pits, adjacent from the Interstate 10 bridge, were filled with paper mill wastes in the 1960s and then abandoned. Due to erosion around the pits they leaked into the river for decades. The site was eventually designated for Superfund status in 2008 and a temporary cap was installed in 2011.

Since being appointed as EPA administrator, Pruitt has continually said he’s focused on expediting the Superfund process, which has proved to be true with the waste pits. In October, Pruitt approved an ambitious cleanup solution for the pits that included excavating 212,000 cubic yards of material laced with dioxin in the dry. The EPA’s plan is to isolate the waste material with a cofferdam, pump out water and then excavate. The remedy will cost about $115 million and construction time is slated to take about two years.

“(Pruitt) said when the (potentially responsible parties) got mad at him when he came down with the Record of Decision, he said, well you can sue us but we’re not going to let it slow this cleanup down,” Young said. “So I like that. We haven’t seen much movement before and I’m cautiously hopeful.”

The group of environmental activists also used the opportunity to advocate for the reinstatement of the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, which would reinstate the Superfund tax to ensure polluters, not taxpayers, pay for the cleanup of Superfund sites. This could also potentially speed up cleanup of Superfund sites.

“Back when Superfund was created there was a fee for any company who created a product that could become pollution. They would pay these fees into the Superfund system, and it was a great, robust system,” said Young. “The EPA back then would clean up around 80 sites some years. When the fees were done away with in the 90s the number of cleanup sites tanked very quickly to less than 20. And I think it’s under 10 in recent years.”

In March, Congressman Frank Pallone reintroduced legislation to make polluters pay for Superfund cleanup, saying, “With media reports showing that the Trump Administration is considering massive cuts to the EPA, this legislation is more important than ever. President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt want to roll back environmental regulations that will benefit powerful corporations. It is essential that Congress step in and pass legislation that protects working families from having to pay for the misdeeds of corporate polluters.”

Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker along with Congressman Bill Pascrell and EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck joined Pallone in calling for the passage of the bill.

The EPA is currently in remedial design negotiations with potentially responsible parties, International Paper and McGinnes Maintenance Industrial Corporation.

Once design negotiations conclude, the EPA will request a good faith offer for the entire cleanup. If the EPA deems a good-faith offer isn’t made, it can either require the parties to perform the decided-upon remedy, fund the remedial action and pursue a cost recovery clam against International Paper and MIMC.

If the companies still refuse to comply with the order, EPA can pursue civil litigation to require compliance. Once either a an administrative order is in place, the companies would then have to develop work plans for construction of the remedy and for protection of the public during construction.

Who wins in the new recycling deal? Houston.

Houston Chronicle
Guest Op-Ed by Rosanne Barone, Texas Campaign for the Environment

A Waste Management employee sorts through paper at the Gasmer Recycling Center Friday, June 2, 2017 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle ) Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff / Michael Ciaglo

HOUSTON — Mayor Sylvester Turner was right when he said the city’s newly approved recycling contract is a “win for Houstonians and the environment.”

After months of negotiations at City Hall, on Jan. 10, the City Council approved a 20-year single-stream recycling contract with Spanish resource management company FCC to replace the current Waste Management deal which is set to expire next year.

A new sorting facility will be built, and, when it’s completed in 2019, Houstonians will again be able to put glass in our green curbside bins, as well as single-use plastic bags, helping to keep them out of storm drains until we decide to live without them altogether.

But this decision is about more than just a new place to put our bottles, cans, cartons and paper. It’s about demonstrating that we are a society interested in healthier ways of existence. As a society, we can continue to remind each other, and the next generation, that there is no such thing as throwing trash “away.” Far too often, “away” ends up in our bayous, our rivers, our bays and our gulf.

And it’s about employing every option to decrease the amount of material going to landfills. That might be what we’ve always done, but in reality it is not a dependable solution for managing what we don’t use. Ask anyone who lives next to the McCarty Road landfill in northeast Houston, Greenhouse Road landfill near Katy or the Blue Ridge landfill in Fresno, who cite problems with windblown trash, noxious odors, methane gas releases and drainage ditches flowing with landfill “discharge.” Or ask someone who lives near one of more than 50 landfills in Texas that are leaking toxins into groundwater monitoring wells.

Landfills of today are the toxic dumps of tomorrow, contributing in the meantime to the illusion of “throw it away.”

It’s about becoming accustomed to the types of practices that are better for us in the long run, choosing reusable because it’s wiser and renewable because it’s safer.

It’s just something we have to do as we work towards to a more equitable city, where our exposure to air pollution, toxic-waste sites and roadside trash isn’t determined by our ZIP code. Recycling access remains a basic service for those of us who live in houses, so why not for those who live in multifamily buildings, 40 percent of Houston’s population? Not only should we have recycling wherever we live, but also where we work and go to school.

The new contract is both a tangible and symbolic commitment to the simple improvements that support a cleaner environment, while increasing our revenue and making the city more efficient. In Houston, the city is “the environment” — a paved, flood-prone, palm-treed, World Series-winning mix of distinctive, history-making innovation. Last year challenged us in many ways, and now in 2018 we are off to a running start on building a more sustainable future. I can’t wait to see what we will do next.

Rosanne Barone is the Houston Program Director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Bookmark Gray Matters. It never ends up in our bayous, our rivers, our bays or our gulf.

Curbside glass recycling to return to Houston in 2019

Houston Chronicle
By Rebecca Elliott

Waste Management employees work quickly to remove non recyclable materials from a conveyor belt filled with recyclable garbage Thursday November 20, 2014 at the Waste Management Recycling Facility in Southwest Houston, TX. (Billy Smith II / Houston Chronicle) Photo: Billy Smith II, Staff / Â 2014 Houston Chronicle

Waste Management employees work quickly to remove non recyclable materials from a conveyor belt filled with recyclable garbage Thursday November 20, 2014 at the Waste Management Recycling Facility in Southwest Houston, TX. (Billy Smith II / Houston Chronicle)

HOUSTON — Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

 To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”

Recycling has been a source of contention since Turner took office two years ago, when plunging commodities markets made recycling more expensive.

To address longer-term recycling needs, Turner last June brought forward a 20-year, $48 million proposal from FCC.

However, fierce criticism of the procurement process led the mayor to seek a new round of offers.

FCC again came out on top, this time with a cheaper proposal: Houston would pay a maximum of $19 per ton to process recyclables in a weak commodities market, and would recover a larger share of the revenue if prices for recycled material improved.

Still, some council members questioned the city’s evaluation processes, which put FCC on top even though other firms argued they would have been ready to process materials sooner and cheaper.

At-large Councilman Mike Knox reiterated some of those worries Wednesday before voting against the $37 million FCC contract.

“I would just like to see this whole thing start over from the beginning and do it properly. Much of the scoring on both the first and second go-arounds was subjective in nature,” Knox said. “I just don’t believe that this is the right thing to do in this manner.”

At-large Councilman Michael Kubosh and District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig joined Knox in opposing the deal. District F Councilman Steve Le, District G Councilman Greg Travis and District J Councilman Mike Laster were absent for the vote.

Turner defended the recycling procurement as “more rigorous” than usual.

“We just didn’t go with the first round. We went back for a best and final the second round,” he said. “The first round — pretty much all of the information was put out in public, so we asked people to bid against themselves.”

District E Councilman Dave Martin, who previously complained about a lack of transparency in the procurement process, came around in time for the vote.

“I think it’s probably the most economically feasible deal for the city of Houston,” Martin said.

Meanwhile, Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

Its agreement with FCC finalized, the city now is working to renegotiate an agreement with Waste Management, its current curbside recycling provider, to continue picking up recyclables until FCC’s facility is operational.

“I’m hoping that it won’t significantly increase,” Turner said of Houston’s recycling costs during that time. “We’re negotiating. We’ll see what happens.”

Mike Morris contributed to this report

Environmentalists protest EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s planned speech in The Woodlands

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, speaks during CERWeek by IHS Markit Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Houston. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

HOUSTON — About a dozen advocates called on Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt to take a “Toxic Tour” of contaminated areas in Houston during his visit Thursday for a planned speech at an oil and gas meeting in The Woodlands.

The protest over Pruitt’s planned speech to the Texas Oil and Gas Association’s annual meeting was held about 40 miles away, on Brady’s Landing, to prove a point: Pruitt should be there, where all the pollution is, instead of speaking to an industry event, advocates said.

“This is where the administrator of the EPA should be coming, especially in light of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey,” said Rosanne Barone, program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

More than 4 million pounds of toxic airborne emissions, as well as contaminated floodwater from Harvey poured into the Houston area — a region that’s already fraught with problems.

The communities near Brady’s Landing, for example, are constantly inundated with toxic chemicals released into the air by oil refineries, said Juan Parras, with the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

“It’s an invisible flood” of carcinogens, Parras said. He said he believes the EPA is pro-industry and that officials don’t appear to be working to reduce the level of emissions.

Though the group is not protesting outside of Pruitt’s speech in The Woodlands Thursday night, they said they hope he hears their message and will take a tour of their neighborhoods.

And that tour, lucky for him, would be free, said Rev. James Caldwell with the Coalition of Community Organizations.

Pruitt has been scheduled to speak Thursday night at the TOGA Lone Star Energy Forum in The Woodlands. The speech initially was closed to the media.

As of Thursday morning, however, Pruitt’s name had been removed from the list of speakers during the Distinguished Service Awards dinner.

The association and the EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alex Stuckey covers science and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

130+ Organizations Demand a Just Harvey Relief Effort Without Subsidies for Fossil Fuel and Petrochemical Companies

WASHINGTON – Organizations in the Gulf and across the country released a joint statement today expressing solidarity with the thousands of Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey and demanding that recovery funds flow to frontline communities, not to the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies that compounded Harvey’s impacts. This statement comes as former Shell CEO Marvin Odum was recently tapped to lead the recovery efforts in Texas, raising serious questions about whether taxpayer money may be diverted towards corporate polluters whose greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the destructive strength of Hurricane Harvey.

“The negligence of our state and federal government to properly regulate this industry has always hurt marginalized communities in Houston,” says Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston Program Director Rosanne Barone. “The problem is just worse now, and it’s being exposed on national media for all to see. Human health is at risk, with the people being hit the worst by the problem having contributed the least to its cause, and it’s time we start putting people over profits.”

The statement also highlights the powerful intersection of climate change, petrochemicals, and systemic environmental injustice, evidenced by the destruction and impacts of Hurricane Harvey.

“For years, Texas state government has prioritized oil, gas, and chemical industry profits ahead of the public interest, and Texans have paid the price with their health, their property, and their environment,” says Earthworks South Texas Organizer Priscilla Villa. “Harvey must be the event that changes our government from industry lackeys into public leaders who accept the reality of climate change and act on it by quickly moving away from dirty fossil fuels and plastics and towards a renewable energy future.”

Ahmina Maxey, US and Canada Program Director at GAIA, explains, “We are continuously discovering new and unforeseen threats that plastics pose to human health throughout its life cycle. Hurricane Harvey is one horrifying example of how frontline communities – mostly lower income communities of color – are disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel, chemical, and waste infrastructure and increasing unnatural disasters. This statement reflects a growing awareness of the environmental and social injustice of the plastic crisis.”

“Hurricane Harvey exposed the toxic interplay of catastrophic climate change, reckless petrochemicals use, and systemic injustice,” adds Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “The oil and gas industries threaten human rights from the well-head to fenceline to shoreline. The era of fossil fuels and plastic oceans must end.”

These 130+ organizations call on local leaders in Texas and Louisiana, and elected leaders at every level of government, to support immediate, inclusive, and community-led dialogs on the recovery and development of Houston and similarly affected cities and counties across the Gulf region, and to use those dialogs to deliver a better, more sustainable future for themselves and for people everywhere. In order for these dialogs to begin in earnest and begin to yield results, federal and state recovery dollars must be directed to affected families and communities, not to oil, gas, and petrochemical companies.


EPA chief vows to speed the nation’s Superfund cleanups; communities wonder how

The Washington Post
By Brady Dennis
Original article here

BRIDGETON, Mo. – Dawn Chapman had listened with surprise and skepticism as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency vowed to clean up West Lake, the nuclear waste dump that has filled her days and nights with worry.

“The past administration honestly just didn’t pay attention to [it],” Scott Pruitt stressed on a local radio show in April. “We’re going to get things done at West Lake. The days of talking are over.”

The next month, Pruitt took to television to say a plan for the site was coming “very soon” as part of his push to prioritize Superfund cleanups across the country. “It’s not a matter of money,” he said. “It’s a matter of leadership and attitude and management.”

A view of the West Lake Superfund site northwest of St. Louis. Photo: Washington Post Photo By Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

On a blue-sky afternoon, Chapman sat in her small home in this leafy St. Louis suburb and mulled the latest set of promises from Washington – this time from a man known more for suing the EPA and rolling back environmental regulations than for cracking down on pollution.

“Why our site? Why now? Can he keep those promises?” the mother of three wondered. Her family lives only a couple of miles from West Lake, a contaminated landfill that contains thousands of tons of waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project. “My biggest fear is he’s just going to put a Band-Aid on it.”

In Bridgeton and elsewhere, others are asking similar questions with various degrees of hope and hesitation. In his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt had long-standing ties to oil and gas companies and a litigious history fighting the EPA. And although he has called the federal Superfund program “vital” and a “cornerstone” of the EPA’s mission, the Trump administration has proposed slashing its funding by 30 percent.

With more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide – some of which have lingered for decades on the EPA’s ever-growing “priorities list” – it’s unclear how Pruitt will back up his professed commitment in an age of scorched-earth budgets. Critics worry that a single-minded focus on speeding up the process could lead to inadequate cleanups.

Pruitt has largely dismissed such issues. He argues that the program is beset more by bloated administrative costs and a shortage of initiative than by budget woes and notes that, at most sites, “private funding” is available from companies deemed responsible for cleanups.

“This agency has not responded to Superfund with the type of urgency and commitment that the people of this country deserve,” Pruitt reiterated Wednesday – days before a contingent from Bridgeton would arrive in Washington, D.C., in hopes of meeting with him. He said he understands communities’ distrust, not just about West Lake but many sites. “I’m very sensitive and sympathetic to what their concerns are,” he said. “This agency has failed them. … They have a right to be skeptical.”

That they are. Residents in the shadow of Superfund sites remain wary of his pronouncements.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said BrieAnn McCormick, whose neighborhood is closest to West Lake.

Families here have long lived with the reality of the site, which got its Superfund designation in 1990. The 200 acres include not just the radioactive waste that was illegally dumped in 1973, but also an adjacent landfill where decomposing trash as deep as 150 feet is smoldering in what scientists call a “subsurface burning event.” The fire is now about 600 feet from that other waste.

West Lake has made Bridgeton the kind of place where some parents drive their children to playgrounds far from the landfill. Where some people keep homemade kits in their cars – face masks for days the stench hits, eyedrops for irritation, Tylenol for headaches. Where others trade stories of cancers, autoimmune diseases and miscarriages they’re scared could be related to the Superfund site, although air, water and soil tests from the EPA and other government agencies have shown no link.

Activists fault the EPA for moving at a glacial pace. They accuse Republic Services, which took ownership of the landfill in 2008, of trying to avoid full-fledged cleanup.

Similar dynamics are playing out at many Superfund sites, where abandoned mines, contaminated rivers and manufacturing plants have left behind a daunting trail of lead, arsenic, mercury and other harmful substances. Some “mega sites” involve tracing hundreds of chemicals and scores of polluters.

Pruitt recently issued a directive saying that he plans to be more directly involved in decisions about Superfund cleanups, particularly ones in excess of $50 million. He established a Superfund task force, which is expected to report back this week on how to restructure the program in ways that favor “expeditious remediation,” “reduce the burden” on firms responsible for cleanups and “encourage private investment” in the program.

“If this were some other world, it might be easy to believe they are trying to move things faster and in the right way,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. “I don’t want to say the Obama administration did a great job on Superfund; they didn’t. … But I fear [this administration] cutting its budget and giving access to the administrator for all big companies who want to come and talk is a death knell for meaningful cleanups.”

When Congress established the Superfund program in 1980, lawmakers gave the EPA legal powers to force polluters to pay to fix the messes they had created. They also created a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries to offset expensive, complicated cleanups when a polluting company had gone bankrupt or could not be identified.

The tax generated billions of dollars for cleanups. But Congress allowed it to expire in 1995, and by 2003 the industry-funded trust fund was essentially broke. Lawmakers have chipped away at Superfund’s budget since. The program gets about $1.1 billion a year, about half what it did in 1999.

As funding dwindled throughout the 2000s, the pace of cleanups also declined. Trump has proposed to slash $330 million more from the program annually.

“Either cut the budget or make things go better for Superfund. Pick one. You can’t do both,” said Peter deFur, who has consulted on Superfund sites for more than two decades.

He and other experts acknowledge the agency hasn’t always moved quickly enough. But they are concerned Pruitt’s focus on accelerating cleanups might lead to simplistic solutions that leave lingering environmental risks to nearby communities, which disproportionately are poor and minority.

“The cheapest and quickest option is not always the best,” deFur said. “It’s dangerous to not get it right the first time.”

Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the program throughout the Obama administration, was troubled by the language Pruitt used in setting up the Superfund task force – a group led by a former Oklahoma banker whose résumé includes no environmental experience.

“Nothing in his charge . . . talks about the public health dimension,” Stanislaus said. “That, from my perspective, is revealing.”

Pruitt insists that letting polluted sites “just languish” does nothing to protect public health.

“Listen, these [responsible companies] across the country are going to be held accountable,” he said Wednesday. “They’re going to get these areas cleaned up, or they are going to be sued by this agency.”

Despite West Lake’s complex challenges, the long-awaited cleanup could move forward relatively soon. For one, there are viable parties on the hook to pay the costs. (Republic Services is one of three “potentially responsible parties” that would shoulder the remediation.) And with the EPA’s site investigation largely complete, officials already planned to make a final decision this year on how cleanup would proceed, according to former regional administrator Mark Hague.

“My goal was to get this decision done and done right with solid science and engineering behind it,” Hague said. “This is not a place to take shortcuts. . . . At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to tell people that what we’ve done will be protective of human health and the environment.”

Although some nearby residents have pushed for a full removal of the radioactive material, a solution that could cost in excess of $400 million, Republic Services has maintained that “capping” the site with layers of rock, clay and soil would be sufficient and would avoid the risks associated with disturbing the nuclear waste. Its approach would cost closer to $50 million.

Company spokesman Russ Knocke said claims about health dangers are unfounded and unnecessarily divisive. “There’s too much fearmongering. There’s too much misinformation, and at some point science has to carry the day,” he said. “The landfill is safe, it is in a managed state, and accusations of the contrary are simply false.”

There is one thing the company and activists agree when it comes to a cleanup, however. “It’s taken too long,” Knocke said. “We certainly welcome the priority the new administrator is placing on the site.”

Yet even with Pruitt’s renewed “sense of urgency,” tapping private dollars is not an option at some Superfund locations. At these “orphaned” sites, polluting companies long ago went bankrupt or ceased to be liable, and the cleanup responsibilities now fall mostly to the federal government. It’s difficult to envision such places getting fixed without an adequate Superfund budget.

“If we feel like the numbers of the budget are not sufficient to address those, we’ll be sure to let Congress know,” Pruitt said.

Funding is what’s needed in St. Louis, Michigan, a small town that was once a hub for DDT manufacturing. The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corp. there remains among the most contaminated anywhere. Nearly 40 years after the plant’s closure, robins still sometimes drop dead from the sky after having eaten tainted worms from the soil.

“We are just waiting for money from EPA,” said Jane Keon, who helped found a local citizen’s task force. The group saw an opportunity after Pruitt vowed to prioritize the Superfund program.

“We request that you consider funding our site as an excellent public relations example,” it wrote him in a letter. “All we need now to get underway is several million dollars. … If you can get those dollars to us, [remediation] work can begin at once, and you would have an example to point to.”

In and around Bridgeton, the waiting also continues. People like Meagan Beckermann, pregnant with her third child, weigh whether to leave or stay.

“For us, it’s constantly what if,” she said.

On that sunny afternoon this month, Dawn Chapman stopped to visit Karen Nickel, who for years had no idea she was raising her four children down the road from a Superfund site.

The pair co-founded Just Moms, a group advocating to clean up West Lake or relocate families living close by. As they sat at Nickel’s kitchen table, they fretted that Pruitt might indeed allow the radioactive waste to be capped in place rather than removed – a solution the EPA had proposed almost a decade ago before reconsidering.

“It’s got to be done the right way,” Chapman said, as Nickel nodded in agreement. “There’s no Harry Potter wand here.”

Not far away in Spanish Village, the small development closer to West Lake than any other, McCormick stood on her front porch, gazing out toward the playground her children never visit. The neighborhood seemed so normal, with its freshly mowed lawns and tidy sidewalks. Balloons fluttered from a nearby house, celebrating a new baby’s arrival.

McCormick, a teacher, is tired of worrying about the nuclear waste just over the hill. She and her husband recently decided they no longer will depend on Pruitt or anyone else to finally act.

“I’m meeting with a Realtor this afternoon,” she said. “It bothers me, the idea of selling this to someone else. But I just have to get my kids out of here.”

A few days later, a sign showed up in her yard. An open house was held Sunday.

Austin’s plastic bag ban can stay: Measure dies in Texas Legislature, along with other local pre-emption bills

Austin Business Journal
By Kimberly Reeves
Original article here

AUSTIN – Environmentalists are declaring victory at the Texas Capitol in the fight to give cities the right to ban single-use plastic bags at stores, one of the few victories this legislative session for local governments in their fight against state pre-emption.

Those who track the issue say 16 cities, from Austin to tiny Kermit to Dallas, have bag bans. Senate Bill 103 was one of the earliest bills filed in the 2015 session, by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, who said the choice of which types of bags to offer customers belong with local businesses.

SB 103, which hadn’t moved in two months, officially died May 20 in a Senate committee. The Senate deadline to consider bills is two weeks longer than the House, giving some the chance to revive bills that have died awaiting approval.

“Together, we changed the dynamic of the discussion on the issue at the State Capitol, bringing in the voices of ranchers, small business owners, technical experts, wildlife advocates and others who know the real impacts of single-use bag pollution,” Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote in a message to supporters. “The public hearing on SB 103 made clear to state lawmakers that this issue is not about environmentalists versus business, but rather a few business lobbyists versus costly and damaging pollution.”

Ultimately, the bag ban issue will not be left to lawmakers. A case on the bag ban issue has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Attorney General Ken Paxton recently challenged the bag ban in Laredo, protesting the use of a fee to pay for bags.

Other than plastic bags, the scorecard for the Texas Legislature’s attempts to remove issues from local control has been mixed this session: the so-called “bathroom bill” is now city-less and a bill to ban local regulation of short-term rentals made it out of the Senate but was never heard in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

However, lawmakers were able to wrest ridesharing regulations away from local jurisdictions and put them under the purview of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said it has been a rough session for cities, not only for stopping cities from passing ordinances but also pre-empting the regulation of network nodes by local government.

Report: Texas Tops Nation for Safe Drinking Water Violations

Public News Service
By Mark Richardson

AUSTIN – Water systems in Texas have the nation’s worst record for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, a new report says.

Researchers for the Natural Resources Defense Council looked at Environmental Protection Agency data from 2015 and found almost 14,000 violations in more than 5,000 water systems that together, serve 7 million Texans. The report also found that no penalties were assessed for 8-in-10 of those violations.
Robin Schneider, executive director at the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said she believes a weak state environmental agency is the main reason Texas topped the list.

“We’re the state that has the second-largest number of people and, compared to California, we have so much less of a priority when it comes to environmental protection,” Schneider said. “Unfortunately, it’s the health of Texans that is at stake.”

The report said the U.S. needs to invest $380 billion to bring water systems across the country into compliance. However, President Trump’s recent budget proposal called for a 30 percent cut to the EPA’s budget to reduce regulations. The report said that would mean less staff to enforce the law and less money for water system improvements.

Erik Olson, report coauthor and director of the NRDC’s Health Program, said the solution is for federal and state officials to enforce current clean water regulations, and to fund improvements for aging water systems.

“We’re living off our great grandparents’ investments. A lot of these water systems are 100 years old or older and really need to be updated,” Olson said. “So, we need to make those investments, we need to strengthen the rules and we need to fix our enforcement system.”

He pointed out that failures in the reporting system can often hide major health problems, as they did in Flint, Mich. Nationally, the report said 77 million people get their water from systems that have experienced safety violations.

Plastic bag ban protection wins hearing at Texas Capitol

Austin American-Statesman
By Asher Price

AUSTIN – In the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday, friends Lila Mankad and Caoilin Krathaus, both 11-years-old, piled into a car in Houston with each of their fathers to deliver a message to lawmakers in Austin: Ban single-use plastic bags.

The two kids, who started an organization called Bag-free Bayous, arrived at the Capitol to discourage lawmakers from striking down bag bans in about a dozen cities around Texas, including Austin.

The persistent problems of bags hanging from trees and choking waterways “give our bayous a bad reputation,” Caoilin said.

She and Lila regularly clean their neighborhood park of plastic bags — only to see them soon reappear. For about a year now, they have gathered petitions to push Houston to ban plastic bags.

At a news conference and outside the Texas House chamber, they were surrounded by adults dressed as a cow, a goat and a sea turtle — wildlife that environmentalists say are at risk from plastic bags blowing into waterways or rangeland.

“Bags get blown around, get stuck on barbed wire, and I eat ‘em,” said the cow, played by Jeffrey Jacoby, a staffer with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “When I eat plastic bags, it hurts me; sometimes it might even kill me, and my family, and it’s going to cost my owner a lot of money.”

The kids — and the livestock — face long odds at a Capitol where lawmakers have long angled to dismantle local bag bans, and where the governor has suggested they amount to an abrogation of personal liberty.

In an interview, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said bag bans interfere with the “consumer relationship with the retailer, disadvantages the poor, and hinders the overall convenience factor.”

Springer, who has tried ending such bans in the past, said they are “a slippery slope to what we’ve seen in New York City, where they regulate the size of soft drinks, or the amount of salt in our diet. It’s the nanny state.”

Even as conservative lawmakers hope that courts will soon block policies in a dozen or more Texas cities to limit the use of plastic bags at the checkout counter, an effort to shield bag bans like Austin’s won a hearing Tuesday before a Texas House committee, prompting the visit by Lila and Caoilin.

The proposal, by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, comes in response to a key August court decision now under appeal.

The ruling by a San Antonio-based state appeals court to toss out Laredo’s ban on store-provided checkout bags technically has no immediate effect on similar bans outside the court’s 32-county South Texas district, which does not include Austin.

In its ruling, the 4th Court of Appeals said Laredo’s bag ban was preempted by a state law that says cities cannot “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package.”

Store-provided bags, the court ruled, are containers under the law.

Hoping to insulate city bag bans from the courts, Hinojosa proposes to add a line to state code that says “‘package or container’ does not include a single-use plastic bag.”

Meanwhile, all sides have appealed the San Antonio court’s ruling to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, hoping for broader clarity.

“We’re looking for the Supreme Court to see (the bag bans) repealed once and for all,” Springer said at a conservative policy confab in January.

Phil Rozenski, an officer at Novolex, which manufactures plastic bags and packaging material, said at the same policy conference that the bag bans amount to “regulation at any cost.”

Environmentalists say that even if the Texas Supreme Court doesn’t take the case, bag bans across the state remain vulnerable.

“If they don’t take up the case, our foes are going to use a court of appeals decision to threaten to sue outside that district,” said Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.