Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director
The Texas legislative session was held earlier this year, and it was rough for the environment and local communities around the state who are struggling to ward off polluters. Legislators passed laws which stripped Texas cities of their power to protect residents, and citizens lost important opportunities to speak out against polluting facilities. One the regions most directly affected by these bad laws – and plagued with a score of bad votes from state elected officials – is the Rio Grande Valley.
HB 40 stripped local governments of their ability to limit things like drilling, noise, truck traffic and other oil and gas activities near neighborhoods, hospitals and schools within city limits. Local laws in South Texas cities like Edinburg, Brownsville and McAllen regarding well density, freshwater protection, pipeline construction, and even drilling near schools, could be wiped from the books if a company sues these cities.
SB 709 gutted the process for evidence-based hearings when the state is considering permits for polluting facilities. It will now be much harder to keep dangerous plants and hazardous dumps out of communities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Other laws limited the damages counties could recover from polluters even when those polluters cost residents millions of dollars, and reduced buffer zones around medical waste facilities.
Texas Campaign for the Environment traveled to the Rio Grande Valley for a week-long canvassing trip to hold statewide elected officials accountable for their votes on these bad laws, and to build relationships with some outstanding, local activists who are organizing there on these and other issues. More than 130 Valley residents in McAllen, Edinburg, Brownsville, Port Isabel and South Padre Island made contributions to TCE, including 85 members. Our supporters wrote more than 180 letters (in both English and Spanish) to these lawmakers:
- State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who voted for HB 40 and SB 709
- State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., who co-authored the Senate version of HB 40 and voted for SB 709
- State Representative Eddie Lucio III, who voted for HB 40 but against SB 709
- State Representative Rene Oliveira, who co-authored HB 40 and voted for both HB 40 and SB 709
- State Representative Terry Canales, who was one of the few House members to vote against HB 40 – and he voted absent on SB 709. His constituents mostly sent him thank-you letters.
While local organizers in Edinburg and McAllen have been fighting to keep drilling away from neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, these same organizers are working double-duty to stop out-of-town companies that want to build five liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals in the Port of Brownsville. The five LNG terminals could become the biggest polluters in Cameron County.
The proposed LNG sites would be built on precious coastal prairie and wetlands, endangering native wildlife and spewing toxic air pollution. Less than two miles from Port Isabel, the site would bring an unsightly industrial facility, flares and smokestacks to the Bahia Grande area that depends on tourism.
We met up with the local organizers with “Save RGV from LNG” and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club to hold three workshops during the week on canvassing door-to-door, working with the media and planning an upcoming Climate March in McAllen. Quite frankly, we learned just as much from them as they did from us!
Despite having received almost zero statewide or national media attention, Save RGV from LNG and the local Sierra Club chapter have been able to generate a great deal of pressure for their campaign against LNG in the Port of Brownsville and the drilling issues in the McAllen area. Some recent victories on their campaign include getting local officials including the Point Isabel Independent School District to reject tax breaks for one of the LNG companies and convincing Port Isabel City Commission to vote in August to oppose the terminals. The City of Edinburg also recently rejected a permit for a company to drill on city-owned land, and the list of victories continues to grow.
Not only is Save RGV from LNG well organized, meeting regularly and making collective, strategic decisions, but they also represent a diverse range of individuals of different ages and backgrounds who have joined their campaign. Follow them on Facebook to see how the next chapter develops as they work to convince Cameron County Commissioners to reject tax incentives for the LNG export terminals.
Their passion and commitment to overcoming the tough challenges ahead made a deep impression on all of us. Another thing that struck us was the natural beauty of the Rio Grande Valley (especially if you, like our canvassers, enjoy braving the mosquitoes to camp in state parks) which is home to incredible bird and other wildlife diversity. There are over 500 species of birds in Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park alone. How would bringing more polluting industries to the Valley affect these crucial migration zones and the tourism that goes along with them?
We have seen over and over again, throughout our organizing, that these ordeals bring communities together and foster new relationships. In the Rio Grande Valley, residents certainly have a great deal worth protecting. We look forward to supporting organizers in the Valley as they empower themselves and their neighbors to fight pollution. It’s part of being a better connected movement for people and the environment in Texas, so that when next state legislative session rolls around, we’ll be ready.
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