Saving the RGV from LNG: The smoggy landscape

Last week, close to 200 people attended a public meeting hosted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Rio Grande LNG. During the meeting, community members brought forward a variety of health, environmental, and economic concerns. The meeting also raised important questions about the TCEQ’s role and the environmental future of the Rio Grande Valley.

This purpose of the meeting was to discuss an “air pollution” permit which Rio Grande LNG, a project of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) company NextDecade, is seeking. The company, which is based in Woodlands, Texas, is seeking to build an LNG terminal in a stretch of land located in the Port of Brownsville about 12 miles from Brownsville, four miles from Port Isabel, and two miles from Laguna Vista and Laguna Heights. If granted, the permit would allow the company to move forward with its LNG terminal construction plans. If built, these terminals would refine natural gas, super cool, liquefy, and condense it to make it possible to sell overseas in Europe and China.

Rio Grande LNG is one of three companies currently eyeing the Port of Brownsville as a potential site for one of its terminal. According to environmental activists, if granted the permit, Rio Grande LNG would be the second largest LNG terminal in the country.

Map for Proposed LNG Terminals. Image obtained from rgvstoplng.com

Many local outlets reported that both proponents and opponents were present. The makeup, however, was not equal. About 20 LNG supporters sat together in the first two rows of the left side of the room. Filling the rest of the meeting room was a sea of people wearing “Save RGV from LNG” t-shirts, anti-LNG buttons, and a variety of English and Spanish anti-LNG signs.  

TCEQ “Air Pollution” Public Meeting. LNG Supporters in white caps and t-shirts appeared to be concentrated in the first couple of rows. People wearing “Save RGV from LNG” T-Shirts, anti-LNG buttons, and anti-LNG signs appeared to fill the rest of the room.

Brad Patterson, a Section Manager of the TCEQ, noticed the signs and the pins. Before officially starting the meeting, he asked the crowd to refrain from making any chants or yelling. He also asked them to ensure their signs were kept in their laps. According to Patterson, they should not be waved around lest they could obstruct someone’s view.

Rio Grande LNG started the meeting. A representative spoke of the company’s excitement to be present at the meeting and of its commitment to “maintaining the highest levels of safety.” He shared that Rio Grande LNG was incorporating design features which were meant to eliminate power production. He added that LNG was also exploring ways to use “waste heat recovery to improve efficiencies,” utilizing “smart lighting and down lighting,” and incorporating other design features aimed at addressing visual impact. Without going into further detail or dissecting how they would accomplish that, the LNG representative asserted that measures like these would minimize environmental impact.

From there, he pivoted on to his next point: the “unprecedented growth” which he said the LNG terminal would bring to Cameron County. The representative claimed that an estimated 3,000 permanent jobs in Cameron County (as well as 5,000 other national jobs) would accompany the terminal.

“Public comment period and this public meeting,” he ended, “is a valuable step in the process that brings Rio Grande LNG a step closer to receive our permits and with it allowing us to generate the very significant economic benefits that our project can bring the Rio Grande Valley.”

For the remainder of the night, except for one brief response which he would later provide, Rio Grande LNG’s representative remained completely mute. For the next two hours, however, community residents from Brownsville, Port Isabel, Laguna Vista, McAllen, Pharr and other parts of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) were not.

Most of the local media, unfortunately, did not stay to see this.  

HEALTH CONCERNS

Throughout the night, community members— not the TCEQ and certainly not the Rio Grande LNG— would be the ones to bring up the tons of pollutants expected to be emitted by the LNG terminal. Time after time, they cited NextDecade’s company reports for the Rio Grande LNG.

The estimates included 606 tons of volatile organic compounds, 3,142 tons of Carbon Monoxide, 2,059 tons of Nitrogen Oxide, 382 tons of Particulate Matter, 30 tons of Sulfur Oxide, 8,144,636 tons of greenhouse gases, and 54 tons of Hazardous Air Pollutants. Many of these pollutants can have grave respiratory and health impacts. They have been tied to, among other things, asthma, heart disease, and even premature death. Some, including the volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants, are considered highly carcinogenic and neurotoxic.

Page 3-6 from the “Prevention of Significant Deterioration Air Permit Application for the Rio Grande LNG Terminal and Compressor Station 3.” The report was physically obtained from the TCEQ office in Harlingen, Texas. Note: Although the TCEQ has a Commissioner’s Integrated Database, I was personally unable to find this document online.

During the Q&A section of the program, Arturo Alonzo from Brownsville noted that asthma rates appeared to significantly increase wherever LNG companies went. “Am I lying when it comes to the hike in asthma?” He asked. He cited El Paso and Corpus Christi as examples.

When the TCEQ said it was unable to provide information about those cities, Alonzo insisted “Where can you speak to?” A TCEQ staff member said they were there only to answer questions relating only specifically to Rio Grande LNG’s air pollution permit. When Alonzo kept pressing for answers, Peterson cut the Q&A section of the program short and called for a program break.

When Peterson reconvened the group, it was time for formal comments. Neither TCEQ nor Rio Grande LNG would provide any immediate additional responses.

Nadine Smith, a Laguna Vista council member, was the first to speak. She reminded the TCEQ and Rio Grande LNG that the Laguna Vista Council unanimously voted against all LNG development in a resolution passed in 2015. Later, Jared Hockema, city manager of Port Isabel, would also note his city’s strong opposition to the terminal. He also expressed frustration that, despite the higher risk for pollution and health issues his community faces as a result of close proximity to the site of proposed construction, meetings regarding LNG construction have consistently been held in areas further outside of the South Padre Island area. He noted that a Port Isabel Middle School and High School are located about two miles away from the site of proposed construction. He reiterated previous offers for free use of the City of Port Isabel facilities for LNG meetings.

Timothy Jarvis was one of the community members to speak. He introduced himself as doctorate environmental toxicologist. Addressing the TCEQ, he stated, “ I know emissions. I know what they can do. I am the person to tell you why you have a concentration of cancers in the area. I’m also the person who tells you why your 6-year-old granddaughter has leukemia.”

Raising Rio Grande LNG’s draft application in the air, Jarvis continued, “You gave a draft permit application for a cancer company…What I see is over 600 tons of volatile emissions…You are here to protect the public health. That is your mandate. Why do you hate the public?”

Throughout the night, several opponents raised the issue that Rio Grande LNG’s application only accounts for the pollutants it expects its own terminal to emit. They expressed concerns that the potential collective harm of a Rio Grande LNG and that of other proposed terminal plants were not being taken into consideration.

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WEIGHING THE RISK…OR ATTEMPTING TO

Many residents also expressed questions about the general safety of LNG terminals.

Some were concerned that accidents— spills, leaks, explosions— were not a question of if but when. As it turns out, there is not much information publicly available about LNG accidents. I tried learning more about LNG-related accidents and the frequency with which they occurred. Most cursory searches turn up only two major incidents: a 1944 disaster in Cleveland that killed 128 people and another in 1979 in Cove Point, Maryland.

According to an article published by the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit working around sustainability issues, low accident figures may be due to misleading reporting, not a lack of incidents. Sightline reported over on a 2014 massive gas leak and explosion that occurred in 2014 at Plymouth LNG in Plymouth, Washington.

According to Sightline, the explosion sent “250 pounds of debris and shrapnel flying as far as 300 yards, damaging buildings and equipment and puncturing one of the large LNG storage tanks.” An estimated 14.3 million cubic feet of gas was leaked. At least five workers were injured. Residents and emergency responders reported feeling nauseous, hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes, and police shut down traffic in nearby areas.

Still, according to Sightline, only one injury was reported with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the U.S. Department of Transportation agency responsible for developing and enforcing pipeline regulations.

Sightline reported that “according to federal rules, a person has to either die or stay overnight in a hospital for an injury sustained in an LNG accident to be considered significant.”

Special rules appear to apply when it comes to leaks as well.  Sightline reported that although PHMSA initially admitted that 14,270 barrels of gas were spilled, no LNG was lost. When they contacted PHMSA, they said they were told that their figures were correct because the gas that was leaked was evaporated (into the air) as opposed to spilled in its liquid form. Shortly after, Sightline says, the PHMSA corrected its website, listing zero barrels spilled.

Other more recent incidents include the explosion of a natural gas pipeline in the city of Refugio, Texas, in February 2017 whose impact was felt 60 miles outwards and the shutting down of Sabine Pass LNG in February 2018 due to leakage and the extraordinary threat it posed to its workers and surrounding communities also raise alarms.

‘THIS IS ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM’

Josette Cruz, a Brownsville resident and the mother of two young children, also spoke. To her, the issue was not just health. Audibly frustrated, she told the TCEQ, “It is shame that I even have to stand here before you and remind you all that my children and the people of the RGV have a right, a human right, to clean air.” She expressed anger and concern for her own two children, including one with special needs.

Towards her closing, she stated, “This isn’t your home. This my home. This our home. Do the right thing. We are people of color. This is environmental racism. Do the right thing.”

The communities in closest proximity to the proposed site of construction (and therefore presumably those at most risk) are Laguna Heights, Laguna Vista, Port Isabel, and Brownsville, all cities in Cameron County. The most recently available U.S. census data indicates that, in Cameron County, 88.8% of the population is “Hispanic/Latino.” In 2016, Cameron County was also among the top five poorest counties in the state.

During her comments, Cruz also told the TCEQ, “Y’all are just sitting here because you have to, not because you want to.”

Her comment raised important questions about the role of the TCEQ.

TCEQ: AN OPPORTUNITY OR A FORMALITY?

At the start of the meeting, TCEQ’s Patterson noted that they had not yet made a final decision in regards to Rio Grande LNG’s requested air permit. Patterson told those present that the TCEQ would consider all public comments when making a final decision.

TCEQ panel

According to Bekah Hinojosa, an RGV-based Sierra Club Organizer, the “TCEQ has a terrible history of rubber stamping permits for industries and regions of Texas that have historically terrible air quality, like Dallas and Houston, places with high asthma rates, respiratory problems, linked to air pollution…Since the 70s the TCEQ has only denied a handful of them.”

The TCEQ mission statement states it “strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.”

Despite its name and its mission statement, many Texans and environmentalists do not hold the commission in good regard. A quick look at the TCEQ’s leadership can help explain why mistrust and suspicion surround the commission.

According to the TCEQ’s own organizational chart, the top tier of leadership is made of three government-appointed commissioners, who then, in turn, selected the commission executive director.

Currently, Bryan W. Shaw, Toby Baker, and Jon Niermann serve as the TCEQ’s three commissioners.

Mother Jones reported that “despite near-universal consensus that humans cause global warming, Shaw said in his confirmation hearing that the science of climate change remains unclear.” Shaw was quoted as saying “don’t believe it’s fully vetted. Fortunately or unfortunately, having a consensus of a group of scientists doesn’t make that fully settled.”

Upon his appointment in 2012, The Texas Observer noted that Baker, who prior to becoming a Commissioner worked as an advisor for a state senator and former Governor Rick Perry, does not appear to have any serious environmental background or experience. In an interview with them, Baker was quoted as stating that the “science is still out” on climate change.

Of the three commissioners, Niermann is the only one who has been appointed by Governor Greg Abbott. According to the Statesman, prior to being assigned to the TCEQ, Niermann worked as an assistant attorney general, overseeing environmental matters in the Texas Attorney General’s Office. He “played a key role in crafting some of the state’s suits against the federal Environmental Protection Agency during the time Abbott was attorney general.”

At the meeting, Michael Cheek of the TCEQ’s Air Department, who said he was the lead reviewer on the application, shared that the TCEQ had “preliminarily determined that [Rio Grande LNG] meets all air requirements to proceed with construction.” Prior to joining the TCEQ, Cheek worked with Wood Group & KBR Company. Both have been sued for environmental and health-related issues before.

Anti-LNG protester

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Community members questioned not just the potential environmental impact which Rio Grande LNG could have for RGV residents; They also questioned how realistic Rio Grande LNG was being with its golden promise of tremendous economic profit.

One community member directly questioned Rio Grande LNG 3,000 job figure, recalling that when the company first started conversations a couple of years ago the job figure she remembers was 100. The LNG representative responded it was an estimate based on direct and indirect jobs, including construction jobs and direct jobs. The community member did not seem to buy the response and expressed skepticism. But before the LNG representative could respond, Brad Peterson of the TCEP interrupted her.

“That’s really more of a comment you want to make in the public comment section,” he told the community member.

Requiring a volunteer translator (TCEQ did not provide Spanish translation), one Laguna Heights resident implored the TCEQ to consider her community’s low-income demographics and its dire dependency on the local tourism industry, which she fears would be negatively impacted if word got out to tourists of the potential health impacts of them visiting South Padre Island.

Lela Burnett of the Shrimper’s and Fishermen of the RGV also voiced her concern that an LNG accident would negatively impact the organization which she represents. Like many others in the room, she believed that an accident was not a question of if but when.

The vast majority of comments— both in the meeting and on the TCEQ written comment thread— were against the Rio Grande LNG. At least four people spoke in favor of the Rio Grande LNG.

Jesus Rodriguez, a community member, said that a lot of sick people were already present in the community. “Poverty is the enemy,” he stated. “We’ve been destroying and polluting since we started…What we need is for our children to have a place to stay here and to have a job, not to have to move out…We need better jobs for this area…What we need is for our children to have a future.”

Danielle Lopez, a Pharr resident, was blunt. Addressing the Rio Grande representative and the TCEQ panel, she stated, “You are not welcome. You want to poison our land, and we know it.”

Lopez did not deny the need for jobs in the RGV. She insisted, however, that “bad jobs” were not the answer. “People want to bring jobs to the RGV? Please bring ‘green’ jobs,” she pushed.

The formal commenting period for Rio Grande LNG and its air permit has not yet closed. It remains open until March 26. For those interested in submitting a written comment, you can do so here.

The TCEQ said it would consider and provide a formal response to all comments before reaching a decision. From community member’s vocal opposition, it appears that the vast majority of the RGV strongly opposes the terminal.

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