INTERVIEWEE: H.C. Clark, Jr. (HCC)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: October 20, 2003
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melissa Balog and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2171 and 2172
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 20th, 2003. We’re in Houston and we’re at the home and office of H. C. Clark Jr. who has taught for many years and is now emeritus on the geophysics faculty at Rice University and has also been a consultant in many cases involving geologic formations and facilities that involve waste treatment and disposal. And I wanted to take this chance to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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HC: And well thank you for causing me to clean up my house. That’s—at least the living room part of it.
DT: I was hoping you could tell us how you might have first gotten interested and exposed to the outdoors and curious about how to be active there and involved in protecting it.
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HC: Well, in thinking about that, yes, sometimes I think about that and—and I suppose it was when I was growing up I worked on a farm in the summers and we spent a lot of time there and my brother and I and the sister went out there a lot. And—and I guess I had just enough exposure to farm life that I didn’t find it all that difficult and so I wanted to be one at some point in my life. And I thought I’d—I’d try to get to the farm at different decades in my life and didn’t make it for a long time, but I—I wanted to choose something that I could do that would then be outdoors and not necessarily farming at that
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time. And so geology was the thing I was able to do and, you know, put math and physics to work as well, so I did that and that got me outdoors at least during my Rice days a lot of time. It would not have gotten me outdoors had I gone to work for an oil company that much but—but an—and then the academic part of things allowed me a little—well, a great deal more freedom to kind of experiment with things than anything else. And so that—that kind of led to other interests in the outdoors.
DT: Could you tell us about the farm where you worked and some of the things you did there?
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HC: Well, it was a farm that my dad bought in the early 40’s outside of Wichita and it was mostly pasture with several fields and the—and the farmer who lived there farmed several farms and my brother and I worked for him in the summers and, you know, it was a great place. I mean a bunch of acres that kids could run up and down and explore and—and drive a small Crossley truck much faster than we should of but I mean, well, think back, all those—those times in the 40’s and 50’s and early 60’s that things were quite different.
DT: How were they different?
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HC: How were the 60’s dif—well, I—I see my children and grandchildren growing up and—and things that we did that were—were probably awfully dangerous, you know, kind of the Happy Days or the—the American Graffiti style of things, you could not have done when my kids were growing up and expect to live and—and then grandchildren probably won’t even have cars so when—while they’re growing up at least.
DT: How did you get your start in academia and how did you arrive at Rice University?
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HC: I went to Stanford Graduate School and got involved with paleomagnetism at—which was a, you know, kind of an esoteric subject, purely academic subject and I—and I got involved with people were kind of pioneers in that area; Alan Cogsin and Richard Dole and they were, well, they were—they worked at the geological survey and they were academic folks. I was around academic folks. You kind of do what—what—or become interested in the thing that you have the—the freedom and guidance to do. And they didn’t necessarily guide me or the rest of the guys in the department into academia, but several of us did it at that time and Rice was an excellent opportunity and—and so I came here and—and taught for a long time.
DT: What did you teach and what field research did you do?
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HC: Well, I taught a lot of things. I taught a lot of, oh, courses and seminars in geophysics and then I taught introductory geology and that was a lot of fun. And—and then I got off—I—I got interested in well, I was interested in paleomagnetism, but I didn’t feel comfortable training people to do paleomagnetism because it was such a tiny niche. I mean you don’t need that many paleomagnetic people to populate the earth. And—but I—I was comfortable in looking at kind of applications of geophysics and geology to hazards, I guess you would say. And—and so I developed a seminar and then a course in engineering geology and kids in the geology department took it and kids in
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the engineering department took it. And—and I would start with kind of mundane hazards and—and, you know, clays that expand and contract like under this house. And—and then I’d move on and finally get to earthquakes and they loved that, you know, the worse the disaster the more interesting it was. And—and—and that was a—that was kind of—put paleomagnetism over here and very applied geology way over here and I had kind of two different worlds that I could deal with and that led into environmental, well, environmental problems of all sorts.
DT: And what was the connection to environmental hazards?
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HC: Because if you look at all sorts of things involved with waste disposal, for example, geology is the cradle, the—the framework in—that you’ve got to pour all this—put all this waste into. It doesn’t start out pouring and you’re—you’re putting it there and so you’ve got to know about the geology and how the geology will respond to that—that injection into the framework or that place into the framework. And—and so I found that—that it was kind of a ripe opportunity to and I don’t mind landfills—I mean I don’t mind the smell of landfills or—or refineries or other sorts of waste disposal operations and so forth. It worked out fine.
DT: Can you give us some examples of this cradle and how it can work or fail?
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HC: Well, let’s take a landfill. A landfill is just a hole in the ground, but the hole in the ground these days is lined and, you know, it’s a really an engineered system. You—you build a landfill and you do all these things to fill it up efficiently but then you have to make sure that what goes into it doesn’t get out and it’s not like you’re just putting a landfill in some—some solid dirt. Around here the—the near surface geology is made up of layers that are generally horizontal and some are clays and some are sands and we get our drinking water out of some pretty shallow sands. And if those sands don’t provide our drinking water they—they may well connect with bodies of water like the bayous in some of them. And so it’s about every project you see around Houston you see some kind of study to know what those layers look like, what kind of water is in them, and in
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the case of a landfill you study that geology and figure out how you can monitor the landfill by looking at the water that—that passes underneath it. And every—every application has some—or every—everybody who wants to put in a landfill has to do a study that—that looks at what the rock looks like or the sediments look like. And the first one I worked on a man at church said, I—I guess I’d talked to him about geology or something and he was a lawyer and kind of a character and he had me come—he said do you know anything about Hockley? And I said oh yeah, because we used to go out there on field trips, and he said are there any faults out there and I said yeah. And there are—there were and—and an organization was going to put a—proposed to put a landfill right next to a—to the Hockley Salt Dome and—and it was eventually denied on the basis of faults. And—and there were people from the University of Houston who were also doing
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a fault study there for the ap—and we got along fine and—and I—I was probably naïve. Maybe we didn’t get along fine but it was, you know, interesting and it was kind of a strategic chess game or a fight and—and I enjoyed it. I don’t know that I ever enjoyed being on the witness stand but I enjoyed, you know, kind of looking at the geology and figuring out a way that—that you might oh, illustrate the faults that were there and it was pretty neat. That—there was a particular fault that cut across—cut into the landfill and it was a transmissive fault. You knew that because if you walked down the trace of the fault you found oil seeping out of the ground, so that’s the only time I’ve ever…
DT: So what comes up can go down. Is that the idea?
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HC: …yeah, that was the concept, yeah.
DT: You mentioned that it was somewhat like a chess game of contesting this permit. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
HC: I think that—that if you look at oh, let’s say an environmental process or—or a contingent or fight, there are lots of things that go into—to the process and a lot of it, I think, is scientific and therefore geologic because we’ve been talking about this cradle or framework, but there are a lot more things. You have to try to think about what—what the other side or—or the opponent is going to do and then you try to counter that before you even get to that point. And—and one thing I’ve enjoyed about—well, you know, I’ve enjoyed the—the chess game or the—the—that kind of interplay but also the geology associated with these—with these projects or proposals has to be pretty well known. And so in that regard you’re talking about—about things that have a basis in fact of a soil boring or a gravity map or a—I mean you can’t—you can’t really just make up those things. I guess some people have sometimes but you you’re going to get—I mean it will work. So the interesting thing is you have a basis in fact that—that you then move to interpret.
DT: Do you think that the knowledge that you have when you start discussing one of these permits is adequate, that it’s precise enough to give some confidence that that cradle, that framework is going to work?
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HC: Not necessarily and it—the—that becomes a part of the process and people always accuse an academic of saying well, he’s always—he always wants more data. Well, of course, but you’re not going to get a—a full and complete picture. That’s why you try to—try to make one of these situations one where you can—you can make the project or the, you know, the landfill or the injection well or the—the land farm. You—you can build that thing and then you can monitor it effectively. And—and there’s always going to be a—the possibility that you can’t do that. On the other hand you try to build enough into it so that—that you can and—and these things comes around because it’s not like you build a building and then walk away from it. You—you build one of these projects and if it starts leaking it’s going to catch you, you know, it—it’s going to be found out at some point in time.
DT: Do you think that consultants take the precautionary principle to heart in most of these applications and they are conservative enough?
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HC: Not necessarily, no, I—I think it depends on, you know, I have—I have enjoyed working principally with opponents or citizen groups too—different projects because I can—I’ve had the opportunity to take their information and—and point out how it may be insufficient or it may lead to conclusions that they don’t particularly enjoy. But people are not, you know, you asked the question about how precise or how comfortable are you wi—that you’ve had the complete information. I don’t think people are comfortable with some kind of—of doubt or concept of risk. That may be a perfectly valid idea, you know, risk and maybe we take risks all the time, but we don’t like to. I think people are deterministic, so you would like to have—you would like to have enough information so that you would know something about a site. We worked on one a couple of years ago down at—well, it was Long Point landfill. And—and it—the Long Point partners got their permit and it was right next to a salt dome and there were faults associated with that
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salt dome and there was significant subsidence associated with the removal of sulfur from that dome. But the subsidence lakes were across the street from the—I mean they were four or five hundred feet from the landfill site and I could never, you know, on the—on the face of it you would say well, that’s—that’s not a great place to put a landfill. On the other hand, I could never demonstrate that there was a fault going across the site and it wasn’t particularly because of lack of information. I mean there were several sets of borings and they were electrically logged and—and maybe there was enough inf—enough to see that the electric logs were offset like you would expect with faulting. But I could never—I could never demonstrate that either to the, well, either to myself and certainly not to the judges that, you know, that indeed the dangers would predictably come to pass. And I don’t think that was a problem of not enough information. I think—I think the information that was there didn’t show it.
DT: Maybe you could help us to understand this better if you compared the landfill at the Hockley Salt Dome and the landfill at the Long Point Salt Dome and say well why did one have its permit denied and why did the other get its permit approved?
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HC: Well, from my standpoint I—I felt comfortable at the Hockley site in—in—in seeing offsets out and across the site. And it, you know, a salt dome is sitting here like a pillar and as it has punched its way to the surface it has cracked things and—and made radial faults going out and away from. Same way with the Long Point dome, but—but there was not that certainty. At—at—at Hockley there were several lines of evidence that would point to at least one fault going across the site. Another man from the—from the—the health department then came along later and did resistivity and found more than one fault. But—but there were several lines of evidence; electric logs, offset borings,
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depressions, oil, oh, stream guidance. And that was not physically present at the—at the Long Point site. The—the thing that worried me there was once I—I really couldn’t, you know, there was only a suggestion or indication of fault offset but the thing there moreover was the presence of the subsidence ponds and the—and the idea that they might expand at some time and the uncertainty associated with that.
DT: And it doesn’t have to be overwhelming uncertainty. I mean it…
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HC: It’s got overwhelmed them—the—what would you call it? The—the—the weight of the evidence and yeah, it’s—it’s not overwhelming and—and—and I’m sure there are other things that—that play a role.
DT: So the examiners are not looking for zero risk. They’re looking for some sort of acceptable risk.
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HC: If you want to use that, yeah, acceptable weight of evidence and—and then they get by that. That is decision makers get by that because it’s not just the hearing examiner. Decision makers whether that—it’s agency staff or the appointed board of the—the commissioners they w—they—they try to get to a situation where they feel comfortable with assurances after the project gets started, whether it be a injection well land farm or landfill or—or any—any kind of project. It—they want to be assured that it can be monitored effectively so they can kind of build that safeguard into it.
DT: Is there the feeling that these projects can be stopped after they’re started and that you can reverse the process and empty the landfill?
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HC: I doubt it. I think—I think once a project gets started it will at least go to some point. Now that—we worked on a landfill down in Fort Bend County and that was an interesting—well, that was a—I—I guess the first one that I was really kind of involved not only with the—with the geology part but with the thinking and strategy and—and things that went on afterwards. That was a—that was a situation where they built the landfill and—and it was near a creek and it probably wasn’t built all that well and they had a methane gas problem. And—and that—that resulted in an explosion and so there was that ongoing problem that—that was taking place at the—at the landfill and they wanted to expand it. And they—and we—we worked pretty hard and they—they got their permit and they dug the pit for the expansion, lined it and began to take in waste.
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And at that point three of their monitor wells showed contamination and—around the old landfill and the methane gas problem continued and the more they explored the gas problem the worse it got. And the chairman of the commission at one point said he—he would—he couldn’t let that process go forward without—without a—a handle on how the contamination was getting out and how the methane gas was getting out. And—and so we reached a settlement with the landfill and they stopped and so they’re sitting there with a big hole in the ground now that will be there well, for the foreseeable future. So that’s a—that’s an example of how things don’t end with the—with the permit or not permit.
DT: Can you describe the opponents to the permit and to the landfill? Who were the opponents?
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HC: Neighbors. It was an—it was built near a subdivision that is called Little Mexico down in Fort Bend County and—in the Richmond, Rosenberg area and the people were fine folks. They were organized by a woman named Alice Flores and she contacted Jim Blackburn and Mary Carter and they contacted me. And so they—and—and the sweetest group of people. They would bring—they would have a fiesta every once and a while and raise a little money and bring it up to Blackburn’s office.
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And they would often times bring tamales with that and we’d all share the tamales. And when—when they finally closed the landfill they—they would always meet at the Catholic Church and they closed the landfill and the Monsignor from the Catholic Church led a procession out to the landfill and he sprinkled water on the gates of the closed landfill and I’m not sure that—that—that particular procedure is written in the prayer book but it was—it was—it was a great time.
DT: Is that typical that the opponents were in a relatively small town or rural area and that they were a minority group? Is there an environmental justice issued to many of the waste sites that you all opposed?
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HC: Certainly, because—because if you’re going to choose a site for a landfill you would like to choose a site where people probably won’t oppose the permit. And it turns out that—that there are many areas that either were the site of—of landfills prior to kind of formal regulatory processes that then got even worse because they happened to be the area of town where people took their garbage. And—and so it’s kind of a s—intertwined process but—and—and those are often, you know, then become or are or were originally minority areas. We worked on one up in south of Dallas at a town called Ferris and they had used the old brick pit that had been outside of Ferris, well, it still is and used that as a landfill. Well, that was a typical situation. And—but the—the result was and the—and the—in the beginning the situation was
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that that was a poor area because it was right next to the brick pit and not a great place to live and well, it wasn’t that bad. And—and so as the process went on the landfill got bigger and now it’s really big and they—that was certainly a minority kind of—trapped minority situation. The—Little Mexico wasn’t going to move down in Fort Bend County and, yeah, I think—I think often the—they’re either a minority or they’re people who are not necessarily—well, you’re not going to put a landfill over in River Oaks Country Club rough, you know, they—they’re communities that are not that well equipped to defend themselves.
DT: So you don’t think it’s an economic decision that the land is cheaper in a poorer neighborhood but it’s also maybe that poorer neighbors don’t have the resources to fight a waste site.
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HC: Yeah, I think that’s—that’s—I mean that’s typical of what—what I’ve seen maybe not always but—but typical. We did a landfarm down in Sweeney, Texas where the—the people around the landfarm were not minority but they—they were retired typical—typically retired people that worked at a refinery there. And the—the refinery had bought this land—these people all bought small farms kind of around a section and that left a large pasture in the middle of the section and this refinery bought that large pasture and, you know, those guys they work around the refinery all day. They don’t think that stuff smells bad, but they started landfarming and then they went through the permitting process and that’s—and—and these people organized and opposed it and we got involved in the opposition. And they got their permit because they were already landfarming for one thing, but they got a one year permit. And the one year permit was to test and see if the landfarm operation was
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really going to work. Well these people they didn’t have any money but they could really barbeque and so they were able to raise enough money to—to keep going and—and they were probably better monitors of the situation than about any kind of scientific thing that you could create. And they would always call when—well, there was a major air problem. I mean the place stunk and—and the landfarming operation wasn’t that successful. I mean it was wet a lot of the year and the microbes couldn’t really operate. And then early in the morning when the—when the—oh, I would say the air was very still, not much moving, the odor would settle in over the landfill and then just slowly drift off the landfill and these people were, you know, that’s bothersome to say the least. And—and so they would alert people and—and after a year they closed it because they couldn’t show that one, they—these people were on them and two, they couldn’t—they couldn’t show that it wasn’t leaking because it was.
DT: Do you find that these communities that surround waste sites are often the monitoring systems, you know, that their noses tell if there’s an odor problem or their wells say that there’s a leakage problem?
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HC: I—yeah, I think that becomes a part of the system. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the people are—don’t get a long all that well for—well, you don’t, you know, lots of neighborhoods don’t get a long all that well, but sometimes that doesn’t work and sometime—sometimes people do things for maybe not the—for different reasons. Other things may drive them, you know, they may want to be leaders so they—this may be just happen to be a—and that’s—that’s bothersome. That has been—has troubled me at times but—but much of the time these people who are eloquent kind of come out of the woodwork and they c—they live there. They understand the system. That is whatever total system is going on better than some new guy on the scene like me. I mean I—I can find out about the geology but—but other people kind of notice things or know things that have happened to them. They’re—a lady came to the—to a meeting I was at oh, several months ago to talk
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about—are you familiar with the—with the current controversy about the site operating plans of the—of landfills that—here we’re digressing from geology probably but you can cut it out of the—but, you know, Rick Lowry has—has—well, he recently won an appeal and the Supreme Court didn’t want to hear the—didn’t want to do the review that was asked and so he was able to get a landfill permit denied simply because they didn’t have a site operating plan that was as specific as the judges who heard the case thought it should be. And so this meeting was talking about oh, you have to have, you know, risk and performance and all this stuff. And a woman got up and said all we want is for the place to s—out by us to stop stinking and dust not cover the cars and wind blown trash not fill up our yards. And she b—I
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mean she stayed the whole day and every time an opportunity came for her to speak she spoke and—and spoke clearly. And at the end of the day I think people were a lot more interested in the, you know, the—the idea of a site operating plan to keep down things like she was concerned about meant—had more meat to it than it did at the beginning of the day.
DT: Do you find that some of the opponents are mostly concerned about some of the practical nuisances like the dust and the smell or do many of them also have concerns about long term health problems or environmental issues affecting wildlife in the area?
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HC: I would say that the immediacy of—of the kind of area that I’m involved in—I’m in—the immediacy is simply are they going to get to do it or not and that’s the permit hearing. And for that people are—they’re concerned about what’s going to happen to them and the mess that’s going to be around them tomorrow. And they may—the strategy may deal with other long term situations and where wetland or wildlife protection can be made an aspect of it then that—then that works. But they, you know, they’re—they’re concerned with—and—and of course they—they may have health concerns and may learn more about health concerns as—as the thing continues. But the—the immediate problem of what happens to them right after this permit is issued is the—is the overriding one I think.
DT: Earlier you talked about a landfarm near Little Mexico south of Houston.
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HC: A landfill.
DT: It was a landfill. I’m sorry.
HC: At Little Mexico, yeah.
DT: Can you explain what a landfarm is?
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HC: Well, that was what—the—the one at Sweeney was a Phillips 66 landfarm and a—a landfarm is a—is a concept whereby you—you take waste and plow it into the ground and the microbes that are there, you know, the natural system then goes to work on whatever chemicals are in that waste and breaks them down into things that don’t make the hazardous list. And so by the time you would get down to some set distance below ground you shouldn’t be able to detect any components of hazardous waste or, you know, whatever happens to make it to a list. And so the process involves applying the waste, either spreading it out or injecting it. Often times it was—would be liquid waste. That was prior to the land ban on—on liquid waste, but it would be kind of put into the ground and then disced occasionally, periodically, and then you would hope to look and see that it was all gone and…
DT: Would they grow a crop there to have some uptake?
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HC: No they wouldn’t because then that would be a way, you know, that would be a way to mobilize it and move it to a—to a part of the system where ducks may come by and—and eat the grain that would have something in it and then, you know, it would be a way of transmitting the situation to another place in an unknown—unknown fashion. So growing crops on it in a place like that would not be a reasonable thing to do. We went down there one time on a—we were supposed to get a site visit and they kept putting us off and putting us off. Finally, we got a site visit and we happened to get a site visit when ducks were migrating and the—there was a detention pond and then some sandy water on the—on the landfarm itself. The ducks were just having a great old time and of course that’s not—wasn’t supposed to happen, so.
DT: What happened at Phillips 66?
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HC: I think in—in theory and much of the time in practice the operation would be at—at least oh, fairly successful, but we’re in Houston, Texas and it rains a whole lot down in this area. And so for—a refinery will have a waste output. They can’t—I mean that waste, you know, they have waste and it always comes along whether it’s raining or not. And so I—my thought is that you tend to overload these landfarms and where you overload the situation there’s no way for the bugs to catch up or—or—or even operate at all. I mean they would just get swamped. And—and then as a result and the whole area being wet and the water table being very shallow you can’t help but—but at a, you know, very short time later find some things you don’t—
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you—that shouldn’t be there at very shallow depths, and that—and that’s what happened there. The—they installed lysimeters to try to capture anything that might be moving in the unsaturated zone and then they installed shallow ground water monitoring wells. And the end of the experiment they had to—had to say it didn’t work. And landfarming now is not all that popular anymore because you cannot show that—that the waste will—that the waste operation or the waste processing operation will meet the requirements or the regulatory requirements that are—that have now kicked in.
DT: Could you talk about some of these sites that were built without much of a plan that accommodated the geophysics of the area or any other kind of waste treatment.
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HC: You—you mean prior or to…
DT: Yeah, from the 50’s or the 60’s perhaps or earlier.
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HC: …well, I think—I think Houston is a—an example of that. Now there are—there are waste sites around the city. You know the—about the first way of dealing with waste in Houston was an incinerator in the middle of downtown on the bayou. Have you ever seen that?
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HC: It’s a—it’s an interesting brick building on the bayou and the—they took paper and—and waste from businesses in downtown Houston in the—in the early 1900’s and burned it. And then—there are a lot of brick pits out east of town and—and they were—yeah, that was a—that was one place that a lot of waste was taken to. There was a landfill out off Holmes Road. There were two landfills out there and a—and an attempt to put an incinerator out there as well. And the—they just—often times one of the processes used to minimize—maximize the space available was to burn the waste and—in place. Not with an official incinerator, but they would—they would—have big fans at the end of a trench and they’d put the waste in there and burn in. So trench burners were a—were a prevalent operation out on the—on the edge of town.
DT: How would a trench burner work?
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HC: They would—well, they would simply light the—they would wait till they got some waste that was pretty dry and they’d light it on fire and it—they’d have a trench already, you know, these would be brick pits and they—it wasn’t any trick to get a trench kind of developed in the pit and they would start the fire and then they would provide oxygen for the fire with a big fan at one end of the—of the thing. And—and that is, you know, well, the—you know the concept of Hades, the fires of hell? Well, that’s what they did outside of Rome. They put waste down in—in pits and lit it on fire and that’s where the whole concept of the fire and brimstone comes from. It wasn’t a pleasant place to be.
DT: When did some of the first waste injection wells get built or installed in the Houston area or in Texas?
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HC: I’m not sure that oldest well. Typically, well, salt water injection and salt water disposal has been around for a long time. Well, since—since—well, since it become neces—since it became necessary with the production of oil and gas. But Houston has a tremendous concentration of refineries and therefore we have a tremendous concentration of injection wells. Not so much anymore, but the—a great bulk of waste is probably barely contaminated waste cooling water, for example, or washed down water or water used in a—in a refinery for a variety of reasons. Not all that
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contaminated, but it costs a sum to clean it up before you put it back out in the system. And so the most economical thing to do was to put it in an injection well and that’s a process that—that may work. There are some constraints on the process now and—I mean you have to go—you—the regulatory process dictates that you do a lot of things, prove a lot of things before you can get an injection well permit. But there are a number of injection wells that have been around for a long time and kind of grandfathered into the—to the permitting situation.
DT: Can you talk about any of the cases you’ve been involved with to try and contest a deep well injection system?
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HC: Well, one that comes to mind is—is kind of a different one and that is one area of the injection well, I guess, regulatory framework involves putting hazardous waste in a salt dome in mined out cavities in a salt dome. And—and so one I was involved in was to take place over on the northeast side of Houston, well, actually across on the other side of Lake Houston at a place called the North Dayton Dome. And that was a—that had been proposed elsewhere down at Boling for one and that had—that had never quite gotten permitted. But this one was a live one and it was a very interesting entrepreneurial situation and they proposed to put ten caverns in the—in the salt dome. And you know the salt dome looks like it—you—you would hope that it would be a pillar of pure salt but it’s not and as it comes to the surface it tends to become a mushroom and the rind of the mushroom has a lot of stuff in it. I mean it’s—it—it looked like a hollow nosed bullet that—at—at least in geometry. And it
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includes a lot of things other than salt and—and in this case it also is the area that can get faulted and fractured and—and that was a problem with the particular plan. And so they—they did a lot of work. They—they were—they were to get a seismic survey, which I love because that was putting a little geophysics into the situation. And another geophysicist who lived out there he was a—he was a character, Don Cowden. He went to a meeting when they were developing the rules. He went to a meeting over at—not even around here. Just some place where he could drive to. They didn’t know who he was and he suggested three dimensional seismic survey as a requirement for—for citing these caverns and that would be where you would get a three-d picture of the—of the salt dome. And you could see a whole lot of very neat things and—and three-d seismology is kind of the state of the art these days. I mean three dimensional seismic work is how you typically look at an—a large scale oil and
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gas prospect and certainly at a—at a salt dome. It’s not easy to do and it’s very expensive. So rules were passed and rules got developed and then they went off and started do—you know, finished up. They were right in the middle of this salt dome application and they have some seismic work but not three dimensional and their burden was that they had to show that that was at least as good as a three dimensional seismic survey. Well, that was not easy to do and that was a—what happened was that they had a fault study done and they found that faults went through where they proposed to put their processing plant where they were going to palletize all the waste that was to go down in these caverns that were to be hallowed out of the salt dome or dissolved out of the salt dome. They found a fault was going to go through there so they flipped the whole thing and that—they ended up putting—it flipped the plan.
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They—so then they put all the caverns instead of right in the center of the good salt in the middle of the salt dome, put them out on this rind very close to the edge. And by the time all was said and done the examiner, you know, we s—we had an interpretation, they had an interpretation, good things bad things, the examiner said he would give them a permit for six out of the ten; the four being the very outside ones that he was really uncomfortable with and the sixth being the more interior ones that he really couldn’t find anything wrong with. Well, that didn’t really work. That kind of a decision didn’t really work because that—people had never discussed doing six out of the ten rather than ten out of the ten. It was kind of an up or down situation. And—and so in the end they did not get a permit and—and the thing didn’t get built.
DT: What kind of technical understanding and political bias do you think these regulators have for these permits and for the applicants?
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HC: Okay, let’s—let’s break that into two questions. One is how well do the examiners understand the science that’s taking place? And I think—I think they end up understanding it pretty well. Geology is—is pretty straightforward. You can get your hands on it. You can—you can—you can understand these concepts and—for example, three-d seismology ends up giving you a pretty graphical picture of what you’re looking at. And—and so—plus these hearings take a long time and the examiner is free to ask questions that—that they want to know about. Plus the examiners have probably heard a lot of cases that have some similarities. So—so the—the questions and answers and the concepts become—you—you’re not uncomfortable that the examiner just didn’t catch on to something. Then the next part, the political process is it’s pretty real. It’s very real. Now the examiner—you
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know the—the office of hearings examiners have now been displaced from the—it used to be within the Water Commission or now the TCEQ [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality]. And—and I think there was probably—you could probably find—you could find situations where examiners were subject to some—some pressure and—and certainly that’s probably not the situation now. Also, for a long period of time the commission staff wa—was a real participant in the hearing process and that’s where I felt we didn’t usually get a shake, you know, that often didn’t get the—the good end of the deal because or the fair end of the deal because the staff had worked with this application for a long period of time through a long process. And—and you can—you can think of all sorts of reasons but it becomes their application as well. Sometimes more so than others and
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so if the staff is ready to sign off on it then that becomes problematical for the—for the opposition. And so maybe, you know, on the one hand maybe the staff has ironed through this thing and they have gotten to the point where they are—they feel that they have an adequate application and an adequate monitoring system, you know, a good plan. Not—maybe not the best plan and I—in fact, I’ve heard him say that on the—on more than one occasion. You know this thing isn’t perfect but it’s not—not that bad either. But now the staff is no longer a part of the hearing process unless they are subpoenaed and if they get subpoenaed they’re not going to be all that happy to be there anyway. And then you move up to the commission level and the—the commissioners are—are appointed and by a political and b—well, by the governor. And that is a—that leaves you more at the mercy of the political system and that—that works against and for applicants.
DT: Can you give some examples?
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HC: I can—well, I—I think if you have a—I have been in situations where—well, I’ve been in situations where people, voters, have been very interested in the—in a particular opposition whether it’s a landfill or injection well or—or hazardous waste landfill and if a whole bunch of voters fill up a room and—and it appears to political people that, you know, that—that there is an interest in seeing that they deal with this situation then—then I think that has certainly played a part in several of the—well, several of the decisions that I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’ve been in—in situations where people have pretty much lost interest by the time you got to the commission level and—and even lost interest at the time of the hearing. And so if it doesn’t mean that much to them then the political people sense that as well.
DT: Would Sierra Blanca be an example of where there was sustained interest in the public?
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HC: I think so. I—I think that was a—I mean that—I loved that—that case because that was an opportunity to get out to west Texas and to see things that—and—and look at information about a pretty active part of the state, that is tectonically active part of the state. And that—that was a—well, that was very close to the Mexican border and so Mexico was very interested in that—in—in that proposal. And it looked as if—well, of course, that thing was being cited out there as far as you could get in west Texas without tumbling into Mexico because we sure didn’t want it in Houston and it was a low level radioactive waste disposal plan and it would have been a landfill and not that great of a landfill. And—and it was in an area where there are active faults and they had a big fault running right through the landfill site which was—which would have been one thing if they had addressed it but they kind of
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passed over it. So it could become an issue and it could become an issue that was—well, that became politically sensitive. And—and David Frederick did a, you know, I—I could talk about the fault and I could talk about earthquakes and then David Frederick was able to make the case that they had not made the effort to tie the fault that went beneath the landfill site, the proposed landfill site, to another fault that was active on further down the valley and logically could have been connected to it. But that was the technical basis of it but the other part of that was that the very sensitive political situation in Texas and—and more than one person has said to me when I—when I get introduced as—as the geologist geophysicist on Sierra Blanca and then someone says and you know that didn’t—that permit was not granted and—and if anybody says something about Clark was involved in being responsible for that, yeah, you and George Bush. And that was a—that was a real situation.
End of Reel 2271
DT: Explain how George Bush can take the credit for some of that.
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HC: I don’t know how actively he would take the credit, but he did—he did get the credit and the—I—I have mixed feelings about how the political process works its way into things that are so—well, so technically based and yet publicly involved. And—and so that was one situation where there was a technical reason, the—the fault, that they hadn’t that—that probably for a kind of academically political reason they did not pursue or—or carefully study. But—but then you—you have a technical basis that I was comfortable with for denying a permit and—and it may well have been granted, at least at one point. You know they jump from site to site but all those sites were out in west Texas and so at—at some point it became politically reasonable for there to be a denial of a—an application that close to Mexico. And Mexico sent—
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I mean the—the—the agenda day was a—the—there was a large delegation from Mexico there and there was an interpreter, a real time interpreter, speaking into a horn they could all listen to. So their presence was—was very clear and—and that I’m sure had a great bearing on the—well, I’m sure that had a reasonable and political bearing on the—at least the commissioners feeling free to deny the application. And the state had put a ton of money into it as well as others. So that was the basis for the people kidding me saying yeah, you and George Bush.
DT: George Bush or at least his appointees might have decided it was best to vote against approval of the permit because it might have dissatisfied some of the Hispanic vote here and then some of the international party’s in Mexico as well.
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HC: Well, that’s right. I mean my heavens they put it—I mean you talk about people saying not in my backyard well, lots of times they’re pretty good reasons for not having something in—in your backyard and this would have been in Mexico’s backyard and then that—that concern gets processed and—and transferred to—to voters in the U.S. I—I think that’s a—I mean that’s a pretty large scale political impact and it runs of—it runs to gamut. But I—I know that we had a proposal for decision at—at the Canyon Landfill where Rick Lowry had a perfectly reasonable concept and that is don’t let this landfill expand until they understand and remedy the ground water contamination coming from the old landfill. Let them go ahead and build in the new area where they will go in and—and put in a liner and everything else, but—but it’s unreasonable for them to expand where—where they’ve got ground
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water contamination and we thought that the rules said so as well. And—and we got a PFD with that in mind—I mean with that—based on that, but there was no political opposition to it. We had—I think there was—well, basically one client right next to the landfill and they ended up—they got their permit and of course they didn’t expand in the area of whe—which would have required a great deal of money. They expanded vertically over the—over the area that they already occupied and the area is still con—contaminated. But that—that was a—that’s an example of—of the appearance, at least, that, you know, you’re out of sight out of mind out in the country and one out—one member of the opposition.
DT: Can you tell us an example of another politician that might have been swayed and influential in one of these technical decisions. For example, the incident in North Dayton.
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HC: In that case the—the—well, I felt and I think it’s clear that—that putting caverns on the outside edge of the rind of the salt dome without, you know, without a great deal of knowledge was—was not a reasonable thing to do. So I felt comfortable that the—the total decision should have gone against them. But at that time the governor was Ann Richards and she was running for re-election and—and she spoke to crowded venues whenever she came to that part. And she—she went over to the North Dayton area and spoke to them and that—that became a—kind of a—the environmental rallying cry for that part of her campaign. And so I think again the commissioners at least felt that they had—they could be comfortable in—in making the decision to deny the landfill. And now—that thing—that application was—was by an investor from the east and—and so you weren’t, you know, you weren’t losing that kind of ground and so they had lots of things going with them. An example of o—a far more local political situation was—was up where my farm is in Limestone
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County and that’s where the—the—we all—in Limestone County we’ve got a lot of limestone—a lot of limestone mining for crushed rock and if it’s not crushed enough when they get it out of the ground they run it through a rock crusher and that sets off a lot of dust. And the trucks don’t have the best driving record in the county, so lot’s of—lots of reasons to not want a—dust—dust and noise being made on the—not want a rock crusher around. And you may not think that’s a geologic situation but when you have a geologist standing around then—then it becomes one. And—and the, you know, a county is in a difficult position. The judge, a wonderful woman, Eleanor Holmes and so she can be more, I guess, over—over the situation. County commissioners need crushed rock for their roads so they’re—they’re a little more difficult to sway. But anyway, there was a hearing over simply whether or not there got to be a hearing. And—and so there were people who did not want this and one man, Sonny Adams in particular and his neighbor, but they lived on a part of the—the
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little lake that was next to where they wanted to put the coring operation and next to Fort Parker, which is the kind of recreational spot for the county. And they—the—the judge, administrative law judge, was going to deny them party status because they lived on a—in an area that would not be affected by any effluent from the rock crusher. And—and he said you’re—because you’re on a lake and—and everything will go into the lake and move down from you—move away from you downstream. And I looked at the—at the proposal that they had there in a binder and the—the applicant engineer had put in three water levels; one at the dam, one pretty near where these two people lived. And it was his mistake, whether it was a mistake or not, the elevation at the dam was higher or the water at the dam was higher than the elevation at these guys houses so that made the water flow backward toward them. So they got their hearing and the judge thought—the county judge thought that was great and she helped Stuart and—and put her political interests behind him and so the applicant after fuming and fussing and not being very courteous about it withdrew their
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application because they saw the whole kind of county political apparatus turn against them. And it—they have plenty of limestone elsewhere and so for the time being they abandoned the project, but that—that to me was an example of an immediate political pressure and they just saw the handwriting and—and decided against it. You get all—you—you get ranges of political involvement from the very highest level down to county and city.
DT: Does this happen very often and more often than it did in the past where opponents had a difficult time just getting to be part of the venue?
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HC: I think—I think it’s more difficult to get party status. You have to show a more direct affect and that’s not easy to do and you have to live virtually on top of the project. So the days of—of being down wind from a landfill are—are probably over.
DT: Can you talk about the politics of the applicants?
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HC: I think—I think the applicant is typically pretty well connected. Down in Fort Bend County that was the Fort Bend County landfill so that was—that was a service to a large community and that was a political, you know, regardless of the geology in their problem that was a political situation. Often times when a municipality like that is the applicant then—then that is a—politics becomes a force. I worked with Bob Kier and Pierce Chandler and—and Kerry Russell was the attorney for North Texas Municipal Utility District and we—we had a—an agenda session last week. And they—they had every possible political person there at the—at that hearing for all some—20 some communities that that landfill is going to serve. And so they, you know, they made an impressive showing of—of people and the—the other side didn’t have that much in the way of opposition. So that—that was a political effort on the part of an applicant and I’m sure when I’ve been on the—on the opposition side I’m sure there have been political things going on that I had no idea about.
DT: Can you talk about the Tri-Sill case?
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HC: Well, that had been a—an ongoing landfill since pre-permit times. And—and that was a—a planned expansion for both municipal and industrial non-hazardous waste, be a very large, you know, a very large landfill, the plan was. But it was in a—the—the geologic framework was the gravel and it was a series of gravels and some gravels there were even more permeable and transmissive than others. And so the water that would go out of that site would go very quickly over to Colorado River and that was—that was the basis of LCRA’s [Lower Colorado River Authority’s] concern. But they were also—I—I didn’t witness them being—well, they—they were—they helped with the political organizing and meetings and—and—and that sort of thing. But I think after a while it was clear to the applicant that—that—I mean this is my take on it or spin. The applicant figured if I’ve got LCRA to look at there are better places to have a landfill and—and they withdrew the application. And the application had kind of gradually shrunk and they tossed out the industrial part. They had tossed out a couple of other things and so the landfill was virtually, you know, a pretty small landfill by the time they finally withdrew it.
DT: Can you talk about the different kinds of geologies and treatment or storage systems that you would use for highly toxic waste or even radioactive waste, which has a very long lifespan versus more conventional waste?
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HC: I think that—well, I think the difference is what you hit on there is that—is length of dangerous lifetime. And—and so—plus the ultimate danger of—of whatever that waste may be and so municipal landfills can be plenty juicy. But a hazardous waste landfill, well, you don’t want any juice. That is that’s one—one kind of built in safeguard these days. That is that—that you would have to solidify hazardous waste before you disposed of it in a—in a landfill situation. And in fact that—that—that is becoming more and more difficult to do and there are some existing hazardous waste landfills but they tend to expand. But creating a new one is not easy and so you’d have to have a good site, you’d have to have a solidification process. You—typically you would have more than one liner in a hazardous waste landfill and you would have more than one detection system, so you’d have a detection system between liners and things like that.
DT: Do you think that there are some kinds of wastes that are just too long lived, too toxic to be disposed of and that they should only be stored and stored above ground?
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HC: Well, that’s an interesting concept and that—that has been looked at for years. The—one of the original plans for a salt dome disposal of hazardous waste was simply for storage and a company wanted to put the waste into a series of caverns in a dome in Louisiana and—and store it there because they figured well, it’s waste now, but eventually it may not be waste. It may be a valuable product, you know, a useful product, so we’ll put it here and then we’ll come back and get it back out. And the concept didn’t go very far because then people thought well, it’s not really disposed of, it’s just waiting out in our backyard. And so that was—that was politically unpopular and philosophically unpopular I guess. Now a part of the Yucca Mountain project where they’re going to put nuclear waste in, you know, in tunnels in the
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mountain in casks, part of that is they have to show that it will be retrievable for a significant period of time. And so the concept of—of retrievability for particularly toxic material is a, you know, is a real—a real concept. Now whether they would actually go through the—the act of retrieving something that had been involved in some kind of accident underground is—is—may be another thing, but at least they’re talking about the idea of retrievability.
DT: Do you have any comments about these different time scales that you deal with?
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HC: Well, that’s right and that’s—to me that—I thought about geologic time—I mean geologists have to think about that and I—I—it’s difficult to grasp the idea of geologic time involved in environmental processes. But you—you talked about the political cy—you know, there are cycles—there are ways of telling time that we know about and we can feel and understand and—and geologic time seems pretty abstract. I mean you can’t have a feel for the next ice age and yet that’s what—what—if—if you’re going to talk about something being dangerous for ten thousand years, which seems to be kind of the typical congressional concept of—of forever, you have to look at the onset or—or a great deal of climate change, things that we—we really can’t—I don’t have a feel for a glacier coming down the—across the continent, but you have to think about things like that and what affect they may have on—on—on whatever the process is. But I—I had to give a talk—I didn’t have to I—I got to give
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a talk to the freshman class one time on rocks and time and I was—I was a kid. I was 40 years old, you know, and I didn’t have any feel for a lifetime or that many cycles. I get a lot better feel for time now and—and I’ve lived almost long enough to cover most of the toxic—toxicity lifetimes that you could think of. It—it’s difficult to get a—to—to project a feel of time scale into—into these processes and in fact these—these contentious processes. You—you asked me a little while ago what—whether people were really concerned over long term effect on the environment or what was just going to happen to them and I thing they’re concerned over just what was going to happen to them and I—that’s because they can’t have the same feel for—for the immensity of time that will be—well, it will dominate—I mean you put together a pretty good project it’s not going to leap for awhile and in—so the—the problems are going to come further down the road.
DT: After working on these cases for many years do you think that that advocacy system is a good way to determine these paces?
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HC: I think so, yeah, because the—the, you know the—the idea of dueling experts I don’t see that as a—maybe the things I’m involved in don’t involve that high a profile of an expert where that kind of thing, you know, it’s my word against his because there’s—there—you know they are facts, they are objects, they are bore holes, they are, you know, there—there’s a lot of evidence and it’s a—it’s a matter of how well organized and how definitive your evidence may be. So the dueling expert thing it—I think gets pretty well tested. Maybe sometimes I don’t think that but—but I think the proc—that part of it get—gets pretty well tested. And then they—the adversarial situation that’s pretty healthy because I think the—if you get good adversaries then—then they are testing each others evidence and you end up with a pretty, you know, a pretty—what? A investigated or—or, you know, a situation that’s been thoroughly
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looked at. I—a very political and I wasn’t, you know, I didn’t have a big part of it but a very political landfill case was out here on the north side of town and it was a—oh, two or three years ago now, and it was a—just a Type 4 landfill. I mean it was supposed to be for construction and demolition waste so—but it—and it was to fill in an old sand pit. So these people, the investors, thought that would be a good place to—to be, plus there was a lot of construction going on around there. Well, the other side thought well there’s a lot of construction because we live here and—and oh, that became the base of a—a congressional campaign. I mean who could get more busloads of people to the—to the hearing and it was very contentious and the dueling experts in that case were land use experts. And—and the dueling evidence was whose perspective computer simulation of what this landfill is going to look like is real? And—and Blackburn destroyed this one poor guy who got up there. He had these pictures of this landfill projection and his scale was wrong. And—and he just hap—Jim just happened to see that and the guy just dissolved. I mean he wasn’t
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worth anything after that. So that—that dueling expert lost the duel and—and the commission then found that prospective land use is a factor that can be used in landfill citing and decision making. So that was a—that was a very real finding for the first time.
DT: It seems like most waste site decisions are made individually and there isn’t a lot of prospective planning. There’s not a lot of land use mapping that’s done before hand saying that this is a good geology let’s put all our waste sites over there. It seems much more of an individual case by case way of deciding on waste management. Which do you think is the better way to go?
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HC: I think the real way—I—I—I mean realistically you c—you—it’s difficult to think of a situation where a—a political body would decide this part of a county is a great place to put a landfill. Now there are maps and there are concepts that say you want to site a landfill where in—in geology that is not a bunch of gravel, but more preferably a massive clay with a—some kind of thin sand somewhere beneath it that can serve as a sensing system. And so information about that kind of—of siting is—is readily available to people who would go and look for it. And so I think it’s more real that someone will find some available land and then go and have that land looked at to see if that—that makes a landfill s—site there reasonable rather than condemning half a county for—as a reasonable place to put a landfill.
DT: How has it been to try and lead this duel life of having one foot in the academic abstract world of teaching and research and the other in this very political controversial realm?
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HC: Well, I think if I hadn’t—it wouldn’t be fun if I hadn’t met the people I’d met and kind of fallen into a—to a niche that—that has allowed me to work with—with pretty interesting and smart and talented academic kind of people. I—I mean every one of these environmental problems is a research project in itself. And there’s a lot of thinking that goes on in that and so it—it—you’re not just working in some kind of a vacuum. You’re dealing with—with interesting people every day and it—and if I didn’t have that kind of cadre of folks it would—it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. And then I got—I—I was lucky in that I got into some situations where we ended up winning and that was fun. I mean that was a competitive and—and, you know, kind
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of back on the rugby field process and—and you keep at it long enough and you’re going to—going to score some points. So—so that part was—was enjoyable and—and kind of—once you do that and then you know more than the next guy and so that—so that makes it both interesting and—and—and it doesn’t not fit with academia. I think it—it—the information I’ve gotten to deal with is not simply going to the library and getting some papers. It’s actual—actual site spec—specific geology information that requires interpretation and—and—and so that part has also been interesting, you know, the kind of the academic area of it.
DT: What sort of reaction did you get from your students and your fellow faculty members or administrators to the kind of environmental geology work that you were doing?
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HC: Well, I think as far as students are concerned it—it—it allowed me to bring to them some things about geologic hazards that kind of represented hand on experience. And—well, for example, the—the—in a way it was like the architecture department where the teachers in the architecture department are expected to have their own practice so that they can then bring that practice to bear on their—their—keep current and—and bring that practice to bear on their own teaching. I—I never, you know, as far as environmentally active that sort of thing I don’t think ever had
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a—I was never pressured in any way by faculty or administration to not do that sort of thing in the—in the way that pressures came about in the 60’s and early 70’s for faculty to not be politically involved. So at least if there was that kind of pressure I was naïve enough not to sense it and—and it was—and—and it was pretty much extra curricular as well, and you know it happened far enough outside of the nine to five job that it—it was—it was possible to do it.
DT: Would you say you have not had any conflict between the duel nature of advocacy and objectivity?
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HC: I think there’s—there’s always that—always that aspect of it and the ad—advocacy—the advocacy comes out I think as functioning as part of a team and a team with a—with a particular goal. But—so to that extent when you are working on a project say for a citizens group or a—or anybody for that matter you are an advocate to the extent that you are—you’re part of that group and you’re making suggestions. And you’re probably not out—well, you—you may be out there pointing out the bad points of a—of a particular project but that advocacy is—that’s pretty limited because if you’re—you can get caught awfully easily if you just go off,
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you know, jump off a limb and start waving your arms because someone else just as smart as you i—are and they’re going to—they’re going to say but wait. And in fact when—when I worked with people proposing a project I think one of mine—my main jobs is to say wait a minute, that’s not—that’s not good enough or that’s—or you forgot to think about this or you haven’t made a clear statement of how you’re going to deal with this problem.
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HC: From the standpoint of—I—maybe we’re all naïve but once—one anecdote about possible, and it never got to that point where the school was involved, but one of the projects I worked on had a—had a rather active citizen group and—and there was a public meeting to kick off the administrative hearing. The administrative hearing was starting and it was in the—it started in the gymnasium over in the—in North Dayton and do you remember Governor Daniel from the Governor of Guam? He was appointed Governor of Guam. A real character and dressed in a plantation outfit. He had the crowd all whooped up during the day and oh, he was an excellent orator and then—but the—the—the citizen group—one of—the—these two old guys would go past the office of the—of the applicant every trash day and they would take the bags of trash that were there and they would replace the bags of trash with other
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trash. And—and so they would go through that and—and there’d be these file folders and—but one of the—they didn’t find much, but one of the things they found was a—was a to-do list from a meeting that these people had had. And—and the to-do list was—well, it was a long list of things and—but high on that list were—were investigations of Phil Bedient and I—me. They wanted to see if we had tenure. They wanted to see what—what being involved in a thing like this on behalf of the city and county would do to Rice’s tax exempt status. They did—there were two or three other things that were just—just off the wall on their list and so Blackburn took the—took the list and went to the extended hearing that evening. It was still kind of the public part of the hearing. They had the applicant—the—the president of the company on the stand. He was talking about how wonderful his application was. He said, “well, you guys have been real busy, haven’t you?” And he said, “Yeah” (they spent 13 million dollars), and he said “Why yes, we have”, and he started reading from that list. Of course, the guy was trapped. It was his handwriting and he went down the list and oh, the—I mean it just—well it—I would like to think that it was a key part of—I
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mean the opposition never let up from then on. And of course they got after Blackburn and—and—and—and they—the—well, they were very upset and—but it came to nothing and so it—it—it was just one of those great stories that—of things appearing in the night already in file folders all flattened back out and everything.
DT: Are there some cases that you recall that were great victories and others that were great frustrations?
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HC: I thought the—the ultimate end of the Fort Bend county thing was—was, you know, that I—I felt good about that because that was an extended period of staying with something after it appeared to be defeated. I thought the—the landfarm down in Sweeney was a good one. That was as similar. Those were—those were great people and that was early in the stuff that I was doing. The Chem Waste Management withdrew a project out in west Texas for hazardous waste landfill that I thought had some good geophysics in it for its basis. I wasn’t that comfortable about the landfill in North Houston being denied on the basis of land use. I thought that was a—that was a—more political than it should have been. I mean I felt uncomfortable having those people get denied their permit on what was clearly a mass vote situation. I was—I didn’t like losing the Long Point thing, but I didn’t see any way that—that it—it could have worked differently. The—that injection well up in Winona was a—that was a long term problem with a—with a difficult well that was falling apart and that eventually went down and that was a—that was a good project. I enjoyed that.
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Yeah, I th—I think you—I think some—some situations that have involved geology and that have been—where geology has certainly played a role in the outcome of the project have been very, very interesting and—and you kind of have a temporary defeat if someone gets a permit but you know geology being what it is things are going to come around.
DT: Can you look at some of the older sites, in particular the Superfund sites that are just in the Houston area and tell us if there’s something you can divine from the way those failed and what that teaches you about how future waste sites should be done better?
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HC: Well, I would say that Superfund sites or sites that—that deserved to be Superfund sites probably can serve as examples of—of things not to do and in—in lessons learned I mean one is don’t dispose of liquids in permeable environments but that—I—I feel that lesson has been learned. Another—another end of that is that—probably more than one way of looking at it but another end of that is that a goal these days is that hazardous waste is so expensive to dispose of and perhaps could be more valuable that one reasonable goal is to figure out ways to use hazardous waste rather than make it—than have to get rid of it and put it in an environment where—
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where it’s going to be around a while. Then in between there’s a—there’s the problem of—of definings—redefining something now as actually non-hazardous rather than—than hazardous and so getting it off the list in that way. And that’s a—that’s a political operation and—and a vast amount of waste that is called non-hazardous is disposed of on site by—by companies that generate that waste. I think that’s the problem that’s—that we’re going to be looking at in the future. Where that—that is—if you’re over in the non-hazardous area in Texas you’re simply into registration and not any kind of formal application and only guidelines for record keeping and studies.
DT: Can you give us some examples of the kind of risks that you see there?
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HC: Well, I think the same risks we’ve been talking about throughout this—this discussion and that is in Houston, Texas, which is a chemically active—you know, a lot of people do lots of things with chemicals around here and they have to dispose of their waste and we’re very close to sea level and we’re in a pretty wet environment and so that kind of thing sponsors the—the same leak situation that we’ve been talking about for all of these other—well, projects.
DT: Do you think there’s any argument to be made for what’s happened in Midlothian where they’re incinerating it and everybody within the air shed shares the toxicity or the risk?
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DT: And so it’s not disproportionate on one less powerful neighborhood.
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HC: It’s on a whole valley full of—of—of folks that can’t, you know, that haven’t been able to do that much to fight it. Now if it were—if it were north of Houston then—then that would be a real, you know, you’ve broadened the plume and as you broaden the plume you broaden the base of people in affect. So in that way air—air situations although more difficult to measure are—are more invasive than the geology situation. You know one of the things that’s bothered me about—no it hadn’t bothered me, but when you talk about a landfill or—or something like that where waste goes down and gets in the ground water a lot of that water is not water that
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people are going to drink anyway. A lot of it is, but a lot of it is not, so in some ways, you know, I’ve had some questions about well, how important is the work that we’re doing? On the other hand, if you think of that water as simply the sensing element, the—the way to tell if that water is contaminated that means that what you have created has failed and so it’s a failure sensing mechanism. And in the case of air the damage is—is quite likely already done by the time, you know, you have a—an air situation that exists for years and years.
DT: So it’s like a design failure?
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DT: In recent years you have picked up where you left off years ago as a child working on the farm and here you are back spending a good deal of time working with cattle and land. Can you tell us about that experience?
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HC: Well, I—I—I think it was a goal for a long time to get a farm and—and I got one and it’s probably bigger than it should be but it—it’s big enough to keep me occupied and—and it—I—I find that I probably am learning more now than—than ever not—not just about geology and stuff, but you know the—the daily appreciation or the seasonal appreciation or the year end year out cyclic appreciation of things that go on around you up there. And—and—and I don’t know that I made a big dent on—I’ve taken—I’ve taken what—when I bought it was farmed land and I tried that for a little while and that didn’t work. If you can’t be on the clay land at the right time to plow then you’re not going to get anything out of it and we don’t have that much rain, so you’ve got to be dependent on the—on the comings and goings of the natural system and—and—or as much as you can enhance the natural system. And so I, you know, I found that just fascinating trying new grasses, trying—trying to move cows at
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just the right time so the grasses keep going and adding clover and adding vetch, adding—adding that kind of fertilizer rather than chemical fertilizer and—and being able to spend evenings and mornings there, you know, when you’re listening to stuff going on and coyotes coming and going. And—and I’ve got a vulture that sits outside these days on the porch rail and kind of looks at me like he’s very interested in what I’m doing and—and what my pulse rate is and—and—but the, you know, the place is—well, if you stop and look at any place look at my front yard. The place is full of animals and—and—and things that happen seasonally and daily and that—that I find a great fascination with. And I—and the farm has been great. I—I had my son and—and other kids help build a cabin there and some day I’ll get electricity but its been 84 s—yeah, bought it in 1984 and—and it becomes more interesting each time I go up there.
DT: Is it a joy to you?
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HC: Yeah, I think—I think it’s a joy. I—I mean I’ve got a hundred pets. Every cow has a—has a personality and—and some are more fun than others. And going around and looking at—at things that have happened and just kind of moving over the place and seeing that things are working or things are not working. And you know when I think I can get rid of mesquite I think I’m really sharp and then the same mesquite comes back the next year and—and you realize that you’re not as sharp as you think you are. So—so it’s—it’s—yeah, it’s both a joy and it’s—it’s pretty humbling too but that’s—but that—that’s what makes it great.
DT: Is there anything that you’re doing on your farm that you’d want to pass on to people who might see this tape?
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HC: Well, I hope—I hope—I hope everybody—well, I—I hope more people have the opportunity to—or have the time, you know, take the time to go and look at some—some piece of land whether it’s their’s or—or something else, but I mean there’s a great joy of just kind of riding with the land and seeing what’s—what’s going on with it and—and looking at all the different things that happen to it and then happen to you as a result of it. And I—I’ve had a great time taking kids and grandkids up there and watching them find the same thing. I mean they may not see it the way you see it at this time, but they will and they—they see a lot of things.
DT: Tell us about one of those visits with one of your grandchildren and what they taught you.
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HC: Well, they taught me a lot but—but, you know, you go up there and you take them and they stumble out of the truck and take off running and you don’t see them for the rest of the day and they’re—they’re grabbing your fishing pole and they’ll be absolutely delighted out of their mind catching a fish that’s three inches long and stuff that they won’t have a chance to see it and they, you know, you dig up some—some clover and show them the la—legume fixing bacteria pods on the clover and they go wow that—and the next thing you know they’ve gathered up a whole bucket of clover and fossils and—and stuff like that. And one time I was up there with—with my granddaughter I guess several times and I said, before we were going to sleep, I said I sure thank you for coming up here with me buddy and she said, oh, it’s fun. That’s pretty good.
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
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HC: No, well no, not that—I can’t think of anything unless you’ve got something on one of your questions there that you want to go back and fill in.
DT: Not me, no.
DT: I think we’re done.
HC: Got any more questions over there?
DT: Regarding the faults in the Yucca Mountain, should we go ahead with this thing?
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HC: I’ve got some real questions about it because on the one hand they—they have studied the thing, you know, it started out as being something that was, boy, it was a solid massive rock and then—well, they found the faults. Well, of course, there are faults everywhere and then they found the bomb pulse chlorine 36 from the nuclear testing in the Pacific and they found that when they opened up the tunnel. And that meant that there are fast pathways for fluid to get a thousand feet down into where they’re going to bury this stuff. That presents questions, but—but a—a big reason for continuing the process is they say it’s almost advocacy. We’ve come this far. We’ve gathered—look at all the information we’ve gathered. Well, the information that’s been gathered presents more questions than it answers. And so they have moved now to the situation not being a geologic repository, it’s not going—the—the main
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confidence will come from how much confidence they can put into these canisters that are supposed to hold the stuff for ten thousand plus years because the—the route that the radionucleides will take when they come out of the canisters is pretty much a straight shot down to the valley. And it—and it will move very quickly and so the protection is—is now an engineered protection and we’ve been talking all afternoon about the—the concept of geologic protection and geologic protection is something you can see and know and—and I don’t have that much—I don’t have as much confidence in engineered human developed safeguards.
HC: Yes it is. Well, and I try to—to not, you know, create any answer to these questions before you got here because I try to be more…
HC: … well, of course and you brought up more questions and, you know, lots of times if you’re—if you think about something like this you’re going to answer some ones question—you’re going to answer a question, not necessarily the one that you just got asked.
DT: Yeah. Well I appreciate you thinking about this stuff and it’s funny. Sometimes you interview people and you know you’re getting the stock answer and with you I think you can always tell you’re thinking about it.
HC: Pretty confused, yeah.
DT: I appreciate you giving me the time to think through it.
End of reel 2272
End of interview with H.C. Clark