INTERVIEWEE: Jim Blackburn (JB)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 1, 1999
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
SOURCE MEDIA: Mini-DV
REEL: 2028 and 2029
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Also, please be aware that numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various unrelated off-camera conversations or background noises.
DT: My name’s David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 1st, 1999. We’re in Houston, Texas and we’ve got the good fortune of interviewing Jim Blackburn who is a noted environmental lawyer and educator and non-profit advocate of—he’s been active in conservation in Texas for many years. And wanted to take this chance to thank you for participating.
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JB: Oh sure. I’m—I’m happy to do it, David.
DT: I wanted to talk about visiting a little bit about your childhood or early experiences that might have first exposed you to the outdoors and nature and maybe gotten you interested in conservation.
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JB: Well I—my—my parents were from Central Louisiana and although I grew up in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, my mother would always go back to Central Louisiana for every vacation. You know, so Christmas we’d drive back, Thanksgiving, and then I’d spend either six weeks or the full summer term in Louisiana. And I was always on the bayous, I was always with my uncles fishing and hunting and so I really gained a heritage. My grandfather on my father’s side was the foreman of the first group of loggers that came into Louisiana. And so my—all of my uncles, my father and his brothers worked with my grandfather down in the—really in the—in the heart of the Cypress swamps. And so they knew all the back roads, they knew all of sort of the ins and outs of how the—the bayous and the swamps worked. So they knew where the springs were, they knew where the fishing places were. They knew where the wood ducks were. They knew essentially how that forest swamp system worked and—and they taught me all of that and so that’s really sort of the—the heritage I had, was really a hunting and fishing heritage that then, in later years, I translated into environmental law because I had a chance to preserve those hunting and fishing opportunities and I don’t really hunt anymore but I’m a bird watcher now. But I can take the experiences of my youth and have a chance today both to still enjoy fishing but to preserve habitat through
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environmental activities. And that was really why I got into environmental law, was habitat protection.
DT: And I understand that one of the people that was sort of influential as far as hunting and fishing, outdoor experiences was your Uncle Bunn(?). Could you tell us about Uncle Bunn?
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JB: Yeah Uncle Bunn and Aunt Bobby lived in Port Neches, Texas and Uncle Bunn and Aunt Bobby were married. After World War II, they moved to Port Neches. He went to work in one of the refineries over there. At—you know, like many people from Louisiana, you know, they migrated to the sort of industrial centers because it’s where the jobs were. And he worked as a blue collar worker in the refinery but was a union member although he never particularly liked the union all that much. I mean, he had a lot of respect for what he was able to accomplish. He—but he was a hunter and a fisherman and I—what I can remember is him taking the John boat out and taking me and the John boat bass fishing back in Hildebrand bayou or going across the Neches River and into the Bessy Heights Marsh to fish for flounder or going crabbing down at Sabine Pass. And those were sort of my first encounters with the Texas Coast were through Uncle Bunn and—and even Aunt Bobby as well. I mean, you know, they really got me out. And then later on, my father learned to wade fish and—and hunt geese and hunt ducks in South Texas because he knew my interests as well. So it was my father, Uncle Bunn, Uncle Charles, Uncle Elly, you know, my grandfathers that all were part of—of my personal involvement in history in terms of environment.
DT: It seems like for a lot of Texas and certainly you, the interest in outdoors comes through this hunting and fishing heritage. But then, in some cases, it seems like it also comes from not the men who might go out and hunt and fish but through mothers who had some sort of an interest in the outdoors, maybe a spiritual liking for it. I don’t know. Could you explain a little bit about your relationship with your mother and…
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JB: Sure my relationship with my mother is actually a little bit different than that. My mother (?) and really all in my family were very serious Southern Baptists. I mean, I can remember going to tent revivals on the—on the banks of creeks in Louisiana. I mean, it was serious Baptists. And as I—as I got older and as I got more involved in environmental protection, and I got into some very interesting discussions with my mother and—but one that I remember the most is she was actually the ad—the advocate for jobs and it had to do with the spotted owl. And we—the spotted owl debate was sort of raging in the United States and I can remember talking with her about it. And she goes, well I’m sure you’re for the spotted owl right? I said, yeah, of course. You know, I think the spotted owl preservation is very important. She goes, what about all those jobs though? And—and what I was struck by was that she was—as spiritual as she was and as much as, you know, we had this—this—this church influence in our lives, jobs seemed to be almost spiritual to her, as opposed to the spotted owl. And I was in the process of doing a lot of research at that time into Christian theology and Christian theology was in the process of sort of rediscovering environment. It was trying to recovery from Lynn White’s scathing article in Science magazine in 1967 where essentially our environmental crisis was blamed by Professor White on Christianity. And so Christian theology really changed in the 1970’s and 1980’s in response really to Lynn White’s attack. And I—I—I approached my mother on that. I said, well you know, creation theology says that essentially the creation is to be preserved and we are stewards of this creation. In fact, Southern Baptists say that we don’t own property. We are simply trustees of—of the creation which no Southern Baptist that I know seems to have realized that that’s their theology. But, you know, the debate I had with my mother was where did she get this theology of jobs as opposed to what’s the—what is actually the written theology which is the preservation of the creation. So that’s the nature of the discussions I’ve had with my mother on a spiritual level. And, I mean, I feel I have a very strong spiritual connection to environment and, in fact, you know, my religion is—is a very personal one and it’s very much tied into the natural environmental system.
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JB: Well I can explain it very, very easily. There was a period in my life where I was drinking way too much and needed to get sober, 1986. And they keep telling you whenever you’re trying to get sober that you need to have a higher power. And I resisted this substantially until one day I heard somebody say that their higher power was a metro bus. And I kind of liked that. I mean, you know, there was something attractive to a metro bus being a higher power. And—and about the same time the widening and deepening of the Houston Ship Channel came along. And I was spending a lot of time on Galveston Bay. And so I adopted Galveston Bay as my higher—higher power. And I, you know, whenever I was having a bad day, you know, kind of feeling like I need—may need to go out and have a drink or something like that, I would go and sit on the shore of Galveston Bay and find my peace there. And that’s where I came to both love and appreciate, not only Galveston Bay but really the entire Texas Coast. But to—to go at the edge of a marsh and just to—and a lot of times I do this fishing. I mean, I just hold a rod in my hand while I’m basically involving myself with the natural system. And, you know, to see a school of bay fish just going along at the edge of the marsh grass and then all of a sudden, plow! You know, and the water splashes all over the place and, you know, big ole red fish has just busted the surface and, you know, knocked bait everywhere. And the whole scene kind of changes. Or to see a flounder come out of the water and literally, you know, almost do, you know, 180 or a 360 as it’s chasing a minnow up in the air. Or to watch the gulls come in above a group of feeding trout and as the trout push the shrimp up to the surface, they come down and are catching the
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shrimp as they come out of the water. I mean, that, to me, is a wonderful sight to experience. Perhaps the best thing I’ve ever experienced is I was fishing one time and a reddish egret came and landed behind me. And as I walked along a sandbar, I would chase bait fish up on the sandbar and that reddish egret would actually come up and grab the fish that I were—that I was flushing up there. And that bird and I fished together for about thirty minutes. I mean, that’s the type of spiritual connection that I—that I feel with the bay system but it’s part of me being within that system. And I think that’s what we lack as a society. We feel that we are above the environmental system. And what I was able to do from a spiritual standpoint is to get back into the environmental system and that’s served me very well.
DT: (?) and for continuing education for some of the major agencies like the Corp of Engineers. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve tried to share that connection on a basic level or some of the more abstract things. What’s it been like to be a teacher about the environment?
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JB: Well teaching about the environment is—I mean, I’ve tried it just about every way you can try it. I—I have asked the students to read Otto Leopold’s, the Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, Riann Eisner’s, Chalice and the Blade, Terry Tempest Williams’, Refuge. And those are effective to some extent but that is more the abstract. That’s sort of reading about it. And I’ve found that it’s really useful to get the students to experience, if possible. For many years, in fact, the class you were in David, at an earlier time, we went down to Buffalo Bayou. We had a canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou so that we could—could at least see portions of what we were discussing. And I think that’s very useful. We used to have a field trip to Galveston Island. In the course I’m teaching this semester, we’ll be going down to a refinery complex or to a chemical plant complex and—and really seeing the chemical plant. And I think that seeing part or the experiencing part is very important. And if I had my choice, I would try to find a way to more fully integrate the experiential side with the reading and with the studying and with—with that. I think it’s the shortcoming of the education systems that it’s difficult to work that into a class.
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JB: Yeah I—I think though—I think it’s really useful to try to make a lot of these points. I mean, so much of what I feel is central to environmental thinking is an environmental ethic or an environmental philosophy. I mean, I teach an environmental engineering department or I teach in architecture and they don’t necessarily like you to teach environmental philosophy which they see as being another department. And one finds the same problems at a university just sort of mimic those in society generally. We’re too compartmentalized and I don’t think we’re generic or holistic enough. And so many times I—I guess I’ve almost gotten in trouble teaching by trying to be too inclusive as opposed to putting the blinders on and being much more specific. And so there’s always a struggle in academia between, on the one hand, covering things in enough breadth and depth to have it meaningful for the students and, on the other hand, being specific enough to meet sort of our current understanding of what knowledge is, which I’m not sure I agree with.
DT: Could you talk a little bit about the emphasis between some of the students you’ve taught. It’s unusual that you’ve taught engineers and you’ve taught architects and you taught scientists. Do they have a different take on what you’re trying to tell them.
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JB: Well your question is a good one about students. I mean, I do teach students from different backgrounds and the course I’m teaching this semester, I’ve got graduate and undergraduate environmental engineering students. I have a number of chemical engineering students. I have policy science majors, political science majors. I have anthropologists. I have—I think even a couple of music majors if I’m not mistaken. And—and I love the mix because one of the things that I—I emphasize—so much of—so much of what I do is work with the public and I’m involved professionally in sort of the integration of science with community. And if—if—if students, smart students but non-scientists students, if they can’t understand these issues then the community can’t understand these issues. So much of the challenge of, I think, modern environmental law, modern environmental policy is taking—is making policies open and accessible to all walks of people. Ultimately a community that’s affected by a plant needs to know what that plant needs. It needs to know what the emissions are. It needs to know how those emissions affect them. And if we can’t communicate that straightforwardly, honestly, and meaningfully to the public, then we’re not doing a good job. And if I can’t, as a professor, if I can’t bring a music student along, a bright student but perhaps someone who’s a non-scientist, if I can’t help them to understand these problems then I’m not going to be able to help a community understand the problems. So I sort of approach it
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from that standpoint. And I find, you know, they bring different skills. I mean, in many respects a music student sees and perceives these problems very differently. An architect is going to try to draw the problem. An engineer is going to want to go from “A” to “B” to solve the problem and—and it takes some of all of that. And so it’s really that mixing and the interdisciplinary part that I like.
DT: I guess some of your most frequent students are members of the jury or a judge or administrators for a judge, I was curious if you could talk a little bit about your practice where you’ve represented all sorts of clients in environmental cases.
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JB: Yeah, I mean, the—the—the practice that I have is actually quite a varied one. It probably involves three, if not four, specific types of things. We represent clients in federal court before very good and very serious judges, oftentimes without juries, in fact, usually without juries under the Clean Air Act, under the Clean Water Act, and particularly, under the National Environmental Policy Act. Federal laws that we’ve had since the early 1970’s. The second type of case is a case where a community has been harmed. Individuals have been harmed from air pollution, the smells from a facility, there may be a nuisance, there may be claims of negligence and those are classic state court jury trials. And oftentimes, we represent communities or individuals or groups of individuals fighting a permit to allow a facility to be—to be constructed. We have done things like opposing the construction of landfills, of a new chemical plant. We’re opposing the construction, at the current time, of a conveyor belt system that’s going to be ten miles long, extending from the refinery to the San Bernard River and the people that live along that conveyor belt, you know, it’s going to be conveying petroleum coke. I mean, they’re very concerned about air pollution. They’re very concerned about noise and, you know, you really wouldn’t want to live anywhere close to this thing. But there’s permitting requirements for that and we’re being asked to represent this community. And that’s generally before a state administrative law agency or a federal administrative law agency. And, in that capacity, we would be operating usually before an administrative law judge or before the agency itself. And that’s very different than being in front of a jury. And then a fourth type of thing we do is actually studies where we maybe design legal systems. I’m—I try and help, for example, the City of Houston design an air quality program that might meet the federal ozone standards. So there’s—those are about the four different types of things we do and—and frankly the requirements of each of those are very different.
DT: I know there are federal agencies, state agencies, county agencies some of which have thousands of employees that have a mission to protect the environment. How is there a niche for a private attorney like yourself to do the same sort of work?
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JB: Well, I mean, I guess I feel a little bit like one of Darwin’s finches. I—I’ve been—been working real hard on this niche for a long time. When I first started, there really wasn’t much money at all. There really wasn’t much of a practice and—and I combined teaching, I combined environmental consulting and environmental law in—into three pieces of a practice. And this was in really the late 1970’s and I had gotten a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science after I left law school. So as of 1974, I had a Master’s Degree as well as a law degree and during the 1970’s much of the work that I did was with the Master’s Degree in Environmental Science. I was essentially an environmental consultant. I was a consultant to the Woodlands Development Corporation and helped do the environmental planning at the Woodlands. I was an environmental planner at a place called the Rice Center. And I really didn’t use my legal background during the 1970’s because the environmental consulting demand was where the marketplace was. And the only place for environmental lawyers frankly was to go and sign up with one of the big law firms and represent industry and basically rubber stamp and—and just take forward whatever industry wanted you to take forward in terms of administrative law permitting, that type of thing. The practice is probably a bit different today but, over the years, what I found is that agencies don’t do their job particularly well. Politics enter into it. We have found time after time after time that regulations are not enforced as they are written, that the political system, I mean, I’ve oftentimes heard—we—we hear references to third world and there’s sort of a connotation in the third world that things are done differently than they are here. And—and I really think people who talk about that are really
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misleading themselves because what happens in the United States is oftentimes much worse and particularly in Texas it’s much—I mean, we’re—I mean, we’ve—we’ve got true third world problems. I mean, much of what happens in the so-called third world certainly happens in Texas. The—the—the problem is we have no miti—we have no mitigating circumstances. There’s no reason why we should be experiencing the types of problems or the types of issues that countries that can’t feed and can’t house their people are facing yet I feel that we are. For example, when we were fighting Formosa Plastics and I have subsequently made several agreements with Formosa Plastics and—and we’ve done some very, I think, interesting and very positive things together, but when Formosa was first being permitted, I was representing Diane Wilson. We were opposed to this facility and the—the governor of the State of Texas, the Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Senator, both U.S. Senators from Texas, really fell all over themselves to try to bring Formosa Plastics into Texas. It was in 1987, ’88 time period right after the bust. And, I mean, there wasn’t any regulation that couldn’t be circumvented. I mean, that’s what just drives me nuts. That’s where the niche is. The niche is to make sure the regulations are enforced and our government doesn’t always do it.
DT: I’d like it if you could talk a little bit about how the system and the process works and doesn’t work. Since lawyers are better than almost any of us through understanding the government and the laws that govern all of us.
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JB: Well, I mean, I think there is a tremendous imbalance in the system as it currently works and much of my practice as a lawyer is involved in trying to at least equalize the footing. I mean, I really don’t think that in—in the work I do I’m asking that I prevail or that my clients prevail on every issue. What I’m usually trying to do is to make sure that there’s a fair hearing and an open hearing and that if there’s a problem with the facility that it be correctly addressed. And so many times the political pressures and the financial pressures on the government are such that that fair hearing doesn’t occur unless there’s a legal representation in that process. One of the difficulties is you’ve got to have been—have—have done this work for some time to know where to intervene and how to intervene and how to make these equalities occur. For example, we’re opposing the Port of Houston’s Bay Port proposal at the current time. The Port of Houston Authority is a governmental agency. It has huge amount of money. It has incredible amounts of money. It’s spending two million dollars on an advertising campaign. They’re trying to get a $387 million bond issue passed. I mean, there’s literally millions of dollars against a relatively small community that—that lives nearby. What we’re finding here is that we have problems in getting a fair hear, certainly at the county level. The county government is tied very closely with the Port of Houston Authority. So the county is of no help to us at all. Certain city governments, particularly City of Houston government is no help to us at all because the Chairman of the Port Authority is probably the biggest single political donor in the county. So you—you have a situation where the political allegiances are to the Port—there’s $387 million in construction contracts that may be let. So the contractors, the engineers that may get that money are all sort of lined up here. So you have all of this money that’s lined up against essentially a very small community, a
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community of blue collar people, (?). A community is a little better off in shore acres and in—in sea brook area and what my job is is to try to right that inequality in any way that I can within the legal system and without the legal system. I mean, if it requires a demonstration at the courthouse, I mean, that’s part of what we might do. We can’t get television time. I mean, we—you know, the Port’s spending two million dollars on television and advertising. Part of a legal representation, part of the community fight may be trying to find ways to get on television. Part of it may be to link up with property rights groups because what’s happening here is the Port of Houston, by putting this huge container port, will be causing people’s land values to go down and will be destroying the residential integrity of an area. What I’m learning over time is that it is not a singular nor simplistic opposition that we put together. We put together an exceedingly complex and a layered opposition that maybe is, you know, somewhat analogous to the Chinese proverb of death by a thousand cuts. And, you know, these—these—these projects do not die quickly nor easily but they can be killed.
DT: Can you talk about some of the other projects that you’ve opposed that have this same sort of interlocking kind of mesh of opponents and…(Weisman) are there any that actually led to dramatic confrontations of the type you hoped would get the TV people out, you know, whether with baby carriages or bulldozers…
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JB: Well probably the—the most dramatic case I was involved in was the opposition to Formosa Plastics and while Formosa Plastics got built, it ended up being a very different company because of the confrontation. Now in that case, my client was an extremely brave and extremely outspoken woman who went on two hunger strikes among other things to generate publicity in opposition to one: the Environmental Protection Agency and then second, the Formosa Plastics. The Environmental Impact Statement on Formosa Plastics was done essentially as a settlement agreement to get Diane Wilson off of a hunger strike. I mean, it’s like, I mean, as a lawyer, you feel somewhat horrible. I mean, your client had to go on a hunger strike to get what you couldn’t get in the legal process. But I mean, that—that—that—that—that’s one example of an extremely dramatic occurrence. I fought a landfill up in North Harris County and the clients there were subdivisions that lived around this proposed landfill site, all of whom were strong Republicans and, I mean, the image you have of sort of environmental fighters is not necessarily a bunch of suburban Republicans. And yet, it was an extremely effective group. We ended up defeating the permit application at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission yet, in part, because these folks felt that their homes, their property, their livelihoods were threatened and they were willing to do whatever it took. I mean, we had seven busloads that went up to the TNRCC in Austin and showed up for the public hearing. I mean, these were folks that, you know, were not afraid to call the governor’s office. They were, you know, going to show up at every place they could embarrass a Republican politician to make them deal with the landfill issue. Now I provide the technical support for that. We put an excellent technical case together but it’s that technical case plus the political will, the personal will of the clients that has to come together oftentimes to win. There are—there are numerous examples of that up and down the coast. And my—my practice is primarily along the coast. The number of hazardous waste sites were defeated by those same types of actions, number of landfills
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have been defeated. Wallisville reservoir was significantly transformed by opposition over a twenty-five year time period. So there’s all sorts of things like that that happen.
DT: Can you tell a little bit more about some of the clients you’ve had. I mean, it seems like you have a wide range from the Republican landowners to rural landowners to some people are more progressive, liberal, Sierra Club members perhaps.
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JB: I’ll be happy to—to talk about these clients that we have. The—the classic client that I have is female. Women are much more apt to fight the government than men are. This is a gross generalization. If you look at the major cases I’ve been involved in and many of the major client groups, they will be led by women or they will be women clients. And at least, in part, I think women are a lot less afraid to embarrass themselves. Men don’t want to fight unless they can win. The women though aren’t so much worried about winning. What they are worried about is that if they don’t fight, it will happen. And, you know, so, I mean, I—I—one can get in all sorts of problems generalizing on a sexual basis or among the sexes but the one thing I would say is that women seem more willing to hire someone like myself to come and fight on behalf of their community than do men. And, I’m—you know, I’ll leave it to others to figure out why. I obviously have my ideas but—but a typical client group will have gotten a letter in the mail. It’s from the natural Resource Conservation Commission. It may say something along the lines of Greetings. You know waste management company, XYZ has decided that they would like to cite a sanitary landfill within one mile of your house. You’re hereby notified that you have the opportunity to request a public hearing. If you should like to do so, please give us a call or write us a letter. Thank you sincerely. Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. And it just scares them to death. I mean, the—the client groups that I have initially are horrified. They come in they want to know what they can do, what their rights are. You know, they probably are not members of Sierra Club. They’re not members of Audubon Society. They’re just kind of typical folks living their lives and really not thinking much about environmental issues until all of a sudden they’re visited by some bad land use coming in next door. That’s a typical client situation.
DT: What happens after the issue gets resolved either for or against? Do these people go back to their lives or are they transformed in some way?
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JB: A number of these people are transformed forever. A number of these people—the Republicans are particularly interesting. A number of the Republicans, up until this—the experience that they will have with the agencies, would—would believe that government wouldn’t do this to them. The government wouldn’t allow this. And as much as you hear Republicans, on the one hand, talk anti-government they also have sort of a faith that things are being taken care of. They believe that the environment’s being protected. And they sort of believe it’s being protected too much is—is what the rhetoric is. But they get involved in this process and they realize that there’s very little protection as far as their livelihood or their personal interest is and there have—they have tremendous problems with the disconnect there. And personally I think there’s a tremendous overlap and kind of coincident interest between the conservative community and environmentalism. And we’ve lost that in the last twenty years. The early environmental movement was very much a bipartisan, Democrat and Republican effort. It’s gotten away from that. But we’re finding, for example, property rights issues are actually environmental issues in the context particularly of these plants coming in, of refineries coming in, of landfills, container ports, obnoxious land uses that just destroy property values. And if we’re in concerned about community, we’ve got to be concerned about not taking from our people their biggest single investment which is their property. And so I think there’s a huge overlapping interest between traditional, conservative property rights interests and environmental interests in making sure that people are treated fairly, that the permitting process works well and that we put land uses where they belong as opposed to wherever a proponent wants to put them.
DT: Can you talk about being an environmental lawyer in a town that has chosen to eschew planning, that doesn’t have zoning here in Houston? Sort of a strange territory for an environmental attorney or…
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JB: Well it’s sort of like you, I mean, at least in my mind, you practice where the need is. And there’s certainly a need in this community. I mean, so many times environmental lawyers want to go practice environmental law in places that are strictly regulated and the—the—they’re frankly well protected. The thing that’s not well understood about Houston by most people is that we have fabulous environmental systems that surround Houston. We have marshes, we have the wetland systems of the coastal prairies, we have tremendous wintering water fowl, we have the Big Thicket, we have the bays and while Houston is unzoned, while Houston is, you know, probably the—the epitome of sprawled growth, there are tremendous resources that are being eaten up. So there is a real need for environmental protection of a habitat type here. We have the largest petrochemical complex in the United States. We have probably about as many miles of roads as anywhere in the United States. I mean, there’s a lot of negative impacts that are occurring in this area. So there’s a real need to practice and protect—practice environmental law and protect the natural system in this area. So it’s sort of going where the work is. I mean, I came to Houston in 1972 intending to go to graduate school in Rice and then leave. And I just kind of kept sticking around and I’ve come to both know and love both the—both Houston and particularly the Texas coast and the coastal plain and—and what I think I have these days is a sense of place about Houston that relatively few people have. And I’d love to share that. I’d love for others to get to know this place like I know it because it’s a truly wonderful place from an environmental, ecological standpoint and it’s not all lost yet. There’s a lot left in the turn of the century to protect.
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And we’re trying to get that done. We’re trying to save the Columbia bottomlands and Austin woods. We’re trying to buy as much of the coastal marsh as we can. Through the Katy Prairie Conservancy and some of the efforts that we’ve been doing in litigation, we’re trying to save a sizable chunk of the Katy Prairie. For the most part, the Wallisville project is gone and the Trinity Delta is essentially saved and, at one time, it was going to be a 50,000 acre lake. So we have done—we have achieved a number of things. There’s more yet to be done but the natural resources are here still and we can protect them.
DT: You said that you go where the work is and that oftentimes the work may come in the form of the letter that gets sent to one of your clients and they learn that some facility’s going to get plopped down in their lap and I’m wondering how an attorney in the plaintiff’s business is often on the defensive actually, that you’re trying to protect a resource, a community, whatever, that’s being threatened and how you can turn it so that it’s somewhat of a more progressive sort of thing. You’re on the offensive and you’re not just trying to protect…
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JB: You’ve got to be innovative and you’ve got to sort of just jump all over the other side. What I have—have learned in—in my practice is that it is virtually—I all I do is just act in a defensive manner, I’ll probably lose. I’ve got to come up with strategies and concepts for attack that are very different than what most other lawyers would do. I mean, I think that’s one thing that might distinguish my law firm from others. At least that’s what I’ve tried to do. I also feel like you have to be excellent technically. Having a Master’s Degree in environmental science is very helpful. So, you know, between those two things, sort of being willing to innovate, being willing to take chances, being willing to kind of, you know, I mean, the term out of the box is used a lot but I mean I do a lot of out of the box type of thinking and it’s served me very well.
DT: Can you talk to me about some of the bigger successes that you’ve had in your practice and some of the cases that you’re proudest of?
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JB: Oh sure. I mean, there’s—there’s, I guess there’s cases of differing types. I mean, there’s a number of cases that—that where have just outright defeated something. I think one of the—one of the early successes that we had was in the—probably ’83, 1983 time period when Hurricane Alicia came in. Hurricane Alicia destroyed the cooling towers for Houston Lighting and Power’s Baycliff plan, I think it’s called the Robinson Plan. And HL&P just came up with the idea that they would like to just abandon those cooling towers and just have a hot water discharge directly into Galveston Bay. And—and I represented a kind of a coalition that was fighting it and this was really sort of a precursor to the formation of the Galveston Bay Foundation. But we worked with commercial shrimpers, we worked with people that lived in—in the Baycliff area. We—I got to know some of the people on the Kemah Baycliff shoreline. The Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association was part of this group, Audubon, Sierra, and we all sort of came together and ultimately we defeated Houston Lighting and Power on that—on their desire and they rebuilt the cooling towers and there’s treated hot water that’s going into the bay. Now that should have been a no-brainer. I mean, it should have been sure, HL&P you have to rebuild your cooling towers. But that’s one of these examples of a state government deciding, oh my, well perhaps because it’s destroyed, we shouldn’t make them reinvest that money. But that—those types of—those types of initiatives, that type of thinking needs to be stopped. But that was a success. But let me be quick to say oftentimes we achieve as much by losing lawsuits. Now I don’t like to lose lawsuits, you know, that’s not what I’m in the business to do but sometimes losing a lawsuit can lead to as much change as winning a lawsuit can.
DT: How do you mean?
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JB: Well, for example, in the early 1980’s we filed suit against the Corp of Engineers in East Matagorda Bay. They were doing—they had a dredging program on the gulf intercoastal waterway and spoil disposal is one of those recurring issues on the Texas coast that—it—it gets done well on occasions and, then all of a sudden, you find out that there’s open bay disposal going on. There’s this huge sluice of just nasty mud, not particularly toxic, it’s just horrible. There’s just sort of just going—flowing out—it’s sort of a slurry that’s kind of flowing and it will fill up the bay system. And these shrimpers called me from Sergeant and said they couldn’t get the shrimp boats out into the bay because the Corp of Engineers had basically blocked up their navigation channels in the bay with this open bay discharge. And we filed a suit to stop them and we did not succeed in getting a temporary injunction or a permanent injunction but I think we did succeed in changing the way the Corp of Engineers looked at dredging on the Texas Coast. And it didn’t mean that they haven’t tried and, in fact, they have done open bay disposal since but it basically changed the dynamic of that issue. Another—one of the best successes I’ve had is a more recent case involving the Southwest freeway. The Southwest freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation wanted to put an elevated HOV, high occupancy vehicle lane that would’ve caused noise impacts to adjacent neighborhoods and we didn’t think they’d done the noise analysis right but, more importantly, we didn’t think they had looked at their alternatives correctly. And ultimately we have taught—we have—through both threat of litigation and then negotiation, we developed an alternative that Tex D.O.T. has embraced that ultimately will lead to the HOV lanes being depressed. In fact, a whole section of the freeway being depressed and the noise levels going down significantly in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Southwest freeway. That was a very good success story. We’ve defeated three or four hazardous waste applications that at the time were just atrocious concepts that in—incinerator on the Houston ship channel we fought was permitted but never built because it took so long for them to get the permit that their market window was gone. So you can defeat projects simply by the act of resistance and by keeping them from being able to go forward when they wanted to build. And, you know, that’s, on the one hand, businessmen hate this. You know, business people just deplore the concept but, you know, that’s part of a strategy of opposition is that if you can make someone miss a
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market window then it may not happen and I don’t like, you know, don’t necessarily push that aspect but, I mean, that’s a reality also of—of fighting. I fought one permit application and, I mean, this has to do with the unfairness of things. I found problems in a hearing. They would take and adjournment for six months and go out and fix it. They came back, I found another set of problems. They took an adjournment, went out for another six months, came back and fixed that. I mean, I was doing the job of the agency and, in that case, it got built and it did have, I mean, it did cause problems and we lost and that’s, you know, and when I talk about unfairness, I mean, imbalance, that’s sort of what I’m talking about, the idea that we—after it’s gone through all of the staff review at the agency, after they have said it meets their requirements, we find these huge problems with it and they still end up getting a permit. That is inequitable. And that’s why a lot of people think the whole system that we have is really unfair and it—and it—and it stinks but it doesn’t smell good sometimes. Think that’s a reality.
DT: You talked some about some of your successes. Can you talk some about some of the cases that have been frustrating, either failures or things that are just carried on and on and on, never seem to come to resolution?
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JB: There are a—there are a number of cases that I can think of that have been frustrating in various ways. One of the most difficult issues is compromise, of trying to work agreements out. At some point, it becomes apparent, in some fights regardless of how well funded you are or how good you think your case is, that there are offers that are put on the table by the other side. And, you know, the question becomes, well do we accept these offers? Do we make this plan as safe as we possibly can and drop our opposition or do we continue to oppose at all costs for as long in the future as we can? Those are very difficult issues and they can be divisive issues. Some environmental groups take the position that you should never work out a compromise. Others take the position that, you know, compromise is—is—is appropriate in certain circumstances. Some neighborhood groups would like to never compromise. I be—I represent these people. On the one hand, I make my living getting paid to do this work. There’s no money to pay me that I will be doing this work for these areas for free. We do a lot of free work at our law firm. We need to get paid some and that’s a hard balance between what type of representation we can give, how much of that are we paid, how much are we—we expected to do frankly without getting paid and—and at what point do you say enough. And it’s a very, very difficult call. In the Bay Port case, our firm’s already donated about $100,000 worth of time and it’s really only just begun. I mean, that’s a huge amount of time. We’ve been paid about $50,000 so far. So, you know, you know, we’re getting paid for one hour, have been donating two so far in this project. I’m happy to do that. I mean, I think Bay Port’s a bad project but it—the economics of opposition get to be very, very tricky and very difficult. We do do—I guess we probably do 30 to 40% pro bono work in this law firm which is extremely high by most law firm standards.
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But that’s the nature of representing environmental groups and particularly citizen groups.
DW: Did the other side ever try to find out what your price is and come and buy you out figuring that if they bought you on, they’d get inside tips into the thinking of how the other side works?
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JB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean, the other side oftentimes attempts to hire us. On occasions, you know, we will side up to work with an applicant. We don’t do it very often but we’ve done it on occasions. You know, you—you know, particularly if it’s a time when we’re pretty broke and, you know, the applicant is somebody that I know who they are or the lawyer is someone I’ve worked with and they’re saying they’d like some help in putting a better application together. On occasions we’ll do that. We usually don’t but it’s been known to happen. A lot of times what we find is someone tries to simply hire us to conflict us out from representing somebody that might stand up and oppose them. And we try to avoid that situation. But it’s diff—it’s tough. The financial side of this business does get tough. We, as a general rule, do not represent the applicants and I’ve only been on a permit applicant’s side in a public hearing only one time in twenty-five years so…
DT: What’s your attitude towards the defense part and I suppose every client needs a representative but there are some causes that are sort of hard to adopt.
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JB: I guess it’s like—it’s like most everything else. I mean, there are members of the Defense Bar that I have a lot of respect for. Pam Giblin(?) from Austin, Sharon Maddox from here in Houston with Vinson & Elkins. I mean, they’re excellent lawyers. I mean, they know what they’re doing. They’re hard. I mean, they’ll fight you tooth and nail but generally speaking if they tell you something, you can depend upon it. They know the subject matter. They’re going—they’re quality lawyers. There’s a few other lawyers who I won’t name, primarily from Austin and a couple from Dallas that are just absolutely horrible. I mean, they’ll lie—they’d rather lie than tell the truth it seems like just in everything they tell you. You cannot depend on their representations. Generally speaking, they are representing clients that are sort of a cut below the—what I call the industry average. They’re trying to get by on marginal representations and on marginal budgets. They—if they tell you it’s—you know, that a particular emission level is, I don’t know, 85 parts per billion, you have to check it. I mean, you have to check it and check it and check it. You know, whereas other representations—I generally check all representations but, you know, there’s certain group in lawyers that their representations check out. There’s another group that they never check out. You know, so I think the defense bar is divided into what I call the sleazy defense bar and really good, reputable lawyers. And I do believe everybody deserves to be a lawyer but I don’t think all lawyers are equal nor do I think that all lawyers are honest, in this business particularly.
DT: Could you talk a little bit about the opponents that you face, not necessarily the attorneys but sometimes the companies or the agencies or the river authorities and the good, the bad, the ugly…
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JB: Yeah, David, I’d be—I’d be happy to talk about some of the opponents that we’re up against. The—there—the—the—the—it’s interesting—there—there’s—there—there are different levels of opponents, no question about that. Some of the—some of the meanest, most difficult opponents are governmental agencies. Governmental agencies have a lot of money. Governmental agencies assume they’re acting in the public interest and governmental agencies oftentimes are not doing state-of-the-art work. A lot of times, I mean, my experience with industry is, by and large, industry is sharp. I mean, if you’re in business to make money, yeah, there’s a competitive edge that you have to have. Sometimes you can be real sloppy as a government and get away with it. Port of Houston Authority, for example, I think is a huge, sloppy bureaucracy that does shoddy work. I mean, that’s what we’re fighting in Bay Port. A private industry oh, for example, like Dow Chemical. I—I’ve reviewed some of Dow Chemical’s work. You might have trouble with some of the chemicals they’re emitting but in terms of the quality of the manufacturing, in terms of the quality of the—of the workmanship on the construction of the facility, the maintenance, the safety protocols, things like that, it’s going to be extremely well done. I mean, so the, you know, there’s big differences. But some of the companies are vindictive. Others are not. Some companies will work with you, some won’t. There’s a tremendous variety among the companies. Some take it very personally that—that you will oppose their permit. To this day, Dupont’s mad at me for opposing them down in Victoria and you asked earlier about losses that I feel particularly bad about. I mean, I lost a case—Diane Wilson and I opposed Dupont down on the Guadalupe River just south of Victoria and I think, to this day, that they’re going to
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degrade the San Antonio Bay Estuary with their discharge but I didn’t have the budget and I really wasn’t sharp enough to—and incisive enough to figure out what they were doing early enough in the process to be able to stop them. I now know how I should have done that case and I think I could have done a much better job about it. But it’s not that I regret it. It’s just, you know, given what I knew at the time, I mean, we were opposing discharges involved in intermediates in the nylon manufacturing process and there’s no data. There are very few nylon manufacturers. We were dealing with chemicals that EPA didn’t know what they were. I mean, this—this is a whole area of pollutant called non-conventional pollutants and frankly the TNRCC did a horrible job. EPA did a horrible job and I didn’t do a whole lot better. But Dupont didn’t do good either. None of us did good in that process. Now I don’t think it should’ve been my burden to have been the best of that bunch. But, in—in fact, that’s what I needed to have been. But—but Dupont is furious with us to this day for opposing them, for taking them to task and I—I think they’re wrong. I mean, I—we still have a disagreement with Dupont so…
DT: My understanding is that a lot of the regulatory system depends on these permit applicants providing information and there being good disclosure and good access to the information. I have heard people criticize the quality of the information, the amount of the information and the timeliness that you get it. And I was curious if you could comment on that, about the amount of information that you have access to and can work with.
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JB: Well, once again, there’s always a disadvantage on being at the protesting side. The applicant works with the agency for as long as a year before a permit is proposed and the public is told about it. So and there’s a book or several books, it could be anywhere three inches to three feet thick. I mean, it could be a lot of books. The agency and the applicant end up getting to know each other very well and initial concerns that the agency person has, the—the company has a lot of time. It has months to overcome those objections. By the time the public gets involved, the agency and the applicant have kind of worked things out. So we’re opposing not only the applicant but oftentimes the agency as well because, by that time, they’ve sort of bought into whatever the applicant is proposing. We usually have a relatively short amount of time, perhaps—perhaps as long as 120 days but sometimes less than that, to read those books, to find our experts and to line up our case in opposition. And if you’re dealing with some of the chemicals we were dealing with in the Dupont case, I mean, it’s hard to find people that—that really know how to pronounce them much less what their impacts are. So—and then we have to pay those people. I mean, there—those are not going to people that will work for free as a general proposition. So we—and we have to oftentimes raise the money to do that. So this is very compressed four to five month time period to read the application, understand the issues, find the money and hire the experts and then prepare to put on the case. So, you know, there’s definitely a disadvantage there.
DT: What about this consulting business, the science for hire—seems like the regulatory system is always looking for good, hard science and yet it’s also building this sort of adversarial system where you have two experts talking opposite points-of-view. How do you find these people? What do you think about them?
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JB: Well, I mean, I—I basically think that we have a huge ethical problem in the consulting community. The problem of experts for hire is a horrible problem. I do a lot of work in a subject called sustainable development and I have—actually have faith that, in the long term, this concept of sustainable development will take us to a much better living condition for both humans and for the organisms we share the planet with. But if it’s going to work, if we’re going to get there, we need to be able to trust scientists, we need to be able to trust economists to give us good numbers, to give us good analyses because we’re going to all be dependent on those analyses. And I think the idea that somebody would sell their testimony to the highest bidder, I—I find it atrocious and what I take, I guess, more pride in than anything as an environmental lawyer is being able to cross-examine lying experts and expose them. And that’s what I do for a living. I mean, my—my true expertise is exposing lying experts on the other side. The Master’s Degree I have in environmental science, the work I did as an environmental consultant is very helpful there. I oftentimes have consultants beside me but I usually do my own thinking from a—an environmental science, environmental engineering standpoint. I listen to what the other side’s experts says and my goal of cross-examination is to make a determination of whether I’m dealing with a truthful expert or a lying expert. And if it’s a lying expert, my goal is to rip them wide open. I mean…
DT: Can you give us an example?
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JB: In a drainage case, for example, you have to predict flood levels downstream and it’s computer modeling. And someone might choose a coefficient, a variable to put into an equation and there’s something called Mannings n Coefficient which is a coefficient of roughness. And they may pick a Mannings n Coefficient that would allow a lot more water to go past a particular point than really, in fact, is going through. They just picked the wrong number. Well if you don’t know what the numbers are, if you don’t ask the questions what—what coefficient did you use, why did you select that, isn’t that a relatively smooth surface that you’re assuming there, isn’t, in fact, a bunch of brush out here? I mean, we could show that. That’s the type of thing we can do. I—we went through a computer model on a—a landfill application and what we found was that the computer model was ticking along and had a computation to a certain point and then there was sort of a disconnect, another number was picked up and continued through and essentially you lost 25% of the flow. Now that was just an intentional manipulation. But if you didn’t go through step-by-step through the—essentially the code that was coming out, you couldn’t have found that. I mean, and when you find things like that, I mean, it’s sort of like oh my, I mean, you know, as a lawyer you’re sitting there going, wow this is—this is really great. One of the best things, I guess, you know, I mean, the legal business is a business of domination and I think it’s actually one of the most archaic businesses around. But if you practice it, you sort of get into it and—and if you’re good at it you have to—you know, you have to understand the processes. And—and I’ll never
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forget, I was—and I like to set up witnesses, you know, sort of—start asking questions up here, you come in over here and then you—and what the goal is going to be is ultimately you whittle them down to where they have nowhere to go and they have to answer the question you asked them in a way that is detrimental to their position. Because that’s what you have to do to make these admissions come out. And I’ll never forget I—I was asking a—the environmental engineer from a particular plant about what they—essentially about the situation of compliance at the plant. And finally I got down to that final question and he reached down and grabbed his leg and he jumped up and he had gotten a Charlie horse in his leg from the tension that was associated with the question. And we’ve got him on video tape just bouncing all over the room with his Charlie horse. I mean, and so that’s—that tells you a little bit about the intensity of what happens. And in the—I mean, and this is actually physical. I mean, in order to—I mean, I—I run every day now, I mean, in order to prevail in these cases these cases are not only mental, they’re physical. It takes a toll on you to, I mean, to win a case you will—I will to win. That is the—the key is if you don’t will it, it won’t happen.
DT: It’s in the trial and litigation…
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JB: Absolutely and I—you know, I’ve always sort of done that. I’ve just never realized I’ve done that. You have to think—if you think you’re going to lose, you’ll lose.
DT: If we could talk about this confluence and conflict of interest between government and the regulated community, whether it’s flight control locally or it’s that sort of iron triangle revolving door where people go from industry to agencies to consultants and around and around we go.
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JB: The problem that you raise, I think, is a very difficult one and—and you’ve asked about sort of the interrelationship between industry and the government that regulates it. And then how that meshes and whether, in fact, there are conflicts of interest or the potential for conflicts in—and I think the answer is yes there is. I—I think, on the one hand, we don’t pay very well at the governmental level. We put tremendous political pressure on the government and we then expect them to protect us. And I don’t think—they’re—they’re—they’re just a disconnect there. It’s just not going to work. John Holly(?) used to be chairman of TNRCC as a person I’ve gotten to know particularly well and he was explaining to me—I mean, I—I—I won a few cases, you know, the—where John was the presiding office. I lost a few. And I still sort of resent the ones that I lost and—as do my clients of course. And I asked him I said, you know, John, you know—later, you know, why’d you do that? Why’d you rule against us on that case. And he said well, you know, if I had ruled for you in that case, the legislature had already pretty much given me an indication that they would have stripped my agency of certain powers. If, in fact, I didn’t every so often grant one of these things. And, you know, it’s this legislature—it’s the role of the legislature that I think the—the state level is sort of the silent enemy of environmental protection and the fear of the legislature on the part of the regulators, I mean, those legislators call in and—and really ream out administrative people that they don’t think are—are doing what “they want them to do”. Well that translates into oftentimes what the lobby wants the legislators to do. So I think ultimately lobbyists have a tremendous influence at the state level through the legislators and frankly directly because they pretty much give the indication to the regulators that, in
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fact, if they don’t do certain things they’re going to go get the legislature to act. So I—I think that’s the type of thing that I—I find worrisome and—and John wasn’t talking necessarily about any particular case as he was talking more generally about the process. That as he perceived the process as a regulator that the legislature was always waiting there in the wings to change things if the agency didn’t perform like they wanted to. And I think that’s a real worrisome concept and I think it shows how lobbyists have a lot more impact and a lot more power than perhaps a lot of people understand. It’s much more pervasive. It’s a much deeper type of influence than I think that is commonly perceived.
DT: Can you explain about more disconnects, my understanding that Texas public opinion is generally in the environment’s favor. You know, it’s 60, 65% in favor of more regulation, more investment in environmental protection and so on. And yet, it seems like the legislature or representatives is typically in the other camp. Why is that?
DW: How about this thing that no matter what they seem to do, everyone gets a variance granted like why bother to write the law in the first place if every case that comes up practically is going to result in something that gets around it. Does there seem to be futility in that.
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JB: The—the regulatory process is probably the most frustrating process that I’ve ever been involved in. And I’m not sure how you cure it. I think one way is that you set up good people and you leave them alone. You give them clear instructions and—and let them go. And I don’t know that the political system is frankly capable of doing that. I—I think in Texas where you have a strong environmental sort of belief on the part of the public yet you have agencies that are not acting consistent with that environmental perception. The disconnect there is the fact that the people do not spend their money in support of their interests. And a minority, the 35%, do spend their money and it goes to the legislative process. So I think, again, it’s sort of this unrepresentative group that they are very much the group that spends money. So the 35% that are not in support of environmental protection may spend 95% of the lobbying money.
DT: Sort of a vocal minority.
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JB: A vocal minority as in vocal with their money. I mean, basically they’re buying the system. And I think it is pervasive. I think it’s—I think it—it’s true at the local government level. I think it’s true at the state government level and I think it’s true at the national government level. And, you know, I hear a lot of people talk about that we have a corrupt system. It’s not that I’ve ever seen direct money pay-offs to anyone. I mean, they may have happened but I’ve never experienced that. What we have is legal pay-offs and it’s that legal system that’s causing the problems. It’s not—it’s not an illegal system. It’s the legal system. It’s where the contractors that are going to make money from the Port of Houston put up the money for television advertisements that will push the bond issue. It’s where the companies that will benefit from this Senate Natural Resources Committee put all their money behind five key senators and get them elected time after time after time and they will always be on Senate Natural Resources Committee. I’ve
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started a sm—along with a few other people, a political action committee here in Houston called Houston Conservation Voters and we’re interviewing candidates for—we’re going to endorse some candidates and give out a little money for City Council. The feedback we’re getting is just fabulous. It’s just a wonderful insight into the process just because we’re playing now. We never really played before and, all of a sudden, there’s a conservation pact that may have some money to give to candidates. And what we’re finding out, for example, there’s an air quality issue—huge air quality issues in Houston but there’s a specific issue. Should the City of Houston use their contract money, they have a $1.2 billion public works project. I mean, they—that’s how much they spend each year on public works projects and the equipment, the Caterpillars, the dozers, things like that that are used, they all emit diesel particulates. Well what if the City of Houston said they will award contracts to folks that use natural gas? You know diesel—natural gas rather than diesel, off-road vessels—vehicles. That’s a great concept. It’s using public money to cause a good result. See Houston Partnership is screening candidates for City Council and they’re asking the counsel, you wouldn’t agree would you that the City of Houston should use their purchasing power to regulate off-road mobile sources of air pollution? I mean, you know, I wouldn’t know this was going on if I weren’t involved in screening these candidates because I’m asking these candidates, would you agree that the City of Houston ought to spend their money to pre—you know, and—and—and require clean vehicles to be used in construction contracts and they all say, ooh, I’m really kind of sorry you asked me that question. I mean, the Partnership’s already asked us and, you know, I already said no, I wouldn’t want to do that. But what we’re finding out is sort of how the process works. And it is very, very sophisticated. I mean, somebody’s been staying up late at night figuring out how they can sort of block out positions and keep
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things from happening. You know, in—in—at least, in theory if these candidates that the Partnership had gotten to, if they get elected, they got elected by promising, among other things, that they would not pursue a particular option. When we as environmentalists come in and say hey, we’ve got a great new idea and everybody’s door shuts, at least now I understand why. I understand how this is happening and I—these are things I didn’t previously know. I think, on the other hand, we’re interviewing candidates and we’re saying we’re concerned about two issues. We’re interested in getting more park space in Houston, more trees for—for the zoo but, you know, sort of a parks program and we’re interested in air quality. And what we’re finding is they—the candidates are very happy that there’s a voice that’s coming and talking to them about these issues. They’ve never had anybody talk to them about these issues. The—they know—as far as they know, the constituency is not interested in these issues. And to have us just simply there saying these are important issues, yeah, I think perhaps we’ve raised some questions about how they ought to answer the Houston Partnership question. We’ve given them the incentive to maybe go out and take a stand and get a bond issue for parks in this town, those types of things. And so it’s—this political process I think as environmentalists if we don’t understand and learn how to work with this political process, we’ve got real problems.
DT: You talked about air quality as one of the big political issues. Can you tell us more about why you think it’s such a big problem for the city?
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JB: It’s a huge problem for Houston. Air—air quality is a huge problem for Houston and it has been for decades and, at least in part, the problem is that the Houston Partnership and previously the Houston Chamber of Commerce was in control of our local governmental system. And the Houston Partnership includes representation, most of the industries that are the major sources of air pollution in this area. Houston is violating the National Ozone Standard probably is second worst and, on some days, probably the worst ozone levels in the United States. We have a fine particle problem and we have air toxic issues in this town. One of the things I’ve been able to accomplish in some of the consulting work I’ve done with the City of Houston is we got the City of Houston to fund a study called the Sonoma Technology Study that identified the problems of air pollution in this community. And it was projected out to the year 2007 which is a compliance date under the Federal Clean Air Act. And the Sonoma Study identified that there would be 435 premature deaths per year. Now these are people that would lose ten to fifteen years of their life premat—that they shouldn’t have lost because of fine particle air pollution in this town. That—from an ozone standpoint there is over a million days of asthma related illness that occurs, million person days of asthma related losses, that we have all sorts of sort of shades and phases in between. And that air pollution in this town costs about $3 billion a year. And that’s a very conservative number. I mean, there are a lot of things they couldn’t quantify. Well no one has ever talked in—in Houston about the cost of air pollution. What we’ve always heard is, the federal government’s unreasonable, the federal government’s harsh, the federal government’s unfair, they’re taking advantage of the poor ole refineries and the poor ole chemical companies. You know, and—and what we’re seeing today is that, for the first
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time, the City of Houston’s beginning to focus on health and—and their health issues. The Chamber of Commerce, the industrial community had done an excellent job of making—making the air pollution issue a we versus the federal government issue as opposed to a health issue. That’s what it is. I mean, it’s an issue about public health and it’s not going to be until we start saying we demand a certain quality of health that we’re going to solve the air pollution problem in Houston. It’s going to be the—the children with asthma, it’s going to be the older folks there that get put in with respiratory disease and the realization that this wouldn’t be happening but for the pollution problems that will ultimately cause our problems to be addressed. Hopefully, the medical community will take more of a leadership role. I’m working with some people in Dallas and it looks like the medical community in Dallas is about to take—to really step out and take a greater leadership role. In Houston, if you’re a researcher, there was never any money to research Houston air pollution. It’s amazing. (burps) Excuse me. We have looked for documentation of air pollution related studies and there’s just not any. I mean, there’s a few. There’s one here and one there but if you look at huge studies all over the United States. Harvard’s six city study. You look at those types of database, you look at the work they’ve done in Southern California. There’s never been any money, no concerted effort to study health effects in Houston which is probably the second most polluted city in the United States. That’s the pervasive influence of money in this business. In this case, the absence of research money. I mean, you have the Mickey Leland Air Toxic Center that’s headquartered in Houston and when I went and talked with them a couple of
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years ago, they said they were not interested in doing any air pollution research in Houston because they didn’t want to get involved in controversial local issues. You know, probably the—Paris County’s probably one of the counties in the United States with the highest air toxics emissions in the country. The work that they have funded locally has been on indoor air pollution as opposed to outdoor air pollution. And—and I’m not saying indoor air pollution is unimportant. It’s, in fact, very important but so is outdoor air pollution. So I don’t know. I can get a wound up for a long time on air quality. What I think we have lacked as a community is a resolve to address the issue. Los Angeles has made the commitment to get their air pollution under control. They formed an Air Pollution Control District. They are the South Coast Air—Air District or Air Basin District or whatever it’s called. And they have funding, they have resources, they have made a commitment. We have no such funding, we have no such resources, we have no such commitment. And I’m afraid that—that unless—unless and until we get that, we’re really not going to solve our air quality problems. And ultimately it may take litigation. It make take harsh draconian measures to force this region to deal with the problems.
DT: What is it that the hammer of highway funds and other federal expenditures hasn’t forced the city to address air quality? I understand that if they’re in violation of ambient air quality standards, they’re supposed to fix them so that they can get these federal dollars but the dollars appear to continue to come despite the violations. What is going on?
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JB: Well your question really goes to the structure of the Clean Air Act and then you—what you’re asking me about is, you know, transportation controls, transportation related sanctions, the denial of federal funds has always been sort of written in the Clean Air Act and if you didn’t meet the standard, you weren’t supposed to get this federal money. Now why hasn’t that every stopped anything in Houston? And the answer is, Congress does not have the political will to make it happen. The history of the Clean Air Act, when it was first passed in 1970, we had to come into compliance in 1977. In 1977, we had the Clean Air Act of 1977 that gave us until 1987 to come into compliance. There was room for an administrative extension of three years. We have the Clean Air Act of 1990, not coincidentally, that gave us, in Houston, until 2007 to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act. So we’ve gone from 1977 to 2007. Today we are arguing about our plan to meet the requirements in 2007 and it—we’re not going to get there. I mean, the plan that’s come up with, that’s been developed here is inadequate. Industry’s coming in and saying they should not have to meet the types of controls that are being required or that are being discussed. You have the construction industry saying they shouldn’t have to meet the control. We are not—we are still—want to build a whole bunch of roads. We want to build the Grand Parkway around Houston. So basically our local community is saying, we’d just as soon keep on doing things the way we’re doing it. The federal government so far has been unwilling to enforce their prohibitions and until, I think, until EPA finally comes in and says, look public health is important enough that I’m sorry Houston until you get serious, we are going to cut your funds off. We’re not going to get there. And it may take local environmentalists suing to make that happen. I’ve worked for five years trying to develop a program and I think we’ve got a better City of Houston
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approach to air pollution than we’ve ever had but, at this stage, we’re two months away from needing a final submission to the EPA and we do not have a plan that’s acceptable for Houston in—in—in early October, 1999. And we are at the deadline for a submission to show how we’re going to meet the 2007 requirements. And we still can’t get it together.
DT: It seems like a lot of the attention on air quality has been for the conventional pollutants, the particulates, the NOX, ozone, so on but it seems one of the real features of Houston’s air suit is the non-conventional, at least very unusual petrochemical emissions, the toxics. Why don’t they give more attention—what’s the problem…
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JB: The—you’re asking about air toxics and air toxics is a—it’s really a hard subject. The first—I mean, there are several problems in dealing with air toxics and the first one is there is no public monitoring data that’s available. All of the monitoring data in Houston is collected by private industry under what’s called the HRM or Houston Regional Monitoring system. That data is provided to TNRCC but is not made public. So, first of all, there’s just no public access. Now TNRCC is now developing a toxics monitoring system that will be available for the public. And—and if you’re nice to HRM and if you beg them and if you go through the right procedures, you might be able to get access to some of the data. But so—first of all, you know, here we are, you know, right at the verge of the year 2000 and we really don’t have public access to monitoring data on air toxics in, you know, certainly in—in the sense that you would think you would. Secondly, air toxic problems are probably not community-wide. Air toxic problems are going to be in hot spots around certain localized sources of emissions. Third, air toxic emissions are probably not short-term, harmful emissions. They’re emissions that will have effects over many years and you—there will be a latency period in seeing the impact of a number of these toxics. So if you’re exposed to benzene and—and, you know, it may be ten to fifteen years before you catch leukemia or before you—your—you know, your—your body exhibits signs of leukemia. But that seed was planted perhaps ten or fifteen years earlier. And that—so that latency period also is something that makes it extremely difficult with regard to toxics. So—and then you’ve got mutagenic aspects to it where you may have some sort of DNA impacts that are associated with chemicals and they may express themselves in all sorts of strange ways. So it’s not as straightforward as perhaps just your eyes watering, the breathing difficulties that someone would have on a bad ozone day, your reduced athletic performance. With regard to small particles, you’re going to cough more or you’re going to have upper chest congestion and if you’re real sick, you may go ahead and have a heart attack. You know, if you’ve got a real bad day with—with real fine particles. Those are more of the acute effects whereas so much of the toxics impacts are chronic effects, they’re long-term and it’s just difficult to get a handle on them particularly if you have no data. Now the toxic release inventory was probably the best regulatory tool that was ever developed. And it was not really a
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regulatory tool. I kind of—I—I—I am always amazed in my lack of insights as to the importance of certain things that Congress does but in 1986, Congress passed the Community Right to Know Act and this was really after Bhopal, Chernobyl, you know, but particularly Bhopal and it basically said that if—the community had a right to know what was being emitted from a toxic standpoint. And in 1987, the first reports came in and Jerry Pogie(?) who was working with the National Wildlife Federation at that time issued a report off of a freedom of information act request. He—he asked for all of these data that had to be submitted in 1987 and every country—every company in the United States that submitted the data on their toxic releases. Well Jerry put together a publication called the Toxic 500 and it was the first indication any of us really ever had as to how much toxic pollution was being emitted in the United States, which companies were emitting it and, I mean, there’s a lot of criticism that can be offered of this information as to whether it’s really useful or important in terms of judging toxicity. But it sure got the attention of the companies that were identified as part of a member of the Toxic 500. And that really started the interest in toxicity and the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s there were huge fights over toxic pollution. Most companies have voluntarily reduced substantially the amount of toxic emissions just because they don’t want to be at the top of the Toxic 500. But—so it was a great regulatory device to require the disclosure of these chemicals and there’s probably been more voluntary abatement because of that list than anything else I can identify. From a PR standpoint, the companies really took a hit if they were high on the list. But that really doesn’t get to the issue of toxicity, it really doesn’t get to the issue of harm. That was just a sheer volume issue and to make the sophisticated analyses of harm and toxicity is very difficult.
DT: When you actually get a judgment against a company and they have to settle up, do you see shame, embarrassment, disappointment that they’ve lost some money and what’s their reaction to losing or to being exposed?
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JB: When a company agrees to pay a judgment or agrees that there’s some sort of settlement to be reached, they generally like to do it in a way that turns out to be a win-win. That’s really the big difference between a settlement and say an outright victory. And—and I—and that doesn’t particularly bother me. I mean, if a company’s willing to make changes, if a company’s willing to try to do things differently, I’m willing to give them the benefit of that effort. I—I—I don’t oftentimes—I usually don’t see litigation from a vindictive standpoint. There are a few that I might have to say I would truly enjoy just whipping but, generally speaking, that’s not the way I feel about it. I—I think really what we’re looking for is the long-term abatement of a particular problem and if—if payment is necessary getting a fair compensation for the harm that’s being done. If a company will ultimately admit to that and work it out then we’ll try to come up with a way of solving the problem that they don’t have egg all over them at the same time that they take care of these problems. Now that’s my personal philosophy. If you actually go to jury to go to verdict, you actually come through or you fight a permit to the point where you win, there—there—some of the companies get, you know, extremely angry about it. Some of the companies, you know, great wringing of hands, great agony about the unfairness of the process. But that really is more when you’ve got punitive damages. That’s really much more, I mean, John O’Quinn, you know the—the famous trial
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lawyer is much more likely to—to rend—to render that result than—than we are. I think much of what we do is really more of a sort of human scale. You know, we really try to address the problem, we try to get compensation, we try to make sure that problem doesn’t exist. I mean, in my—in my career I’ve never recovered significant punitive damages. And I—but I don’t go to trial that much. I mean, we—we end up working most of the litigation out in a way that offers compensation and offers abatement.
DT: It just occurred to me when you’ve got something like air toxics which has such a insidious health affect on all of us that you don’t hear much about the perpetrators getting pillory. They don’t seem to have the kind of embarrassment or shame that you might expect if you had charged somebody of shooting a gun at somebody or stabbing somebody and I just wonder how do they balance it in their own minds when they know that there are toxic effects.
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JB: I think there are—you know, there are two ways I think the companies sort of justify their actions. I think the first is that and this gets back to this whole question the honesty of the scientists that are working in the process. I think a lot of times these scientists really emphasize the doubts in the process, the gaps in the data, the absence of scientific proof. And they use that absence of sort of compelling proof as a justification. So I think a company a lot of times takes—takes their vindication, you know, we were justified in doing what we did because the data wasn’t there to show so they really hide behind data gaps and the absence of information extensively. And I think that takes away a lot of the shame. It’s not as straightforward as pulling the trigger and shooting someone in the head. There is this intermediary that’s there, the scientists, the economists. The second thing is, bottom line. I mean, many of these managers feel like that if they had done certain things it would’ve been too expensive and they would perhaps have lost their job. And it’s been argued and it’s really an aspect about the structure of corporations, that the fiduciary duty of an officer of a corporation or of a manager is to make money for the corporation and that there is no duty to society in a broader sense. And I think it’s really one of those ethical issues that we’re going to have to come to grips with is to—to what extent does the—the amorality of a corporation transcend into day-to-day behavior. And, you know, to what extent is money—money and making money the only thing that counts. And unfortunately I’m—many of the best managers in the country are people that are focused on that money. Now actually I say best managers, I don’t think that’s true. Many of the best rewarded managers may be that—I think actually the—that we’re finding is that if you combine with intelligence environmental protection and economic production, you have a much better run facility than you would otherwise but that’s not uniformly recognized yet. I think that’s where the trend is and I think ultimately the best managers in the country will be those that balance those things. But we’re not there yet.
DT: You briefly mentioned indoor air quality. Could you talk a little bit about green building and some of your efforts there just with your own house to improve the air quality in your house and the kind of materials and the energy that are used there.
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JB: Sure I’ll be happy to talk about my house. Building my house was really one of the—really I guess one of the great experiences of my life. It—it was both horrible and wonderful at the same time. My wife, Garland Kerr and I built this house together and we had lived on the same lot in a small bungalow for a long time and we’d come up with a plan that we liked and we were trying to do energy conservation. We were trying to do what I call environmental type of thinking, both passive solar design and a number of aspects about the design of the roof and of the attic and lot of what I call traditional. You know, good insulation, a nice yard that was native vegetation, was all in our plans. But I really hadn’t thought much about building materials. And one day I arrived at our construction site and a load of pressboard had been delivered and—the way—way a lot of the wallboard that’s used in construction is manufactured is that the chips are taken up off of the—the floor of a lumber yard and they’re glued together and perhaps they grind up and make chips intentionally for this purpose but I was told it was—you know, taking up really the scraps from the cutting process. And they bind them together with glue. And I had been involved in some litigation involving some trailers and, you know, mobile homes. And those mobile homes, those—those residents of the mobile homes were extremely sick from formaldehyde urea glue in the emissions of formaldehyde from formaldehyde urea glue. And I saw this pressboard that had been delivered and I said, you know, as I said to Garland, I said, you know, this can’t be the same stuff that all this litigation’s about. And I went over and asked the guy that was building the house, I said you know, what is this material? And he go well that’s what we use all the time. And I said, well is this, you know, what’s the glue that’s used? What are you talking about the
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glue? I don’t know anything about the glue. And so we asked him to get a material safety data sheet, MSDS sheet for the—for the wood, for the board. And yeah, he grumped about it and I said look, we’re stopping construction until I get an MSDS. So a couple of days he brings it over here. Well they were no longer using formaldehyde urea glue. They were using formaldehyde phenol glue. And, you know, the MSDS, if you read it, you got about ¾ of the way down, it says warning: carcinogenic emissions. Well carcinogenic, cancer causing. You know, it’s not what I had in mind with my house and I had delivered about six foot high stack of OSB or this pressboard to be put into the house. So we stopped construction for two months and basically we aired out, you know, we let the wood air and I tried to figure out what I was going to do, not only about the toxicity of that material but about other materials in the house. And what I found out is that butadiene is the off gas that comes from a lot of our synthetic carpets. Depending on the type of paint you use, there may be toluene emissions from your paint. And they—frankly the list can go on and on. What we tried to do was to come up with plans. Now we went ahead and used the OSB after we let it age for about two months but we designed a wall section that does breathe. We put a air—essentially a—a vapor barrier on one side and we designed a wall segment that captured the gas and really prevents off-gassing. We don’t know if—it—it seems to be working fine. We also put an outside air scoop into our air conditioning system so that we can turn over the entire air volume within our house so that we can bring in a new set of air and get rid of the old set of air in case there is off-gassing. We ended up buying as—as—as much natural carpet as we
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could afford which ended up to be 75% wool, 25% synthetic. And—and it got more expensive. As your percentage of wool went up, the—the cost went up. But what I became aware of in the process is that perhaps off-gassing within the modern home may be in the long-term one of the biggest environmental contaminant problems that we’re looking at, particularly formaldehyde emissions, butadiene emissions I think would probably be the two biggest. Our house, I, you know, I’m not going to hold it up as any model but we enjoy it. I think it’s fairly safe. It is—it is very energy and water efficient. The neatest thing about it is our native garden and we have all native plants and it’s a butterfly and hummingbird garden. And it’s—it’s a room of our house. It’s outside but it’s a room of our house and it’s really neat to feel like that we’re sharing our home with butterflies and hummingbirds and—and that’s probably the nicest room in our house is this—is this garden. And it’s designed literally as a room of the house.
DT: I think for many years you’ve gone on the Christmas bird counts and you’ve been an avid birdwatcher. I was curious if you could tell us a little bit about your hobby?
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JB: Well birdwatching is a—is a hobby that I thoroughly enjoy these days and it’s—it’s an interesting hobby. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, I grew up hunting. As a—as a child I not only shot—shot a shotgun as a older child. As a younger child I had a BB gun. And unfortunately for the—for the birds in this area, I shot a lot of birds with a BB gun. But I got interested in identifying the birds and, you know, the—the variety. And, of course, as I got into hunting, I learned the different ducks, I learned the different geese and you learn what not to shoot, the curlews, the water birds of various types. And so you begin to—at least distinguish the birds. But it wasn’t until oh I guess I was probably in my mid thirties that I really realized that there was a—a—an outdoor activity that I thoroughly enjoyed called birdwatching. And a—I guess there’s—there was an image perhaps at an earlier time. It’s the—it wasn’t a particularly male thing to do to go out and be a big birdwatcher. And—and that’s totally false, of course, but that image, you know, is something whereas hunting was sort of a male type of thing. Well one of the really interesting stories I heard, friend of mine, John Kirksey, was talking about he and another guy going duck hunting together and this person was a big well-known national outdoorsman and they went out and they were in a marsh and the first flight of pintails came in and they both jumped up, shot, not a single bird fell. Birds fly off. Well they look at each other and kind of go, you know, those birds were very lucky. Yeah, yeah. You know, second group of, you know, pintails come in. Same thing happened. They sort of look at each other and they both sort of figured out at the same moment neither one of them were very interested in shooting birds and, in fact, were intentionally missing. And kind of letting the other guy shoot the bird but it—it was a very interesting, I think, story in a couple respects. And I’m not sure if—if he meant it this way but one part of it is sometimes guys don’t feel real comfortable being out in the natural system without a gun in their hand and just with binoculars saying I’m here just to look at the birds. And—and that’s what I’ve become comfortable with. And my—one of my
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favorite on environmentalism is eco feminism. And I—I really think that—that women have some very intuitive advantages over men when it comes to understanding environment and environmental aspects. And eco feminism is the—the—the best literature that I’ve read, the most I think fascinating philosophy that I’ve run across is eco feminism and I, you know, birdwatching sort of strikes me as sort of one of those classic aspects where women have no problem going out with binoculars and watching the birds but men sometimes do have problems doing that because that’s not—doesn’t fit with sort of their self image. And I think that goes back to—to some extent why women are my clients oftentimes much moreso than men. Think women feel much more comfortable perhaps in revealing themselves in ways that men just will never reveal themselves. I—I think it’s an interesting area and I think the philosophy of environmentalism is very interesting and birdwatching is very important to me in that regard.
DT: You talk about eco feminism and I think of two women who are pretty strong environmentalists and who share an interest in streams and stream protection, Terry Hershey and Mona Shoup and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those two women and their involvement with I think respectively Buffalo Bayou and Clear Creek.
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JB: Sure Terry Hershey is one of my, I guess, guides in this business. I mean, there’s—there’s two sides. I mean, we’ve talked about me as the attorney and then there—there’s me as the environmental activist and those two do get intermixed but they’re—but they’re somewhat separate as well. Terry Hershey found out about me when I first came to Houston. She heard about this lawyer that was—had gotten a Master’s in Environmental Science and she soon had me on the board of the Audubon Society, I was on the board of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, ultimately on the board of the Bayou Preservation Association, all—all of which were Terry Hershey sponsored organizations. And I—I—I truly have loved getting to know Terry as well as Jake Hershey. But—but Terry is sort of our, I guess, sort of mother leader of sort of a lot of the environmentalists in Houston. What Terry probably revealed to me more than anything is the—the role of personal will. She, more than anybody I know, almost by the—the—the shear force of her presence can cause things to happen. And the idea that they wouldn’t happen sometimes doesn’t occur to her. She, I think, probably was responsible for getting George Bush who became president but George Bush, Sr., not George W. Bush, for getting him to help save Buffalo Bayou. Terry Hershey who—who, by the way, my wife’s mother knew in Fort Worth before she moved to Houston. I mean, Terry came into Houston and just adopted, fell in love with Buffalo Bayou and Buffalo Bayou is a beautiful ribbon of life that we have going right through the middle of Houston. One of our best kept secrets and Terry adopted it and basically said, this will not be turned into concrete and she exerted personal will to keep that for happening. Mona Shoup is another one of those persons who exerted personal will to keep something from happening. Clear Creek was slated for channelization last year by back in 1998. The Corp of Engineers had done a project, had done a study. Funding was available and there needed to be some changes made to the project. The Harris County Flood Control
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District was attempting to get the environmental community to agree to certain changes. They seemed to be on the brink of those changes and Mona Shoup basically came forward and said, wait! This isn’t a good plan. This isn’t a good solution. And I—I mean, she got me involved. I helped her from a legal standpoint but it was Mona’s willpower, it was Mona’s personal will that kept that from happening. And if I were to go back through, kind of success story after success story after success story, in the environmental arena, it would be where personal will has sort of come to the forefront. And certain people just said this just isn’t going to happen. And that’s what Terry said with Buffalo Bayou. It’s what Mona said with Clear Creek. It’s what Sharon Stewart said with regard to the Columbia Bottomlands and the Lake Jackson Golf Course. It’s what Audubon and Sierra said with regard to Wallisville. It’s what the community said—all the environmental community said about the Westside airport and the Katy Prairie. And—and those examples exist, I think, probably all over both Texas and the United States but I, you know, Mona and Terry are—are great examples of that.
DT: You mentioned the Lake Jackson Golf Course. Can you talk about that and the Columbia Bottomlands?
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JB: Sure the Columbia Bottomlands are the closest thing that we have to a rainforest system here on the Texas Coast and it’s extremely important to migrating neo-tropical song birds that winter down in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, Central America, probably even down in South America. And in the spring they come back across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula and if they get caught by thunderstorms, they need to bail out and then land as soon as they hit land. And the forest of the Brazos River, the San Bernard River and the Colorado River are what we call the Columbia Bottomlands. And they’re big—they’re—they’re elm, probably Elm Hackberry forests with some big oaks mixed in there. And these birds come in in huge concentrations and land there. There’s so many of them you can watch them on radar. And I think actually they carry it live on the internet now. You know, watch the spring migration by radar. But you—but it’s phenomenal numbers of birds. They’re here for a relatively short amount of time but it’s a—it’s a monumental event from a—from a system standpoint. It’s a connection that we have with Central and South America and with the breeding areas in—further up in the—the northern forest of the—of the continent. The Columbia Bottomlands are an important part of that life cycle of that migration cycle. And Lake Jackson wanted to build a golf course in the middle of it, wanted to fill a bunch of wetlands to do it. And we went into federal court and frankly got an injunction to stop it. And I believe ultimately we’ll end up preserving most of the Columbia Bottomlands, at least in part because of that litigation and Sharon Stewart’s willpower to make that happen.
DT: You’ve been involved in so many different issues, different problems, different parts of the country, different agencies and clients. What do you think some of the future trends and challenges are going to be?
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JB: Well I—I think, first of all, there’s one of the things about environmentalism in the future, I—I think there’s some connections that may—may be stronger. You ready…
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JB: Okay. In terms of the future of, I guess, environmentalism and particularly in Texas, I think that—that there’s going to be a lot of change. And at least two or three of the areas where I think some of the changes will come is that in those—in the 1990’s there was a lot of conflict between property rights and environmental protection particularly in Central Texas, with the Black Capped Vireo, with the Golden Cheeked Warbler and Endangered Species Act, some of the rare species, endangered species in the caves, things like that, that property rights issue and environmental issue were in conflict. What we’re seeing here is that there is—is a tremendous potential for property rights activism and environmental activism to go hand-in-hand, probably more related to impacts from facilities as opposed to habitat but I believe that there’s going to be a strong connection in that direction and I think along the coast you’re going to see property rights protection and environmental protection be much more hand-in-hand. I think a second thing is the role of religion in environmental protection. I think that is an area where there could be tremendous change. I mean, when I try to—when I think about the problems that we have facing us and I look into the future and I think about a future that has addressed those problems and just whatever that image is, I do not see us getting to that point without a major transformation in our philosophies, in our ethics, in our way of thinking. And so then I think a logical question you would ask, okay, well how did that happen?
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How did we get there? And I think about the only way that we can get there is with some sort of a spiritual connection, some sort of a change in a spiritual sense in the way that humans and the natural system interact. And if you kind of say okay, where is spiritual change going to come? It’s logical to look to the religious community and say okay, there’s at least the existing infrastructure there for that—for a type of spiritual change. The theology that changed in the 1970’s and the 1980’s is not widely known by the general public or nor by the religious community. I wrote, in the early 1990’s, I wrote to every church in the United States. And I have a stack in my office about that thick of the policy positions of every church on the environment. And it’s some of the most radical environmental literature that I have read. Yet it hasn’t quite permeated down. But I think the greatest potential for change is going to be in the spiritual community. Now if the churches themselves, if organized religion does not make that change then I think the public will make that change outside of the organized religious community. And, in fact, I think both will occur but I think the greatest potential for change and impact is within the organized religious community. And I think that has—I think that’s a trend that I’ve been both watching for and interested in it and I think it’s going to happen. I think a third thing is that I think that allegiances between disparate groups will be more common. We were very successful or we have been so far, the—the—there—the—the final step hasn’t been taken yet but the Westside was a big controversy that was raging in Houston. And it involved the City of Houston’s desire to build another West—another airport on the far western periphery of the city in what we call the Katy Prairie. The Katy Prairie is important. The west side of the Katy Prairie has the potential to be saved in the long term. A coalition was put together and it involved, among others, the National Rifle Association coming together with the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Continental Airlines came in, to a lesser extent, Southwest Airlines. We also had the animal rights organizations there. And, I mean, in the—in this room where we’re—where we’re filming today, we had sitting around a table, on the one hand, the National Rifle Association and, on the other hand, PITA and other groups that were involved in absolute
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protection of animals. And while they certainly didn’t agree with regard to, you know, of perhaps how one should conduct themselves, they had come together for purposes of trying to save the Katy Prairie. And to be able to put together coalitions like that I think is the defining element of where the environmental community needs to go. I think so—in—in many cases, we’ve seemed to exclude others, to be exclusive rather than inclusive in terms of sort of the gambit of—of interest we have brought together to work on problems. And I think that our future as environmentalists is to be inclusive. Now that doesn’t mean that any one group gets control. We—we’ve still got a work in progress with some of the groups that—that—that I helped establish.
DT: Can you talk to me about the GBF and…
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JB: Yeah sure, the Galveston Bay Foundation [GBF] is probably the most dear organization to me.
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JB: Okay. You asked me, you know, about the Galveston Bay Foundation and the Galveston Bay Foundation is probably the most dear to me of any of the organizations and the most frustrating of any of them at this point in time. Our goal with the Galveston Bay Foundation was always to try to combine all of the users of Galveston Bay to act to protect the bay for its multiple uses. We took the position that no one use dominated any other use and that the goal of all of us coming together was to essentially protect the bay. Industry was always involved with Galveston Bay Foundation from the beginning by design. So were fisherman, so were environmental groups, so were neighborhood groups. And what’s happened in the last year or two is that the Galveston Bay Foundation has been less and less available to become involved in some of the—the fights that—that we need to have help on around the bay system, particularly the Bay Fort—Port of Houston Authority Proposal and what we have found and what I think has happened is that groups have to be maintained. And, in order to be maintained, they have to raise money. And, order to raise money, they may have to make certain commitments and set certain priorities. And I don’t think I understood as well as I do today, when we founded GBF, the dependence that an organization may have on certain funding sources and what that may do in terms of the ability of that organization to reach its final goals. At this point, I’m very critical of the actions of the Galveston Bay Foundation. I’ve told the Board of Directors I’m critical of them because we’re fighting Bay Port, at this point
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in time, without the assistance of the Galveston Bay Foundation. They feel like that they need to move much slower. They need to see a lot more data, a lot more information. That’s a function of having industry involved. It’s a function of having that cautious, conservative industry viewpoint and it—it’s a function of trying to keep that industrial component happy. When we invited industry to—to participate, it was not to be their participation at the loss of the overall goal of protecting Galveston Bay. And I feel, at this point, that—that that goal of protecting Galveston Bay is—is threatened by the failure of GBF to act. And, in fact, those of us who are fighting Bay Port essentially have reformed the initial coalition that set up the Galveston Bay Foundation and they’ve—and it’s been reformed outside of—of the Galveston Bay Foundation. And so I’m both—I’m frustrated, I’m concerned because Galveston Bay Foundation is not there with us at the current time in fighting this Port of Houston Authority Project. But I think the issue is bigger. When we formed the Matagorda Bay Foundation, we did not—we do not have industry, per se, on the Board of—on the Executive Committee. They’re welcome to participate in terms of being donors. We have no staff. We are not getting ourselves in a debt position. We’re not getting ourselves in an infrastructure position. We’re trying to be—what did Mohammed Ali say, “Float like a butterfy—fly and sting like a bee”, we are able to, you know, we are going to raise money as we need it to fight to protect or to act to—to enhance Matagorda Bay. We are not interested in having a institution. We are not interested in having an Executive Director. We are interested in simply doing what’s necessary to protect the bay and we are interested in doing that with essentially as little industrial representation. Now we’re—we have diverse representation. We have fishing interests. We have local government interest and we have interest of those that use the bay but that industrial group is intentionally not invited on the Executive Committee of
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Matagorda Bay Foundation at this time. That could change but at least, in part, it’s from lessons learned with the Galveston Bay Foundation.
DT: It’s clear from all the work you’ve done for prairies and bays and other natural systems that there’s a lot of places that you’ve enjoyed and loved outdoors and I was wondering if you might describe some of the places that you’re most fond of?
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JB: My—my guess, one of my favorite places on the Texas coast is Christmas Bay. I like to take my kayak out and drive down from surfside or drive up from surfside and put my kayak in before daylight and probably the neatest thing about Christmas Bay is there’s a number of bird rookeries there. And you have the opportunity to go fishing for Red Fish underneath the nesting sites of Roseate Spoonbills and Louisiana Herons and Cormorants and it—it’s a—and Night Herons, there’s a bunch of Night Herons that are there. And—and it’s wonderful. There are oyster catchers or on the oyster reefs. The terns are out. It’s a beautiful birdwatching experience with the chance to catch some fish at the same time. And I think of all the bays in the Galveston Bay system, Christmas Bay is a real jewel. There’s still sea grasses in Christmas Bay and that’s probably one of my favorite places. I love the lower Laguna. I love fishing there in the fall with the red headed ducks and I was having literally hundreds of thousands of ducks around you when you fish. To see the Great Blue Heron standing on top of a big cactus. That’s pretty neat. And tho—those are probably my two favorite areas on the Texas coast.
DT: Well thank you. This has been plenty neat for us.
End of reel 2029.
End of interview with Jim Blackburn.