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Karen Hadden

INTERVIEWEE: Karen Hadden (KH)
DATE: November 17, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
REEL: 3477

[Numbers mark the time codes for the interview recording.]

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Austin, Texas. It’s November 17, 2018. We’re at the home of Karen Hadden, and she has had a—a long and interesting career starting as a teacher—a science teacher—in grade school but then, in later years, worked as a activist and a volunteer, working on clean air, renewable power, energy conservation and—and many other aspects of environmental conservation. So I just wanted to thank you for taking time to talk to us.

KH: Oh it’s great, David. It’s great opportunity.

DT: Well good. Well thanks, and maybe we should just start by trying to find out where you started and if there might have been experiences when you were a very young person that—that could have opened your eyes to the—the career that you—you later took.

KH: Well I was pretty lucky. I am the daughter of a military man. My father was in the Army. And we had a family of five children and we traveled. We were always moving one place to another. I was born in Maryland. We moved to Germany. We lived in Minnesota. We went to Hawaii, which was really wonderful. And then we moved to El Paso. So those are—that’s a lot of contrast. And—and we got to meet people in all different places and we also got to experience different environments.
And the richness and diversity that comes with every different place that you visit—the plant life, the animal life, and—and the beauty of the world. It was very, very stunning to go from Minnesota to Hawaii and—and to discover all the tropical plants. And then to move to the desert was such sharp contrast and really difficult at first. But, after a while, the desert is also incredibly beautiful and amazing. You have to be there for a while to understand it. But we were very, very lucky because we got to travel and to do so many things. We camped and hiked and swam.
We went into the National Parks a lot. That was what we did for fun and it was—it was wonderful.

DT: Do you recall any camping trips, hikes, that you took that were especially fun and—and important to you?

KH: I especially loved Bryce Canyon. It’s just so incredibly gorgeous. All the carved rocks that—that look like figures. It’s just incredibly beautiful and powerful. And it was a wonderful time together. So that one always stuck with me enough to where I named my son after a canyon—his—his middle name is Bryce—so after Bryce Canyon. Garrett Bryce Hadden.

DT: Well and—and were there members of your family or teachers or friends that you had who might have said, you know, come along with me or I want to show you something or let me tell you something about the natural world?

KH: Mostly that was my father in my life. He was an outdoorsman. He grew up in Pennsylvania—both my parents. And so he, himself, was a nature lover. And—and it was always an adventure. So he would always show us something new. He was prone to doing things that were dangerous. [laughing] And I remember him being out on a ledge and all of the rest of us being over on the side and you could see that the ledge was carved out and it was not a good place to be. So we learned the hard way sometimes to don’t do that.
But we would go to the Grand Canyon. We would go to forests. We would go to rivers and anywhere that was outdoors.

DT: Well, I don’t know if this is premature but would you like to talk perhaps about your—your tenure at the University of Texas? You were a—a student there in biology, is that correct, getting out in 1979?

KH: Yes. I went to school in El Paso and then transferred to Austin and studied botany, which was incredibly exciting. I loved every minute of that. I especially loved the native plants classes. And we would go out and hike and—and identify plants and make collections and learn their scientific names and learn about them. Mar—Marshall Johnston was a professor there at one point in time. And he’s renowned as a botanist and he was incredibly wonderful as an instructor. He was in great shape.
He was probably in his forties or fifties at the time and all, you know, those of us that were students could hardly keep up with him. He would hike really fast and then he would jump in and swim laps during the lunch hour when we would all be collapsed and trying to eat something. He was an amazing man with a lot of energy and—and a lot of knowledge. The—the book that he wrote about the woody plants of Texas is known as the Correll and Johnston Bible in the world of botany because it’s so thorough and so good.

DT: Was he taking you mostly in the hill country region around Austin or did you go farther afield?

KH: Mostly the hill country region, uh-huh, a lot of different places, lot of different micro-ecosystems and—and it was fascinating. And—and what I learned from that process was that if you know the plants and you know about them and then you go for a walk, it’s like seeing your friends. You go along and you recognize them and—and you can see where they are together and you can watch them throughout the year and their patterns.
So it really makes you see the world differently, to know more about it and to learn the complex systems of interactions between the plant world and—and even the pollinators and—and the brilliant, brilliant adaptations that plants have. You know, they don’t have a mind and yet they can do these things that are incredibly brilliant, in terms of survival strategies. And it’s really fascinating.

DT: You—you mentioned Marshall Johnston and—and I—if I remember right, he was one of the coauthors of Useful Wild Plants, some of the early volumes. And—and so I’m curious if he was mostly trying to teach you how to identify, you know, the taxonomy of these plants or was he also trying to tell you a little bit about what these plants could be used for?

KH: He did all of those things. And—and when there was something edible, he would show us, like the Turk’s cap flowers, which don’t have a lot of flavor but—but yes, you can eat them. So, yes, we learned a great deal from him. It was—it was a lot of fun. He’s a vibrant person.

DT: And you—you talk about teachers like Marshall Johnston you had. I understand that after you got out of the University of Texas, you went and got a—a teacher certificate yourself and—and became a teacher.

KH: I did and I started out working with the middle school level and then I taught high school for about fourteen years altogether and loved it. Loved it. The students were wonderful. It was a real challenge. I think that anybody who can teach middle school can do almost anything in the whole world [laughing] because the skills required are pretty amazing. It takes everything you’ve got. And—and yet it’s really rewarding and really, really fun. So it was—it was a wonderful thing to do. And I liked the freshman and sophomores a great deal too. Their world is crazy.
They’re, you know, they’re—they’re between the childhood and—and adulthood. And—and one minute you’ve got someone who’s thinking really young and the next minute they’re mature and their minds are very on fire. So it was great fun. I loved it.

DT: Well and it—if I understood right, you were teaching just a wide range of science from physical science to biology, astronomy, anatomy, physiology, chemistry. So you were describing the natural world to your students. Is that—?

KH: Right, and helping them discover it. You know, the things that I had learned in taxonomy, I would do things like take kids out to Wild Basin Wilderness and hand them the—the key to the plants of the area and let them learn to identify things on their own and give them the skills to do that. And that’s something that usually is taught at the college level and I found that the high school kids were really quite able to do that if somebody would take the time to show them. And that’s a skill that they can continue to use later in their lives to do their own work.

And—and it was really exciting to get kids out in nature. We did as much in the way of field trips and hiking and exploring and going to hear guest speakers as we could. And we tried to do things in the classroom that were different, that were more involving. And, for a little while, I taught at Bowie High School and we had a science night. And we had kids who decided to do—I had an anatomy/physiology class that decided to do a walk through time that was a medical history. Where—it was like a spook house.
It was at Halloween time of year and we constructed this in our hallways. And so we went through the history of medicine, the different developments, and different doctors and different procedures that they were acting out. So people went through this medical timeline spook house. It was wonderful and the kids were fabulous. That same year I had a freshman class that decided to—they were very environmentally minded and they decided to do a play about the environmental issues.
And they sang Nature’s Way at the end, which was—it was really an amazing thing to me because it was coming from them and I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was exciting but we had a great time.

DT: Well I—I’m curious if—if there were things you found resonated with the kids. I mean, a lot of teaching I guess is trying to convey knowledge from you to them, but I imagine they’re sort of rebounding with things they teach you or tell you that they’re interested in. Is that true?

KH: Abso—absolutely. You know, I think good teachers are learning from their students and picking up on where their interests lie and going with that, which works. It works beautifully. We had a lot of involvement and a lot of wonderful times. We did a garden at one school and—and learned about—well, it was a science lesson in itself about the soils and how the plants grew and watching them throughout time. It was a wonderful, wonderful project.

DT: So I think you—you said that there was—there were classroom activities, there were [inaudible] activities, there were field trips that you took, there were chances where you went to—to hear outside speakers. Did you also get involved with science clubs? Is that right?

KH: Yeah, a lot of that was done through science clubs. Some of it was in the classroom. And certainly we did the traditional as well. And I remember kids would be really angry because I would make them read science textbooks and they thought that was pretty outdated sometimes. I was like, no, this is a skill that you need and—and—and we’re going to develop it. And so I really was hoping that they would have the tools later to conquer technical information in their own lives.

DT: I think you—you mentioned just in passing that—that some of the kids had interests in—in the environment and, you know, sang Nature’s Way and—and so on. And I was curious if you were also introducing them not just to subject matter but to—to activism?

KH: Absolutely. We would talk about current issues, what was happening in town, threats in Austin to the water supply, ways that they could become involved. Sometimes we would actually watch what was going on at City Council. It’s like today, we need to see what they’re doing and talking about. And, I mean, that wasn’t frequent but it did happen on occasion when there were important decisions being made. So if students got done on time, they could pursue things of that nature. So it was—it was really fun. I had wonderful students.

DT: Do you think there were any kind of issues, controversies, that caught the imagination of your students that were, you know, about local or state or federal things that were going on in the environment?

KH: Yes, I do. Some of my students have gone on to take, you know, positions that involve environmental work. Others have, you know, pursued other paths but still have an awareness as they pursue what—what they’re doing in their lives. I run into some of the students from time to time. And so yes, I think that, you know, it has helped to move forward in that way.

DT: You—you taught in the Austin School District, in Del Valle and—and out in El Paso. Did you find that—that environmental issues, conservation, that—that those kind of topics reached different communities in different ways or—or?

KH: Yes. There are differences. You know, and it was partly the resources that were available and what we could do. El Paso was really wonderful. I had a lot of students who came from Mexico who had—had, you know, a science background in Mexico. Some of them did not know English very well at the time and sometimes we would have team teaching to reach those students. But it was really interesting that a lot of the students from Mexico were actually further along in their coursework than the U. S. students.
It was only a language barrier that was an issue with a lot of them. So it was just different and the tone of the community was different too. You know, in El Paso, we would focus on some of the desert preservation issues; radioactive waste issues where—were happening in West Texas at the time. So the focus would be a little different.

DT: So I—I—I’ve heard teachers talk about the—the curriculum and the lesson plans, the TEKS standards—did you find that those were conducive to what you were teaching about conservation and the environment or were they restrictive or, you know, what was—how much leeway did you have to—to teach some of these things that you were interested in?

KH: We just did it. [laughing] And—and, you know, it was successful. I—I generally got a lot of backing from the administration. And, at that point in time, there was a little less focus on the checklist of things. I think that is a problem that people are being constrained and—and that—that it could limit what people are doing, rather than expand their horizons.
I—I believe in very involved teaching and coursework and—and if you’re busy worrying about checking off a checklist that the state has decided upon, sometimes you’re not reaching the very goals that you want to reach.

DT: And I think we’ve talked a little bit about the, you know, TEKS and those standards that—that a lot of schools have in Texas. Did you have any expectations from parents who would come in and talk about their child and question you about what—what you were trying to explain to their kids?

KH: Generally not. Generally parents were pretty supportive too. I did run into one situation during the years at Bowie where people didn’t want to talk about evolution. They thought that was taboo. So that was really pretty interesting.

DT: And what—can you try to outline that discussion you had?

KH: Yeah, it was—basically a—I had pro—at one point in time, a student who told me during the middle of a class that I was the devil for teaching evolution. And I wasn’t too keen on that. So anyway, we tried to talk that out with a counselor who wasn’t so sure that wasn’t true also. So that was not helpful and supportive. But I decided, you know, look, this is a science class and—and we’re learning science here. And I, you know, mm—whatever you believe in terms of religion is fine but we’re not going to teach religion.
So and I wrote articles for the newspaper and—and so on and so forth and—and generally got really great support.

DT: Well maybe this would be a good time to sort of segue into your—I think life as an advocate, which I understood began with some work with the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition. Is that right?

KH: I was involved with them for quite a while and—and really enjoyed it. That work, we worked a lot on what was called economic conversion. We looked at federal spending and how the U. S. budget was allocated and argued that money would be better spent on health and education, housing as opposed to the immense military budget that we had going at the time. So that was a lot of our focus. We did events that commemorated Hiroshima Day, to remember what had happened, you know, when so many lives were lost there.
So it was great work and we used to have a center downtown on Congress Avenue that we worked out of.

DT: And do you think that the—the Hiroshima or maybe some of the justice work sort of foreshadowed work that you did later in the—maybe the nuclear waste area or—?

KH: Yeah, it was all—it was all part of that same path. And during my years at the University of Texas, I got to hear Dr. Helen Caldicott speak and she was really instrumental in waking up a lot of people. She was a medical doctor from Australia and she would talk about the impacts of radiation on the human body and why nuclear reactors were such an—a problem. You know, yes, they produce power but they also produce a lot of radiation and radioactive materials. So she was very, very instrumental and—and it was important to me to hear her talk and I think for a lot of people.
We actually sponsored her to come back and give a talk several years later. So she did a lot to create awareness.

DT: I think that some of your—your more sort of formal, if you can say that, role as a—as an advocate, started in around 2000 when you were recruited to start work with SEED Coalition, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. And I was curious how you got pulled into that work or getting started?

KH: I had been involved in the local community and knew a lot of activists in Austin. And I heard about a job opening with the SEED Coalition and it was time for me to make that transition. I was always doing activism work with any spare time I could find as a teacher, which is hard and a—a parent at the time too. But when I learned about this job, I applied for it and got it. And it was really, really nice to get paid for activism work. You know, usually throughout the years, we would spend money to do activism so it was a very nice change.

DT: Can you talk a little bit of what the—the focus and the emphasis was for the coalition at that time, what your role was in the early days?

KH: Yeah, I started off working as the Clean Air Project Director. And we were looking at pollution and the health impacts. And, in particular, we were looking at the coal burning power plants. Our organization was networked with organizations around the country and together we would have conferences and—and talk about coordinated efforts. We were, in particular, looking at four major pollutants out of the coal plants. The mercury that gets into fish and causes neurotoxic problems and can impact brain development in young children.
And the sulphur pollution that leads to acid rain and also breathing difficulties. Particle pollution that creates breathing impairment and also carbon dioxide. So from the very start, we were looking at climate change impacts. And collectively, with these groups from around the country, we were advocating for bills that would reduce all four of these major pollutants and lead to better health, saving lives and saving money. So we argued for coal plant cleanup, in terms of controls that would be put onto coal plants. And, in some cases, it wasn’t all that expensive.
For mercury, you could put controls on the plant to reduce that mercury that would be about 1.25 a month to most consumers. And we would liken that to a cup of coffee a month. But that didn’t happen. The coal plant—the coal plants, in general, the coal industry fought hard against putting in controls. And Texas had some of the worst, dirtiest, coal plants in the nation, in fact, the number one and number two for many, many years; the top ten worst included five Texas coal plants. Monticello was, for many years, the worst in the nation.
And sometimes Big Brown would take over and be the worst in the nation, probably because they ran more that year. They were putting out huge amounts of mercury and it was getting into our fish in the lakes of Texas. And, over time, we decided that we needed to find out how much mercury was going into the fish. So we did testing. We would catch fish—worked with a lot of fisherman. Texas Black Bass Unlimited was at—a wonderful partner. Ed Parten out of Houston was heading up that group and he would bring us fish to test that—from various different lakes.
And we would send them off to the lab and we were finding fairly high levels of mercury in fish that exceeded the levels that were presumably called safe. And there’s no such thing as a safe level of mercury in fish. And, you know, it goes to the brain and causes—they called it sometimes a fish fog that you couldn’t think right, that you couldn’t think straight. You know, there was a doctor in California who was saying that she was seeing a lot of patients who ate a lot of seafood. They were trying to be healthy which is, you know, one—one path to do that.
But they were running into a lot of mercury in their fish and it was impacting their health. For adult men, it could involve health issues but the—the biggest impact of all is especially on children because of the neurological impairment. It could lead to learning disabilities and permanent brain damage. So these things were of great concern. And we started going around the state and talking to people in the coal plant communities. We’d get together and—and it was amazing how much this resonated on a really deep level with the people.
You know, you could talk about other pollutants and air pollution and it was like yeah, that’s not good. But, for some reason, the fish with mercury really resonated and people would actually want to do something about it. They would—they would make the phone calls to their representatives. They would—they would do what it took.
And we got to know some people through this work that we never would have met normally—ranchers and—and farmers up in the Waco region who later became very close allies as we fought new proposed coal plants because, after we’d gone around talking about mercury a great deal, then a whole slew of new coal plants started to be proposed.

DT: So Karen, earlier you were talking about the effort to clean up coal plants and—and I guess this is a national effort to work on mercury and—and other pollutants but I guess Texas has a particular problem in that a lot of the mine mouth plants are actually running on lignite. Is that right? And maybe you can talk about some of the pollution issues related to that.

KH: They have been and lignite is the dirtiest of all coal. And it was so bad that eventually Texas had to start buying Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and sometimes that was used half and half and sometimes it would totally replace the coal that was being used because the lignite—that’s one of the reasons our Texas plants were so dirty—is the absolute worst and it’s not efficient. Those plants were never producing energy as efficiently as other coal plants were. And they badly needed pollution controls. In other parts of the country, that was starting to happen but not in Texas.
Our coal plant industry was fighting hard. They would sue the federal government over the regulations. They were very, very resistant to change here.

DT: Well and—and say if—if you were visiting folks in—in Dallas or Fort Worth and there’s not a—a plant on their block, did you feel like there was—that it was possible to talk to them about the long range transport issues of thing—you know, emissions coming from Big Brown or other plants that were actually pretty remote?

KH: We worked in Dallas a lot. And people did catch onto the fact that there was transported as pollution. And it was a very big factor in the pollution problems and the air quality issues for Dallas Fort Worth because this pollution would come from East Texas, Northeast Texas, and blow into Dallas Fort Worth, and it was a serious impact on the air quality. So people did, over time, come to understand that and speak out. And the people in Dallas Fort Worth were very important in this fight and speaking out. Eventually the mayor of Dallas became very involved.
She helped round up a whole bunch of cities. Business coalitions got put together to fight the proposed plants because pretty soon, this evolved into a time where a whole bunch of new coal plants started being proposed. It started with San Antonio and then there was one in the Waco area, little town called Riesel. So those were the first and then there were others that followed after that to make a total of seven. We started out by fighting two coal plants. And—and we went down to San Antonio and worked with the community there.
And that one moved forward pretty rapidly and we didn’t have much funding and we didn’t have attorneys. So I ended up actually representing SEED Coalition pro se and went in and talked about what I knew about mercury and declared that I was a mercury expert. [laughing] And there were people in the room who were laughing about that going expert because I did not have PhD after my name. But I think I knew just about as much about mercury at that time as anybody else and so—so the judge said okay.
And anyway, we fought in that case and I wrote a legal case, which I had never done before and I just sat and looked at what it should look like and started writing it and putting together all the appendices and had a—a whole long—I had a whole long hallway full of this legal filing and it was extensive and I would not get much sleep for quite some time. But—but we fought it. And everybody else got kicked out of the case. All of the groups that had attorneys, they got knocked out and we were the only ones standing, which was incredibly challenging because that—as a non-attorney, I did not know what was going on and we were just trying to figure it out as we went.
That’s been a lot of this work is that you dive in full blast. You do it with all you’ve got and then you just do everything you can, adjust to the changing circumstances, and try to make it work and learn as you go. So we came out okay but when it came time to move forward, it was clearly time for a settlement. I did get advising from other attorneys. They said yeah, you should settle. [laughing] So anyway, we did and—and it came out pretty good. And I didn’t know any limits of—of what you could do.
An attorney sat in the back of the room and watched it happen and we kept asking for one more thing and one more thing because we didn’t know what we could or couldn’t do. And they kept saying yes so it’s like all right. So what we came out with was—there had been a lot of community organizing too that was part of this and—and worked with a congressman in San Antonio, Ciro Rodriguez, who was great and—and community activists. But collectively we were able to get an arrangement where the old coal plants would shut down and a new one would get built but the overall site would be reducing emissions.
So, you know, certainly we would have never okayed a new plant without that overall reduction. The utility agreed to pursue energy efficiency and renewables and this was early on in San Antonio. There were commitments made to the community to work with them on health issues and monitoring. And so we got an overall reduction of 85 percent in the mercury emissions from the Calaveras site. And that was really important. It was actually quite a bit of gain even though a new plant did get built. These days they say that coal plant could actually shut down as well over time.
You know, it finally has gotten to the point where renewables have come so far that we now are seeing the old dirty plants are no longer economical and they are starting to close based on economics. You know, we saw this day coming and no one wanted to hear it or believed it a—a—a decade or so ago. But that is what’s happening today.

DT: What do you think caused the—the rapid change in economics? I mean, it sounds like a lot of these coal plants were being proposed in barely a decade ago and now they’re undercut on price by renewables by a great deal. What—what—what [inaudible]?

KH: Well they were always expensive. You know, you don’t want to—you don’t want to build a new major, massive plant like that billion dollar investment unless you have to, in my opinion. A lot of the utilities wanted to do that because they saw that as assurance and they were thinking in terms of baseload. And—but the energy needs of Texas have been changing and what we need today is not what we used to need. What we need now are sources of generation that are very flexible, that adapt to changing conditions.
And so the concept of the big, old baseload plant that works 24/7 around the clock, that’s sort of going by the wayside. You know, that has served us well in the past but we now have great data. We’re able to adapt and adjust. And the renewables do come in in a varied circumstance. You can now today take wind that’s coming in at night in West Texas and pair it up with the solar coming in during the day and they complement each other really beautifully and they meet our peak demand.
You know, if you have a baseload plant, you’re—you’re doing a certain set level of power all day but our true needs vary throughout the day. We have a peak load, you know, late in the afternoon where, in our hot Texas summers, everybody’s turning on the air conditioning. So this gives us a chance to try to meet that load more directly with more flexible types of generation. So today, what actually happens is that you’ve got your renewables running.
They’re coming in really affordably because once the activist community pushed really hard, we were a big part of that, of getting in utility scale solar and wind plants, the costs came down and we knew they would. It’s a matter of the investment and pushing it forward. And, in fact, Texas has been leading the nation in many ways. We are way ahead on wind energy, ahead of California and, in terms of the megawatts produced and it has changed things. The costs have come down. It’s now cheaper to use renewables than the coal plants. It’s cheaper than the gas.
So what happens is now that the—the baseload plants are actually adjusting, to some extent, the coal plants to what’s happening in the renewable world. They get shuttered back a little bit or—or—or pulled back a little bit in return and in—in response to the generation of the renewables which are more affordable.

DT: It sounds like a part of it was—was the changing economic realities that—that helped discourage people from building these new coal plants but it sounds like a lot of it was also your organizing efforts. And I—I was hoping that you could talk about maybe the Riesel plant and how you reached into that community and tried to draw support for some of your ideas.

KH: Riesel was really fascinating because we were working with a bunch of ranchers. They were very, very conservative. I remember when we first sat down with them, I had talked to Dr. Shelton, who was a—a veterinarian and a rancher farmer and talked with him about mercury. And he introduced me to Robert and Jo Cervenka and said, you know, he had suggested that we all get together and talk. And so I drove up to Waco to sit down and meet Robert and Jo. And I remember they just kind of glared at me a whole lot for a long time because they had never met an environmentalist and they were just not so sure.
So anyway, there was a lot of bridging of gaps in—in our worlds and—and culturally. And as we got to know them, we came to just love them. They are just wonderful, wonderful people and became close friends over time and worked with a lot of their friends in the community. And, in that community, this was very early on—this was one of the first two coal plants that later blossomed into many that we were fighting all simultaneously. So we talked with the community and—and gave them information, talked, in particular, about mercury and the contamination in the fish and the—the fish testing that we were getting that showed fish, you know, with mercury in—in the various lakes in Texas.
And one of the thrills for me was to watch a rancher go to the microphone in one of the hearings and he got up there to the TCEQ and told them everything about mercury in a very powerful, heart-moving way and factually he was perfect. He was just right on target and I just wanted to yell. It was just such a beautiful moment to see that transition. And that’s exactly the voices that mattered most in this case. They were local. They were the people of the community and it was so good coming from them. And it was a—a really wonderful thing to see people catch on so well and catch fire.

It was a big factor. That coal plant was fought hard but it still got licensed. It eventually got built. It took a long time and it was millions of dollars. And Robert Cervenka actually sees this plant from his land, you know, from his back yard. But it was built and then they tested it and they had—someone forgot to put water in it which is a massive oversight. And he heard this loud explosion and—and the plant just went down. It was damaged. It was severely damaged and it stayed shut for at least a year and they had to spend millions and millions more because their test run did not work right.
And it was very quiet about that. Nobody wanted to admit what was going on but the word on the street was exactly that, that they hadn’t put water in it and it’s—it’s to boil water. That’s what a coal plant does. So it was a massive problem then, an expensive one for them. It runs now but now but not a whole lot.

DT: So it sounds like the—the first chapter of your work in coal and energy was focused on trying to I guess install precipitators and scrubbers and other ways of getting emissions down. And then you talked about trying to stop coal plants that were being proposed and you gave the example of San Antonio’s and—and then the one in Riesel. Could you talk maybe some about the plants that now are going through decommissioning and being shut down?

KH: Yeah.

DT: And why that’s happening.

KH: Yeah, well we’re now seeing that some of the worst and dirtiest of the TXU plants are closing down. We knew it was coming. They’ve been talking about it in their financial statements for several years. But some of those dirtiest of the TXU plants are now shutting down. The Monticello Big Brown—because they are no longer economical. When it finally came time when people realized that scrubbers were going to be needed, they were long overdue. You know, the community suffered really bad air pollution for many, many years.
But now they are shutting down and it is for economic reasons.

DT: Well it’s—it’s intriguing to me that—that these plants, although there are a lot of capital costs that were probably easy to predict, you know, twenty years ago when they were first built, are not able to compete now—I guess is it on the basis of fuel costs? Is that the—the changes in the cost of maintaining them and operating them?

KH: It’s all of the above. It is all of those things. And—and the maintenance being large among them. And—and then the fact that, you know, there’s cheaper sources of energy out there. Natural gas price has made a big difference too—when natural gas prices became low. So that sort of started putting the squeeze on the coal plants. And this is happening around the nation. There are many, many coal plants shutting down. The good news is that when coal plants shut down, there is improvement in the health of communities.
There was testing done in Florida on a plant that shut down and, over time, you start seeing improvements, for example, in the fish levels of mercury that—that—where you had had high levels. It’s not like the mercury is gone but some of it tends to be in the lower levels of the soils under water. But—but basically there can be improvement after a plant shuts down and it’s a really good thing that we’re moving to cleaner energy. It works and it’s affordable and it’s—it’s a—you know, I’m hoping that we can move forward further as soon as possible because we have an urgent need to—to move further down this path.

DT: Do you find that there’s a lot of worry and resistance to shutting down plants because of the loss of tax base and the loss of employment at these big plants?

KH: There has been concern about the workers and how they will transition. But TXU, in particular, I mean, it was an issue for them. They had miners that were going to lose their jobs but they saw this coming a long time ahead of time and they tried to provide retirement for their workers. We have argued for trying to create jobs. In fact, there have been numerous jobs created in the solar and wind energy industries in the various portions of it in the manufacturing of the components for solar and wind—the whole—the whole gamut.
But we have certainly supported the efforts to—to retrain workers but a lot of that was between the companies and the employees. And, you know, a lot of—five hundred or so miners are—pretty much didn’t have a good path with the TXU closures. And a lot of that was involved with the company itself and the workers.

DT: I think you said that—that—that there’s a special stimulus to trying to stop new plants and to shut down existing operating ones. And I gather that’s partly because of one of the emissions that you mentioned which is carbon dioxide and the effects on climate change. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that concern and how it plays out with coal plants and other fossil fuels.

KH: Well the coal plants have been a massive source of carbon dioxide, which is very, very important in the global warming picture on the climate change. And so, from the very, very start, it became clear that the less they ran, the better. And these retirements have been reducing tons and tons and tons of carbon dioxide throughout the country. This has, you know, been a major chunk of the carbon dioxide for the country.
Today it’s allowed—since so many coal plants around the country are shutting down or have shut down, now that’s continuing to—to go on, the retirements based on economics and now a lot of focus has been shifted nationally with environmental work toward other arenas. For example, transportation, trying to get cars, once again—vehicles, trucks, transportation—to be electrified and to be much cleaner and to reduce emissions there. So, I mean, I think we’ve reached the point where we have made huge, huge gains.

It’s not done but the path is pretty clear that the coal plants are continuing to reduce their pollution and to—and many, many of them are retiring.

DT: Well we—we’ve talked a good deal about these stationary sources that rely on—on coal but I guess another one that you’ve really been engaged with is the—the nuclear power plants. And I think there are—there are two in Texas—Comanche Peak and South Texas. And I think that you were—were heavily involved with trying to block relicensing of one and—and additions to another.

KH: Right. In fact, at one point in time, right when we finished working on coal plants, again, there were 22 proposed at one point in time out of the coal plants. We were fighting huge numbers of them at one time. And it did reach a point where people would call us instead of us calling them and they’d go oh, we’ve got a coal plant proposed, can you help? And that was—we knew things were getting better at that point. When all of that wrapped up, right about then, all of a sudden, it was the nuclear renaissance. This was a national energy push.
And number one, front and foremost, was South Texas Project, which used to be called South Texas Nuclear Project and then they took out the N from the name like we would somehow not recognize it as a nuclear reactor if they took out the N. And there are people who have grown up in that community who did not know that they had a nuclear reactor. I was shocked to find that out that some of the young kids just did not know. So this reactor has had its fair share of problems. It, you know, was shut down for over a year at one point in time.
That’s when—you’ve got a lot of problems when you have a yearlong shutdown. You know, they make over a million dollars a day. They don’t want to be shut down at all. So that reactor wanted to add two new units and they were going to lead off this nuclear renaissance where we were going to have hundreds of new coal plants around the country. And I really do dig in my heels pretty strongly sometimes and I heard about that and said that is just not going to happen. We’re not going to let that happen.
And the reasons being that even though, I mean, you can argue that the nuclear reactors are not emitting carbon dioxide on a regular basis once they’re operating. There is a lot of carbon emissions in terms of the mining and the transport of the fuel and, of course, constructing a reactor. But what gets missed in that picture is that nuclear reactors routinely emit radioactive material into the air. They’re allowed to do so.
And so that’s not a good thing to have going on and especially in a day and age where you can have wind and solar, which are free sources of energy and which don’t come with those problems, why wouldn’t you go with the cleaner source? And these reactors produce radioactive waste and we don’t know what to do with it even today. It’s an incredibly huge problem. So we did not want new reactors being built. We went down to hearings in the Bay City area and testified and learned more.
And so we went from fighting coal plants to fighting nuclear reactors and it wasn’t long after that before we learned that Comanche Peak was trying to do two new reactors. We learned a lot in this process. One of the things we learned is that Comanche Peak, for example, both of them; they have a lot of tritium, which is radioactive water in the cooling ponds. Up in the Dallas area, you’ve got a dam, an earthen dam, that is near Comanche Peak and I hope that they don’t ever have problems with that because the water behind it does have high levels of tritium.
And it’s water that is itself radioactive. You just don’t want that. It’s—it’s in the thousands of picocuries per liter, like 17,000. It’s very high. So we didn’t want this going on. And this time around, we raised money and, you know, one of the things I’ve learned is don’t be quiet when you’ve got a problem that you’re concerned about. We went out to talk to funders at a meeting in California and everybody there was focused on coal. And I said, yeah, but I’m really sorry, I have to tell you that we’re also worried about these nuclear reactors. I’m sorry.
I know this is not on your agenda but I need help. Somebody help me find an attorney and I’m so glad I did that. I’m so glad I spoke up because that’s how we met Bob Eye and he has come through and he was our attorney in both of these cases at a very reasonable rate. And he helped us win these battles. We fought for years on the South Texas nuclear project. Eventually that one did get licensed but we stalled long—you can win in lots of different ways. We stalled for six years and eventually they got a license but, by that time, people did understand how much this was going to cost and that renewables were much more affordable.
That was actually one of our original legal arguments was that they should do renewables instead based on economics. And that, at that time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission thre—threw out that argument and said no way, that’s not possible. Well six years later, things had changed significantly and it was looking very possible. I mean, we were right. The part of a legal case though that moved forward was about foreign ownership and control. And it turned out that this plant would, in fact, be owned largely by other companies and—in Japan.
Toshiba was one of them. And so we argued that case and—and, you know, there are re—there are laws about foreign ownership because of security, you know. We don’t want nuclear facilities on U. S. soil to be controlled by another company—country. And that was, in fact, the case. It was pretty serious. And the judge in this case, strangely enough, decided that since this company, Toshiba, had put in so much money to getting a—a reactor, he actually said that they should get something for it, as in a license. And—and it was eventually licensed.
But, by that time, everybody knew it was never going to get built. We were concurrently doing studies and calling on experts like Dr. Arjun Makhijani, who is a fantastic, scientific mind and a wonderful human being. He did several different reports and looked at the expense of—of this reactor for South Texas Project. And it turns out the estimate started out to be, mmm, about five, maybe six billion dollars. Wasn’t very long before the people were admitting maybe it could be ten and then maybe it could be twelve billion dollars.
The mayor of San Antonio said yeah, I think it could be twelve. And it’s like no. This plant is going to cost you much, much more based on Dr. Makhijani’s work. He did for us, for SEED Coalition, the study that the utility themselves should have done in San Antonio, CPS Energy. He took data from the company. He plugged in all of the information. He ran the numbers and he said, no, this is going to cost you probably up to 17.9 billion. You know, you’re—you’re in a dream world of—of these lower figures and everybody knows it.
I mean, and we gave that report to everyone—all the officials, all the board members, all the city officials, people who were active in the energy world in San Antonio. We made sure that they saw this and said, you know, you’re—you’re not looking at the right numbers. Well we were right and we were like so right—more right than we ever knew. And right before a major decision in San Antonio, they were going to raise the rates in San Antonio to pay for this reactor, they were going to raise the utility rates for consumers four times and this was the first of those rates.
This would have really impacted especially low income people in San Antonio. And right before that happened, there was some breaking news and there was a leak in—in some of the internal information. And it turned out that—that yes, the price tag was going to be significantly more than—than—than the people were being told. So the mayor of San Antonio, at that time, Julián Castro, had to say hold it, stop everything. We are going to not have this rate hike. He was the Chairman of the Board of the utility as well as mayor.

DT: [inaudible]

KH: Uh-huh, yeah, it’s a municipal utility. So he—he called a halt to everything. And they revisited it and they looked at the numbers again. And, as a result of the information that came out, there was a huge fight between the utility in Houston and San Antonio. They—they went to court and sued each other with conspiracy and fraud over these numbers. It was a—it was a massive blowup that happened. But, in the end, it turned out that the reactors would have cost 18.2 billion, which is more than our highest estimate.
It’s like that’s how we were not only right but really, really right. It’s like yeah, you know, it’s like we could have saved them a lot of money. The utility in San Antonio spent about 400 million on this ill-advised project that we warned them about. The utility in San Antonio, also a partner—I’m sorry—in Houston, also a partner—spent about 400 million. They both had to write these costs off over time. Luckily, Austin stayed out. We’re the third partner in South Texas Project. We almost got in at one point in time.
There were people lobbying City Council to try to get us in on the project. They kept looking for partners because it was failing financially. And it’s a really good thing that we stayed out because we could’ve lost a lot of money in the process too. So eventually this whole project collapsed due to finances. And, you know, we were happy to see that and they have finally said yes, we’re never going to build it. Similarly, in—

DT: Maybe before we go on to, I guess Comanche Peak; I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about a couple aspects that sort of puzzle me about South Texas. One is that—that here you’ve got two partners and a third potential partner. And, you know, Austin and San Antonio both civically owned utilities so there’s a political aspect there and—and, you know, they’re professionals of the utility world in all three potential partners and that two of them buy into the plan. One does not. Why do you think that was that Austin held out while San Antonio and Houston went ahead?

KH: I don’t think that we needed additional power and I think that people in Austin recognized that it was going to be way more expensive than everyone was letting on. And I would also say that this whole issue was hard fought in San Antonio, in particular, and we did extensive organizing and with local organizers there, with the Peace and Justice Coalition there—Esperanza. They were amazing and a Workers’ Defense Project there. So we all were on the streets quite a bit. We had protests.
We had a whole series of district meetings all throughout the city that we organized to get people out. We did canvasing. And it got very, very tense because the board of the utility there was not responsive at all to the public. And they were actually trying to cut off discussion. They wouldn’t let members of the public speak at some of their meetings, even though these really crucial, expensive decisions were being made. And they also had a big meeting where they were about to make a final decision on the nuclear reactor where a lot of the activists came and they came early and they took seats in the auditorium and then got asked to leave.
Everybody got kicked out. And they said come back in a little bit. Well meantime, they filled the place up with employees and then when it was time to open the doors, there was no more seating for anybody who had come to this meeting. And people literally banged on the door for half an hour while this decision was being made, you know, yelling let us in. I mean, this was the public with a public utility. So this was hard fought. This was not an easy situation. But the end result was really, really good. And people speaking up really paid off.
It put more scrutiny on the budget and in the processes and in the transparency of the utility there. And eventually, I mean, it’s really, really wonderful that things turned out like they did and that Julián Castro, as the mayor, took a strong leadership role. So, in the end, it came out good but it’s because people spoke up and took action.

DT: Well thanks for telling us about that. I—I’m also curious when I look at South Texas, you know, I think of the different players, that they’re the rate payers, there’s the utility managers, in some cases, there’s a City Council that’s involved, there’s the laborer, but, as I understood it, there’s also the suppliers. And I—I had heard that—that there was a concrete supplier, Zachary, that was heavily involved in trying to press for this plant. I was hoping you could sort of flush out that aspect of the support for a plan.

KH: Well that’s absolutely right and Zachary was a big player. And there is certainly a huge contract at stake here with a project of this magnitude. There—they’re very big politically in San Antonio. They had contributed a lot to Mayor Hardberger’s campaigns and he personally knew the Zachary people pretty well. So they were weighing on this former mayor and then later Julián Castro took office. But so they were a big player in pushing for the project on the original end and in trying to keep it in motion.

I want to say that Julián Castro did a great job in what he did as a result. He said we’re going to cut back our investment. He said we’re going to go from a fifty percent ownership down to seven percent ownership. And that’s when people tried to get Austin to come in to help fill the gap of investors because the project was falling apart financially. That was a very, very key feature. And, at the same time, he was going off to D. C. and negotiating contracts which were really great and great for the community.
He brought back a lot of funding for some of the programs at the community colleges to educate kids on renewable technologies and he was a very, very successful on that front. So he helped turn things around in a really big way.

DT: He—here’s another question that—that pops in my head. You know, with a lot of these plants, there is information that is publicly accessible and then there’s information that’s private. And—and if I remember, you know, thirty years ago when South Texas was first under construction, there were whistleblowers then that were providing information in the Texas Observer and authors there and it sounds like whistleblowers played a role again in this latest chapter in South Texas.

KH: They were more—more involved in the early stages and—and we did have quite a bit of media in the early days of South Texas Nuclear Project, STNP. Workers who were supposed to go to the plant and inspect the welds were no longer doing what they were supposed to do. They learned that if they did that, they would get beaten up and they testified to this effect. There were quite a few workers who testified in court to this effect. And so what they ended up doing was staying in a shack and playing cards all day and they got paid and they would sign off on an x-ray of the welds and it was the same x-ray for all of them.
And they were not being inspected. And you just can’t have that kind of thing going on with a nuclear reactor. And Dr. Makhijani would be the first to tell you this is a very demanding technology. You—everything has to be right. You can’t make mistakes with nuclear power. And so that was part of the early history of the plant. And there was a turnover of the contractors and it had a very, very troubled past. These days we’re not seeing so much of that but we don’t know a whole lot about what’s going on down there, not as much as we should, and the investigative journalism isn’t always exactly what it should be either.
There have been problems recently but we haven’t heard of anything of the magnitude of those early problems. One of—one of the big concerns for me was that they kept the reactor open during the most recent hurricane that was so incredible in Houston and left such devastation. At one point in time, they were expecting to have ten feet of water at the reactor site, which means that diesel generators would be swamped in water. And you have to have them. That’s your backup power.
So they could have shut down and they could have done a slow measured shutdown, a cold shutdown, that’s less risky approach but they chose to stay open. And I thought that that was incredibly risky considering the magnitude of the storm and certainly you don’t want to have a nuclear reactor disaster in the middle of that. The Texas Public Utility Commission was aware of this possibility and had arranged for some of the generation in South Texas to be online to cover in case the reactor was shut down so they could have shut down.
And it seemed like they were just really trying to prove how macho they were. I think that—that the South Texas Project has somewhat of a cowboy mentality where they’re trying really, really hard to show how tough they are. And I think that that is contrary, in some cases, to running something safely. I would be much happier to hear the same people talking about how safety is their overriding concern but they did keep it open. And according to some of the NASA imagery, there was quite a bit of water at the site.
Because dams broke upstream, a lot of the water that was originally expected spread out over a huge area of land and the storm shifted. So it didn’t turn out that they had ten feet of water but we spent quite a bit of time calling up the NRC and trying to find out information. Was very hard to get any information about what they were doing and what decisions were being made. And I think that that’s an ongoing problem with hurricanes around the country, that they don’t shut down soon enough during those circumstances.

DT: And—and the circumstances that you’re talking about, it’s the Hurricane Harvey during 2017, right?

KH: Absolutely, yes.

DT: Okay. So, Karen, we spoke a little bit about South Texas Nuclear Project and—and your effort to stop expansion of that plant and I think you were also working on [inaudible] issues at the Comanche Peak, which is out west of Fort Worth. Can you talk a little bit about that effort?

KH: In that case, I first learned about it and then went to a shareholder meeting. And I remember talking to one of the board members and having a close conversation with her. And she was explaining to me that they were going to build two new reactors. And I remember just looking at her very directly and going oh no, they will not. [laughing] I was like uh-uh, that’s not going to happen. And so we set about organizing and—and worked with the community. We worked with some people up there who owned houses on a lake nearby and they knew that more water was going to be drained for cooling the nuclear reactor.
So, you know, allies come from all different directions. And—and they became pretty outspoken. They were kind of conservative, wealthy, local landowners who said ah, you know, we—we don’t want our water stolen. They also didn’t want more nuclear power and they weren’t so sure about the safety and having it there to begin with but they fought it on the basis of the water issue. So that was a really great relationship. And so we got Attorney Bob Eye involved and we filed the legal cases on that one and it went along and it went along and then the company actually decided to withdraw their license application.
They realized it was incredibly expensive. They weren’t going to do it. They had estimated 22 billion from the start. They were more accurate in their estimates than—than South Texas Project ever was. And it was noteworthy that South Texas Project was, in fact, the flagship for this nuclear renaissance that they were going to do around the whole country. And, again, in Texas, they wanted eight new reactors. We had no need for that much energy. It was just not at all even necessary for the state. It was an opportunity to grab some federal dollars and federal funding.
And we had projects proposed for Victoria, where there had never been a nuclear reactor and that was fought by the local community there. And then another project in West Texas where there was no water to cool a nuclear reactor and that one just kind of never—it was always just a kind of a fizzle. But there were reactors being proposed around the whole country and it was really important to defeat the South Texas Project because what we wanted was to not have 18 million dollars go for some project that is not needed, that’s going to produce radioactive waste, that’s going to make the rate payers suffer through really high bills, create health risks when, in fact, that same money could go so much further in the world of renewable energy.
And that’s why we had a campaign that was solar si, you know, and nuclear no, especially in San Antonio because it’s like here’s what we want, here’s what we don’t want. And we were very clear about it and we got t-shirts and we got people energized and organized and—and speaking up. In Dallas and—and—and Fort Worth near the Comanche Peak reactor, we didn’t get quite to that level because—because Comanche Peak and the utility there at TXU decided themselves that they were just going to withdraw. They said this is really not a very viable project and they were right about that.

DT: You know, something that—that occurs to me and maybe you can tell me if—if this is off base, but that—that one of the—the shortcomings of—of nuclear power is that it’s really difficult to accurately predict the cost of the plant while, you know, renewable plans—solar, wind farms and then I guess even the—the—some of the—natural gas plants—they’re much easier to say it’s going to be—it’s going to cost this much and—and there won’t be the overrun. Is that true?

KH: Yeah, that is true. And, you know, you can do your best estimate on the start but the whole, you—continual pattern of nuclear reactors, it’s the same everywhere—is that you have delays in licensing, delays in construction, problems with construction, cost overruns, more cost overruns and—and then all kinds of problems with trying to get it paid for. It happens over and over and over, not only here but throughout the world in projects around the world. And so Comanche Peak, for example, was the most long running construction problem or program for a reactor in the U. S. and it was thirteen years.
And they had problems with fire safety along the way. They had to stop and go back and put in a whole sprinkler system because it was found to be inadequate and there had just been a fire elsewhere and they realized we have to deal with this right here, right now. So thirteen years of construction is a huge long time. And so it just doesn’t make sense. And, you know, you can get a wind turbine up, you know, from the drawing board to up and running in eighteen months. So it’s, you know, it’s just a—a world of difference.
And, you know, with the shorter times, you also don’t have the cost overruns as a general rule. It’s a world of difference. And then you’ve got free fuel.

DT: I guess something else I hope you could address. I’ve—I’ve heard that some critiques of—of coal plants and—and nuclear plants are based on the fact that they—the—the increments of—of new power and extra capital that’s required to get that power are so big, you know, there’s this sort of step wise, enormous, giant steps to, you know, building additional power but that with solar and wind, you know, the—the—the marginal costs are a lot less, the, you know, you can taper into a—a larger energy supply more gradually without tying up a lot of capital. Is that—is that a concern?

KH: Absolutely. You know, really it was Wall Street that killed the new generation of nuclear reactors because it was just too expensive and nobody wanted to invest. They—they started to see what the big picture was. And not only do you have huge investment but then huge liabilities. And, you know, what’s an asset one day in the nuclear world can be a total liability if you have a disaster. Like within 24 hours, you’ve gone, you know, from asset to liability. And so, you know, you don’t have that much risk with the others as well.
So the financial investors have been a huge part of changing this picture.

DT: You talk about how there’s liabilities to nuclear power plants and I—I guess you’re thinking of sort of the catastrophes at Three Mile Island or Fukushima. But my understanding to—ju—just in the normal operations, you’re generating this high level nuclear waste. And I was—and low level as well—and I was curious if you could talk some about your efforts to deal with this problem of nuclear waste disposal or—or at least storage.

KH: Right. You know, I was among the many people who fought against a low level site many years ago for radioactive materials. And that was Sierra Blanca in West Texas. And it was a pretty big fight. A lot of people were aware of it. We didn’t want this waste brought in from around the country and dumped on us. And we were successful in that fight. It was one of the early cases where I testified and—and we found research about the company having not adequately characterized the site, in turns of—in terms of seismic risks.
They had done extensive characterization of other sites for other projects but they failed to do anything close to that for the Sierra Blanca site. And the judge said that’s really important, that and the environmental justice issues made him recommend denying the license at the TCEQ. But meantime, what was going on in the background was that waste control specialists had a plant planned up in Anders County, Texas, which is right where there’s a right angle in Texas, just above that in the Panhandle area on the border with New Mexico.
And they had many thousands of acres out there. And there were a lot of politicians who had been lining up in the background to support that as an alternative because there had been a lot of political opposition to Sierra Blanca. Well, all of a sudden, this one was being fast tracked as a low level radioactive waste site. It was owned by Harold Simmons in Dallas, a billionaire. And he was giving money to campaigns left and right, not only in Texas—democrats and republicans—but throughout the country.
And so his path was being paved pretty smoothly and they got licensed to—for this site and have been taking radioactive waste there. SEED Coalition has been involved all along in trying to monitor what’s going on out there. We’ve raised questions about water at that site. When you look at earlier maps, you see, based on the Texas Water Development Board maps that the Ogallala Aquifer is under that site where waste control specialists is. And that matters because it’s the biggest aquifer in the whole country. It’s also known as High Plains Aquifer.
It goes under eight states and it’s drinking water and water for irrigation for millions of people and for livestock and wi—and wildlife. So we don’t want that to be contaminated. Amazingly, this company got required to do a lot of drilling by the state environmental agency, the TCEQ, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And, as a result of that drilling, they sent data in and they got the aquifer maps changed. When you analyze the maps from 2006 and that came later, you’ll see one change and that’s that the Ogallala boundaries got moved. I looked to see if they had adjusted any other aquifers.
No, they haven’t. They—but they moved the Ogallala. And so we don’t think that that changed any rock structures that are beneath the earth, however, the maps are different now and so now they say oh, we’re not over the Ogallala. And then they sued people who said that the Ogallala was underneath the site. So people are very cautious about how they word any statements about that. However, it’s nearby and still there are concerns about that. The company has three major waste pits at the site and they’re—they’re bringing in low level radioactive waste today.
They filled one up with weapons waste from Fernald, Ohio and they have a federal facility waste from all the U. S. federal facilities, including weapons waste. And then there’s a commercial reactor site. The way this company works is that they always ask for something relatively small compared to what they really want. It’s the camel’s nose under the tent and—and, you know, push and push and push afterwards. So what they started out with is never what the end goal is and they’ve gone to the legislature year after year and expanded their site and expanded their capacity and lowered their requirements for safety.
At one time, they used to have what they called a dry line and this site is supposed to be dry to keep this waste from coming in contact with water. So here was their dry line and everything south of that would—would stay dry and there would never be any water anywhere near the waste. Well we didn’t think that was true based on what we had seen before but and, sure enough, the company went to the Texas legislature time and time again to get the restrictions loosened.
And before it was over, they were getting permitted to put waste into a pit about 180 feet deep and to—to put it into the pit, even if there was standing water next to it, as long as they didn’t directly set it into water. So the dry site was a myth. It never happened. And they had to install pumping which is going on 24/7 for two of the pits that are out there today. So the dry site was never the case. And we started analyzing reports on the water monitoring and found out that forty percent of the wells in some of the quarterly reports were showing water present.

And this was such a big issue that three people at the TCEQ that were part of the Radioactive Materials Division resigned in protest. They did not want this site built in the first place. They had serious concerns about water, the proximity of water and they said groundwater intrusion is a huge issue and they did not want their names on this project. And this is professional staff. And the whole division unanimously signed a letter to the executive director and said we recommend denying the license.
Well the license got issued by the director, Glenn Shankle, who, six months later, was working for a waste control specialist. So the revolving door was a big issue, a big problem. So that’s the history of that site. And today, we’re now seeing that this same company and one in New Mexico are, once again, trying to expand. And now they want to bring high level radioactive waste. And we’re talking about the spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors from all around the whole country. And this has never been done on any kind of scale or magnitude.
This is unprecedented, completely unprecedented. They want to take the spent fuel—this is the most dangerous stuff. This is what we worry about in meltdowns. This is when something goes critical. This is the fuel rods. This is the problem with Fukushima, for example. They want to bring these and put them in a steel cask only 5/8 of an inch of steel, sometimes less, and then put it in a transport cask and haul it across the country mostly by rail but it could be on trucks for part of the way and it could go on barges.
We don’t know quite what is planned because, once again, the information is not there. But they want to bring in 40,000 tons to Texas. This could come from any nuclear reactor. They want to start with decommissioned sites. And there’s this myth that somehow those sites would then be usable for whatever purpose, you know, real estate or whatever. I certainly wouldn’t buy that land. You know, it’s likely contaminated. You, you know, it does not seem like a—a place that you’re going to do much with after it’s been housing radioactive waste for—for decades.
But they want to bring this all to West Texas and store it. And there’s like a community five miles away in Eunice, New Mexico. They don’t get any nuclear power. They don’t—they haven’t generated this. They haven’t—they haven’t gotten any profit from it and, all of a sudden, they find themselves with the possibility that they could have like the entire nation’s radioactive waste coming their way. And they say—the companies says that—that it would be stored on an interim basis. Well that’s quite a word because you think short term.
Well they’re talking about forty years and then they say in their license application or it could be sixty to a hundred or it could be until a permanent repository is built. So that is really forever. And it’s a real serious problem to the whole country because what’s needed is to head towards and to use the money correctly, once again too, to head toward a permanent repository to try to get the geology right and the systems right so that this waste can be isolated for a million years. These are very long lived materials—some of them, not all—but some of them last millions and millions of years and remain dangerous.
So you have to keep it away from living things. If this waste gets hauled on trains across the country, it’s not going to be stored properly. Out in the desert, it would be above ground. It would not be in a building. It would not be half a mile underground, and it would be exposed to an area that’s had wildfires right by the base of the site, tornadoes, earthquakes, you name it, flashfloods, lightning, temperature extremes. So this doesn’t make sense. It’s like a disaster in the making and yet it’s being pushed very heavily, both—one project for Texas and one for New Mexico between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
So we’ve been involved working with people in that region on both of these high level radioactive waste sites.

DT: Well a few things occur to me. I—I’m curious why this site was chosen on the border between New Mexico and Texas. Is there some sort of synergy between the two?

KH: Yeah. First of all, the WIPP site is out that way and it could be that some people are thinking maybe someday that would become a permanent repository, although the geology is not good for it. That region and Yucca Mountain were at the bottom of the list when a geology study was done in 1984 and the best geology for an underground repository in the U. S., according to that study, was on the East Coast in some of the igneous hard rock formations. So that’s where most of the reactors are—ninety of them—and the East Coast has a few and then we have some in Texas—the two sites in Texas.
So here’s this plan to take all of the East Coast reactor waste, ship it hundreds of miles across the country, all along the way imperiling communities because it would go through large cities. In Texas, that would involve Dallas Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Anders, and, you know, hundreds of miles from all of these reactors when, in fact, the best geology is closer to those sites. And one of the things that people should know is that there’s no rush on this. You know, the effort has been to get a permanent repository in Yucca Mountain failed.
It was a bad site. It was never scientifically viable from the start and yet billions of dollars were wasted. So we ought to start with something that could work. In the meantime, all the reactors have pretty much gotten licenses to store this waste onsite, in dry casks, until sixty years past when the reactor stops operating. So that is in motion and we don’t have any rush. We’ve got time to do this right. And the federal law says that you’re supposed to have a permanent repository before you do this interim storage.
They call it consolidated interim storage because it would be coming from many reactors to one site. But it’s in violation of federal law to even have these consolidated interim sites and yet the NRC is pushing forward. We’re putting that into our legal objections as the number one objection is that it’s illegal for you to even be licensing this plant at this time, short of congressional action to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. But meantime, they’re going forward so we’re also fighting them on all of the many, many faults with the proposals that are within the reactor—or within the license themselves.

DT: Well and—and I—as—as I—I’m hearing you, this is a private for-profit operation while Yucca Mountain would have been public. But because this is considered a repository and not a—a permanent disposal site, the—the public isn’t involved in the same way. Is that right?

KH: Well this is a federal—these would be federal facilities in that they want—well it’s federal licensing and both of these private companies want to make money off of the operation of these facilities and they’re talking about millions of dollars. They’re trying to do decommissioning and do a shortcut version of that too, which is millions of dollars and—and I think we should be watching carefully that that’s done correctly and that workers and the public are not exposed on that end either.
But what is at—what’s being attempted in both cases is to get the Department of Energy, the DOE, to take title to the waste. So even though they would be making the money as a private company, the DOE would own the waste and therefore have liability, which puts it back on the U. S. taxpayers. And the Price Anderson Act says that that—that will cover, to some extent, problems but not at the site but in transport. So you’ve got potentially some coverage there but basically U. S. tax—it’s—would never be enough money for a real accident, which could go well, well, well into the hundreds of billions.
And that’s according to Radioactive Waste Management Associates that did studies for the State of Nevada in terms of Yucca Mountain. So we know that this could get eg—incredibly expensive. Our state could have liability and U. S. taxpayers could have liability, in addition to the health risks and the potential environmental damage and—and loss of property. Insurance is not going to cover this. Property insurance for homeowners—you’ll not get money for radioactive exposure or damage to your property. It would be a loss.

DT: So you’ve told us some about, you know, the licensing agencies and—and about the—the proposed operator waste control specialists. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the interesting bedfellows you’ve had in fighting this—this—this project?

KH: Well one of the things that I’ve learned through organizing is that never, never rule out anyone in terms of a potential ally because you never know where you might find common ground. And that’s just really important. You might be talking to somebody that you have politically nothing in common with to the best of your knowledge, but—but it’s still important to talk to them about an issue that you might share common ground on.
And we have found that—we started working around the state to get resolutions passed by counties because the Department of Energy went around the country telling everyone that Texas wants this waste and New Mexico wants it based on a resolution by five county commissioners in Anders County, where the waste would go, who would get financial gain off the project. And then they said Texas wants it. No, five people want it [laughing] in Anders for politi—for profit. So the DOE was out telling people that and—and we had to counter that.
So we went to San Antonio and we worked with Bexar County, where they’re located, and the county commissioners passed a resolution that said they didn’t support the project and they didn’t want the waste coming through the community. That was followed by the City of San Antonio. Dallas passed the same resolution. Nueces County passed it down on the coast. And then…

DT: Is that where Corpus Christi is?

KH: Yeah. And so then we went to Midland County. We talked to a very conservative county commissioner there who had a great deal of concern and we met with him extensively and talked more and more. And he said, you know, I have friends in the oil industry and I think that this is a problem for us because of the potential for contamination of the oil, the oil fields, and the water that they depend on, and the whole region depends on. So he said why don’t you come talk to the Midland County Commission. And we did that.
And certainly they were not very interested in hearing this from the start and we went back again and we talked again and we worked with some local folks in Midland. And we went a third time. It was, again, hard fought on th—in this case. And—and did a PowerPoint presentation for them and they heard a lot from waste control specialists. They—they took their time and they finally passed a resolution that said that the community was concerned about this waste and they did not want it coming through Midland. So that was a major victory.
And through the process there—and we did media, which helped put some spotlight and the Fasken Oil folks started taking an interest. And they have holdings in twenty counties in Texas right next to both of the proposed radioactive waste sites. And they said look, we are concerned about this. We don’t want to go it alone and they brought together about 36 people to come talk from different oil and ranching companies in the region—some major royalty owners, property owners, and—and cattle ranches as well. And they all sat down and talked about it.
Our attorney went out and briefed them and told them about the situation. And they decided that they were going to fight it, that they were very concerned about the water and about potential losses to the oil industry. Right now this is a major producing region—the Permian Basin. It’s a lot of the U. S. oil and they said look, you’ve got too much at risk here. You know, the nation’s oil supply and granted, you know, our organization is concerned about fracking and all of the air quality issues and we remain so but we do share in common that we think the radioactive waste is a really bad idea, not only for Texas and our region, but for the whole country.
So it’s really interesting to have them as allies. They’ve been strong. They’ve stayed on course and—and have actually been really amazingly good to work with. So you never can tell. We’re happy that they’re on the same path and the same page on this issue.

DT: We’ve talked about coal and nuclear and—and kind of interspersed through all these kind of discussions, you’ve mentioned the—the rise of renewable power. And I was hoping that you could focus a little bit on two instances where you’ve gotten involved in trying to press for renewable power facilities. I think that there was one with Austin Energy and their solar energy array and then one with CPS Energy as well. And how did you go about trying to press those utilities in that direction?

KH: Well, you know, and this is one area where some of our colleagues didn’t fully understand the importance of what we were doing in San Antonio. When we were fighting proposed nuclear reactors, we were also fighting for renewables. And a lot of people didn’t understand the importance of that opportunity but you can’t have renewables moving forward if you’re sinking billions of dollars into some other avenue and then, of course, have no need for the power that renewables would provide.
So it was really important, again, the solar si, nuclear no campaign that we had going. And, as a result, we kept saying we do want solar. You know, the wind industry has boomed. We’ve seen it happen. Now is the time for solar and it is happening now. It has begun and we got, as a result of that fight, a commitment from the utility in San Antonio, CPS Energy, for a 400 megawatt utility scale project and that’s big and they did it in West Texas. And they did some locally as well—some big projects. So that really started to shift things.
Everybody took note in the utility world that they were doing this. In Austin, we had lesser goals at the time and we said look, you know, we told Austin Energy, the City Council who’s the board of the municipal utility here, it’s time for us to—to—to reexamine our goals. We can do more. We’re ready for it. And we pushed really hard and got a commitment for 600 megawatts of utility scale solar and these are big projects, again, mostly in West Texas, not all. There’s some coastal projects as well.
And so that makes now a total—Austin also has other solar projects. There’s some local solar. And now we’re at a total of 950 megawatts that we’re putting into place. One of these projects is just getting built now—the last piece of the 600 megawatts. So this is a huge change and the costs have come down. And anytime you invest, it’s just like, you know, like cell phones came down in cost over time and, you know, any major technology—well some of them are pretty expensive these days—but—but still a lot of times when you do big, huge investment into something, the costs come down.
And, sure enough, that is what happened with solar. The costs have continued to come down. And that helps, again, it has helped push in—in Texas. And these projects can be placed anywhere. And, you know, and, of course, West Texas is especially good because there’s not a lot of cloud cover. They call it insulation. It’s very high out there. But they can be placed anywhere along the transmissions lines. You don’t have to be right where the wind blows, for example. It pairs up great with the wind. And, once again, the nation watches what happens here.
Texas is really important and you can even sit in meetings in—in Washington, D. C. and Energy Committees and you’ll hear people talking about this. It’s like well what’s going on there? And the big solar push is really helping. And California, of course, is always a leader as well. But we’re happy to see this trend moving forward. And when the prices come down, they come down for everybody. And it’s really making this technology finally come into its own.

DT: Well Karen, we’ve talked about, you know, variety of things that you’ve done through your teaching career and then at SEED Coalition as a—as a—as a paid advocate but I understand that you’ve also done volunteer work, in recent years, on cofounding Solar Austin and—and also serving with the Austin Utility Commission. And I was hoping that you could discuss some of those efforts.

KH: Yeah, Solar Austin is something we put together quite a few years back now. And just five of us started it off. Virtus Energy and Public Citizen with Smitty, Tom Smitty Smith, and we started by working on Austin Energy and the goals there. And we pushed not only for solar but more energy efficiency, which always makes sense because it’s the cheapest way to go to come up with efficiency. So anyway, we—we got that organization going and it’s been through many, many growing pains through lots and lots of years and lot of people have become involved and it has grown to where now they have monthly meetings here in Austin.
And they bring in experts and have discussions and keep both citizens that want to be involved and also industry people and communication and talking and sharing ideas and goals. And it’s been a very effective organization that has won awards through the years. There is a group in San Antonio that does similar work and there’s a statewide organization that helps keep people in touch. So that’s been a really important avenue for people to work together. I have been serving on the Electric Utility Commission since 2011.
And that was—I became involved there—it’s a Citizen’s Advisory Board that talks to City Council, the board of our utility and makes recommendations. And I especially got involved when Austin Energy was trying to do a gas plant instead of more renewables at a given point. And we felt like the time is now to really truly transition away from fossil fuels. So I became involved and got on that board and—Citizen’s Advisory Commission—and it’s been a really great learning experience. I became the chair after a little while and we headed up a working group on our generation plan for the utility.
And that was working on an update of our goals and this last time around, we went from a 55 percent renewable goal for the utility to 65 percent. I was hoping for 75. I would like 100 but—but we were able to make progress and we sat down with a group of people that was very diverse and—and hammered out a plan that would work for the community. We did include more solar. We did include studying storage—energy storage and we’ll—we will be seeing some projects in the storage arena coming up from Austin Energy as well. So I love that work.
It’s, you know, it does take time but it’s absolutely fascinating and you learn so much and—and are able to help shape direction. So I, you know, I would encourage other people to—to try similar, you know, approaches wherever you are because it really is a way to help increase in effectiveness.

DT: So Karen, you know, over the past time we’ve been talking about your effort to organize people and get a—a message out that can be shared among—among the community and I understand that you use t-shirts sometimes to—as one tool and maybe you can show us some of the t-shirts that have these little stories on them.

KH: Sure. T-shirts, yard signs, stickers, you name it. Here’s one. During—there were many t-shirts during the coal plant wars. This one coal: bad. Okay, it’s pretty simple, basic message designed by a good friend, Chris Searles, a musician and drummer. And he first showed me this and I just didn’t know quite what to think and thought about it some more. I thought yes, it’s great. And we have had so much fun with the shirt. Because it is so basic, you can’t miss it. When somebody walks by wearing this shirt, you do have time to read it.
And so everywhere we would go—we put a lot of these out. A lot of people were wearing these everywhere. And when you would wear it, people would always comment one way or another. They’d give you a thumbs up. They’d tell you errr, we need coal or they’d say what does that mean and why do you care? We had, you know, young kids who would ask about energy so it was a great shirt for prompting discussions and—and so we really like coal: bad.
And, of course, on the back, we would let people know where they could learn more as we walked away at stopthecoalplant. So this is one of our favorites and we, of course, did them in many colors.

DT: And I see you have more in your stack.

KH: We’ve got more. So during the campaign about proposed new nuclear reactors, we, of course, had our solar si, you know, which is yes in Spanish and—and nuclear no and had to explain that it was to stay out of nuclear power. And, of course, we wanted solar power instead. So we did that and on the back, we had to tell people that they could take action and call City Council. So this was one of many t-shirts that happened in San Antonio as well. And we also had our no dollars for nuclear. Energia mia, which is my energy, you know, we wanted the power of the people and people’s power all in one.
And so this shirt was a lot of fun. We had whole groups of people. We would have like 40-50 people wearing these shirts at some of the hearings in San Antonio. And it really gave a sense of togetherness for us and a very, very clear message to the utility. So I’ll show you one more that’s a little more recent. This is one that was done in New Mexico. This is one of my favorites. They have some really talented artists there. This is about the high level radioactive waste project proposed there like we have waste control in Texas. And it—the company is Holtec.
So it’s no Holtec International and don’t waste New Mexico. And it was done by Alliance for Environmental Strategies using the colors of New Mexico and their flag, a lot of the symbols that they all combined. I—I find this one amazingly beautiful. And—and, of course, it’s such a rich and beautiful region that we hope we can protect. And lastly, this is an organized t-shirt that someone gave us. And you can just see the concept here. Organizing is so key.
And I really do think that if you educate people and—and yourself and you give people the tools to work with and let them know about opportunities, you can change almost anything. And we’ve done it over and over again and we’ve won some battles that are monumental that are really, really huge that everybody told us there’s no way you can win this and—and we weren’t sure. But you just dive in, dig in, talk to everyone. Never rule anyone out that could be your ally. And it works. And so organizing is super essential.
And—and what you see here it’s a whole series of fish shaped into a big fish chasing away the big fish and, you know, so—so you can get the concept here of a whole bunch of people organized can really make a difference and it starts with just a few people. So, you know, my advice to anybody who is concerned about the future of our planet, about local issues, is to dive in, you know, educate yourself, educate your friends and never, never be quiet. [laughing] Keep talking. Talk to everyone and—and learn as you go and chart your path as you go.
I recently saw a—a poster in a—a friend’s office. It was by Herb Kelleher from Southwest Airlines and he said our strategic plan…doing things. And it’s kind of like yes, dive in, you know. You could sit forever and draw out extensive, huge plans on paper but it’s not going to match reality because you’re not going to know how things are going to play out till you dig in. You don’t know how you’re going to win until you start working. And you don’t—because a win can come in so many different forms.
You know, it—for example, the nuclear projects delay was a win, you know. Okay, they got their license but they’re never going to build their plant. So over and over again, it seems like, you know, just keeping faith, keeping hope, and diving in and doing the work will get you there every time.

DT: What a good message. Well we have one last question we—we typically ask and that is do you have a favorite spot in the natural world that you like to visit either in your mind or physically that gives you comfort and solace and a reminder of why you do this kind of work?

KH: Oh, certainly there’s a lot of them. And—my backyard and the creek right here in our neighborhood. But I also—I have always loved the beaches in Hawaii. And so, you know, sometimes I’m just swimming on a really nice beach. So absolutely and, you know, there’s so much beauty everywhere you go—a million beautiful places to be.

DT: True. Well those are all the questions I have. I’m curious if you might have anything you’d like to add.

KH: I can’t think of anything. I can’t think of anything big. We’ve covered a lot of territory.

DT: We did.

KH: I’m sure there’s things that could have been better on my end but that’s how it goes, right. No, I—can you guys think of anything that we missed or—?

DW: You want me to throw something out there?

KH: Yeah, yeah.

DW: Okay. You have often raised this question of never rule out an enemy who can become your ally. Any question dealing with similar issues you have and the work that I do is what do you do with allies who become your enemies? And by that I mean, for example, you’re stressing renewable energy—wind and sun. But on our own environmentally concerned side, there will be the people tell you that’s killing the birds and the sun panels are covering land that houses endangered species. And suddenly we find—we—I shouldn’t use that phrase—environmentalists find themselves pitted against each other. And that makes things—at least from my standpoint, I’ve experienced difficult and [inaudible]. And how did you happen to [inaudible] maybe in Texas they aren’t as concerned about the windmills and solar panels as they are in California but they’re—Sierra Club and others will have one goal which is solar energy and another which is don’t hurt anything in the process and then it becomes an impossibility. But you can address David as you [inaudible].

KH: Yeah. And for us it’s not so much about the solar and wind but yes, you have a really valid point there. So yeah, David if you want to ask it however you want to ask it.

DT: Well I—maybe take one example. I think there’s been serious concern about wind farms and migratory bats and—and—and birds. And, you know, the—the conflict between the renewable power you want but the damage to wildlife that you don’t.

KH: Well certainly there are conflicts and—and sometimes you have presumed allies that are not your allies that, you know, it can go both ways in terms of who you’re working with. But we have had problems where people didn’t like transmission routes and—and have learned to work around that. The bats were very interesting because it turns out that the male bats, the juveniles, the teenage bats, in particular, like to dive toward wind turbine blades and eat the bugs off of them.
And it’s—it’s—that particular group among the bats, in particular, that some risk-taking bats that really like to dive. And so some improvements have happened in the technology and we’ve encouraged that. But the fact that the turbines are larger now and they turn more slowly is helping. And they’ve also designed them to not have any roosting spots on them. There’s no outside pegs to climb up. You climb up a wind turbine from the inside now. Everything is smooth so that you don’t have roosting of any species.
And this is important in protecting birds as well. We had to push the wind energy to take into consideration migration of species because it’s not okay to be killing bats, birds or anything else. You always have to weigh these things but we need to find solutions to help make things work. We have had problems on occasion where major environmental groups will take a different stance from those that were on. SEED Coalition is often on the leading edge of issues because we’re small, we’re flexible.
It takes a longer time for some of the larger groups to get—it’s like a large ship. It turns more slowly. But sometimes we don’t get support. You know, sometimes other organizations have a different agenda or don’t see the concerns that we have. And it is difficult. It’s not always easy to deal with that. One organization recently put out a study that said we need to keep the nuclear reactors open as long as possible. We disagree with that. And we talked to them about it. We think that you should be shutting them down and stopping the waste production as soon as possible.
So sometimes, while you might find common ground with people who would not normally be your allies, you do have to watch out for the fact that sometimes your allies might not be there with you. And you just kind of have to work around it and keep your head up and just know that sometimes there’s differences of opinion and viewpoints and it can be hard to work around that but don’t let it stop you.

DT: Okay. Well I guess we may need to stop here.

[End of Interview with Karen Hadden – November 17, 2018]