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Michael King

INTERVIEWEES: Louis Dubose (LD) and Michael King (MK)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: June 23, 1999
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REELS: 2023 and 2024

Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” typically refers to miscellaneous off-camera conversation or background noise.

DT: My name is David Todd and this is June 23, 1999. We’re at the Austin History Center and I’m speaking to the Conservation History Association of Texas with the two co-editors of the Texas Observer an alternative fortnightly newspaper that’s covered Texas politics and environmental news for close to 50 years now. I wanted to thank Michael King (on the left), Lou DuBose (right) for spending this time with us today.
DT: Why was the Texas Observer originally formed?
02:14 – 2023
MK: Well the Observer started really with a disgruntled group of Texas liberals and liberal was the emphatic word at the time. That was one thing I learned again as going through these old papers that there were relentless articles on what is a liberal. And these were liberal Democrats, Texas then being essentially a one party state, trying desperately to find an intellectual home inside an extremely conservative Democratic party. But—but they hired a new graduate of the University of Texas, Ronny Dugger, initially for what they had planned to be sort of a democratic party organ. And Dugger immediately
02:51 – 2023
MK: put his foot down and said, well I’m not going to do that kind of a newspaper. If I can’t be independent, I’m not interested. And they fussed and fumed at him for a day or two but they didn’t have any good alternative. And so, he agreed to be the first editor and publisher. It was always a very communal activity in the sense that—that it sold as much by word-of-mouth as anything else. Very little advertising. Very little commercialism. For a long time, I guess eight years, it was a—it was a weekly that—that nominally incorporated the East Texas Democrat and another paper so that our volume number is way higher than it should be for a 45 year old paper because it incorporated the numbers of those first papers that it followed in on. And the thought originally was that amaze—it might eventually grow into a daily paper. That never happened. It—in ’62, it became more of a fortnightly journal that you’re talking about. But—but it was always a paper on the left, progressive politics in Texas, primarily interested in electoral politics early on. But, in terms of the stuff that we’re talking about today, its environmental coverage was extremely thin in any way that—that we would think of it now, partly because it was primarily interested in politics of a very focused sort. But also because Texas was a very different state then to the extent that environmental questions were issues at all, it was—it was developmental issues. How are we going to develop this rural state and it wasn’t until much, much later that what we think of environmental stories got started. Anything to add to that Lou?
04:39 – 2023
LD: Only that—only at a certain point Dugger’s interest became very journal, in part became extremely journalistic in—in the sense that besides being a sort of focal point for organizing progressive left Democrats, or liberal Democrats. Liberal is—is the correct term really for the time. He was interested in what wasn’t being covered in—in—in the mainstream newspapers, what wasn’t being covered in the Dallas Morning News, the State’s newspaper of record and then the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. And—and that was—that was real important to him, I think.
DT: Can you talk about some of the other founders of the paper?
05:21 – 2023
MK: One thing—the—the motto in the early papers were—was out of Thoreau. The only—the first rule of composition is to tell the truth. And it doesn’t seem like an environmental notion initially except, of course, Thoreau himself so associated with the American landscape and when they approached naturalist issues in those first ten years or so, it was from a point-of-view of a kind of Thoreauvian eye of—of what Texas was like and should be. And very early on, in the first couple of years, Barton Springs became a kind of icon for that group of people. I was talking briefly before about [Roy] Bedichek’s Rock and Barton Springs where [J. Frank] Dobie and Bedichek used to gather. His famous picture in one of the early Observers taken by Bill Brammer, one of the early editors, of Bedichek and Dobie on their rock, sitting there cooling off in the afternoon at Barton Springs and talking about the significance of the springs. And there was one passage in
06:30 – 2023
there that I thought might be interesting for this purposes. Bedichek is saying, “right after rain, I have seen hillsides in the Del Rio country covered with purple lavender of cenizo flowers”, Bedichek proceeded. “They belong there. Walt Whitman said in nature, everything is with the rest. You have to accent the word with.” And then Dolby says, that’s the philosophy of ecology, I said. And then they—”Yes, the poetic expression of it. Sometimes there comes to me what I call the hour of magic” and then they go on and it’s this awe in front of nature that’s represented by Barton Springs. But it became a kind of—of magic place for the Austin environmental community very early on, not only for ecological reasons but also for social ones. It was a gathering place. It was a place where there were battles over integration. Ronny Dugger was one of the people who went with East Austinites who, up until that time, had been kept out of the pond to—to integrate it. And then the statue that commemorates all of this that—that sort of in—interpolates Webb, who apparently didn’t swim and never went down there, that marks Barton Springs today is—is a monument to that old history. And then 20 years later, Ronny is writing about Barton Springs is polluted from the septic tanks in the area and they don’t even know where it’s coming from and we need to do something about this. This is—this is long before the whole “Save Our Springs” movement is founded. You wanted to add some stuff there too Lou.
08:09 – 2023
LD: Yeah, I think he’s one of the state’s great public intellectuals. I think that Ronny Dugger is one of the state’s great public intellectuals. I think—I think that he probably missed his calling though because I think he’s really, if you read his writing, it’s—it’s the writing of—of—of a—of a public intellectual who—who would—who would best serve the public interest in elected office. And, you know, he’s toyed with the idea of—of running for a public office time and time again. But—but his interest has always—has always been very much good public policy in the sense, with this abiding sense of—of—of fairness that has—has always that got him in line in—in theaters at the Varsity Theater with—with African Americans from East Austin, that—that put him in the pool with—with—integrating the pool at Barton Springs when it was initially integrated and that, you know, that today has him, you know, he’s the—the country’s—I mean, he’s—he’s organizing this National Alliance for Democracy. That’s his quixotic fight against corporate control of the—of the—of the country’s economy. He’s—he’s—he’s an indevadicle—indefatigable public intellectual and a writer, of course. But I think he really is a—a very much a public intellectual as much as the south has—as much as Texas has produced one.
DT: Can you talk about some of the founders and backers of the Texas Observer?
09:48 – 2023
LD: Well Michael, a minute ago, mentioned Frankie Randolph and Frankie Randolph was an heiress—was a woman from Houston who was an heiress to—to the—to the Kirby Lumber fortune and without whose financial support—she was also a Democratic party, really precinct level organizer in—in Houston. And what was the Houston group, Michael, (?) Democrats…
10:13 – 2023
MK: I think so although there was—there was an argument for a while they had—they were called DOT, Democrats of Texas and—and the state organization said, you can’t call yourself that and I think they changed their name to Democrats of Texas Club. So—so there wouldn’t be any confusion.
10:30 – 2023
LD: She organized Houston out of—out of Houston, she and her—her protégé is–is Billy Carr who is still involved in the Democratic party politics although not as much—as much as she was when she was younger. But–but she—it was Frankie Randolph who provided the—what little financial security or financial backing what there was for the Observer, it was Frankie who provided it. And it, you know, up through I guess—I’m not sure when she died but certainly through the—the—through the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s.
DT: Can you describe some of the typical readers?
11:07 – 2023
MK: Some of them we still have. A lot of them were these grass roots populous Democrats, Yarborough Democrats might be a good way to describe them. They’ve been reading the paper forever. And now—only now in an age where a lot of them are beginning to die off and one way that the paper was built in the early days, all through these early issues, you can see them forming Observer clubs in various cities to—to get
11:35 – 2023
MK: people to subscribe by word-of-mouth. And perennially trying to get to the point where the—the magazine would be self sufficient. It still isn’t at that point. I mean, we still rely very much on the generosity of our readers. And we’re self sufficient in the sense that our readers bail us out whenever we get stuck. We’re not self sufficient in the sense that we can support ourselves directly through subscriptions and sales, although we’re getting closer again after a long decline because of lack of promotion and whatnot. But—but Molly Ivins used to say that, you know, the best thing about working for the Observer is you can go out somewhere and need a place to stay, you call the one Observer reader in some tiny town in West Texas and say, this is Molly Ivins, I need a place to stay. And you had, not only a—a roof over your head, but a house full of stories usually. And that’s still the case to an extent, although less than it was in those days. And that’s one thing that was remarkable to me about reading these old issues, is how small the liberal community was in those days. Seemed like everybody was on a first name basis. They didn’t refer to Gonzalez and Maverick. They referred to Henry and Maury in the—in the headlines. And the big ecological fights was to get park land in the early days, the stories that recur most often in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s is Padre Island National Seashore, for example. That was a battle that was just joined and, at one point, Brammer who was on Johnson’s, LBJ’s staff who was a Senator finally, left the paper to go do that, is writing back to Dugger and saying, it looks like we’ve got Johnson on board to fight for the National Seashore. I’m going to see if I can’t get him to name it Ronny Dugger National Seashore. He’s kidding but this was an issue of the paper. You know, they want—and they worked with Yarborough. It was Yarborough’s big issue really. And, at that time, most of that land was privately owned and they had vague
13:38 – 2023
MK: notions of development and so on and so forth. And it was a big battle in the legislature over it with them saying, no, you know, it’s private land. We’re not going to mess with it. But eventually they dedicated, I don’t know, 85,000 acres or something, whatever it was to build a national seashore. Although initially as usually happens with this stuff, they didn’t appropriate any money for it so it languished for a while. The second big battle that comes on that runs through those ‘60’s issue is a battle…
DT: Before you get into that, let’s talk about the readers? Did they use the readers as sort of an organizing political force?
14:21 – 2023
LD: I’d like to finish the second half of Michael’s question about the readership because I think—I think it’s important to note that—that the—that the sort of demographics of the Observer readerships. The big clusters are the 1950’s Cold War liberals, Texas liberals and the next big cluster is the 19—the late ‘60’s, Kay North, Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower radicals and—and—and progressive—radicals and just sort of the entire Texas left. It was the Observer, along with the Space City News, and the Rag, The Space City News in Houston, the Rag in—in—in Austin where its—you know—that was—that was the home
15:07 – 2023
LD: for this broad gambit of—of—of Tex—of the Texas left. So they had those two demographic clusters, I think, and it—it really is that—the readership is really tied in clusters to those two movements. I mean, if you want to look for sort of the—the demographic—the big—two demographic bubbles. And—and then—and then the rest are—are—are the readers for—for whom we are now looking and waiting for a political movement that’s yet to happen, I think. I mean, it was movement politics that really made the publication happen. Environmental politics have, to some extent, more recently.
DT: Was there effort at the Observer to be more proactive in organizing the leaders to do something or merely to inform them?
15:59 – 2023
MK: Well there’s always been a kind of created tension in the magazine over that. I mean, we—we—the—from the very beginning, the rea—the readers understood that this was their paper. But, on the other hand, the staff, at the same time, did not—never wanted to become just a bulletin board for the movement of the week. We don’t go a week without somebody calling up and saying, I’ve got a story for you here. And, in recent years, it’s been a lot of environmental stuff. We can’t even begin to cover all the stories that people call us with. It’s a kind of embarrassment of riches. I mean, we’re just too small and we—we—people get irritated with us. Well you got to drop everything. This is the most important story. We try to do as much as we can but, at the
16:45 – 2023
MK: same time, we also try to keep a certain objective separation between what we’re writing about and what we are. Although it’s very much a movement paper. It wouldn’t exist either with the staff, the people that—that came into the movement or the readers who understand that they can—they can expect the Observer to cover things in ways that—that the mainstream newspapers simply will not. I mean, I think the probably one—one more recent incidence of how that works is with the Sierra Blanca stuff. I mean, we covered that on a consistent basis. We saw it as really very much part—part and parcel of what the Observer is about, not just an independent environmental movement but an independent political movement. And so, it’s—it—it’s—we’re not organized as in the sense of going out and doing the organizing because we can’t. Can’t do that and put out the paper. It’s impossible. But, in these sense of being a voice for the movement, yeah, we very much have been that.
17:47 – 2023
LD: See, I think that it works the other way, David. I think that it works by someone in—someone in Lubbock who has a story, and this is particularly true of environmental stories, where—where there’s no—there’s—there’s no local vehicle that can—a journalistic vehicle that can make the story really authentic. Authentic in the sense that—that people who are not—not involved in the story can look at it and—and—and say this is a real deal. This is not just a few people whining about their allergies. This is, you know, someone here is writing—someone here is writing about, you know, the toxins, a catalogue of the toxins in the air. And the organization that’s happened usually uses the
18:30 – 2023
LD: publication, you know, people place stories that are perfectly valid journalistic stories that will never be covered by—by local media. And suddenly there’s a 3000 word story that kind of lays this out. You take that story—an activist can take that story and with it sort of—the—it’s put in context. The—the—the good science is there because we, you know, a—a good—a good journalist goes out and finds—and finds someone to sort of corroborate or—or—or to—to prove false the claims that people are making. And—and I think that the paper is used an organizational—as an organizational tool very much in that way. In a non-environmental sense, it was never used better by anyone than Jennifer Harbury(?), whose—whose husband was killed by—by—by the Guatemalan military and who placed her first story in the Observer, who we wrote the first story about her. She took it to—she took it to John Bryant and Henry B. Gonzalez and they took it to other—who—who with him, we had a great deal of credibility in Congress and—and began a movement to—to—to pass a resolution pressuring the Guatemalan government to—to—to—pressure the U.S. Congress—government to take a stand on—on—on torture and disappearances in Guatemala. So, you know, then it became a news story. Then when there was a Congressional resolution backing this woman who up—up to that point was kind of a—this—this voice in the wilderness, then it would—then it was a story. And I think the same is true with the—in a lot of cases around the state. I mean, coverage is pretty bare in a lot of—in a lot of—in a lot of small—small—you know, small town, one newspaper, weekly or biweekly are not—are just not going to cover local environmental stories.
DT: Can you describe some of the leading environmental writers that you’ve had?
20:35 – 2023
LD: I can—we start—Michael’s got a list and if I were to start at the top, I would say Robert Bryce recently. I mean, Robert has—Robert was writing about—about the—the Railroad Commission failing to do its job and—and protect water fowl and sludge pits all over the panhandle. He was—he was writing—he was writing in particular—a particularly strong piece on Barry McBee. I think he’s done the best piece written anywhere about Barry McBee who is, you know, likely to replace Carol Browner if George Bush is elected President, who was the chair of the—it was the—the—the Chairman of the TNRC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation] Commission. Robert’s written about—about the environment—you know, he’s written Observer stories about the environment in—in—in Guatemala and the Honduras. A—a local writer who—who appears—whose byline appears everywhere.
21:25 – 2023
MK: Yeah, he—he, of course, is associated with the Austin Chronicle with a lot of Barton Springs related stuff, the Edwards aquifer but, as Lou says, he’s written all over. The stuff he can’t—that isn’t local enough to run in the Chronicle, he often comes to us with. He has written about pig farms up in the panhandle. He’s written about air pollution on the border in Big Bend…
LD: Three years before the New York Times found out it was there.
MK: He’s written…
21:51 – 2023
LD: That’s also a function of ours is to sort of lead the mainstream media to these—to critical environmental stories or any kind of stories that are otherwise not covered because staffs are thin.
MK: And in, I mean, a good example of how a tiny magazine like ours can have a long reach, he’s made connections between Freeport’s [Freeport McMoRan’s] actions and the watershed of Barton Spring where they owned a lot of the property and drove the developmental politics that were going to pollute Barton Springs with Freeport’s actions in Indonesia where they basically treat the local people like cannon fodder and—and also pollute some of the most pristine natural landscapes in the—in the world. I did a study on Shell’s action in Nigeria and the hook—and the Texas hook because obviously Shell is an international corporation with a heavy hand in Texas. But—but when we look at these kinds of stories, we try to see the connections between our readers and—and that other world. So, who else, well, early on Dugger wrote—I mentioned earlier Dugger wrote about Barton Springs but I suppose the first writer who could really be called an environmental writer in the—in the Observer was Pete Gunter who was at a philosophy professor in North Texas somewhere—may still be I think…
LD: Still is.
23:20 – 2023
MK: And he was a native of the Big Thicket in East Texas and—and he was trying to hold off the lumber companies. And there’s a whole funny sequence there. When I look through those articles, I want to go back through, because he—he—the Observer was so effective in fighting that battle for the Big Thicket and trying to make the argument, not only from a preservationist point-of-view, but from an environmental point-of-view which—which is a kind of shift in thinking, I think, that happened during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Because the early argument was, we just want to conserve. I mean, we want—this thing is the way it is. It’s wilderness. Let’s leave it alone. But that became, over time, you can hear the hints of it in that passage I read from Bedichek that all these things are linked together. It’s not just cause we want to put a fence around the Big Thicket and say, leave that alone, don’t mess with it. It’s because our lives are webbed in with what goes on in there. And you can see that happening in [Pete] Gunter’s writing. At any rate, he was so effective, the National Forestry Association ran a full page ad in the Observer to say things like, well there’s forests all over the place. What do you need this one for? And—and it was very funny. At first, it—at first I thought, why are these guys doing this? And then I realized, you know, they—they thought these enviro—these tree huggers were just getting in the way. They didn’t use that term yet but that was the gist of it. And there was a funny exchange over this ad they paid for, you know, this full page ad saying that, you know, development, progress, jobs and—and so Gunter was probably the first one over a long period of time.
24:57 – 2023
LD: And very—really identified in—for the—for the creation of the park, for the preservation of the land, buying the park land that was ultimately [Ralph] Yarborough’s Bill and Bob Eckhardt’s bill, I guess. That created the Big Thicket National Park. You know, Pete was—he was an Observer – He was an Observer mainstay for many years.
25:16 – 2023
MK: And then it becomes writers over time. Sometimes one or two articles. There’s a—there’s an article on Ecology in Texas by somebody named Robin Cravey(?). It’s the only article I ever saw by that person but it goes into the whole effect of a captive agency, captive regulatory agency. In this case, the Water Quality Development Board or whatever. And—and an article that we could probably publish today just changing the names. Early on, the Observer writers began to realize that—that—it didn’t take very much to realize what we had—in theory, you had the people here, the lobbyists here and the agencies in the middle. Whereas, in fact, what actually happens in terms of practical politics is you have the people here and the lobbyists and the agencies over here working together to figure out how they can keep the people at arm’s length. And/or worse. And that still goes on. Virtually every story that we write has some aspect of that. Sometimes the industry comes off more progressive than the agencies cause the agencies are sort of bending over backwards to say, how can we possibly make your lives easier to the industry and the industries are saying, well, we don’t want to get quite that close to you. In fact, there was a bit of testimony that I think Lou—Lou mentioned in the last session when they were arguing over whether or not—yeah this was a—whether or not they
26:46 – 2023
MK: would have public hearings on environmental questions which is a perennial battle. And one of the lobbyists got up and said, well, we have to have that because you have to have at least the illusion of public input. In the ‘60’s, they were a little—in the ‘50’s, they were a little bit more blatant. When the first—air pollution first comes in as a story in the Observer, the only—it starts obviously with the industrial areas and people are saying, you know, I can’t breathe anymore. What are we going to do? The only—the only industry targeted at that initial point are the carbon black plants. And the carbon black lobbyist comes and says, well, we know how to deal with this problem and we want to be exempt from these regulations. That’s the solution. And it’s very funny and the guys says and there’s a lot of laughter in the room. And one of the arguments was, well, Texas has got no business regulating air pollution because it doesn’t stop at the Texas border. It keeps blowing. So—so therefore Texas doesn’t have anything to say about it. And who else? Carol Stall did a couple of really good environmental pieces for us on Kelly Air Force Base and also on wet—on Lubbock Air Force Base…
LD: In the ‘80—in the ’90…
MK: Yeah, very recent…
LD: Paul Sweeney…
MK: Paul Sweeney did quite a few.
27:03 – 2023
LD: Paul Sweeney did so many pieces in the early ‘80’s on—on legislative environmental politics that Carl Parker was regularly attacking him and telling the Observers to have—and other writers that if—if they were going to ask him the sort of chicken shit questions like Paul Sweeney did, that he was not going to respond. Who in part—Carl Parker represented Southeast Texas and Beaumont. So Paul was—was—Scott Lynn…that—that—what has happened is we have become recently more staff written and—and Michael has—has done more of the environmental writing and that’s—that’s by, I guess, by default and by your interest in it and by just—that’s where you—he’s—he started working, I suppose, with a couple of really big stories, one of which was—won an award with—or just our general coverage from the—but it was based on Michael’s story that’s hiding behind him there. From the League of Women Voters this past year. We—we—we are now more staff written than we were—than we were in the past. In the past, writers tended to come and go so there would be one strong writer that would be able to write for what it cost him to write for us for maybe two years and then had to go find a job at a newspaper or go find a job at a magazine and the Observer was kind of a training ground. There aren’t as many writers that are willing to work for nothing now. We’re paying a little more than nothing but it works—you have much more continuity and much better coverage if you can afford to be staff written. And so recently we’re much more staff written and Michael has the—has the—has charge of the environmental beat.
DT: Michael, can you talk about your role as a writer and how you came to be interested in conservation issues?
29:49 – 2023
MK: Well, I think I’ve always been conscious it. I—I—when I looked over your questions over the last few days, it struck me that—I grew up in an industrial area of South Chicago, went to work there out of high school in the steel mills. And I can very vividly remember a conversation with my father when the two of us were driving into the mill one day and I was remarking, as was common then in the ‘60’s in—in Northern Indiana, that the sun didn’t rise until 9:00. I mean, it was above the horizon but you didn’t see the horizon until it got above the level of smog and there was the sun. And I was remarking on that to my father, it might be nice to see the sunrise at sunrise. And he said, well—and this is a—a first generation European immigrant who came from absolutely nothing to working class prosperity in the mills, and he said, well, yes, it smells horrible and it looks horrible but it’s—it’s jobs. And that always stuck in the back of my mind, that conversation, even when I moved away from there. It was once beautiful land that was ruined and didn’t really—didn’t really recover until the mills all shut down and moved overseas. And then, in more recent years, I lived in Houston and one of the many reasons that we moved back to Austin was that our—our kids were constantly having respiratory ailments there when I was living and working in Houston. And at the time, I thought well it—just kids is kids but when we moved up to Austin where the air is still relatively cleaner, although getting worse, most of their respiratory problems cleared up. I mean, Houston is really a scandal on the state and the country for
31:36 – 2023
MK: the volume of pollution. So there was that and just also the sense that, for me, environmental stories bring together a lot of the social issues that—that we do at the Observer. Lou has done several stories about pollution on the border, specifically one that we worked on together when I was at the Houston Press was a story about Houston chemical companies that basically owned some of the worst polluting sources along the—the Texas/Mexican border and were responsible really for jeopardizing the lives of, you know, hundreds of people of—for the production of—of chemicals in a—in a regulatory environment that is basically non-existent.
LD: In Mexico, on the Mexican side of the border.
32:31 – 2023
MK: Yeah, on the Mexican side. And so, when I pick up one of these stories—what strikes me about the environmentalist stories that—that really angers me when people talk about jobs or development, is that an environmental story is—is a way—environmental crisis is a way in which corporate power imposes social costs on everybody else and walks away from it. They’re always talking about they don’t want to be taxed, they don’t want to be regulated, they should be—be able to live free. But they impose all of those costs on us without any recourse. I hate bullies and basically polluters are bullies. They’re the biggest bully on the block. If you or I started a trash fire in our backyard, all our neighbors would say, hey, what the hell is going on and they would either stop us personally or they would call the cops and the cop would say, you
33:29 – 2023
MK: can’t do that. Put that fire out. These guys, because they own the whole block, they can do whatever they want. For thirty years now, these guys have been exempt from the air pollution laws in Texas, the grandfathered industries primarily the utility companies and the big oil and gas refineries. And they’ve stood there and said, tough! They’ve been essentially—the state has essentially subsidized their pollution of the air we all breathe and—and their argument will be, well, it will cost the consumer or it’s your own fault for driving or it’s your own fault because you want gas or you want electricity when—when they could control this stuff. What it—the problem is is that they don’t want anything to interfere with their ability to make—ability to make profit and—as—and to use up the re—the resources that belong to us, all of us, not just them. Certainly the air, they don’t own the air but they use it as their dumping ground.
34:31 – 2023
LD: You will never hear—I have covered—I have gone to sleep and the house and senate environmental committees and I have never, ever heard a lobbyist for a utility or any—any polluting industry ever mention the word profits. Never! I’ve never heard anyone say that this will cost—if—that if you impose these controls on us, it will cost our—our—our shareholders will bear the burden of this cost or sal—our salaries will be decreased. I have—I have never heard that. I’ve always heard the argument that Michael has said. That, you know, you want gasoline, that jobs is always a great article—argument. I mean, it’s the most compelling argument that is used to keep the Alcoa plant, fifty miles from here, which is operating on I think 1950 or 1960’s technology with
35:20 – 2023
LD: no—with no—no regulation to speak of as a grandfathered plant. But the argument is—it is so disingenuous because the one word you will never hear uttered is—is divid—two words are profits or dividends. It’s all about what has to be done in order to—I mean, in that—in that—related to what Michael was saying. In order to continue—for us to continue to operate. And it’s—it’s—the—the—you know, what Michael’s father described his father saying about the air over, I guess, Gary, Indiana, could be, you know, it’s—it’s—the air is bad and it smells but it—it—it means jobs so we got to have it. It could be—it could be the motto for the Texas—Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission and the two—the two regulatory—the two environmental committees in the house and senate because it’s—that’s the prevailing—the prevailing regulatory model.
DT: How did you approach conservation and what was your background and interest?
36:32 – 2023
LD: I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that I fled Houston to live in pristine East Texas thirty years ago and worked for—first work—to work as a teacher and to work for a small newspaper. And—and found that—that we were surrounded with—with—with—with environmental problems less regulated and worse than what we fled which really aroused my interest in it—in environmental issues. I mean, I—I’ve always sort of appreciated having a real appreciation for—for the outdoors but there’s nothing—there’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and—and—and applying force in East Texas fifty miles from—from nowhere and having an airplane spraying 2-4-5—2-4-D over your—
37:13 – 2023
LD: a broadleaf herbicide over your front yard as he, you know, settle into the rice field. And—and that and then there were—there were—in the same—in the same—one of—Michael pointed out and I guess he discovered one of the earlier pieces that had written for the Observer. There was, you know, there’s—you’re living in—in a—in a county that’s—that’s—whose soil is saturated with—with—with surface water that mixes with groundwater and some company just comes out and decides that they’re going to—that they’re going to place a toxic waste landfill about thirty miles from—twenty—twelve miles from where we live. So I—I got interested in—in it as a journalist for that particular story but I’ve always had an interest in—in—in quality of environment stories. And—and my take on it is very much the same—the same as—the same as Michael’s to make my work easier in talking to you. It’s—it’s—it is—there is no real regulation in—in the state of Texas but which—but what has come out of the courts, I think. The—the courts have been the best regulator and with—with the election of more and more Republicans who have displaced some conservative Democrats but most of the progressive Democrats, you know, you interviewed Ned Fritz. I don’t know where he does his litigation anymore. Because—because it—that is going to become more and more difficult. And—and Rick Lowrey and Stuart Henry. I mean, litigating environmental issues has been—kind of become more difficult every—every day. And that was sort of the last read out for good public policy, was the courts, was Judge [Lucius] Bunton’s court, whose, you know, bad on a lot of issues but—but good on water. And—and understands it. You know, assuming that—that he’s not immortal and that—that George W. is going to be elected President, I—I’m—I’m not exactly—entirely
39:03 – 2023
LD: certain that’s going to happen. Well there—there—there will be—assuming it does, there will be another conservative Republican judge who will—will be very reluctant to rule in—in favor of environmental—of environmental plaintiffs.
MK: And one other thing I wanted to add to that is that—is that these personal tales occur inside a history that—that we all share and that environmental journalism is very much—grew up part and parcel with the environmental movement, late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s. I can vividly remember when I was undergraduate at—at Indiana University being heavily involved in the anti-war movement and seeing the first earth day as kind of a distraction. You know, oh, great. We’ll all start worrying about dandelions when the war is going on. And it was only later that I began to realize that—that—that seen from the top those—that might be a distraction but seen from the bottom, these are very much the same story. That—that enviro—that—that the same sort of corporate mindset that allows for international aggression against countries we have no quarrel with allows for international degradation of those same countries’ environments. And—and in this country, neighborhood after neighborhood, you realize who matters and who doesn’t. You would think, at least at the level of air pollution, enough people who live in River Oaks would begin to look at East Harris County and say wait a minute, we can’t do this forever. The wind blows this way. But—but not enough of them do because the people at the ground are the—in East Harris County are the ones that are really suffering from this stuff. And what’s happened in more recent years too is that the union workers have said, wait a minute, you know, we—we cannot keep swallowing this job argument if our
40:55 – 2023
MK: members are dying from the stuff we’ve been asked to handle and to—to pretend it’s not really there. And if you’ve ever worked in any kind of a factory job at all, you know how the individual worker is—is simply a cog in a larger machine. And if somebody gets hurt or somebody gets sick or somebody loses his job, it doesn’t matter. The machine goes on. And so when these guys talk about limited government, and that’s why we don’t need regulation, what they mean is they want totalitarian government in the form of the way our daily lives are actually lived and worked and where they want no government interference in that sacred relationship between boss and bossed, employer and employee. And so when you do an environmental story, that’s what you have to see. It’s not just the way it’s always articulated on the right. Oh these—these West Austin people, they want to have clean water and air. They don’t care about East Austin. No, those two worlds are linked. And—and—and you can’t separate them and every time you yank on the strings in an environmental story, you discover that—that those same issues of power and control and democracy are—are an issue in any kind of a—a environmental story.
42:18 – 2023
LD: They probably had a more class-based—a more class-based set of sort of contacts for stories and—and environmental stories. Kar—I—Karen—Karen—Karen Hughes, the good Karen, our other editor—I—I’m working on a book chapter about the environment and it—it initially began with—with the governor on the environment and press conference here in Austin. But I appended another—another introduction to it because on the night that I was attending the—the George W.—George Herbert W. Walker Bush and Barbara Bush’s birthday party in Houston, which was really a great affair because it raised ten million dollars for—for M.D. Anderson hospital. It was—it was a spectacularly vulgar event also as those events to be, on either side. You know, Frank Sinatra singing to Ronald Reagan with Reagan in an armchair in a living room in the Coliseum. Same thing in Houston. Well I was there and I was thinking well, you know, Dr. Mendelson from—from M.D. Anderson gave this wonderful talk and—and they’re raising all this money for—for cancer research and I’m using—thinking, where does this fit into this chapter. It doesn’t. And then Karen calls me and she says, I just heard the most incredible speech in Odessa. Grover Hankins is out here who is a—a law professor from—from Thurgood Marshall [School of Law at Texas Southern University] in Houston and she said it was—it was a thirty minute—it was thirty minute almost (?) response speech about what has to be done about pollution in this city and about a suit that we’re about—about to—about to—a class action suit that is about to be filed alleging environmental racism in…
(microphone fell off)
44:13 – 2023
LD: I just thought that that was an extraordinary juxtaposition.
44:28 – 2023
LD: You know, Professor Hankins who—who is a—is a lawyer at Thurgood Marshall, at the same time the Bush’s were holding their big Bush bash in—in—in the Ast—in the Astrodome for certain—for certain ticket buyers in the Astro arena for—for lower level ticket buyers. You know, this—this law professor from the same city is in West Texas close to the town where George W. began his—began his career, talking about real environmental degradation by local industries and the fact that—that state government under this governor has failed to respond to—to these people. And—and state regulatory agencies under—under this governor—under his appointees have failed to—under his political appointees have failed to respond to—to a large number of people. And that’s—that story—that class-based story is true in Sierra Blanca. It was true in the Houston Ship Channel when—when they were being sued by—who’s the lawyer that—Benton Musselwhite and—from Houston twenty years ago when I was writing about—about toxic torts in the Houston Ship Channel. It—it is as true today, if not moreso, than it—than it was then, I mean, maybe moreso because tort law has been so—at this rate, that it’s much harder for—for plaintiffs to—to prevail in court. So I—I—I don’t even remember what the question was I’ve gone on so long. But, I mean, it pertains to environmental journalism to which I also would like to add, not knowing what the question was—that there’s probably not a single body of journalism that is more driven by—by small, individual sources around the state than environmental—than environmental stories. I mean, you know, everybody—everybody doesn’t have a bad boss or everybody doesn’t have a bad state rep but almost everybody in the state of Texas has a bad environment that—that—of which they have to partake every day. Some
46:27 – 2023
LD: people worse than others. And more stories—more environmental stories that we write are—are driven from—driven by or begun with someone calling up saying that, you know, there’s a—there’s a trench burner across the street from my kid’s elementary school and it just doesn’t seem right. And indeed it’s not and indeed it is there. And that’s the way many, many environmental stories—probably more than any other stories in—in—in—in—in—I can’t think of any other—maybe sports stories, I don’t, horse race stories. But environmental stories often begin with—with one individual who is a local organizer.
DT: Could you explain how you, as editors, go through them and decide what’s important?
47:22 – 2023
LD: It’s hard.
47:24 – 2023
MK: Yeah, often and this is one of the—one of the trials and tribulations of a small publication. It’s often not what is most important but which one can you do, which one do you have the capacity to do. Sometimes very striking ones will just sit and wait because we don’t have anybody free to do it. I know I got a letter two weeks ago about the breakdown of this environmental compromise along the Gulf Coast that—that Houston and—and Formosa Plastics and—and all of these various competing
48:05 – 2023
MK: environmental interests have—have worked out over many years. Diane Wilson, I’d like to—I’d like to get to that story. I can’t get to it before September. Now we’re only a biweekly so September isn’t that far away but often it’s the size of the story. I mean, obviously one story we haven’t mentioned over the years has been Pantex and radiation. Some of that is locally driven, farmers, ranchers, free lancers, Buck Ramsey wrote some things early on. Lou has done many stories about Pantex. Obviously that’s a national issue, not just a local one. Sometimes it will be the persistence of the person who’s given us the tip. You know, we say we’ll get to it, we’ll get to it.
LD: They won’t stop calling.
48:53 – 2023
MK: They won’t leave us alone until we finally send somebody out there. Sometimes, and this is really true of environmental stories, is that what you think is a small story when you start, or not small but necessarily not as big as you think it is. When I first started looking at grandfather pollution, you know, I figured well let me find out how many plants are involved, you know. I’m sure it’s a problem in Houston. By the time I got done, I realized that—that the staggering amount of pollution put out by the major industries in Texas, it’s worst in the country which, I guess, makes it the worst in the world, is so overwhelming, I would have to cut it down to size just to make it understandable, just to begin to let myself and then my readers get their—get their arms around it. It is a staggering amount. One of the reasons for that that people don’t realize
49:46 – 2023
MK: it is that one of the things the agencies do with the active collaboration pressure of the legislatures involved is not keep very good track. They–they literally don’t want to know about it. They figure the less we know about it, the better. And what often happens, a little publication like ours takes a look at material put together by Neil Carman of the Sierra Club who is just an encyclopedia on these issues and—and we’re able to give it more coverage than the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News combined which is embarrassing to the tradition of public journalism in this country but it’s painfully true. On the grandfather pollution issue, you’ve got full-time environmental writers at both the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle. I don’t think between them they’ve covered the grandfather pollution, certainly not in the depth that we have. And—and definitely not in the sense of consequences and cause and effect that we have because of the confines of daily journalism and pseudo—pseudo rules about objectivity that really—really serve to keep the public ignorant. I call it Ping-Pong journalism where they go to Barry McBee and say, what do you have to say about this? This is—the environmentalists are saying that this is a very bad problem. And then they go to the official source and they say, well, it’s not nearly as bad as they say it is. And, as far as that reporter is concerned, the subject is closed.
(talking at same time)
51:28 – 2023
LD: The story requires that much balance. Really the story really cannot be conveyed to the public. I think that the Edward R. Murrow when he saw the concentration camps that said sometimes there is no other side. Well, I mean, sometimes there is no other side. I mean, you—you—you talk—Michael talked to the committee members but if you gave the—the committee members the same—the same—in the—in the—in the sort of balance theory, the practice of balance journalism, if they had the same space as—as the expository writing about the problem, the people telling the story that Neil Carman and essentially the writer’s narrative then the story would have made no sense and it would have been—it would been 20,000 words long and it was already too long. So, it’s—they’re labor int—they’re also very labor intensive stories. I mean, really labor intensive stories. Environmental stories are very hard—environmental stories and banking stories I think, and S&L stories, although there are no more S&L’s are the hardest stories to write because of the complexities of them. The narrative is hard to shape.
52:20 – 2023
MK: Although visibly it’s very strong. So, I mean, right now we need—we need to be talking about water in Texas and not just from where the Observer starter which is water as a planning and development issue but what’s going to happen to this water. Not—not just how is it going to be shared but how are we going to keep it clean? You saw today’s paper in the Austin Statesman, current plans suggests that there’s going to be a sec—that the amount of development already happening in the Edwards Aquifer will create a—is the equivalent of a second Austin downtown. Well, that’s been done incrementally and
52:55 – 2023
MK: by—by keeping the public ignorant. Certainly nobody sat down and said, do we want to build a second downtown in West Austin and—and live with the consequences? No, developers—developers live on ignorance and presenting people with facts in the ground. Saying well, it’s tough. The people are here. We need the roads. We need the sewers. There’s nothing you can do about it. Here we are. And that’s the way power works in this society and it’s tiny organs like the Observer that are outside the commercial loop and subject less to the commercial pressures.
DT: Could you talk to us about how the Observer distinguishes itself from the newspapers and monthly magazines?
53:44 – 2023
LD: In—in—in terms of commercial success, it falls—it falls short in circulation. However, I mean, I think it all comes down to being—being a publication that is controlled by no commercial interest. Ben Bagdikian’s book on American journalism, The Media Monopolies, is an extraordinary book that documents how eighteen companies own all the media in the country, electronic and print. So, you know, with that sort of—with those sort of vested interests in—in—in community development, I mean, with—with the real estate interest being a huge component of—of the advertising budget of every—every major newspaper in the city, there’s only so much. It’s not the reporter’s fault and—and—and I don’t think in—in—in mainstream dailies that their stories are eleven column inches long. It is that way because beyond that begins to raise the sort of
54:45 – 2023
MK: questions that Michael suggested needed to be raised but never are about development and about the environment. So we have this odd situation of being maybe one of four or five publications in the nation in which there are no corporate interests or no commercial interests to control us. And basically what we determine is responsible journalism is what is responsible journalism. Occasionally we make a mistake. So there is—there is an extraordinary freedom. The constraints are—the constraints of having a staff, most of which you’re looking right now, and—and—and—and being—and—and not having the resources to do as much of this as we could. But to—not to—not to want to take on the Texas Monthly, as we have done on occasion, in—in a public—in a public debate but when—when Freeport McMoRan buys twelve page and fourteen page color advertising supplements in the monthly, you can’t really expect the publication to cover critically the development, the Freeport McMoRan—the Freeport McMoRan development, its impact on—on the environment well beyond Austin. I mean, the entire Edwards Aquifer. So, that’s—we’d—we would like to have the revenue without the control. But we don’t. I mean, they—they—with that revenue comes—comes some control. There’s a prevailing myth in journalism about the separation, this wall between the editorial and the publisher’s office. It doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s—it’s one of the great myths of American journalism. So we are—we are—we are free from that and Dugger was always—was always a—a—had established a tradition, Ronny Dugger, as—as the long time publisher. We’re now owned by a 501(c)3, for the past five to six years. Ronny sold it to—to a 501(c)3 for a dollar as Frankie Randolph had sold the publication to him for a dollar, each of them selling a tax liability when they sold it. But, you know, we’re free from that
56:52 – 2023
MK: sort of—from that sort of commercial restraint on—on speech and as a boss—as a boss as much as he ever was a boss, Dugger bided by—by Thoreau’s first rule of—of—of composition which is to tell the truth. And that’s—that’s—that’s almost not existent in American journalism. Its an extraordinary place to work in that sense.
57:17 – 2023
MK: Yeah, the comparison with Texas Monthly I think structurally might be a little bit interesting in that the Monthly, which I guess is about 25 years old now, a little bit more than half of our age, started out in some ways as a crusading young publication. They wanted to put an end to the tired journalism of the dailies and so on and they published some extraordinary writing, a lot of the good muckraking journalism too.
(talking at same time)
LD: (?) stories in the cancer belt in—in—in South of the Golden Triangle appeared in the monthly…
(talking at same time)
57:51 – 2023
MK: What’s happened with the Monthly over time is a lot of what’s happened with Texas politics generally is that it’s been suburbanized. Its marketed now to a certain income level and a certain sensibility that—that sustains the—the middle of the road Republican sensibility of the universe which is that I’ve got mine and the rest of you can go hang. And that’s certainly the atmosphere in the—on the publishing side of the—of—of the monthly right now. And it’s—it’s leaked right on down into a lot of the writing. There are some good writers over there, do some terrific stuff, but they know what stories will fly and what stories won’t fly. And the sensibility over the is complacency. It’s boosterism. It’s—and when it comes to these big industrial stories, we look like tree huggers next to them. It’s not that they won’t do environmental stories, they will occasionally do them, but they certainly don’t see themselves as connected to either a—a popular democracy or an environmental movement. They’re in the business of marketing and—and selling readers to advertisers. That’s how they make their money is you—you sell readers to advertisers. We have so many readers we—this is our demographic and you don’t do that kind of institutional marketing without an institutional marketing sensibility and that’s what’s happened to that magazine.
59:22 – 2023
LD: That’s also why alternative weekly’s have had a little bit more—a little bit more freedom. The Austin Chronicle, in particular, on—on—on Barton Springs and SOS is that, you know, futon shops—futon shops and—and—and record shops don’t have a big interest in—in—I mean, they—they—they’re fairly indifferent to the environment. So there are no big commercial ad—there’s no big ad space that says, you can’t write that story. We have no ad space that says you can’t write that story (sound blanks out)—less ad space—although they’re not the greatest and—and—and—across the board on environmental stories but they—they will do them. And—and it all has to do with—with the relationship between a publishing side—the advertising business of journalism and—and the reporting business in journalism and how they interact. And—and what we’re trying to do is to figure out a way to—to patch together a non-profit that can continue to do this on—on—on the—slightly larger level than we now do it without—without this sort of commercial constraint.
DT: I want to ask about some of the leading stories that the Texas Observer has followed on environmental conflicts?
01:31 – 2024
MK: It’s fine with me. As I said early on, there’s not a tremendous amount until about—until the late ‘60’s. The handful of stories that show up that we would recognize as environmental stories have to do with public beaches to an extent, trying to get public parks established. Although there are some funny stories early on, that—that exemplify the difference in sensibility, looking at it through the other end of the telescope, there was uranium—there was a uranium run in—in Kennedy that they found some uranium in the ground in Kennedy back in the—let me see if the date’s on this thing—I guess it was late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s and the response of the locals was to number one, this was the days when uranium was going to solve all our energy problems if you remember. And so all you had to do was find enough uranium and we could—we could all be sitting pretty. And number two, it was also a cure-all. So in Kennedy, they created a bunch of uranium sitting houses where you could pay $2 to sit in uranium dirt and—and the Observer duly covered the uranium sitting story where the locals would say, yeah, cured my arthritis or whatever and the—the correspondent would say I—you can’t prove it by me. I don’t know. But—and then, of course the other uranium story of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was—was nuclear war looming. And that shows up periodically all through this period. There’s one—at one point, the Department of Energy is proposing dumping high level nuclear
03:10 – 2024
MK: waste in the Gulf, drums of high level nuclear waste. And Dugger is saying, well, how is this—what—what—these—what is this going to do? And they’d say oh, it will just go down to the bottom, get squashed and disperse and nobody will be able to find it ever again. That was the last I could find of that story. It was a front page story and I don’t think they ever got away with it but—but every few years, well probably every year since the beginning of—of the Observer, the legislature and the feds have been looking around for some place to dump nuclear waste in Texas. I have thought of it really as a fairly recent phenomenon but it goes back right to the beginnings and it was always oh look, you got all that land out in West Texas, who cares. Just dump it. You know, what’s the big deal? More likely if you’re thinking about it regionally, early on, people began to realize that in the urban areas, you know, you couldn’t just stick industries wherever you were and just start blowing everything up into the air. But it was really seen as more of an aesthetic problem than a health problem. In fact, there’s testimony before the—one of the legislative committees about the carbon black plants. They—they claim to have the data that show that the workers at these carbon black places are healthier than other people. I don’t think they could get away with that kind of testimony anymore which I guess is a sign of somehow how far we’ve come. But what they do now is they always reach for sound science. And we have to study it more, we have to study it more. And they just want to study it to death. That’s pretty much what’s happened with air pollution over the years. Now they finally agree that yes, we’re going to do something and the governor’s latest proposal is well, we’ll have all these industries volunteer to clean up their mess. Thinking about it regionally, North Texas, in fact, for earth day in I think ’96,
05:05 – 2024
MK: in April, we did a Sam Hurt cover where we just tried to—a map of where things were going wrong in Texas. North Texas, of course, we had Pantex and Amarillo and pig farms where, you know, these corporate farms are just burdening the land with enormous amounts of animal waste that—that no environment is capable of handling. Houston and the Gulf Coast generally has always been a hot bed of these—these kinds of stories which you try to, you know—whether we’re writing about the ship channel or the ship channel industries or Houston air. And—and, of course, the perception of Houston, for example, is that it’s all cars. I mean, traffic is a real problem in Houston but the amount of grandfather pollution in Houston is just staggering. And the industrial area dumps more in the air and water than any other industrial in the United States. And this—we’re talking about thousands of tons of pollutants that go into the water and the air and of high toxic carcinogens. Not—not, you know, just smog, not just oh it’s bad in the afternoon, but it’s fine once you get in your air conditioning. No. At—at great cost to the citizens of that area, not just physical costs, financial costs, all of that. And—and this is why when we do these stories, to me, it makes a mockery of this whole notion that, oh well, you impose these costs on the industry, it’s going to come out, you know, in the costs of products or whatever. Well, right now, those industries are simply imposing all those costs on the rest of us, the health cost, the clean-up cost, everything associated with it and saying that, you know, it’s not our problem. It’s a government problem. It’s not ours. You guys got to clean it up. South Texas and the colonias where the problems of underdevelopment and…
07:05 – 2024
LD: And being, you know, face-to-face with the Mexican—with the American, Japanese and German industry in Mexico which is completely unregulated. The complete absence of—of these colonias along the border sitting on a river, which the other side of the river there’s a complete absence of sewer treatment plants. The first one was built five years ago. The very first on the border. It was built—a maquiladora—now there’s—now there’s going—you know sewage is—sewage—raw sewage is dumped into the Laguna Madre and some in the river so that’s…
07:39 – 2024
MK: Now that sewage plant is not capable of dealing with the chemical waste, is it?
LD: GM bought—built the first—well—it—it—it’s as capable as it’s going to be. GM built six years ago, GM built the first industrial sewage water treatment plant in the whole colonia—in the whole maquiladora complex that’s existed since—since the 1960’s. And really booming since the 1970’s. So that, you know, that’s—that’s the sort of South Texas environment. You could—the Sam Hurt map is a good—is a good approach.
08:14 – 2024
MK: West Texas is now starting to get both air and water pollution problems. El Paso, of course, is one of the most polluted cities in the country even though it’s, you know, a high desert climate where theoretically you wouldn’t—you—the—Texas has always—
08:27 – 2024
MK: from Houston west, lived off its prevailing winds. I mean, if—if Houston had the kind of temperature inversions, for example, that they had in L.A. or D.C., you couldn’t live there. But it’s lived off this illusion, well the stuff is blown away. It’s not our problem. First of all, it doesn’t all blow away but visibly it doesn’t, you know, staggeringly stop people the way it did say, London in the 19th century. And, of course, Americans, as a nation, have always lived off the notion that well, so we screw up this place. We’ll just keep moving west and I think Texans have felt that for a long time. There’s a sensibility in the legislature that well, I think quite literally, I know—when they—when the argument finally came down to a head at Sierra Blanca, one of the commissioners said even as he voted the way that he had been instructed to vote, they finally realized that they had lost on Sierra Blanca. He said, I can’t see how there could be any problem out there. There aren’t any people out there. And this guy lives in the state. I talked to a California newsman this morning and I was giving him hell about—about the fact that, you know, oh, you’re all worried about us sending you Bush now. You’re not worried when you’re sending us your napalm. I said—I said Texas has been a dumping ground for the whole nation now for the last ten years. Now we’re going to show you what it’s like. You can have him. And he was laughing. He said he visits some relatives in North Texas a few weeks ago and he said, you know, you look out the window and it’s just—you can see forever so, you know, you got plenty of space out there. And I said, well that’s exactly the problem. There’s this illusion that you can just keep dumping forever and nobody—it doesn’t hurt anything. Lou was out there, did a story on that Merco sludge dump out—I mean—we—we talked a lot about the nuclear waste dump that
10:15 – 2024
MK: didn’t happen in Sierra Blanca but New York City sludge which is highly toxic, chemically polluted sludge, it’s not just harmless night soil is being dumped on the West Texas desert now and and—at the—by the ton. And it’s the same old American sensibility, you know, if we—if—if you put it under the rug, it goes away. Well, of course, it doesn’t go away. And that’s part of the problem. And that—that—so those stories we’ve talked about. What else have we covered? Caddo Lake, we’ve talked about and up in East Texas we’ve done stories.
10:49 – 2024
LB: Carol—Carol Stall has done stories on the military complex’s pollution of—of Caddo Lake and industrial pollution of Caddo Lake. And if you—if you—every region of the state, if you just look at—not just—you know, Mike was talking about West Texas. You—you go right across the border to Big Bend National Park and Robert Bryce did the first—the first national story and the first story—statewide story in Texas on the carbon dose plants that are the two Mexican plants which were funded with U.S. funding. Electrical plants that—that burn this—that burn this very crude lignite with no scrubbers which is—which has reduced the visibility by 50 to 60% in the Big Bend. It really does give you a sense of the interconnectedness of—of the international nature of pollution. El Paso is not just El Paso—El Paso joining Juarez, a city of—of one to two to three million. Nobody knows. The East Tex—East Texas stories that were done years ago about, for example, the Highland site and the French—French Pits on Highway 90 east—east of your hometown just on the other side of—just out of Houston. There was a time when you could—when your nose told you it was a superfund site. I was just—I drove it—my family lived in Houston, I lived in—my wife’s family lived in Houston, I—I worked in—in Liberty. And you drove through there and it was—it was stunning. The Observer was writing stories about–about that. They were driven by local—by the complaints of local citizens arguing something is dreadfully wrong here. Carol’s done industrial stories, I mean, military base stories in San Antonio. The legacy of—of pollution in military—military bases which are largely unregulated is really extraordinary. Lackland and Kelly and all those years and years of jet—jet fuel and whatever—whatever other solvents are used on military bases has been a focus—a recent focus of—of Observer stories. So it’s—it’s a big state, a lot to cover.
DT: Can you tell me about some of the long standing stories that seem to occur again and again?
13:00 – 2024
MK: Well water is probably the most obvious one. And, as I say, when it originally appeared in—in the Observer, it was really water as seen as a question of planning for development and for drought times. Over time, it became more and more preoccupied with pollution issues. I suppose the most immediate it exploded into the papers at the Observer was when suddenly pristine Barton Springs was being polluted by all this development west of town. But at the same time, you had water sources in—in Houston area that were basically unusable like the Ship Channel or the Bayou. And I’m afraid water—water and water pollution and water issues are obviously going to be an issue right on into the next century. We’ve got a story in planning right now in San Antonio, Elgin water problem created by Alcoa Aluminum.
(talking at same time)
14:01 – 2024
LD: Pantex has been another story that’s been covered historically by the Observer since the 1960’s. Although it has been very difficult to get inside of Pantex because of—because of its assembling and now disassembling. But it still does assemble some nuclear weapons components because they’re still building. It’s the largest—it’s the largest stockpile of plutonium in the world, I think, in one—in one place. There might be something as large as the Soviet Union but it’s the largest stockpile of plutonium pits. It’s been difficult to get in until one—one lawsuit that was—that occurred three, four years ago in which the—the doors of the factory were opened up in court and you got some idea what—what actually was going on in there. So Pantex has been covered historically by the Observer, starting with—with Buck Ramsey.
14:51 – 2024
MK: And I suppose we’ll be covering the border. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] has—has, in a lot of ways, aggravated the pollution problems because it’s promoted development—unregulated development on the border. Theoretically controlled, at least on this issue, by side agreements that have either been unenforced or unenforceable. So I’m sure we’ll be looking more at that. And one thing that—it occurs to me that might be mentioned here
15:20 – 2024
MK: now is the way some other political issues affect environmental stories. Tort reform has largely been argued as a kind of court case issue, you know, of plaintiffs versus defendants and so on. Corporations versus ordinary citizens. Well an environmental arena, that’s going to be a big deal. We’re not just talking about asbestosis which was the headline one that—that—that so concerned us. The court retort reformers who want to make it more difficult to sue corporations. If you can’t sue corporations, not only do you have this affect of deadening any redress effect on the part of ordinary citizens who otherwise are told well, if you’ve got a problem, you don’t need a law against that. You can always sue if you have a problem. Well now you’re told you can’t sue. One of the great sources of public information is lawsuits. These attorneys are not going to be able to say, come on out and cover what’s happened to this neighborhood because they’re not going to have any way of taking an action on behalf of that neighborhood.
16:20 – 2024
LD: Good point. I mean, journalist—the one thing that every journalist would like to have is subpoena power. And we don’t have subpoena power and when you follow behind a properly—a properly discovered tort lawsuit, private tort or a class action tort, the—the wealth of information—it opens doors that—that’s really a big point in terms of environmental journalism because that information is now—it belongs to the company and we can ask but we’re not going to get it. A plaintiff can sue and the companies have to—have to open their books. And, in terms of environmental journalism, I think it’s—I think it’s a major setback. It’s—it’s a good observ—really good observation. We have yet to see because the—the legislature has just—has just pretty much run its course on—on tort reform and in imposing limits on what plaintiffs can or can—can do in court. That’s—that—that not only—that not only hurts plaintiff but it’s—it’s a big—it’s a big loss for journalists.
DT: Can you discuss people that might have been forces for good or for bad in Texas conservation?
17:36 – 2024
LD: Well Michael—well Michael—well I can start and Michael will probably pick up with Neil Carman who was a former Texas…
MK: [Texas] Air Control Board.
LD: Air Control Board inspector in—in Odessa who became a whistle blower, resigned and is now a technical expert at the—at the state office of the Sierra Club who’s work is just unflagging and extraordinary and without whose technical expertise, I think the environmental Texas—movement of Texas would—would be…
MK: (?)
LD: …years behind where it is now. He’s just—he’s—he’s an extraordinary resource and also a tireless—just a—you know, energetic, you know, he’s never down. And he’s everywhere. He was at the conference where—the environmental grantmaking conference where we last saw you a year ago in Houston. And he’s everywhere.
MK: He’s indefatigable.
18:33 – 2024
LD: He was getting off—he was getting off a plane from Washington to—to attend that conference. He was driving over here to Houston—back from Houston to Austin in a hurry in order to get to—back to his archives at TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] to document the grandfathered pollution sources that the agency itself said they—it could not—the agency itself said it could not gather that this one man did in a—in a heroic effort in the course of a year and which he must have gone blind.
19:01 – 2024
MK: Nearly so. ‘Cause I looked at some of those records with him. I was astounded by and, of course, he was angry because the TNRCC claimed they didn’t have that information. Well he having worked at the TNRCC’s predecessor knew they damn well had that information. They just didn’t want to look at it. It’s all on these microfiche and everything. And, you know, half the machines aren’t working like most such agencies and—and they don’t go out of their way to help you out but because he’s unintimidated and because he’s—he’s just relentless, he made the—in the grandfather pollution would
19:35 – 2024
MK: have been differently thought out, differently reported if it hadn’t been for Neil. He put together the data that has—has (talking at same time)…has put these people on the hot seat. And now the TNRCC is going through motions of saying it doesn’t even want to collect the data anymore. Which is, in the first place, industry reported—self reported. So there’s no telling—but—but they’re the only figures that you have. So Neil is certainly an angel.
LD: What about the woman in Channel View that…
20:03 – 2024
MK: LaNell Anderson who is a—she—self described grandmother who lives in Channelview actually finally moved up to The Woodlands, I guess, because she couldn’t take the air anymore. She was part of a group called, I think, Grandmothers Against Pollution or something like that in east Harris County. People who saw more and more of their—their families and friends falling ill to mysterious ailments, auto immune disorders and—and related disorders that—that seem to suggest something in the environment. And she is a—she’s a real hero. The Sierra Club generally have been very good in Texas and I think better than nationally. The Sierra Club nationally tends to be very sedate and very much a kind of—a kind of park friendly sort of organization which is useful but in a—in a state where the environment is under siege like it is in Texas, doesn’t really work here. You really have to be almost a hero. Ken Kramer’s real good this way. And he’s really good at—at managing the front—the front part of the lobbying job which is getting—squeezing every little bit of defense of the environment that you can manage out of what is an extremely reactionary legislature, for the most part.
LD: A dreadful place to work for an environmental lobbyist.
21:24 – 2024
MK: Right.
21:25 – 2024
LD: And Ken—and Ken—Ken works, I think, as well as it can possibly be worked by any human being.
21:32 – 2024
MK: And—and we talked about well Ralph Yarborough was one of the early heroes of this, mostly—mostly in the—in the park development area, the Padre Island, Big Thicket and so on.
LD: Erin Rogers. I mean, if you talk about the other end of the spectrum, I mean, Ralph is gone. Erin, to me, represents sort of the future of environmental organizing in Texas. A young woman who, through Genevieve Vaughan, who has always been a—a great friend of the—of the Texas environment through her financial support and by creating a—an organization out of which a lot of these people work, started—started here organizing—organizing in—in Sierra Blanca. And just, you know, a smart—a really
22:15 – 2024
LD: smart, agile, resourceful kid. I mean, a kid, she’s what 26, 27, something like that, who, you know, traveled back and forth between Austin and West Texas and regulatory agencies and courts and fund raisers and—and—and friendly legislators and—and activists and sort of—and really—there goes my bottle—and really put together this statewide—statewide coalition to—to actually win an environmental victory that most people—she wasn’t the only one—but that most people—she was certainly very instrumental—most people thought could not be won. Enlisting the support of Dave Richards to do some of the litigation and Stuart—working with Stuart Henry and Rick Lowerre and—and working with extremely limited resources. And—and—and this—this session worked in a—on—on Lon Burnam—what Lon Burnam’s staff and—and the Texas legislator doing precisely the sort of environmental work that she’d be doing outside on the inside and she’ll be back and she will be involved in environmental issues I’ll bet for a long time.
DT: What about the flip side, people who have been a force for…
23:23 – 2024
MK: Well that’s—that’s interesting. We—we tend to think because we cover the legislature so much about the political billings in which we would include George W. Bush, Barry McBee of the TNRCC and probably, unfortunately, the predecessors to a great degree, Ann Richards came in as advertised as much more a friend of an environment than she ever proved to be.
23:47 – 2024
LD: She would’ve been had she not have been beaten back and I hate to say this for me—four days after the man died but Bob Bullock really made sure that there was no environmental protection. I mean, I’m saying this two days after the man’s funeral in which he’s been celebrated across the state as this great leader but he made sure that the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, TNRCC, was not environmental regulatory agency, that it was an agency that clearly recognized that its clients were the industry that it regulated. And that you and I, and those of us who partake of the Texas air and water were not that agency’s clients. And both—I mean, I don’t think Ann was great but I would disagree with you a little bit in that she started out trying and—and was—and really ran into a—into an—an institution and Bob Bullock, Lieutenant Governor.
24:31 – 2024
MK: We’ve got—and then we’ve got some real industrial villains. Of course, probably one that’s not so much associated with Texas devastation, Charles Hurwitz [executive and investor with Maxxam, Inc. forest products company], down in—in Houston who’s been a national hero to the property rights people and that whole movement ought to be put in place as a—as a political movement designed to put a stop to environmentalism, largely funded by industry sources, although given the veneer of a grass roots movement that it doesn’t really have.
25:04 – 2024
LD: The villains are so but the villains are not so—are not so visible because of the nature of—of the way business is done in this country. Because the villains are—are fragmented in the lobby. Kinnan Goleman, a sludge pit lobbyist, who wrote—he—the author of the state’s current grandfather, a lobbyist who wrote and admits that he wrote the current grandfathered law on which George Bush is going to run for president that—that is a voluntary program. You see—you see the faces of the lobbyists. You see Kinnan and you see…
MK: Who’s the guy from utility?
25:39 – 2024
LD: John Fisher from the—from the chemical…
MK: Texas Chemical Council…
LD: I mean—I mean it’s hor…
MK: Harold Green who’s the PR guy for TXI and…
LD: It’s a benign sort of villainy because they’re—they’re out there…
MK: Not in Greene’s case…
25:52 – 2024
LD: …they’re out there doing their job and—they’re out there doing their job in the legislature but they’re doing, also at the same time, doing great harm to the—to—to—to the environment on behalf of—of corporations–corporations that are pretty faceless. Every now and then a corporation gets a good public face like Jim Bob Moffett who has made himself a public face and I also—in—in Travis County in—in the Texas hill country. But it’s harder to define villains than it is heroes because the villains are—are largely corporate confederates who work together through—through the Texas Chemical Counsel, through a number of high paid lobbyists and—and who—who—who really are rarely seen. That—that should be your next—your next series. Who are these guys because it’s—it’s a real compelling and a very important question, I think. Mary—Mary Kelly and Rick Lowerre and Stuart Henry and—and some of those—sort of heroes to the environment could probably help answer the question better than we could. It might be impolitic for them to answer them because they have to deal with these people in a way that we don’t but it’s hard—it’s hard to really…
26:58 – 2024
MK: Now you’re got all the waste hucksters—the nuclear waste hucksters. You’ve got Harold Simmons, you’ve got Kent Hance. Who else is involved in that? Carl…
LD: Carl Parker…
MK: Is Carl working on that end?
LD: …is working as a big lobbyist. Tony Proffitt who was Bob Bullock’s former aide. I mean, this is the—there—there—there is no low level radwaste site. But there—there were salaries paid to—to 37 lobbyists that worked through the entire session on that very—on that one bill. 37 lobbyists on one bill. You know, for two companies who want to dump toxi—hazardous waste in Texas.
27:37 – 2024
MK: Well another—another idea of how it works in practice—one of these companies in—in the Midland, Odessa area, over the Christmas holidays was pouring out just—just tons of toxic smoke for several weeks claiming that it was start-up condition and they’d clean it up. And the local reps and the mayor said, oh I can’t even smell it. Well, in excess of a thousand complaints from minority neighborhoods came into the TNRCC. Well the company was owned by some Denver firm. None of those people are in Texas. They don’t care. Oh yeah, yeah, there’s some smoke in Texas, big deal. And I think that illustrates the kind of concentrated power that you’re dealing with. Similarly to Hurwitz at Maxxam, (talking at same time) selling off one of the heritages of the entire planet. And in cooperation with the federal government, I’m ashamed to say who basically made a sweetheart deal for him. And—and yet, you know, he doesn’t have to pay the consequences of that. He doesn’t care. And all in the guise—in the guise of private property which is, you know, the last defense of a scoundrel. If they could figure
28:51 – 2024
MK: out a way to chop up the air and sell it, they would do that. I suppose they have in the sense with these oxygen bars. So the only consolation is that there’s more of us than there are of them. And so it takes us longer but we just—but they’re—they’re tireless and they never run out of money.
DT: Where do you think journalism at the Observer is going to go, particularly in conservation?
29:30 – 2024
LD: I think it’s—I think it’s one of our three or four major issues of reporting and—and it’s always there. I mean, the environmental stories are always there and I—I—I’m certain that as long as I’m there, and as long as Michael’s there, we will continue to pursue that sort of story. Many of them—many of which will be—will be initiated by—by someone calling up with—with a story about—about a trench burner in—a trench burner in Lubbock. But I think that it—I think that it’s a—it’s—I think it would be irresponsible to—to anyone who is—is taking—taking its readers money and—and applying it to—to what is supposed to be journalism in the public interest to—not to devote a lot of that—a lot of that money and a lot of our resources to—to environmental stories.
30:22 – 2024
MK: Yeah, one of the funny things in looking back over the last 45 years is that early on, I needed the interns to help me to flag pieces that may have been about environmental stuff. By the time I got to the recent years, all I had to do was look at the covers. I didn’t need to flag things. I mean, just ’96 very—running down very quickly, we got a story on the chemical industry blitzing the PTA and trying to stop an anti-dioxin, stopping an anti-dioxin resolution. Rick Perry in the Ag department spraying all of West Texas with pesticides. PCB’s being re-imported from Mexico for incineration at—at Texas incinerators. Lou on the Michael Moore sludge trial where the only people that were brought to justice are the people who talked about it on the television.
LD: press…
31:11 – 2024
MK: Yeah, the press. Then our (talking at same time) Earth Day issue which bought a lot of these things all together. Toxic Corpus in which Corpus Christi neighborhood we hadn’t talked about yet. The whole city is under toxic siege particularly from the chemical companies in the air. We did Barton Springs stories and then, of course, Sierra Blanca which we covered that whole time. And then unions involved in—in environmental action. Those are all different stories just from one year. So for better or worse, for worse I guess, Texas is becoming this sort of focus. One of the reasons that napalm—the reason that napalm is being shipped to Texas to be burned as the navy told
31:53 – 2024
MK: me was, well, we couldn’t burn it in California. Their—their pollution laws are too strict. And—and he thought—he said this with no sense of irony. Well, why should Texas be the dump of the—of the nation? And it’s because of the political climate that says, yeah, anything you want to do, you can do it in Texas. And—and—and so now, we’re on the verge of exporting that sensibility to the White House and they’re not going to be glad to see what they get.
DW: If you had to pick one story you were proudest of having broken, what would that have been?
32:47 – 2024
MK: Well some of these stories, the—the Shell-Nigeria story, won a project censored award for having been one of the most under-reported stories in the entire country, just talking about what Shell was doing to the Nigerian landscape and people. I suppose that—that two issue of grandfather pollution thing would—who was poisoning Texas…
33:05 – 2024
LD: No one—no—no—no journal—no newspaper covered that story to that extent. It was a two day story, one day story in most papers, with—it was a debate between the Sierra Club and the TNRCC. And it was—it was really fairly documented in that story.
33:21 – 2024
MK: That would be one. Another would be, I think, the Pantex story. As—as told by NPR [National Public Radio] which—which we let out there because I was—I was not satisfied at all with my writing with the story. Those—those—those three, I think, are stories that—with—with strong—well the—the grandfather story doesn’t have as strong a narrative because it’s—it’s a big policy story which are much harder to write.
DW: Of all those stories, what’s one that got away from you?
34:22 – 2024
MK: Yeah, I guess that would be what scared us. We are upstairs. This is us. We—this is our newspaper. So as far as that goes, we do have that grand luxury…
LD: I don’t recall being threatened for—for—with prior restraint for a libel suit. If there is a story that we missed, in a sense that we didn’t report it thoroughly enough, although we reported, I think—I think that Midlothian would be one.
MK: Yeah, I was going to say the same thing.
34:48 – 2024
LD: The extent—the extent—the extent of the—of the toxins that are burned in ki—in—in cement kilns that are really not cement kilns, but are waste incinerators that are not subject to the same sort of regulations than cement kilns, I don’t that story has been adequately covered.
MK: Specifically because, not only is it a huge story for Texas, those toxins go all the way to the Great Lakes. That does not stop at the Texas border and—and it’s a nationwide problem. The cement kiln industry is basically become a money maker on the backs of toxin—toxic waste incineration and that’s a story we have not been able to get—to get out. I mean, it’s—it’s so bad that even the toxic waste incineration industry is—is one of the main funders of the American Lung Association and is trying to put a stop to this because it’s unfair competition as far as they can see. They’re actually regulated when they burn the stuff, still stupidly, but they still do it better than the cement kiln industry where they basically put a barrel on its side, have toxic waste flowing in one side and smoke coming out the other side. And so that’s a story we have not done justice to. And—and we have not done justice—justice to mercury pollution which is largely is a huge problem in Texas water because of utility burning, coal, mercury laden coal and we’ve only touched on that. I realized when I did the grandfather pollution story which you have to remember is just only 1/3 of—1/3 of the industrial pollution in Texas. Well what about that other 2/3? Well we haven’t had a chance to—I mean, that—the in—the grandfather story was so huge I couldn’t even begin to tell the—the whole story. So there’s a whole ‘nother story that we haven’t even gotten to yet about the—the other 2/3 of the industrial pollution in Texas. The only difference being that the TNRCC has stuck up a piece of paper saying, yeah, you’re permitted to flow this stuff out now.
36:43 – 2024
LD: In a state like this, there is a—there is a place for a statewide journal that’s dedicated to the environment. Not—not—not—not an in-house Sierra Club journal which does some of that but a statewide journal that’s dedicated to—to investigative reporting in the environment. The state is—the state is number one in pollution. Number one air pollution. Probably number one in water. It is 49th in spending or 50th in spending on the environment and—and that—that—this state needs that publication. That could be another project for when you finish your—your—your oral histories because I think it’s a—I think that there’s no—there’s no—obviously no state quite like this. I mean, we’re number one because we have the mo—and it’s unfair to say we’re number one in pollution because we’re number one. We’re number one because we have the most industry. But that cries out for regulation. So when you’re number one, you got to be number five in spending maybe. But when you’re number in—in—in volume and number—and 49 in money dedicated to solving the problem and—and falling behind in regulation, one small biweekly journal that—that does all sorts of politics for general readership—all sorts of generals and for general readership, I don’t think is nearly adequate.
37:58 – 2024
MK: We haven’t done the highway story. We’ve touched on it but Texas has been, you know, highway bound for way too long.
LD: That’s a magazine, Texas Highways – that story.
MK: And those are hard stories to do, the highway stories, because they won’t stand still and they’re inter-regional and so on. But they—again state-subsidized ways of life that instead of—instead of being sensible, creates self destructive and—and inhumane ways of living. You could see it radically in Houston and you’re starting to see it more and more in Austin.
[End of reel 2024]
[End of interview with Michael King and Lou Dubose]