INTERVIEWEE: Neil Carman (NC)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: February 23, 2008
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Rhonda Wheeler and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2402, 2403, 2404
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And we’re in Austin, Texas. It’s February 23, 2008 and we have the good fortune to be talking to Neil Carman who has a interesting career. He’s—he was—received a PhD in Botany from the University of Texas and then later on went on to be an inspector at the Texas Air Control Board in Odessa office for a dozen years. And following that became a staff person for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club where he’s been a—a non-profit watchdog of—of many of the environmental cases in the state and—and—and across the nation, for that matter. So, we look forward to learning more about what you’ve been doing and thank you for the time.
NC: Okay, it’s good to be here Dave.
DT: Neil, I was hoping that you could tell us about your childhood and if there might have been, you know, first exposure to the outdoors or to nature or to environmental issues that—that might’ve given you a start.
NC: Well, I was born in a small town in northern Iowa, Cresco, Iowa and we lived in the edge of this small town of about ten thousand people. And, you know, of course, in the wintertime, it was not easy to go outside but, you know, we’d do sledding outside and it would be pretty chilly. And then once spring would come, you know, it was—it was nice to be outside because you knew what it was like in the wintertime, you couldn’t go out in the wintertime unless you were heavily dressed up. And so finally a—around May, the snow would stop and it would be warming up and we had a huge garden, you know, a couple of acres. And—and so my brothers were all older but they would be out, you know, and—and we were going out into the pastures and the fields and, you know, hiking around. And it was always a lot of fun to—to go out
and—and to get outside of, you know, just our house and everything. And so I have very fond memories as a—a—as a child of—of kind of traipsing outside, even out in the countryside with my brothers and with some other kids and—and that was a lot of fun. Those are some of my earliest, you know, childhood memories of kind of being outdoors. And—and then—and when I was eight in 1953, we moved to Iowa City and—and that was only a town of about twenty-five or thirty thousand people but, you know, I’d see three or four cars and I’d think, gee, this is a traffic jam. And—and it just seemed like a much bigger place, although, obviously it wasn’t. But
I—at that point I had this great desire to be in something—some place smaller, you know, and—and to be again out in the countryside. But my—the best friend that I’d developed in Iowa City, he liked to go on fieldtrips, hiking, walking, on—on a bicycle or whatever because his father was a biologist that taught high school biology there at the high school and his mother was an artist. So when I’d go over to visit, oftentimes, they’d be talking about nature and talking about fieldtrips that—that they had been on, courses that he had taken at the university, like at Biology Station, where eventually I went, you know, fifteen years later. And so, you know, I got immersed in that and growing up, my friend Bob and I would, you know, on weekends, that’s wh—we would head out on our bikes or go on a—a walk someplace
And—and it was just wonderful. I liked going out into the woods and the streams and being with nature. It—it seemed much more refreshing. And then also, in high school I read Thoreau’s Walden Pond, which was just a—a powerful book, again, about nature. And—and, you know, I—I fell in love with that book and—and what Thoreau had to say about, you know, his relationship to the natural world. And I never saw myself as a biologist at the time or what my career might be someday, but it was obvious that I had this intense love for nature inside of me, but I—I didn’t really understand that. And in high school, although I took biology from a different teacher, I—I used to, you know, go over to my friend Bob’s house almost every night; he just lived a few blocks away. And his dad was th—the other high school biology teacher so, you know, we would often have discussions about nature and—and biology. So I consider, you know, Bob’s parents, Harry and Mildred Moss as—as
kind of mentors because I got more of that over there than—at my house, it wasn’t that way at all. My mother, was a single mother and my father had left when I was two and so, you know, there—there really wasn’t any of that kind of environment at my house. But, you know, Bob’s parents were very friendly and so, you know, he was my best friend and so we did a lot of things at night or on the weekends growing up in—in junior high and high school. And then I—in college, my sophomore year I was still kind of undecided, you know, I had done well in math and the sciences but I thought math was kind of a boring area, you know, even though I had scored very high. And so in the fall of 1964, I took a local flora course in the botany department, just an extra two hour course I needed to—to—to fill in some of the other major courses I was taking. And I just loved the course, it—it was basically partially
a class where you would look at some of the—it was first about trees. And—and we were going out and identifying some of the common trees in the Midwestern forest, some of the maples and—and—and all the different kinds of species. And so I just fell in love with that right away because I liked being out in nature, I loved the fieldtrips and I began to identify the different plant species. And in the spring of ’65, I took a course called Spring Flora, which wasn’t on the trees, but it was on the herbaceous plants and again, it was just so exciting. It just—it seemed to satisfy something—something deep inside of me. And so anyway, I very quickly decided by the—I think the winter of ’64, that I wanted to be a botany major, okay, this—this is really exciting. And—and so then in the summer of ’65, I took a summer field course and by then I knew most all the plants. So, you know, it was—i—it was still fun even
though I—I knew them. But it was still exciting because one of the things I loved about nature is that every week there were new things flowering, it was very dynamic and changing and it was very inspiring to go and see how the natural world was constantly changing a—and—and—and new things were flowering and other things were not flowering anymore. And—and so it gave me this very deep appreciation about what was going on i—in the natural world around me more than I had ever understood before. And then in 1966, I—the Nature Conservancy had don—had preserved, I don’t know, maybe a fifty-two hundred acre tract in Muscatine County, Iowa, called the Cone Tract. And they needed a floristic survey done and so they said, hey, Neil, you could get a couple of credit hours and you could go down
there and identify the plants, the flowering plants, the—all the woody species. And so then for a year almost, I would take routine fieldtrips down there, often on my bicycle, I would get a plant press on—on my bike and some water and something to eat and—and it was about twenty-five to thirty miles down there on the highways. And so I’d go down there every—every Saturday or Sunday, you know, because I was—in the summertime, I was taking classes during the week. And—and then finally I got a car, but it was fun riding down on my bicycle. And then I’d walk through the areas looking for the flowering plants, collecting the woody plants. And so I did a whole floristic survey, which I got credit for at the University of Iowa Botany Department in—in ’60—6, ’65, ’66 timeframe. And then in the summer of ’60…
DT: While you’re talking about the prairie survey…
DT: When you were doing these floristic surveys of the Cone Tract, can you tell me a little bit about how the—the—some of the populations were changing? I think you’d mentioned that—that orchids were trending down.
NC: Well, there was—I found one orchid species, orchis spectabilis, which was a little small, maybe about four or five, six inch high orchid, very small and it flowered in the—in the spring, early summer. There were only a few plants down there and so th—th—the—it was already somewhat of a threatened species in Iowa. There—there wasn’t—you know, I had not encountered it before. And from other tr—fieldtrips I’d already taken over the past year, I knew that th—you know, there just weren’t any orchids. And then looking in the herbarium there at the university, which is like, you know, a dried—the plants are pressed and dried in folders and
organized by plant families and we had a large herbarium, so you could look up the—the native orchids and they were just not to be found. I went out on fieldtrips, I remember one summer, to habitats where they had been found in the 1860’s and 1870’s by this—this b—botanist, Bohomo Schimick, and they weren’t there. I went to the habitats in the surrounding counties where he had collected them and they were gone. They—they were not there at the right time when they should be flowering and growing, th—they weren’t there. I walked miles and miles around the same forestland that he had been in these habitats and they were gone. And this is what some of the other botanists were saying, that we were, you know, a lot of these orchids were either gone from Iowa or there were a few preserves like in—in
Northern Iowa where I’d been living, Hayden Prairie, I don’t know, maybe a hundred, two hundred acre preserve, that the orchid was up there. And then there were a few preserves in Iowa, very small areas where it was still present. And in the summer of ’66, it was a wonderful experience at the—at the field biology station on Lake Okoboji where you were in class from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, and it was very intensive, all day long, one class. And even though I took, you know, courses not related to the—I took an algae class and a fungus class, mycology. But still, we were out in nature a lot and so I would see all the flowering plants. And—and there was one place there where there were these orchids, okay, the Lady Slipper Orchid and so I got to see it for the first time in my life and it’s
very beautiful. But it was obvious that at this point in—in the mi—mid 1960’s, that a lot of these species were basically disappearing already. And—and that was shocking to me at this time.
DT: Was there any explanation of why they might be disappearing?
NC: Well, for one thing, I think you have to realize that some of these things weren’t that common to begin with. Although, you know, when I found the Lady Slipper in its habitat there in Northern Iowa, there were dozens and dozens of plants, it was doing fine. But the habitats had been wiped out. I mean, that was, you know, the habitat loss in Iowa was—you—just tremendous and so without the habitats, the plants wouldn’t be there. And then the few plants that might’ve survived, people had p—probably been out picking them because they were pretty. But h—habitat loss was obvious and because most of Iowa is farmland. And then there’s some wooded areas but, you know, habitat loss and—that, I think, was probably the
biggest reason that a l—a l—some of these organisms were disappearing. And so that’s when I first began to be aware of the whole concept of a threatened and en—endangered species because, you know, you could see them in the herbariums in the—in the dried sheets and ne—and you’d seem them in the books, the—the lists of the—the flora, like in the Midwest. But, you know, they didn’t exist anymore. You—you couldn’t find them, for the most part, except in a few—a few places. So that was a revelation to me as a—as a botanist, that things were disappearing and—and the devastation of habitat loss. But that summer I spent at the field biology station was very powerful because we were out—we would be in class in the morning and typically in the afternoon we were out collecting and out in nature. And it was a—a—
the field biology station was run by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University and taught by professors from both institutions. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience because you were—we were living on Lake Okoboji. And we were living, in a sense, in nature and we were out there every day and it was wonderful. And, of course, all the people there were either botanists or zoologists or high school science teachers there to take some extra classes for the summer. It was a—it was a—the most wonderful educational experience I—I had in—in my ten years in—in school.
DT: Te—tell me what happened in, I guess it was the summer of ’67, this would be just maybe a year later, when—in the University of Michigan.
NC: Yes, I had been told when I was at Lake Okoboji I the summer of ’67 by the—the—Professor Dr. John Dodd, teaching the algae course, that he had a former student at the University of Michigan Great Lakes Research Division, who was looking for some people with some experience and—in identifying algae. And—and they’re beautiful under the microscope, these little single celled or multi-cellular forms and so I was, you know, interested in going up there. And so I got a job and worked up there for several months in the summer of 1967 at the University of Michigan Great Lakes Research Center at Ann Arbor. And basically, they had been collecting samples of—of fresh and polluted water in the Great Lakes. And the project that I worked on was to look at the phytoplankton, the algae in the freshwater streams that were going into Lake Michigan around Gary, Indiana, where there’s refineries
and—and some chemical plants. And when I would drive up to Michigan, I would go on Interstate 94 near Gary, Indiana and Whiting, Indiana, and—and Gary, Indiana, the air was so polluted that it would be orange and red from the steel mills. Anyway, so it was shocking what I found in the microscope because we had all of these phytoplankton species in the freshwater unpolluted stream area flowing into Lake Michigan near Gary, Indiana. In a matter of a few feet, after they had taken a sample of a—mixing with the polluted water, the living—most of the living natural algae were gone, only things left were a couple—about two mutant forms that didn’t look very healthy at all. And—and so—and—and this was in every single sample, that the algae were not surviving. And that summer of ’67, there were reports in the
news of—of huge fish kills washing up on—on Lake Michigan in Chicago, I mean, it was a national news story. And so it was obvious to me that the damage to Lake Michigan—I mean, they said that this—what we were seeing was not just a phenomenon happening there in Gary, Indiana area. But they were sampling all over the Great Lakes and—and they said that they were seeing similar signs of severe disruption to the normal, natural life forms there, the—the phytoplankton, the little animal species and so forth that live in the water. There were other people working on that and anyway, so it was really shocking to me that the Great Lakes were in great peril because I, you know, hadn’t heard this in any of the classes I had
taken yet. And—and so it introduced a whole concept to me that if we could devastate the Great Lakes, that the planet was next. That was—that was clear. And—and the thing is, even though I wasn’t involved in identifying the chemicals, they said that there were industrial chemicals that there was so much of it in the water that it was killing the life forms, the—the—the algae and—and the other members of the food chain. So that was a wakeup call that summer for me, that our environment was greatly contaminated and in great peril at—on a huge scale. And then also, I believe that same summer, I was staying with my brother in Detroit and commuting to Ann Arbor and one weekend we went to Lake Erie to swim and I had some big fins that I was swimming in the wa—and it was so polluted, that one of
them came off and I could never find it again. I mean, it just—like it just disappeared. I mean, the water was just—it was filthy, really filthy. So after a few minutes, I didn’t even want to swim in the stuff anymore. Yeah, I decided it was just so bad, but that was my only time that we ever went to swim in Lake Erie and it was—it was bad, very filthy.
DT: Carry us a long a little bit further in your education when you were still in the Midwest. What—what came next?
NC: Well, I went back to Iowa City in ’67 and started working on a master’s degree in botany. And what happened is I began to look at plant chemistry in terms of how you might identify different species using different phenolic compounds called flavonoids. And there was a whole new area in the biological sciences called Biochemical Systematics, not just looking at the primary chemistry, the proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but looking at—and in plants for example, secondary compounds of metabolism because plants have such amazing chemical profiles. And actually through the whole year before that, I had been looking at—at—at different flavonoids, chlorophylls, carotenoids, pigments. And I found the chemistry of the plants very fascinating as well. And so in part of my graduate program at Iowa City,
I wound up spending a summer in Austin in 1969 because the—the phytochemical laboratory here at the University of Texas at Austin was really just so much beyond what we had at Iowa City, that we could identify more compounds, we had more sophisticated analytical equipment. And after being here for about three months that summer, I decided that I wanted to come to Austin and work on a PhD. There was one gl—one glitch though, well, there were two glitches, no one—one, I already had just been enrolled in a grant program at Iowa City to—to be on a PhD and so I had to get out of that. And the other dilemma was much more difficult and that was my draft board wanted to get me to go into the U.S. Army for the Vietnam War. And I had put that off by saying that well, you know, I’m in graduate school and—and I
wanted to try to delay anything but they had been sending me for physicals and I claimed I had a bad knee from high school, so they had sent me several times to have me examined. And so finally in the fall of ’69, I had to go to the U.S.—to the Military Induction Center in Des Moines, Iowa. And I don’t talk about it much but I actually refused induction on December 3rd, I think 1969, because I just—I had been actually working at Iowa City applying for a conscientious objector status. But the draft board, unless you were Quaker or Mennonite, you were born in a pacifist religion, they wouldn’t give it to you. But a 1965 Supreme Court decision said that anybody who wanted to apply as a conscientious objector could do so, even if they weren’t raised in a—as a Quaker or Mennonite. And so I had been also going around
Iowa City speaking in different churches and meeting some of the Mennonite pastors and—and they were very sympathetic because I wasn’t raised in that kind of a pacifist religious background. But when I went to refuse induction, the draft board had completely ignored that, but my—the only administrative remedy I had was to go through the whole induction process, but to tell them I refuse to step forward. And that’s—tha—that was kind of the—the real moral s—challenge that I faced, was that you’re called into this room and at the induction center, which was a nice fully carpeted wood paneled room, compared to the—the rest of this dilapidated building. And then they would call your name off and, you know, like Neil Carman, U.S. Army and they would expect you to take one step forward, which was symbolic of your induction into the military service and then you were under military law. Well, when they called my name, I said, I’m refusing induction into the U.S. Army and I stood
there. I said I shall not step forward. And so they took me out of the room and for an hour they tried to get me to step forward but I said no, I said, I’m a conscientious objector and—and finally they let me go. And so then that was not very well received in Iowa City because it’s—it was in the newspaper and I had this—this fellowship at the university and—and so that caused some ripples there, that it didn’t make the university look very good. And so I said, well, I’m leaving; I’m going to Austin anyway in January to go to school. And—and so anyway, and in—in early January, the draft board left me alone, my case was sent to the U.S. Justice Department for possible prosecution. But there was a law professor and a local attorney who said that they had gone to school with the U.S. Attorney in Des Moines, Iowa. And they would have a meeting with him in the spring if 1970, that I should
have legally been given conscientious objector status and that the draft board had acted in violation of my constitutional rights. And so I got to Io—I got to Austin, it had been very cold in Iowa but in early January, I’d been calling down there and I told the—the faculty I’m coming and they said, okay, we have—we have pu—s—you know, a position here for you, because I needed—I needed the financial support. I was going to have a—a teaching assistantship. And anyway, so I got down there and I had told my major professor, Tom Avery, that—that I had refused induction and I didn’t know if U.S. Marshals were going to c—show up and arrest me and he
said, just keep your mouth shut. And so in March I got the phone call there in the Botany Department and—and from one of the attorneys and I called him back and he said, Neil, I have some great news for you. The U.S. Attorneys agreed not to prosecute you and because he feels that the draft board acted in error, that you, intellectually, matured late in life and—and you should’ve been given a CO and so they—they were referring your case back to the draft board. And—and that meant that I went into the lottery of ’69 with a number of over 300, which they were never going to call. So—so he said probably they’ll never go that high because the lottery had already been held and which means I wouldn’t even serve CO duty in a hospital or something for a couple of years. So that was the end of it, I never heard from my draft board again and I was off the hook, so to speak. And, you know, I mean,
obviously for me, the only—the only reservation I had is somebody had probably been called up in my ca—in—in my place afterwards, you know, but…
DT: Well—well didn’t this experience give you some inkling of—of what it meant to take a moral stand and—and a courageous stand in other kinds of circumstances, whether it was—in terms of peace and war or—or maybe for the environment. Do you think there’s a connection there?
NC: Yes, I think there is, it was a very powerful challenge that I went through from the time I was around a junior undergraduate about ’66 until ’69. It wa—because people were telling me on the one hand I was crazy to refuse induction, that I was risking five years in a federal penitentiary, a ten thousand dollar fine and be a convicted felon for the rest of my life, which would impact any job possibilities, you know, a convicted felon, oh that raises red flags. So—and some people were telling me I was crazy to even consider refusing induction because the federal judge in Des Moines, Iowa—if my case went before the federal judge, he was convicting every person that ha—e—every guy that had refused induction to—he was f—finding them guilty and c—and sentencing them to the maximum five years in jail, ten thousand
dollar fine and then you’re a convicted felon. So I—I was taking a huge risk but inside I—I just—I said, I—I cannot go and fight in the military, I don’t believe in that. Even growing up, when I would go out with one of my older brothers hunting, he would get angry because I would try to scare the—the—the squirrels and the rabbits away that he was trying to shoot, you know. And he would get—he’d get angry and threaten to shoot me. But anyway, so, you know, because I didn’t like to see that, but I liked to go on a—on—and—and—and be in nature. But I—I found it very disturbing because I could never kill anything like that. I just—I found hunting abominable. But—and so the whole idea of me being in the military was—I—I just couldn’t see it. But yet, the draft was a huge, you know, machine, it was federal law, I was part of the system and in fact, when I went to—to the induction in
December of ’69, they gave you a one-way bus ticket. You—you got on the bus and it was a one-way ticket to Des Moines. And I said, well, I’m coming back home, so I told one of my friends that went with me, I’m taking my car because I’m coming back, you know, if I don’t get arrested. And we stopped in Des Moines, Iowa at the Quaker Center that same day and went by to tell them, because I didn’t know what was going to happen and they told me I was crazy. They said, you’re going to be arrested, you’re probably going to be convicted, it’s going to destroy your whole life and they said it’s not worth it. They said go ahead and—and step forward and g—and—and be—go into the military and I just—I just couldn’t do that. And so for me that was, I think, the first huge moral test that I s—I faced in my life as to whether I was going to let this—this force on the outside overwhelm me and dictate my life or I
was going to take a different direction. And so when I walked out of the Des Moines, Iowa I—Military Induction Center the next day, because they kept us overnight, December 4th, 1969, I felt this—this weight of three years of wondering what I was going to do, was being lifted off of me because I had made a decision and—and it was, you know, no turning back, no turning back. So, I think that—that was a very important thing for me to do and then to find out that I wa—I didn’t have to serve in any way, you know, it gave me a, you know, a—a deal of inner peace and inner satisfaction that I had done the right thing.
DT: And—and I understand it also was the gateway to coming to Texas and this sort of brings us to the next chapter when you—you were at the University of Texas and you were researching phytochemistry and pursuing your PhD. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that and some of your first exposure to some of these solvents, I think, that you were talking about that you found in your lab.
NC: Well, coming to Austin was a—somewhat of a continuation of—of my, you know, academic training and education, the fieldtrips, because, again, I took a lot of fieldtrips, you know, looking at plants, collecting plants to study in the laboratory, so, yes, we were looking at certain phytochemicals. And I think one of the disturbing things in the laboratory though is that I’d look at these one gallon jugs of benzene or chloroform or acetone, whatever it was, and, you know, you—a lot of these bottles had skull and crossbone warning labels on them, that these were very toxic. And—and then they weren’t completely pure. There would be trace impurities in them, one, two or three percent, depending upon whether it was a reagent grade or—or technical grade. But, you know, the chemical companies would list some impurities
in there and then in some of the analytical equipment, you know, we would have problems with some of these impurities. So there was a lot of stuff in there, not just, you know, benzene, but all kinds of—of, you know, dozens, probably hundreds of other benzene derivatives from the manufacturing process. So, I became aware of the toxicity of a lot of these solvents because we would use them to extract certain compounds from the plants that we were interested in identifying. And I was getting some inhalation exposure, occasionally I’d get stuff on my hands. I know one day accidentally I got one drop of phenol, which is hydroxybenzene and that’s really bad stuff, again, the—the skull and crossbone warning labels and you were
supposed to work under a hood and blow it outside. I got one drop on me because I was trying to work with some special non-protein amino acids that I was looking at in these plants. And that one drop, I washed it off very quickly, but for the next few weeks, I remember that it affected my memory and I felt like, you know, I’d had a couple of beers or I had some alcohol in my system. I felt a little sluggish because mentally I was a good student and—and I—I, you know, worked very hard but I—I had a very, very good mind, a very good memory and suddenly I felt like, you know, ten or fifteen percent of my mind wasn’t working. It—it was slowed down, and for a couple of weeks I remember that just that one drop of phenol on my skin for maybe, you know, less than ten seconds, some of it had gotten absorbed, which I had never
considered before because I didn’t know much about my skin. But, you know, we—we—we did try to keep these things from getting on our skin. But that was, you know, one exposure that I got that, again, I—I was concerned about a lot of these chemicals we were working with. And—and that a lot of this stuff g—it got dumped down the drain at—at—at the biology lab building, which I thought was pretty bad. I—I encouraged some of the other people working in laboratory, the graduate students and the post-docs and the techs, we should be doing recycling of this stuff, you know, we could recycle it very easily, just collect it and use it again. And—and we had so much money and there was no policy in place that—just dump it down the drain, nobody wanted to mess with it. But I did quite a bit of recycling because I
thought that was the right thing to do. And so anyway, but I was aware that these—these hundreds of gallons of highly toxic solvents were going down the drain and—and going out into Waller Creek and then out, you know, towards Town Lake. So, that bothered me a great deal, but that was, you know, one of the challenges in working in the—in the laboratory. But at the same time, you know, I—we took fieldtrips, we collected plants, we went all over Texas, we went out to California, Arizona, we went into Mexico, w—I went down to South America, did a lot of fieldtrips, collecting plants to study for their chemistry. And—and so again, I mean, I—I love getting out in nature and I loved working in the laboratory except for the—the nasty s—solvents that we worked around. And then I remember sitting in my office one day around 1972, I would subscribe to a number of the journals and I
think it was the Journal of Science had a big article, EPA Declares Benzene Human Carcinogen and I—I said wow, that’s shocking because I didn’t know—I didn’t know much about carcinogens but I read the article and I said gee, I work with benzene almost every day, you know, routinely. And—and there’s other people working in the laboratory, so I was telling people, hey, this stuff is a carcinogen, we need to be really careful with it. And so anyway, but I—I very clearly remember that and so that was another wakeup call for me about chemicals. And at the same time, you know, I was taking a lot of advanced chemistry courses besides biochemistry and a lot of plant chemistry, so I—I had a good understanding biochemically what is
supposed to be in a human cell or a plant cell or a bacterial cell. And then, you know, these solvents that we were working with, I knew these shouldn’t be inside of living cells, inside of living organisms. And at that time, there were stories coming out about PCB contamination showing up in polar bears and whales around the world and so I had never heard of a PCB, a polychlorinated biphenyl, which is just two benzene rings stuck together with chlorine atoms. And so I—I begin to read about that, that, you know, I knew there was environmental pollution because of my experience in the n—summer of ’67 at the University of Michigan Great Lakes Research Center. So—so, you know, I was reading articles and then—and when I graduated in ’73, they—they ha—were short some faculty people to teach I—Introductory Biology and so I was able to stay a couple years and teach
Environmental Biology. And in Environmental Biology, I taught, I got one of the most up-to-date books on environmental science and—and I taught about these problems that were happening in the environment. And that these chemicals were getting into the food chain, they were probably in our bodies. And I t—at that time, of course, there were issues about nuclear energy and I—I said, well, if some of the scientists say there is no such thing as a safe level of radiation, so I was very opposed to nuclear power plants. And then I did a whole—several lectures on the whole issue of greenhouse gases and global warming, because at that time some of the ecologists were already writing articles in the journals about the fact that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was being measured in the late 50’s and 60’s and it was
going up. And the suspicion is it was due to—to fossil fuel combustion, burning of coal and gasoline and—and natural gas. And that we didn’t know what was going to happen, but the theory was that they already knew e—enough about the chemistry of carbon dioxide, that it was a—a—a heat trapping molecule and therefore, if you increased it in the atmosphere, you could have this greenhouse effect. And so in ’74 this was one of the ideas I was teaching about in the Environmental Biology Course 304 up at UT. I had about three hundred and fifty students and I said so, th—this is a problem that we’re going to be facing, you know, in the future as we, you know, burn more fossil fuels. So I said, you know, I didn’t know that much about renewables at the time, but anyway, so I was very concerned then about global
warming and carbon dioxide and about nuclear energy and about environmental pollution. So I had a very good foundation for understanding and also I was beginning to go to the food stores and look at what was in some of the containers, you know, of stuff I was buying and eating. And reading about the different dyes and chemicals and saying hey, you know, this is not stuff that’s designed for my cells, for my biochemistry. So I was beginning to become alert about the need to try to eat better, but there wasn’t much in the way of organic foods out there. And so in the—and then after I left the University, within a few years I went to work for the Texas Air Control Board. I was very, very interested in environmental pollution
issues. It—it ju—ag—it was something that wouldn’t—I couldn’t get out of my system and so in 1980 I had applied for a job, either here or in Odessa. And I decided to go out to Odessa to a field office because I could be involved with the monitoring, with the plant inspections, of industrial facilities, permitting, enforcement, complaints, everything that the Agency did, I could be involved with at the field office. And I thought that sounded, you know, much more fascinating than sitting in an office in Austin where a lot of people smoked, which, a—oh, I didn’t like. But anyway, so I—I went out there in August of 197—80 and I think it was the second day there that there was a complaint about this little plant, it was a—a fertilizer plant, but it emitted hydrochloric acid. So we went out a couple miles on
the east side of Odessa and it was a complaint from the cemetery, Sunset Memorial Gardens. And they said that they could smell acid in the air and I remember asking the guy going out there with me, Mark Neuman, I said, well, what—what is this plant emitting and he said hydrochloric acid, I said, you’re kidding. I—I was really sh—shocked that somebody could have a chemical plant that would put out acid into the air because I had worked with it in the laboratory. And sure enough, you know, we got out there and we c—I—I said, yeah, I can smell acid in the air, it smells like hydrochloric acid to me, I could feel it burning my ears, my skin, my eyes, my nose. And so I don’t recall if we wrote a violation, but I was really shocked that—that, you know, we were like about a—maybe a quarter of a mile downwind of this little—it
was little fertilizer plant where they took sulfuric acid and potassium chloride and cooked it up and the waste product was hydrochloric acid. And then their fertilizer was potassium sulfate, okay. And—and the funny thing about that permit, which in—in the end wasn’t very funny, is that they had applied for it in the late seventies, around ’77, ’78, as a zero emission plant. They were not going to emit any hydrochloric acid, it was going to be a state-of-the-art plant with all these fancy controls, electronic controls, super clean facility and the plant was just the—it was just a nightmare. It—it was a mess. And—and so that was one of the challenges that I faced the first eight years there because the plant had so many problems that people complained, I mean, it had hundreds of complaints. And it got to the point
where nobody else that I worked with even wanted to go out there because you were getting e—subjected if you went on the plant site, you would be subjected. If we went up on the tailings tower to even take a sample, that they were violating their zero emissions limit in the permit, you—yo—it might be raining down hydrochloric acid, so you’d have to get your boots on and a big fancy rubber raincoat and—and a—your hardhat and be protected. And yet I’d come home and I’d have holes in my shirts, in my socks, in my pants. And—and nobody wanted to go up in this eighty-five foot tower because when you went up, the solid steel, you know, a platform on each step had been eaten up and totally corroded and they had put new plywood down so you’d never know if you put your foot down, if it was going to go through and you
were going to go crashing down somewhere, so it was very dangerous. And the other guys I worked with didn’t want anything to do with that plant anymore and because I had been hired as the chief of this Stack Sampling Team and a more technical position with all my chemistry and my lab experience, they said, Neil, that’s your—that’s your baby out there, that—that—that hydrochloric acid plant. So I wound up, you know, responding to most of the complaints during the day and at night and I would issue violation after violation after violation. So in 1984, there was a Sunset Review going on of the Texas Air Control Board and the Texas Water Commission and I didn’t know anything about Sunset Review. But then in the spring of ’85, when the legislature was in session, there was these big news stories about how the executive director of the Texas Air Control Board was testifying at the
legislature and somebody had raised the issue of this plant out in Odessa, Texas called Permian Chemical. And—and that it was an environmental nightmare because the Agency had issued hundreds of violations by then, lots of violations and—and they said that somehow they had figured out that I was the one who had done most of it and that I’d spent about fifty percent of my time on that one case and that the Agency hadn’t gotten anything out of it. So the legislature used that as one of the horror stories of the Air Board and some other case of the Water Commission and said we need to have tough enforcement policies. And so in September 1 of ’85, there was a new mandatory enforcement program that went into effect for the Air Board and the Water Commission. And suddenly, then, if a company had a serious
violation or it went on too many days or—or more than, like, three violations in a certain period, it—it resulted in mandatory enforcement. Well, we already have a l—had a lawsuit going on against this acid plant and we got them in contempt and we got them—and we got injunctions against them, they were cited for contempt. My problem was I was getting sick and my boss was very upset because I was staying home sometimes for one or two or three days because I was getting exposed to so much acid, it was eating my lungs and I was sick at home and he was upset because, you know, I needed to be more careful. And I did have a respirator but, you know, I would go into, like, the reactor building out at this plant where they had the three reactors where they were cooking up this stuff. And I’d go in there and put my respirator on and take a measurement of the acid in the air and the guy with me,
for the plant, Herb Richardson, would say, well, I don’t smell any acid in here, Neil. And I said, well, look at the reading Herb, and I’d have my gas mask on and—and we’d—we’d get of there. And—and yet I noticed that the enamel was eaten off these guys teeth, the copper was eaten off of their belt buckles. And, of course, we called that plant Ground Zero because everything around it for a quarter mile, the vegetation was dead, the copper—the electric company had called us one morning there in Odessa and said, well—or no, we called them because we heard people were complaining and the plant said their power had been turned off. And we called the power company there in Odessa, said, yeah, we shut their power off because
the pollution was so bad. And we said you can’t do that, you’re making it worse. And—and sure enough the—the electricians out there said that it was so bad, that the acid was eating the transformer’s—the copper, the copper in the transformers and causing the transformers to short out and it was causing fires. And so these guys with the power company, we’d meet them out there and they said this—this is a—a real nightmare, because they said, if they go up on that pole and it shorted out and it catches fire or it explodes, they could be killed or seriously burned or injured. And so they were starting to put up these—these two foot, tattle-tale, these copper strips and the copper strips, if the acid had been emitted by the plant and gone towards that transformer pole, they could see that the copper strip had turned green overnight because the acid, hydrochloric acid, would attack the copper and cause a
copper chloride, which is a green compound. So I was just like, wow. So we started putting pennies out around the plant c—because, you know, to prove a new violation based on a complaint from one of the neighbors, they had already destroyed fences, buildings, storage tanks, cars, trucks, I mean, once the corrosion started, we couldn’t write a new violation on it. We could only—we could only use a fence or a building or a vehicle once. And then, if there was new—new violations, we had to have new evidence of corrosion. So we started putting out copper pennies and the—and the pennies would turn green overnight. And—and so then we’d send them to the lab in Austin and Scott Emgerbrough in the lab would identify the compound in there has Cooper’s chloride as evidence that it—of a attack by hydrochloric acid on the co—on the copper. And s—and then our c—pennies began to disappear and the
plant people said, oh, some bums come through and pick up your pennies. So we had to hide the pennies then, you know, because we could use the pennies as evidence that the plant was vio—was causing a nuisance, causing a nuisance based on laboratory evidence, that they were violating their permit and causing a nuisance. And so one day when were in—in court and citing the company in contempt, Scott was out there testifying about the—the copper pennies that he was analyzing in the laboratory. And—and so then I remember the judge asked one of the investigators, well, whose idea was it to put copper pennies out there and he said, well, that was Neil Carman and I hadn’t testified yet. But, I mean, anyway, so were trying to do whatever we could and a copper penny was a one cent air pollution monitoring device that worked very well. And the plant finally went into bankruptcy in 19—I
think it was 88, and—because of—a flood had come through and caused lots of damage. But—but the year before that, there had been a private lawsuit by the cemetery against the plant. And I had been subpoenaed to testify by the cemetery and their lawyers because I had a PhD in botany, I had already written reports about how in my opinion the damage to the trees and the shrubs at the cemetery was due to hydrochloric acid. And I had ruled out, you know, automobile pollution and acid rain. And I had—I had written this report and based on that report, my boss wrote er—ha—ha—issued a nuisance violation to the company and the company was very upset. So when this lawsuit happened, I was subpoenaed and the lawyer defending
the company was an attorney in Austin named Steve McConnico, who brought with him an attorney named Kirk Watson. And so Kirk Watson is the one who gave me a deposition there in Odessa about 198—it was around ‘87 or ‘88, and Kirk Watson was just a young law—lawyer out of law school, very sharp and he was trying to defend his client there, Permian Chemical, because he was working with Steve McConnico. And the people at the Attorney General’s office had told me that Steve McConnico was one of the top trial lawyers in Texas. But they lost that case and—and then they were also trying to defend Permian Chemical against the state’s lawsuit. And after that was over, Steve McConnico came by our office one day and said, well, he said I don’t think I’m going to take another environmental case, he said, especially when
you have people like Neil Carman working for you because you’re—you’re the—he said the Agency had done a very good job in the case. And—and he just said he—he didn’t want any more environmental cases.
DT: Well, I have a question to ask you…
DT: You’ve been telling us about Permian Chemical, the—the whole escapade there, but then there was a—a second case that you worked on for many years, which had a lot of aspects to it and it involved a company called DynaGen based here in Odessa. Can you tell about that situation?
NC: Well, at the same time the Permian Chemical plant was coming to a close because of bankruptcy and we had been using the nuisance rule out there and taking air samples against that plant, we had a bigger problem on the south side of Odessa with General Tire and Rubber where they had DynaGen became. It had a synthetic rubber plant where they emitted styrene and butadiene, some very toxic chemicals. And the whole s—the whole—sometimes the whole city of Odessa would smell of styrene’s, it smells like airplane glue. And I lived about almost five miles on the north side of the city, five miles from the plant, and at night I could not go outside because it was so bad in my backyard and I said that’s styrene from General Tire. And yet, unless people complained, we couldn’t do anything about it. But the people on the south side were mostly poor, blacks, Latino’s and a few poor white people.
But so, you know, I was handing my card out but we were forbidden from going door to door soliciting complaints because the Agency warned us, the attorney said no, you—we—they would come after us if we—if we’re—if we’re accused of—of—of soliciting people to—to complain. So I would just, whenever people would make a complaint, I would give a bunch of my cards out and tell people to pass them around, that they had a right to clean air and that they could file complaints. And although we couldn’t shut the plant down, we could issue violations. And so in the late 80’s, we began to respond more vigorously because of the nuisance rule, because of the 1985 Enforcement Provisions and—and we—we would get complaints.
And so in ’89 we’d had enough that—that there was I think two Enforcement Actions that occurred in ’88 and ’89. But what happened then against the incinerator, against the waste ponds and the incinerator, they were burning their waste rubber and problems with that, and—and then styrene from their process units. So we began to, you know, hit the plant with violations because of people complaining. I mean, it was horrendous out there, horrendous for years, as I had noticed when I went out there in 1980, so this was not a new problem. And the worst thing, there was an elementary school, Hays Magnet Elementary School right across Interstate 20 from this plant and the tea—a couple of teachers had been there since the 50’s and they said it—it was a nightmare. It was very hard for them to teach there and the people in the neighborhood said it had stunk forever. And so these people had
been looking for some kind of solution, some kind of justice. So in the spring of ’89, we had been through—we were on the second, I think, agreed order against the plant. And—and then, I had been out there on their incinerator, because the incinerator was—was a mess. It would smoke in exceedance of its permit limit on opacity and the permit had just been renewed without going through any testing, which I thought was terrible. And so the company got upset and they hired a lobbyist out of Houston with Baker Botts, named Larry Feldcamp. And I was called, even before my boss told me this, I was called by a man at the plant named Ken Shibel, who worked there, and he said, Neil, they’ve hired a l—a guy from Houston who’s going to get you off their back. This is what he told me around—around early March. And sometime in late April, my boss called me into his office and s—said
Neil, you’re not on the DynaGen case anymore, the word has come down from Steve Spaw in Austin, th—the deputy director, that you are officially off the case.. Except, I said, well, what about complaints, what—what if we get complaints at night or weekends and I’m on call one week a month? Okay, well, if that happens, you can go out there and if you think it’s a problem, then you need to get another investigator confirm it because they’ve accused you of bias because you’re—you’ve been writing so many violations against their incinerator, against their waste ponds, against their process units. And—so in the course of the summer of ’89, what happened was, every time I was on call for one week to do—if—if I wanted to respond com—to after-hours complaint duty at night or weekends, there were complaints about DynaGen General Tire from people living in the south side because it stunk. And so I was out there saying, yes, it’s this and—and it smells like styrene
and it was really bad. And—and then on top of that, one night when I was on call, I got a call about midnight, Saturday night, and i—it was the wife of a man who worked at a neighboring plant, who was afraid—Jim Jensen was afraid to call me from the El Paso Products plant next door, that the incinerator was smoking. But he was upset about it because his family, his wife and four kids lived just a few miles downwind and they could smell it. And Jim said, well Neil, I can’t call you and complain from work because they wouldn’t like that. I said, well, Jim, call your wife and tell her that it’s smoking like a turkey again, that—and then tell her to call me.
And so she calls me up at midnight on a Saturday night and I think this was around, I don’t know, late May or early June of 1989 and she said Neil, I don’t know what it means, but Jim just told me to call you and said it’s smoking like a turkey over there. And I knew that this was a sign that the incinerator was smoking and because they’re overloading it with waste rubber. This is what I had been told by this man, Ken Shibel, that they were ordered at night to—to o—overload the incinerator. And he was an electrician in the plant and—and he would come in the next day and they had—it—and—and the incinerator would be so overloaded that it would—it would over—overheat the electrical wires and—and melt them and burn the—the—the plastic on it. So he said the electrical controls would be shutting
down, the a—a—the pneumatic loading system would be damaged because this rubber was so—so dense and they were trying to force it in there and burn it, huge amounts of waste rubber they were trying to get rid of. And so I went out there and as it turns out, it wasn’t the incinerator. They were illegally burning—well, no, they were—they’d had a problem one night with the incinerator that I caught. And then another time at night, they were illegally burning the waste rubber just in a pile, which is unauthorized outdoor burning, and it was horrific. And so I was able to get another investigator and go into the plant like, you know, late at night, and—and document these violations. But what happened in early September of ’89, the Agency decided to trash all those violations. They decided no—they had n—they had never issued them, I had written the reports and they were very good violations and I had sent copies of them to David Preister at the Attorney General’s office at his
home and he said, Neil, privately, he told me they’re very good violations, lots of documentation, good evidence, he said, I don’t have any problems with it. But anyway, so in September, early September, I went in one day and I just had this strange feeling in the office because the—the—the violation reports had recommended—were—had been sitting in—in my boss’ inbox for weeks, maybe in s—some cases, a—a month or so, wh—and normally they—they—he moved them through right away. And so I asked the secretary, Debbie, has Charlie talked to anybody from Austin? And she said, yeah, Bob Moll called about ten minutes ago. And so what happened that day, was all these reports disappeared and—and after—and they weren’t in his inbox and I didn’t them on his desk that day and I didn’t ask
him, he was keeping quiet about it. And so what happened is, after everybody left at five, I went around the office, I looked in the files and they weren’t in the files, well there—there were—the—parts of them were in the files, but the originally—original ones I had fi—I had written, were in his trash can. I pulled them out of the trash can and I called a couple of the other investigators that Friday night and they were shocked, they were shocked. And—and so, you know, I had also asked for a memo from Charlie Sims and he’d gotten one from Steve Spaw, as to why I was officially off of this case, okay. And it wasn’t a—because I had done anything wrong, I hadn’t violated any Agency policies or rules or procedures, but, you know, they just felt it was better that I not go out there. And so I was appalled at this, and—
and this had happened to other investigators that had met around the state and—and the attorneys had come in on behalf of other companies trying to—they didn’t like violations and so they had complained and—and tried to make these bogus charges of bias against some investigator, you know, it happened to a couple of other guys. But this was the most outrageous example. And so also in—in that September of ’89, I had met with a couple of newspaper reporters from the Austin American-Statesman, Brenda Bro and Bill, can’t think of his last name, anyway, what happened is, they came out, they—they looked at a lot of documents, they met some people in the neighborhoods, they met this plant worker, Mr. Shibel, who basically confirmed how bad things were in the plant. It confirmed what I was saying; they had these violation reports and the copies that were being thrown away. And so in early October of ’89, there was a front page co-headline story,
which is not what I was seeking, I was seeking maybe a small little article on the back of the paper, for the Agency to do its job. And it was a huge article, Air Board Removes Investigator after Polluter Complains and the company—and—and their attorneys and the Agency had threatened to sue the paper. So—so the paper said, Neil, can we quote you? I said you can quote me as much as you want. So my name was in there. I called my brother that morning in San Marcos, I sa—I said, Gary, is there an article in the paper about me, he said, oh, Neil, it’s front page, co-headlines. I said, am I mentioned? He said, oh Neil, it’s every sentence you’re quoted. Oh my God, I never expected this—this huge story, you know, it wasn’t really what I wanted. But anyway, so what happened is the Agency asked me what I wanted, if I wasn’t going to file a whistleblower claim and I said, well, Eli Bell, the executive director personally flew out to Odessa. And it was either a la—I think it
was late October, early November of ’89 and I picked him up at the airport and I was all dressed up in a suit because I was meeting the head of the Agency, but he was in street clothes, the first time I’d ever seen him without a coat and tie and, you know, everything. He was in street clothes and I said, well, Ely, do you want to go to the office, do you want to go out to General Tire? He said, no, he said, we just need to get together and talk. And—and so in the car, he kept…
[End of tape 2402]
DT: We—we’re resuming with Neil Carman here on February 23rd, 2008 and talking about the situation with the DynaGen case and how the Agency was trying to respond to—to Neil’s reports from the field. And the executive director comes out to visit with you, Ely Bell. What happened?
NC: Well, I think Ely Bell was very concerned that I was going to file a whistleblower complaint against the Agency, which w—they didn’t need because they already a couple pending from some guys in Austin over asbestos issues at the capitol and the criminal complaint alleged by John Worley and administrative law judge against John Turney, the general counsel. And so they were in deep water and so he begged me not to file a whistleblower complaint. And I said—so I n the car, as we were riding along, and he’s in street clothes, which I thought was very strange, he kept asking me over and over again, Neil, what can I do to make you happy? And I would respond, I said, Ely, we need to enforce the Clean Air Act against this company. He
said Neil, what can I do to make you happy? I said Ely; we need to clear the Odessa Agency office of—of the bias charges. Neil, what can I do to make you happy? I said, well Ely, I would like to be put back on the case, okay. Neil, what can I do to make you happy? And I—after it was—after that meeting was over that morning for a couple hours, I’m convinced he was wired with a tape recorder and he was trying to see if I was going ask for something like, you know, some money or some favoritism, other than doing my job. And—and so we went to a restaurant and after he went into the bathroom and came out, he didn’t ask me that question anymore, Neil, what can I do to make you happy. It’s like that was a question for the first thirty to forty-five minutes in the car and—a—it didn’t strike me ‘til later that I
believe he was wired and he was trying to see if they could get me to say something that they could use against me to fire me and—and just say I was a—a disgruntled employee or some person, kind of unbalanced. But anyway, so then I had asked him at—at breakfast that morning, I said Ely, would you like to go out to General Tire and he said no. So then on the way back to the airport, I drove him by Permian Chemical and I remember him sitting in the passenger seat and I said Ely, there’s Permian Chemical to your right. And he took one look and he put his head down (?) and that was another nightmare, you know, that had happened in ’84 and ’85 before the Sunset Review Process in the legislature. But anyway, so what happened in the DynaGen case was very good because they referred it to the Attorney General’s office in late November. And in early December of 1989, center—s—Assistant
Attorney General Davie Preister came out and—and I went with him to the Ector County Court House to file the lawsuit against General Tire and ask for a temporary injunction against the incinerator. And—and what we found out is that the incinerator was so badly damaged from being overloaded, that the steel shell, which was like over an inch thick, had been warped, buckled and cracked on the out—exterior, it was physically destroyed, the refractory inside the afterburner was d—damaged and a lot of it was missing. And so our engineers concluded that it was physically a destroyed incinerator. And that was part of the lawsuit that they could not ever operate the incinerator again unless they were going to fully repair it.
DT: You were telling just a moment ago about how the DynaGen case finally did go to court and you got an injunction and…
NC: It turned into the largest air pollution lawsuit that the s—State Attorney General’s office has ever handled to this day for air pollution violations. And it was—we had hundreds of violations, I was put back on the case. We’d basically blanketed the entire plant, even the waste water areas, which we hadn’t gone after much before because that was usually under the Water Commission. But we—we—the A—Attorney Genoff—General’s office did a very smart thing, they ordered the company to do a complete environmental audit of the plant. And it sho—we—they brought us a couple month later with boxes of documents and it showed that they had a lot of problems. And so the—the agreed final judgment came down in 1990, the case was—was settled but it was a very exhaustive a—agreement that the plant had to
pay some fines and spend a lot of money to—to—to do a lot of reductions on styrene and—and so forth. So, I think the case turned out very, very well. It was a success. But I think the Agency had tried to sabotage it in the beginning.
DT: Maybe we can use the DynaGen case as—as an opportunity to look at some issues at the Agency. One thing I’ve always been curious about is that—that—that the Agency and the Clean Air Act in general is—is—I think relies very heavily on self-reported data, that the industries monitor their own facilities then turn over the data to the Agency and then that’s the bulk of what you use to build permits and to monitor vi—violations. But that the—the inspections that you were doing were really just sort of a—a check on that, it wasn’t supposed to be the main part of the regulatory program. What do you think about this self-reporting data? Was it reliable, was it complete?
NC: Well, there were big problems with it. The report—the self-reporting for the nitrogen oxides, the silver dioxide, the carbon oxide, that was heavily monitored with monitors—continuous emission monitors in the stacks. But the volatile organic compounds, a lot of these toxic chemicals like benzene, butadiene, styrene, there was no monitoring of that at the stacks or in the process areas of the fence line. So the companies would just turn in some numbers for their VOC’s. And—and then there were—there were maybe very poor health effects evaluations, if they existed at all. And so this plant was emitting a lot of styrene and it was—air—air p—smelled like airplane glue, it stunk and it was because they would be doing maintenance activities at the plant or they would have an upset. And sometimes they would
report it, sometimes they wouldn’t. But there were—yes, the—the self-reporting of the volatile organic compounds, the air toxics part of—of their pollution was completely, you know, th—they were just giving us numbers. They—they—it wasn’t based on a lot of real testing. And—and then there wasn’t much evaluation by the Agency of this. So I know when the company had come in, in ’89, to expand and to put in some new dryer ovens, there was a big issue in the permit division in Austin with Karen Horn about what number do we—do we valuate the styrene with, do we use this micrograms per cubic meter, twenty-five or fifty or a hundred, you know.
And I didn’t know this until after I left the Agency and I found some files on another case in Beaumont where I saw a memo from Karen Horn to the toxicologist raising these issues and mentioning the DynaGen plant in Odessa, that she wasn’t sure what number to use for the effects screening level. And I was shocked at this because I always thought that these effects screening levels were pretty, pretty, you know, set, but it was obvious that—that they were kind of moving targets. And—and, you know, the Agency claims it was set to protect public health but I think that’s complete fa—fraud. I…
DT: And—and the—just so that I understand, the health effects screening guidelines were—were designed to be gauged to—to protect human health, ambient air quality with some buffer of safety, is that correct?
NC: That’s a general—that’s generally correct, but I know that when we were working on the Permian Chemical case and the whole issue of hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid in the air, and we were taking so many samples out there, that the health—the toxicologists in the Agency in Austin had been calling us, begging us for all of this data because we were getting—we were having irritating skin and eyes and lungs at very low levels, below their effects screening levels. And we were confirming the presence of the HCL, we were taking samples in the air for thirty minutes to an hour or we were taking indicator tube readings, which were, you know, we had an indicator tube for hydrochloric acid. So, we—it—it s—proved to me that the Agency’s effects screening levels were not very well determined, that they were—many of them were too high, okay. And because we had people in the
area around Permian Chemical who got very sick, I mean, one man who had pneumonia and he couldn’t go to work anymore, they had to se—ship him to another plant site to work. And so we were very concerned about, you know, the kind of exposures that we were ve—people were getting around these plants. And—and DynaGen was just styrene, butadiene, there were—their incinerator, I found out that their waste ponds ha—were giving off hydrogen sulfide gas even though they de—tried to deny it, because of all the sulfates, the waste that they had dumped in there from their process. That these hundred and sixty-four acres of solar evaporation ponds were full of this solid waste at the bottom, that the bacteria were turning into hydrogen sulfide gas. And in the summer, a rain storm—a wind storm would come through and agitate the pond and all this H2S would come gassing out of the pond
and make people sick. And so I remember going out there on a boat, saying—I said, I want to go and see what’s in your pond and they were trying to deny it. And so we—we, you know, we were allowed to go in there and take samples and I brought up this—couple of gallons of this sludge. And when we tested it, it had very high levels of hydrogen sulfide in it, huge amounts. So then we ordered them to go and—and clean those ponds out because they had been given an award in 1984 by the Texas Water Commission for these new state-of-the-art solar evaporation ponds to evaporate their wastewater. But it was all this—this toxic waste stuff that was in the bottom that—it was a mess and they tried to cover that up. So anyway, you know, and wastewater was an area that we didn’t typically go after, but again,
hydrogen sulfide, all we could go by really was the Agency had a standard there. They didn’t have standards for most of these chemicals like benzene and butadiene and styrene. But they had a standard for H2S and we were able to get violations there and—and also nuisance violations. But the effects screening levels, I began to become very suspicious of in the Agency because I experienced health effects myself at levels that the Agency thought were okay.
DT: You mentioned one thing in s—in passing about upsets and it seems for years the Air Board had this loophole for which they could say, well our plant had a little hiccup, a little belch and, you know, there was a release but that was an upset and—and you wouldn’t be able to cite them. Is that—is that correct? Is that something that came up with DynaGen?
NC: Yes, it came up with DynaGen, I mean, basically, in my experience in the Agency for twelve years, almost everyday somebody would call in an upset. And you could look in some of these files and just see hundreds and hundreds of these reports that—that a plant—all they had to do under the law is as long as they called in under general rule, one important point, six or seven or the exemption. They just had to call in and they were off the hook, unless somebody complained, rarely did we have complaints. But at General Tire, they were doing maintenance activities and digging out some waste pits full of this r—waste rubber goo full of styrene and butadiene. And whenever they would do that, the whole south side of the city would be just gassed. It was just horrible, people would complain. So then we made—we took enforcement action, that was the first—the first nuisance violations against General Tire, DynaGen in ’88 for waste pit cleaning causing nuisance, even though
they had reported it under the general rules, maintenance activities 111.7. But people complained and we determined it was a nuisance and they wound up having to cover the waste pits with steel covers and—and being more careful when they cleaned them out. But, you know, yeah, th—I mean, that was a huge loophole because generally there was no investigation of these high levels of emissions when people would report an upset. We just—unless somebody complained, which was not very typical, we just filed the report away in the company’s file, thousands of these reports, thousands.
DT: And it seems like a lot of these reports that were coming from—as—as complaints from neighbors, were from the neighboring community that I—I gather was poor, black, Hispanic, some whites, but did—did you see an environmental injustice aspect to this?
NC: Yes, it—it was—South Odessa was very much the poor area of town, south of the railroad tracks there that went through. It was be—it was just north of—along Interstate 20. It—it wa—you could tell the ho—the homes were poor because they were small and dilapidated. They were minority, so there definitely was an environmental injustice issue. And I met a lot of these people and they would tell me how their—their daughter was trying to go to the—the elementary school there and would be so sick from the pollution, that the child would be home sick from s—sick, you know, from the pollution and wo—could not go to school for, you know, maybe two, three days a week. And so—and then the teachers at the school said it was horrible and—and they were mostly minority kids, although it was a magnet school, what I saw there were mostly, you know, black and Latino kids. And it was
outrageous to consider an elementary school right across the Interstate from this plant and some other plants too, but this—this rubber plant was the worst culprit. And—and so there was definitely an environmental justice aspect to it. And then in ’89, the Agency did start doing some monitoring there. They came out with a—a little device to take samples of the styrene. But I didn’t like the way the device was going to operate because it was going to take a sample over like twenty-four hours, regardless of wind conditions. And I said, hey, if the wind blows from the wrong direction, it’s not going to see anything if it—if it—it has to blow right from the plant and the wind doesn’t always do that. So I remember writing a memo to Doyle Pendleton in Austin about this and Doyle went ballistic. I heard he was screaming my name in the hallways, you know, because I said, hey, you know, if—if this—if the wind does not cooperate, then the monitor will say there is no problem at this
school, when it stinks and people are getting sick. And so he was very, very unhappy about this memo I wrote, you know. But I was just being really very honest and logical about the fact that if you sample over a long period of time and—and the monitor’s not wind activated, so, you know, it’s going to pick up, you know, whatever is in the air from whatever direction. And if it’s sampling clean air, it’s going to say it’s clean air. And I said this is—to me, this was an outrage because people had lived there for thirty years be—being polluted with very toxic chemicals, day and night. Some people told me they had to go to hotels or motels or get out. It was so bad they couldn’t stay in their homes and these people, most of them had children. And so it was a very outrageous situation of environmental justice, although we didn’t have any policy about that, but everybody in the office there,
the Air Board office in Odessa, knew that the people on the south side were poor minority people and they couldn’t hire lawyers, you know. Anyway, so it—it was a—it was a very tragic situation and that was part of the reason that inspired me to—to try to—to document the violations of the law to the best of my ability and to go public. When the Agency decided to—to take me off the case and cover this up, I said this is unacceptable on behalf of the suffering people in the south side. I said this is not what the law says. I said the Agency is wrong and—and that’s what motivated me to go public. If there had been nobody living there, well, that would’ve been fine, I wouldn’t have worried about it. But there were, you know, these people living there that had a right to clean air and the Agency had its job to
do. So—an—and then I met other investigators from all over the state, from Houston, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, El Paso. I heard similar stories about people living in these neighborhoods near the chemical plants and the refineries. They were, in many cases, poor and minority and it was horrific living in these communities, really bad. And, you know, and this plant, General Tire DynaGen, in 1989 was listed as one of the toxic forty plants in Texas and the U.S. because of its high of toxic air emissions of—of butadiene and styrene. And that data was released in the spring of ’89 by Congressman Henry Waxman. So when this whole story went public in October, about this plant, you know, hiring lobbyists to get me off their back, it was a scandal because this was one of the toxic, dirty industrial plants in the
State of Texas. And I was speaking out on behalf of the people and the picture that this S—American Statesman ran on that, I think, October 6th, 1989 Sunday, was a picture of the elementary school with the plant in the background. And so it s—and it showed kids playing there at the school. And that set the stage for showing what an outrageous example of poor enforcement this was on behalf of the Agency. And then to take—and I was painted as a—a very, you know, h—honorable investigator. I had never done anything wrong, not been threatened with termination. My fellow inspectors said that they had the highest respect for me and regards. But that was one—another reason I was frustrated because some days when I would be out somewhere else in our thirty-four county region investigating problems or permits and there were complaints on General Tire, some of the other investigators didn’t
have the backbone I had and wouldn’t write violations no matter how bad it smelled and when people complained. So I would come back to the office and in the afternoon or find out the next morning about the complaints and I would be outraged because I would ask the inspectors and they’d say yeah, it was kind of stinky out there, but they didn’t want to do all the paperwork, okay. And, you know, b—that was a—I don’t know, maybe it was partially fear on the part of some of the investigators. They didn’t want to deal with the company people and the lawyers that they knew that this whole thing could, you know, create a mess for. And—and so there was some, I think, fear and paranoia on s—on the part of some of the investigators.
DT: Fear of them [IA].
NC: Yes, yes, yes, because some of the companies, you know, I would ask them, I’d say well, you can either spend money fixing your problems or hiring lawyers, take your pick. And General Tire decided to hire lawyers and it was a mistake, okay.
DT: Can you help us put General Tire and—and the—the sort of situation out there with—with DynaGen, in perspective? This—this TRI list, the Toxic Release Inventory list that came out from Congressman Waxman’s office, showed that there was—that there was a pattern like this across the State of Texas, of toxic places, air pollution problems. Can you talk about what you learned from that?
NC: Well, what I knew is that the list was mostly chemical plants and refineries and a few other facilities like the Asarco Smelter in El Paso. And I had been out there and seen—we—I went out there to El Paso because—since I was in charge of the West Texas Regional Stack Sampling Team, we were sent out to—to El Paso for two weeks with a team from Austin to s—to—to—to check all of the stacks, including the eight hundred and twenty-eight foot s—lead stack, which is ju—it’s bigger than this house. And we had to sample these twenty foot ducts and at vertical angle and we were told if we dropped the—the sixteen foot probes we had, glass probes, that was it, we didn’t have anymore. And so to hold onto to those and we were out there for hours holding onto these probes, pulling them in and out of the ducts and just
sampling huge amounts of lead and sulfur dioxide. And I had these company, Asarco people, standing over my shoulder. I was down in a trailer running all the—the equipment. But that was a—that was a nightmare out there at El Paso at the Asarco Smelter, the copper smelter with lead and all this stuff. So, and—and—and one of the most outrageous things that happened is that in the morning, we would go over to the El Paso Air Board Regional Office to check in, saying, hey, we still alive, we’re still working, we haven’t gone to Mexico, you know. And so anyway, but right there, they—they would get a phone call in the morning from Asarco saying that we are in a twenty-four upset condition. We are reporting our twenty-four upset as we’re required to out—to do under with the law and so we’re off the hook. So I asked Manuel Aguirre—all the—the two other guys with me were curious, does
Asarco do this very much? Oh, they been doing it all—every day, they’ve been doing this. They were told by their attorney, Kennan Goldman, here in Austin, that it was a legal loophole under the law, as long as they made their twenty-four hour upset call every day, they were off the hook. Ye—whatever they were doing out there. I guess they—I don’t even think they had a permit, but somehow they were exceeding, maybe a grandfather level, doing something, you know, above what they were authorized to—thought they were allowed to do. So they were calling—they did this for a long time, Manuel said he couldn’t do anything about it. And I think finally the—the Air Board sent—the Board sent them a nasty letter saying if they didn’t stop, they were going to sue them over it. So—but that smelter, that was—that was one of the nastiest experiences I had in my twelve years at the Agency because we
had to get lead b—blood tests before we went there because we were concerned about getting lead exposure, so we were wearing respirators. The plant was a—a—just a disaster. It’s—the thing looked like something out of the 1800’s, you know, this—because we saw enough of it. And—and—and the lead—the lead signs were everywhere; you could see this fine gray dust everywhere. You know, we’d put our probes into the stacks when we tested one of the—the units, the zinc stack and we’d pull them out, it’d be covered with lead dust, you know, this dirty dust. And—and—anyway, that wa—that was a nightmarish experience that I had and it, you know, just taught me again about how poorly regulated these big industrial plants are. And that was—that was at the beginning and that was in May of 1981. And—and the two guys that were with me doing the stack sampling for the Agency and the other team,
we all got very cranky by the second week because we didn’t like being there every day for eight, nine hours testing—testing the stacks, okay. It wasn’t—it wasn’t any fun.
DT: Neil, it’s—it’s interesting that you—you told us stories about what was going on in Odessa and what was happening in El Paso, but then this TRI report comes out from the federal government and—and you start to get an idea from that as well as some of your visits with other inspectors from other regional offices that—that there’s a whole pattern of—of pollution problems across the state. And—and it seemed like that led you to maybe a new job and…
NC: Well, and also the stack, because of the—about my stack sampling duties, we had been to—out to El Paso, we’d been up to Lubbock, over to Abilene. One—one year all four investigators quit at Lubbock, so I went up there to go to—to—to the carbon black plants at Borger and the refinery. So I got to see enough of this and also with the training that, you know, it was obvious Texas had big problems and—and s—that there were a lot of these dirty refineries and chemical—petrochemical plants and incinerators. I saw a lot of problems with incinerators. Every incinerator we had, had some kind of problem and people sometimes would complain. So, I met some people working in—in ’89 and ’90 with the Sierra Club, well, they were just volunteers. There was a lady, Joanne, she was—was—was working for the Texas
Department of Agriculture under Jim Hightower and—and she was trying to organize a Permian Basin Group. And then through her I met a guy in San Angelo, who’s not living anymore, but he told me—Howard or something, he’s passed away, but he told me I should go talk to Ken Kramer about working for the Sierra Club. So I talked to Ken, I think, around ’91 and said that I really want—want to get out of the Agency, that I—I’d seen enough and I wanted to—to do something on the outside. And so in—on ’90—in the spring of ’92, after writing every violation I could in the last six months, my boss wondered what was going on, I announced I was leaving for the Agen—for the Sierra Club and—and he thought I had lost my mind. I—I think he
was going to say I’d gone to work—I was going to go work for Exxon or—or Shell or General Tire. And when I said the Sierra Club, his—he just had this look of shock and horror on his face, you know. He—he was not happy about it, okay. But anyway, nonetheless, I came in April of ’92 and immediately Ken wanted me to get involved in the East Austin Tank Farm situation because there was this group of forty-three storage tanks in East Austin surrounded by poor black and Latino neighborhoods. And I had driven by them for years coming—because I’d lived in Austin in the 70’s and—and—and I had come to Austin for training. I knew where the tank farm was and I wondered, you know, when something might hit the fan
about this big group of—of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel storage tanks right there in the heart of a community, because those thanks, I knew, were all leaking fumes, benzene and—and other gasoline components. And I knew enough about the chemistry of the gasoline, two hundred and forty organics, about forty species of benzene derivatives that—that’s all pretty bad to have in a neighborhood. So—so I went out to the Agency the first week in Austin and I was sitting in the file room looking at the tank farm files when Sam Crowther comes by and looks through the glass window and waves.
So, anyway, the—the irony there is that technically I was on comp time leave from the Agency, so I was still being paid, but I had formally quit as of April, I think April 3rd, but I was on comp time for a whole month. My—my boss was outraged over that, he wanted me to give it up, but I had put so much work in, I thought that was wrong. But anyway, so there was Sam, you know, I want to help the public but there’s Sam Crowther and so far up until then, the A—the Air Board had looked very good off—over the East Austin Tank Farm. They had th—no violations, no—but the Water Commission had found, you know, groundwater contamination. So then out of the files, I dig out these reports that Exxon had had upset conditions over there and they didn’t do much about it, they just took the reports. And so anyway, I took this information and later that week, I think it was Thursday, Ken and myself had a meeting—actually it was—actually about we—over a week later, it was—because I—I
w—I took a vacation after that, it was about April 17th. We met up in Kirk Watson’s office, who was chairman of the Air Board. I was with Ken Kramer, Mike—Mike Ward, from the American Statesman came, he was going to do a story about this. And there was my former Executive Director, Bill Campbell. There was the General Counsel, Jim Braddock and they were very nervous to see me walk in the door. And there was Gene Fulton form the Waco Office, which had jurisdiction over Austin. And none of them were—and then Sal Taheery, the engineer, and none of them were happy to see me, okay. And so, you know, Kirk started talking about the whole thing and—and why the Agency didn’t address these upsets with Exxon. And—and so after about two hours, the meeting was over and I didn’t really say a whole lot. But the next day it was front page headlines about—I—I think it was April 18th of 1989, about Exxon upsets and the Agency didn’t do anything about it. It was the—it was the first of the very nasty stories in the Statesman about the Air Board and the tank farm. But, you know, I think the Agency deserved it, they were not doing their job. And—and—and then I heard later that summer of ’89, that the laboratory had
been out there taking benzene samples and they had gotten a hit and they had tried to cover it up, because I heard through a toxicologist who resigned that fall, I—I met him in December and we—we had been getting inklings of high benzene readings out there in the summer. And this guy had left and he told me that they—they w—that the toxicology people were covering up the benzene spike. They covered it up. Okay, so anyway, but at that point in the fall, the—the—the—Chevron had announced they were going to move out of East Austin, so that the companies were—or the six oil companies were beginning to announce closures and the last one was Exxon. But, you know, I was glad to provide technical information from the Agency’s files that people could understand, you know, that this was a mess. And that the Air Board then issued violation notices, I think to five of the six companies for—for failure to report upsets or exceeding permit conditions or, you know, various
problems, okay. And—and then they had—the agency was still working on these agreed orders when County Attorney Ken Oden w—said—he threatened all six companies with criminal actions under, I guess the Air, I don’t know if it was Federal or State Clean Air Act and Water Codes, and as a result, all the companies agreed to shut down and move out of East Austin. So, it was, you know, the—the Agency had the evidence but, you know, it was only under great public pressure that the Agency was forced to do its job. But they didn’t expect the county attorney to take criminal action. And so, anyway, that was the—that case, but I—I also began to go to Corpus Christi, Beaumont, Houston, Port Arthur, East Texas and—and I w—you know, then—and—and the messes around the state, that I began to get immersed in.
DT: Well, let’s talk about some of the messes and—and I—I hope we don’t—I don’t want to ask you to hope around too much, but—but some of the—the highlights would be interesting from different regions of the state. One thing th—that would be interesting for me to hear is the—the variety of hazardous waste incinerators, medical incinerators in the Golden Triangle where, you know, that got proposed and—and some which were—were built and had violations and can you just talk about what you did for Sierra Club to try to organize opposition and get resolved.
NC: Right, yeah, I got involved in a number of incinerator cases. There was—there were two proposed, one was the American and Virotech incinerator on the Houston Ship Channel where I interacted with Lanell Anderson. That had gone through a contested case hearing but I went down to Houston and—several of us and Lanell Anderson and Dr. Marvin Legator agreed to meet with EPA officials from Dallas, William Honker and of course the EPA Region 6 Dallas people had heard about me. I—I had met some of them. I’d actually informed them in the summer of ’89 about the violation cover-ups by the—by the Air Board in Odessa. So, you know, he was well aware of who I was and—and—but anyway, we met with them and, you know, I—I just s—talked about my concern about incinerators, but this was going to be a new commercial hazardous waste incinerator on the Houston Ship Channel. And the land was owned by a company called Zapata Oil Company, which I believe was owned by the Bush family. So Lanell Anderson had told me that and so, you know, they wondered if the Bush’s were involved but, you know, this is ’92 and—and so
that’s when I first met Lanell Anderson. And, you know, I knew about how bad Houston was, but that was going to be a new commercial hazardous waste incinerator to burn waste from in—industry because of all the chemical plants and the refineries and other w—facilities down there. And that facility wound up being stopped, not because the per—the permit was issued, but it was delayed so long that the economics changed and it was no longer feas—economically feasible to build that plant. And part of it is because the cement kilns in the U.S. were burning so much hazardous waste, they could burn it at a cheaper rate than the incinerators and they were less regulated. So a lot of the waste wound up going to the cement kilns. But—in—the blessing, you might say, was that American and Virotech did not get built, okay. And then there was—an a propose medical waste incinerator in, I think, Waller County or Montgomery C—Montgomery County, outside of Houston and again,
it was going through a hearing and I interacted with those people and somehow, again, because the economics changed, I think the permit got issued but it didn’t get built. And so, you know, I—I played a very small role but I was trying to help people. But then there was the Pearland Medical Waste Incinerator, it was National Medical Waste. And those people—I went down there and met with them. They already were making complaints to the agency, which had issued a few violations. But the company couldn’t pass the stack test and that medical waste incinerator was night—now that was not a poor neighborhood, that was a nice, you know, middleclass, white neighborhood in—south of Houston. And I went down there and I was shocked because people lived right across the street and next door and they showed me videotapes which you could see the—the emissions. And so I went
around and I did a survey of the vegetation damage for corrosion because this medical waste incinerator emitted hydrogen chloride or hydrochloric acid. And—and what I noticed is that the concrete was all eaten up across the—the—the closest home because the plume would come right from the south to the north and this family, the Wanglers, were living there and they had been taking videotapes and—that were used in the court case against the company. And the concrete was eaten up, their windows facing the south side were all—the—the aluminum was all heavily corroded. So everywhere that acid landed, it—it corroded the metals, the copper, the damaged vegetation. So I did a survey of about a—a quarter mile area around the whole incinerator and I documented extensive damage to vegetation, buildings, fences, cars, everything and I sent a letter to the Agency documenting, you know,
what a mess it was. And the Agency had failed to report any of this. So that incinerator was—was shut down by the court because they couldn’t pass a stack test. And the judge said until you can pass a stack test, you can’t run again. But the AG’s office was suing National Medical Waste and—and what I’d heard is that it was ci—citizen testimony and the videotapes that was the most compelling to the—to the judge down there, I think this is Brazoria County, because I think it was outside of Houston. And so, you know, but I got to meet these people and saw what a nightmare they were living with this incinerator. It was the worst situation I had seen as far as an incinerator in Texas. I had dealt with some smaller ones in West Texas, but this—this was much na—nastier.
DT: Maybe you can take us to the opposite side of the state, far West Texas, Hudspeth County, Sierra Blanca, a whole ‘nother kind of facility, the low level nuclear waste disposal site that it was proposed for out there and—and again, was stopped. What did you know about that case?
NC: It—well, that all happened during my time with the Sierra Club and, of course, you know, these whole idea of—of—of dumps, especially a hazardous waste dump or a nuclear waste dump, is—is really just unbelievable because, you know, they can leak, you’ve got very toxic materials, highly toxic substances that are going to be toxic for, you know, long periods of time. And the containers that they’re in are not going to be safe for—they’re not designed to last ten thousand or twenty-five thousand years, you know. And so there’s huge issues about the integrity of the containers and the material in them. And so the Sierra Club managed to find a few people out in Andrews County, which is right on—it was in the area where I used to work for the Air Board, it’s right on the Texas, New Mexico border, Andrews County, just north of Odessa. It’s an oil and gas area. The problem is, it is a highly rural
area, but there is groundwater. There’s aquifers under—underneath that—that land that could be contaminated should that radioactive waste material leak from the containers that are not designed to last as long as the substances—the radioactive cesium and so forth will survive. And then you can have leaching down into the ground if they don’t, you know, do something to—to stop the—the containers from leaking. So, anyway, so that facility, I think, is very poorly designed because, you know, it’s—it’s just a bad idea to be building a nuclear hazardous waste landfill. I mean, it’s just—it—it’s just th—a bad idea, it’s a dumb idea. And the water is such a precious resource today that—that, you know, and once you—once you get it contaminated, i—you’re—you’re not going to decontaminate it. That—that—that’s a nightmarish prospect because up in the Panhandle at Amarillo, there is a—a—a
nuclear Pantex, yes, there is groundwater contamination at the nuclear—the government’s nuclear facility at Pantex, some kind of groundwater contamination, it might be a solvent. But, you know, that’s the thing, once you get some kind of contamination in groundwater, it’s very, very difficult to clean it up because you’ve got this stuff underground, it’s moving to some extent, you get chemicals in there and you can try to a—and I knew about this because some of the—all—the refineries I went to in West Texas, they had maps in the walls—in the rooms of the environmental people that I dealt with, they had big maps in their walls showing the underground plumes of—of—of crude oil and gasoline and benzene underneath their refineries. And they were—they said they’re going to be pumping it out for decades, okay, and trying to recover it, but it was just, you know, c—huge contamination plumes. And, you know, so—so, you know, I was aware that when you have groundwater contamination, contamination in the ground, it can be a problem. And
this happened at the East Austin tank farm with the methyl tertiary butyl ether, MTBE fuel additive in the gasoline, because it’s water soluble. It had leaked—the gasoline had leaked and then the MTBE had moved very quickly into th—into the water, so that huge area in East Austin is contaminated. So, anyway, the point is that—that the whole prospect of groundwater contamination and apparently there’s a—a geological fault out there underneath that n—Andrews Nuclear Waste dump. So, there’s just a whole number of reasons why it’s a very dumb idea, but today, it’s per—it’s—part of it is permitted for hazardous waste. I know right now they’re trying to get a—a new—some kind of a new nuclear waste dump permit, but there is already, I think, a commercial hazardous waste permit. So they have a commercial hazardous waste landfill under there—out there operating under RECRA, so they’re
just trying to expand it to bring in nuclear waste. And they may have some kind of temporary license to—to do some storage of—of low level material out there. But it’s—it’s—it’s a very, I think, bad situation.
DT: Let’s talk about a different kind of facility that, I think, you’ve been involved with very recently, these coal fired power plants that have been proposed for construction of—from Waco up to south of—of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Can you give us some context to—to the—the challenge against these pulverized plants and why there’s been so much criticism on the air quality and climate change?
NC: Well, it’s been a very interesting experience because these plants are all proposed for rural areas. And so began to interact with landowners, ranchers, farmers, people who are not tree huggers and most people are not Sierra Club members. And yet, after they would meet and hear what we had to say about all of the toxic emissions, the hydrochloric acid, the sulfuric acid, huge amounts, hydrofluoric, and hydrofluoric acid is a very (?) compound used in the computer industry to etch silicon chips. But it is a chemical, it is the worst case accidental release scenario from the electronics industries, from the refineries that use it to make high octane gasoline because when it’s in the air, it will penetrate your skin and it’s a very, very toxic material that—that can kill people because it destroys your bone structure. So—so these plants are going to give off, besides these acid gasses of hydrochloric, sulfuric and hy—hydrofluoric acid, a lots of sulfur dioxide, which also
is a—a—a weaker acid gas, but huge volumes, thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, which are acid gasses and smog forming SO2 and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain and ground level ozone problems. And then you’ve got the particles, the little particles that—that carry all these toxins and carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, which isn’t even regulated. Actually i—if you look at the data, ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of the stack emissions are carbon dioxide, which are not even regulated. So the permits tha—that the Agency was—was issuing for these coal plants, only is regulating maybe one, at most, two percent of the stack emissions. The rest of it is unregulated, the carbon dioxide at this point. And then there’s also radionuclides in there, there’s several radionuclides, the Agency doesn’t
evaluate that. Sierra Club submitted comments on that, we submitted comments on the metals in there, you’ve got lead, beryllium, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, manganese, copper and a few—and—and some other metals. And the Agency—so after we met with people and talked about all the pollutants coming out and how the Agency regulates it or doesn’t regulate it, people began to get very concerned that—that these plants were, you know, big toxic tailpipes located in these rural areas and that there were going to be impacts. Possibly—for example, mercury, these plants would emit anywhere from a hundred to two, three, four hundred pounds of mercury and mercury comes out and then it falls back into the—into the environment and starts bioaccumulating through the food chain and the fish has methyl mercury. And—and it takes just, you know, only a single gram of—of mercury to contaminate a twenty acre lake so you can’t eat the fish anymore, a single gram of mercury,
which is a fraction of an ounce. You know, there’s twenty-eight—some twenty-eight and a half grams in an ounce, so it’s a fraction of an ounce. It’s like a grain—it’s like a grain of—of rice, less than a grain of rice. And so, you know, mercury’s very toxic and—and that would contaminate the local ponds and lakes and—and for miles and miles around these coal plants. And then you’ve got all these other acid gasses, vegetation damage from the corrosive chemicals and the acid gasses. So—so the—the people that we met with at—at—before we had these public meetings that the Agency and the company held, they got the message that these plants are much worse than they could imagine they were going to be. And—and so we were very, I think, positive that a lot of the local farmers and ranchers got the message, even though they’re not environmentalists or activists of any kind, but they were outraged
that these plants were being proposed in their area. So, T—Texas Electric Utilities, I don’t think expected to see us at every single one of the public meetings and we showed up. Even in West Texas, out near Abilene in Mitchell County, we went to a meeting and there were two hundred people in there, almost all in favor of the plant and Smitty and I were there and a couple of local residents who were against the plant. But we were called out—we were kind of alleged of being outside agitators. But I think TXU was—was shocked that we were there and we spoke about the mercury and the particles and the sulfur and that these plants are really not needed if we, you know, did more energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewables in Texas. So TXU, I think, was quite shocked to see—to see us showing up at every one of these public meetings where we could ask questions and then we would make
comments. And—and plus, we were educating the local people who hadn’t—we hadn’t interacted with before. And we found a lot of very concerned local residents showing up and being quite, quite shocked at—at—at what we were saying and we gave them the information. So it was very much a grassroots educational process because there weren’t a lot of Sierra Club members in the area or Public Citizen and Environmental Defense or SEED Coalition. And it—it was a huge challenge to go to all of these public meetings that were being held because some of them were like, you know, four or five hours away from Austin. And so I drove back several times in the middle of the night from East Texas or West Texas. But, you know, and I think
at TXU, because they saw this huge amount of local opposition, you know, and—and—asking for a contested case hearing on every one of these—they proposed a total of eleven units at, I think, n—ni—eight or nine different plant sites. But they wound up pulling eight of the—they—they pulled off eight of the eleven units, which were the cleanest. The dirtiest ones, like Oak Grove burning lignite in two boilers and Sandon number five, lignite, nope, those stayed on the table. Those are the dirtiest fuels and—and the highest emissions and the cleanest eight, they pulled off the table. But, you know, so I think that wa—that—but the people in the area were very, very, I think, positive that—that they had won a victory, that these—that—and it was seven plants with a total of eight boilers that weren’t going to be
located in—in their communities because they were—they were asking for contested case hearings even though TXU, I think, didn’t think there would be a lot of local opposition.
DT: Neil, one—one of the issues with industrial regulation in—in Texas and in other places as well, has been that th—these facilities get upgraded and—and they—they claim to have grandfathered status where they don’t have to update some of their pollution control, but it’s probably a lot more nuance than that, but if—if you can talk about the effort to try to get these plants to be brought up to date, to sort of best available control technology, that would be really helpful to us.
NC: Well, one of the experiences I had that was very educational and formative inside the Tex-Air Control board was the fact that the maj—vast majority of plants that I went to were grandfathered or partially grandfathered. And that meant that they didn’t have to have a permit to operate and a permit to pollute. It was like there were no speed limits on them, although in theory, there’s supposed to be a limit out there. But, you know, if there was no piece of paper, a permit that—that regulated the amount of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds and so forth, then, you know, we’d go out to the plant and say well, it looks like you’re still here this year and are y—have you e—expanded or increased? No, we’re still doing the same thing we did last year. But in fact, like one plant I went to, it was a—it was a sour gas treating plant that was getting sour natural gas out of the ground and it had sulfur in it. Well, at that point, this plant, Texaco Getty
Gas plant over near Big Spring, didn’t have a permit to emit sulfur dioxide, okay, it was grandfathered. But the—the—the—the wells were going sour, so the—the sulfur content was going up and their sulfur dioxide emissions were going up because they were burning it, flaring it all, okay, dumping it and because they couldn’t have it in the natural gas. So year by year, as I was looking at the data, I said, hey, you know, you’re getting close to a permit violation, you know, you’re—you’re—you’re going to trigger a—a violation here. So they went ahead and put in a sulfur recovery unit. And so that was an example where I saw in the Agency of how that was an honest case, but sometimes we would catch people not operating equipment or they had violated their grandfathered status, okay. And they had modified the plant,
increased their capacity, brought in new equipment and—and—to increase their productivity and—and their emissions had changed. And so when I left the Agency, there was this huge—most people didn’t know about it because they didn’t know what it meant to be grandfathered. I think a lot of people thought that these plants were permitted. So, this came up in the legislature because in the Houston area, there was a lot of grandfathering of s—in some of the refineries and the chemical plants.
DT: Neil, we—when we broke, we were talking about the grandfathering issues in Texas. I was hoping that you could pick up the string and—and continue.
NC: Yes, well, when I left the Air Board in 1992, you know, I knew there were all these grandfathered plants out there, hundreds of them, it was hard to say how many, but I knew in the area I covered, it was a h—most of the plants were either all grandfathered a hundred percent or heavily grandfathered, only a few were permitted. So…
DT: And these just—just to intercede here, the—the plants were grandfathered because they were built before the Clean Air Act was passed?
NC: Right, before, like, 1972, I think September—around September 1 of 1971, okay. So if they were already in existence at that time or they were being built, then they did not need to obtain a preconstruction permit in Texas. So, you know, it—it was like, you know, I went to two hundred plants a year in West Texas and a lot of them didn’t have any permits or they had a permit for only a part of the plant and the permits were not that good. So, basically, mo—a lot of the pollution was not regulated or very weakly regulated at best. And so I knew this was a big issue when I left the Agency, but what happened was, in 1995, because of the pollution issues in Houston, Ralph Marquez testified at the legislature, Commissioner Marquez from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the Agency I’d just left, that, anyway, this issue of grandfathering, he said that the Agency did not have the data,
they did not have the number as to how many grandfathered plants there were. And they didn’t have the emissions data. And I briefly testified that I disagreed with that, okay, I te—I think it was before the Senate Natural Resources Committee in the spring of ’95, and Ken briefly testified and so did I. But I spoke, you know, as a former investigator at the Agency, that—that yes, there were a lot of grandfathered plants but the Agency had numbers, it just had to put the data together. But Marquez said well, they didn’t know. So then for the next—part of the next year, I spent going out to the Agency—I already—I ha—had a list of all the plants but the—the data—so then what happened out of the legislature in ’95, they set up this Air
Care Committee, which was kind of a sham committee with a few environmental people on it, Sierra Club was represent—ented by George Smith. And they had given the committee that fall, this list of all the plants in the state, including those that were permitted and then they had this category called un-permitted. But they said, well, we don’t know if that means they’re grandfathered or it might mean it’s under a standard exemption, it’s—it’s kind of a catchall category, but they refused to say that that was grandfathered. Well, I knew that was a lie. I knew that most of that category, the vast majority of it, I figured it was probably ninety to ninety-five percent of the un-permitted emissions were grandfathered, based on my experience because I looked on the list and I saw all these, you know, like the—the—all the
plants that I had been at. You know, I knew them; I had gone to them for ten, eleven, twelve years. And, so anyway, I began to go to the Agency daily and I spent many, many hours, hundreds of hours going through the files of every single plant. And the Agency at that time, had a—had a public accessible computer in—in the file room at the Agency, the Air file room. And I could—what I would do is I would put the name of a plant in there and—or its account number and if it was in the database, it had a permit, okay. If it wasn’t in there, it would come back, it would tell me no data available. I knew it was grandfathered because it had no permits and not standard exemptions. If it was in the database, then I would go into the files to ferret out, well, what’s—what is grandfathered versus this un-permitted, and yes, some of the plants like Dow Chemical at Freeport, had like, they brought me
this stack of fifty standard exemptions, little exemptions that they had gotten, but there were a lot of emissions in there. So—so after hundreds of hours of working out there, I was able to come up—I prepared a database of—of nearly a thousand plants and their account numbers, their locations and all the emission categories, according to whether they were un-permitted grandfathered. And I verified that there were no permits at these plants. And I know Michael King with the Texas Observer wondered how I could do it, so I took him out to the Agency on Alcoa and I said, okay, I told the people in the file room, the clerks, I said, bring me the permits on Alcoa. And they said, well, we don’t—they said, there is—they brought them and there was just a little file on a canoe conveyor and it basically showed that Alcoa was
ninety-nine point six percent grandfathered, okay. And so I said, in some cases, I asked them in one plant, I said, bring me the permit on this plant and they said there are no permits on that plant, they couldn’t find any. Or they would bring me the SIP reports that the investigations I used to do and it said this plant is grandfathered right—and this is what the investigators wrote, because I did this for twelve years. And…
DT: It said this is [IA] plant.
NC: …(?) plant, right. And so at these major industrial plants, wh—the Agency inspectors would go out there every year and verify the—even if it was grandfathered, the plant was there and we would frequently write in a comment, this plant is grandfathered, it has no permits. It would be written in the report. And then I went into the computer system and I showed Michael, I said okay, pull up—pull up this plant Alcoa. And there was, like, just one little conveyor permit in there. And then we did a few that were fully grandfathered, we entered their account numbers and it said there’s no permit files available because there’s none that existed. So, I said it was his piece of cake. I said, yes, it took me several hundred hours of work. So we prepared a report and it showed, I think it was around thirty-six percent of the statewide air industrial emissions were
grandfathered. And it was nearly a thousand industrial plants that were either heavily or totally grandfathered. And they were big—a big portion of the oil refineries at the time, some of the chemical plants, but then there were others that were very permitted. So—and then we had Texas Utilities, which was—had a lot of grandfathering, at Big Brown and at a couple of the units Monticello. So anyway, it revealed that there was a huge amount of grandfathering in the electric utility sector, in some of the refining sector, in some of the chemical and petrochemical plant sector, okay. And it was kind of scandalous because the Agency said they didn’t have the numbers but I was able to pull it out of the files very easily.
[End of tape 2403]
DT: Neil, when we left off on the—the last tape, you were trying to explain how you—you collected all this data from the Agency, from the Texas Air control Board to show the extent of the grandfathering problem. And—and you wrote this report and then issued it and maybe you can tell about what the reaction to the report was.
NC: Well, it was a huge story. I—I did press conferences in Houston and Dallas that day. I—I flew to Houston and then I—I went to Dallas. And it was front page news stories in the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News because we had given the reporters the report before, you know, it had been made public. But basically it showed that grandfathering was a huge issue in Texas and the data was available. I think it was a huge embarrassment to the electric utility industry like TXU, to some of the refineries and the chemical plants, because I listed all the top grandfathered plants in there. And—and so it really showed that this was a much bigger problem than the—the Agency didn’t want to recognize this because it’s
embarrassing to industry. And the industry—the Agency didn’t want to upset industry by airing its dirty laundry because in 1985, several industry reps, Richard White, the Environmental Director for Texas Electric Utilities testified and we have it in the grandfather report. We have his testimony from 1985 saying that well, if Texas Electric Utilities have some grandfather plants, we’ll get them cleaned up, you know, some point in the future, you know, or we’ll shut them down. Well, they didn’t shut them down and they didn’t clean them up; they didn’t do either of those. So here we were ten years later and grandfathering was still a very huge issue, I think a very scandalous issue for the Agency and for industry because these
emissions were unregulated and there were probably a lot of illegal—this was a big issue in—in ’95, ’96, ‘97, that there could be illegal grandfather plants out there that had violated their emission limits but not gotten permits. And so this was another part of the snake pit that the Agency didn’t want to dig into because in the field offices around the state, there were concerns that some of these plants were probably illegally grandfathered and may have been for years. So the Agency wasn’t going to investigate that, they were just going to give them permits. But it did show that this was a huge problem, another problem for the Agency to deal with, that these plants should be permitted and cleaned up or maybe some of them should be shut down if they’re old clunker plants. And so I think that’s why this was a—a huge issue and also on top of the fact that the Houston area is a hi—is a high ozone area
and grandfathering was contributing to that. It was contributing to some of the smog problems in the Dallas/Fort Worth area because you had these grandfathered power plants in central Texas and East Texas, like Big Brown, like Alcoa and its three boilers and—and some of the gas plants. So they’re—and—and those grandfathered plants had much larger emissions compared to permitted facilities. So—so, you know, the Agency, I think, was—was kind of embarrassed by this, industry was embarrassed. And so, there was a bill passed in ’99, the Voluntary Emission Reduction Program and—but it was a very weak bill. It was basically just to require the plants to register and to get a permit slapped on them so they could now say they were permitted, but they weren’t grandfathered anymore. But basically, it—it was a—a—a—a very weak, toothless bill. So grandfathering, technically, is not much
of an issue anymore because the companies can say, we’re permitted now. But the word grandfathered definitely had very sleazy connotations and—and some of the companies didn’t like it. I had one company that called me up and wanted to know why they were in the report and I said, well, according to the files on your refinery, this is Valero, you just bought this refinery in Houston and it’s heavily grandfathered and so they never called me back to dispute that. So, I think this is a huge issue and it needed to be brought out, but most people, the public and the environmental community, they didn’t really understand it, because people don’t know that the permitting and the grandfathered regulations and the loopholes that existed at the time. But it was never, I think, the intent of the legislature to allow this to go on and on and on, but industry said they’d either clean the plants up or shut them down and that never happened.
DT: Yo—you’ve given a bunch of different insights into how the Air Board operates and—and how the Sierra Club is—is trying to act a watchdog over the pollution regulatory system and—and you’ve given examples, the different kinds of plants in different parts of the state. From all that experience, ca—can you sort of step back and say what you’ve learned from working inside the system, within the Tex-Air Control Board and then when you stepped outside to work for a non-profit and was trying to express public interest in that same field, but sort of from the outside of the regulatory system? What did you learn from those two perspectives?
NC: Well, working inside the Agency, I came to realize that things were very political and that I was very naïve about the politics of how governmental agencies operate and—and it just came home to me very clearly as I worked there for twelve years, about the political influences on the Agency, which were very heavy and powerful. And yet, I also came to appreciate the power of the law, that—that we had—a—a—a—some good aspects to the Texas Clean Air Act and the Health and Safety Code and the Federal Clean Air Act. But what I saw was a lot of disparate enforcement, sometimes where people didn’t want to enforce the law or maybe their supervisors. I mean, I heard this from the four guys I knew up in Lubbock that
quit in disgust one year in the—in the late 80’s because the supervisor up there in Lubbock, who—who was responsible for the whole Panhandle, they would write violations, put them on his desk and he’d never issued them, for a decade. So they all quit in disgust and they were all friend of mine, and so I heard this right from them. And I heard a few other stories like that around the state, where sometimes the regional managers for that prog—that office there, El Paso or Tyler, Houston, Beaumont, I heard this—I heard these stories from people all over the state. So—and then I encountered it myself with the cover up in the DynaGen and General Tire case. And so I knew that—that we had some decent laws, but they weren’t enforced and then there l—weak—weaknesses and loopholes in the laws. So, you know, we needed better laws. And so I knew that’s one of the reasons I went to work with the
Sierra Club because I wanted to see better environmental laws passed by the legislature, by EPA in Washington. It took me—that’s one of the things, in twelve years of working inside a regulatory agency, I understood what the power of the law was, but the weaknesses and the gaps, where we needed, you know, better enforcement, where we needed more resources, we needed more monitoring for, like, benzene and volatile organic compounds because there was no monitoring in the 1980’s and even i—through the 1990’s. I mean, these—some of these plants now are still just starting to look at doing monitoring in—in Houston and so forth. So, you know, I knew that there were, you know, things that could be done in the outside but I never knew it was going to be so unpleasant for the Agency I had left because some of my friends in the Agency, after I left, didn’t want to talk to me anymore. If they’d see me out there, I was like a—a hot potato and they would turn
around and walk the other way, a few people. Now there are other people I’m still friends with, but, you know, s—and a few people s—or feel I kind of stabbed the Agency in the back by going public. But I felt like I was trying to support the Agency because i—it—it—you can’t have a regulatory system that is not protecting people and the environment and—and operating the way it did in the 70’s and the 80’s and—and the 90’s. So, you know, I think things have gotten better. I know that when the—I—I talk to the public and people make a lot of noise about a plant, I mean, that’s the whole—the whole General Tire case was grassroots. The—the peop—I told people if they complained, we would issue violations and eventually
would have an impact and it did. And so that was the power of the local residents making a lot of noise. And I use that example everywhere when I talk to people, that if people, you know, talk to their politicians, they talk to the agencies, you know, they complain, they can make a difference because that’s unfortunately the way the system works. The—the squeaky wheel gets the grease and if people don’t complain, well, you can have somebody out there breaking the law for years and—and getting away with it. But—so, I think it was a good—a good message that I had to share with people, but that they had to be empowered, that, you know, I couldn’t do it for them. And so I—I worked with a lot of citizens around the state to encourage people to complain. But it’s been very frustrating because in the last—ever since Bush became governor and the people he put in place out there, I think the Agency still continues to be too political, it plays favoritism with industry and it
still doesn’t do enough to protect public health. I know down in Corpus Christi in the late 90’s when we filed a letter alleging environmental justice complaint to the EPA Office of Civil Rights about skewed permitting is how it was quoted in this hundred page letter that I drafted for people down there. And what happened is then the agency came down and they did a lot of sampling for hydrogen sulfide, they found violations, high benzene levels. Even though there wasn’t a standard, they—they did say y—the—they told the refineries down there to—to try to cut the benzene because it was too much and I think they found some SO2 violations. So they did bring the mobile monitoring laboratory from Austin and the mobile sampling vans to Corpus Christi because of that Title 6 complaint. And—and it had some positive effect and we filed some other Title 6 complaints alleging environmental ju—injustice by the Agency in East Austin, in Beaumont, Port Arthur and the Houston area. But, you
know, it’s been kind of a mixed bag, so there’s still e—there’s still a lot of work to do but I think things have gotten better. There’s more monitoring today. There still is enforcement but, you know, it’s—it’s not what it should be because the politics are really bad. And the Agency is very political, even to this day. I—I hear about it almost every week. And—but—and still, like in Houston, there’s more scrutiny because of ozone. In 1999, what happened was Houston, for the first time, surpassed Los Angeles in one hour ozone days and people never before that thought that—that Houston or a—anybody could ever top Los Angeles. Well, I was actually going to Port Arthur that day to me—and Beaumont to meet with residents about an environmental injustice complaint and we went through Houston, that was October 7th of 1999 and it was a bad air day. It was still, it was hot and it was the highest levels in ten years. And they would’ve called that a stage one smog alert in Los Angeles. And as it turns out, industry was dumping polluting, pu—pumping, pooping
in the air on the Houston ship Channel and they traced it back to one of the plants there. And anyway, that was interesting because I—I just happened to go through Houston on that memorable day. But in Austin, that caused a lot of repercussions, that Houston could actually—because the ozone season had ended in L.A., but it didn’t in Houston, it went into November and so Houston went way ahead of L.A. that—that year. And it—it made Houston and Texas look very, very dirty, very bad. It was this huge black eye for the Agency and for industry, that—that this was such a mess in Houston that—an—and Los Angeles is in a bowl, and—and compared to Houston, which is on the beach down there on the coast basically, so the wind blows
the pollution away. But that doesn’t happen in Los Angeles, so it’s been a big mess in Houston and in fact I remember back in the 90’s when I was doing some work with GHASP, I was on an elevator one day…
DT: (?) Galveston-Houston Association…
NC: That was—yeah, the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, I was halftime for Sierra Club, I still am and so I worked halftime with GHASP down there. I was on an elevator one day with the GHASP coordinator, Jane Elioseff and this Baker Botts lobbyist named Larry Feldcamp who got me knocked off of the General Tire case, gets on the elevator and Jane says, d—Neil, do you know Larry Feldcamp. And Larry looks at me and he said, well, you know, Neil, things work differently down here in Houston. That’s what he said to me. And that’s the only words I’ve ever had with Larry Feldcamp in my life and he never was involved in the lawsuit on General Tire because he was just a lobbyist. But he hadn’t forgotten me.
DT: Well, maybe we ought to take this chance to—to ask you another question. We—we’ve talked a good deal about the past and—and I was hoping that you might be able to look towards the future. You know, with all your experience in—in botany and—and in work at the Air Control Board as an inspector and then as a activist at the Sierra Club, what sort of message do you have to maybe pass onto the next generation of folks that may be coming up in these ranks about why you care about what you have and why you’ve done what you have? Is there a way to sort of explain it to those who might come afterwards?
NC: Yeah, well, you know, because of the p—my whole educational background, I’ve developed a d—a—a very intense appreciation for the fact that we have a polluted environment. The planet’s being polluted and I’ve seen that even working for Sierra Club. And the problem is that it gets into the food chain, it gets into the water, it gets into the ecosystem, it gets into our food and it ends up in our bodies, it ends up in our reproductive system. And so, this is not the way we want our world to be. And so that’s been one of the reasons why I was so passionate working in the Air Board, working with Sierra Club, because I know that when you put this stuff out into the environment, eventually it all comes right back through what you’re breathing, what you’re drinking, what you’re eating and the future generation. So—
so, you know, we don’t want a contaminated world, but, you know, there’s—there’s a lot of work to do. So I talk to young people and tell them that, yes, well, in the 80’s and 90’s, I’d hoped that maybe by the early 2000 or first decade of the—this century, that things would be much cleaner than they are. But, you know, at least we have a lot more information, there’s a lot of efforts being made to control things like mercury from power plants and—and—and other pollutants. So—so we’re—we’re seeing a lot of reductions. I mean, you can look at lead, because we took lead our of gasoline in—in ’79, ’80, ’81, I think it was under the Reagan/Bush administration. That—that suddenly the lead levels and the ambient air in the big cities all over the U.S. dropped dramatically, so we’ve seen a—like a—a ninety-eight, ninety-nine percent reduction in lead. But today we found out that the current lead standard is weak and it needs to be tightened again and that we’re going to have to do more lead cleanup, not from vehicles, but from industry and a few other lead
sources out there. So, you know, I think there’s a—a—a good message in that things are still moving in the right direction. We haven’t seen the laws completely gutted by the Bush administration, the Bush EPA. And there’s been a—a huge resistance around the country, not just from California, but all the way to the east coast, from many state agencies and governors and attorney generals that want to see the environmental laws enforced and made tougher because we have to have a cleaner environment. We’ve got to have clean drinking water, we need clean air, we can’t poison the food and—and the ecosystems. So, there’s a lot more information tod—available today and a lot of it’s on the internet. And the agencies are much more aware today of what’s out there, you know, even twenty, twenty-five years ago, we were still y—doing a lot of new monitoring for benzene and a lot of very toxic substances. T—today it’s routine. Today the—the monitor technologies that
were expensive in—in the 80’s and didn’t exist in the 70’s or were only in a laboratory, today, you can take a piece of equipment that might’ve cost a hundred thousand or a million dollars, twenty to thirty years ago. And you can go out into the field and you can take measurements around refineries and chemical plants and—and—and so forth, and show that they’re—they’re giving off too much, you know, toxic emissions. So—so things have really changed and—and I feel—I feel fairly optimistic about, you know, where things are going because today there is—there is so much information and scrutiny that, you know, I don’t think that—that industry can continue to even get away with carbon dioxide emissions. Industry people are facing the fact that, you know, this is a huge issue and they’ve got to do CO2 emissions reductions. And, you know, I’ve seen people with technologies of bubbling, taking the carbon dioxide and running those waste gasses through like a
big steel or glass—glass tower with light and the a—and turning it into algae. I’ve talked to people that are working on this and they’re already e—testing a pilot operations at some plants. So, I mean, I think that we will control carbon dioxide and I think it’ll happen fairly quickly. And I don’t—I, you know, I feel very optimistic about that.
DT: Well that’s encouraging. Let me ask you one—one last question that we typically ask everybody. A—a lot of people do this environmental work because they enjoy being outdoors and that it gives them some sort of solace and—and comfort to—to be generally outdoors, but often it’s—it’s particular places that are—are especially magical for them. And I—I was wondering if there’s a place that you can describe that—that, you know, was very pleasant for you and reminds you of why you got involved in this?
NC: Well, I’ve—I’ve made several trips—I—I’ve—I’ve had n—hundreds of field trips here in Texas, to state parks, preserves, wild places. One of the favorite places I like to go is to the Rocky Mountains. I like to go up and go above tree line and I’ve been up on Longs Peak, 14,288 feet twice without climbing gear. And—and it’s just beautiful because, you know, the—the Rocky Mountain National Park is very nice. It’s—it’s still there, it hasn’t been destroyed. There was a forest fire recently but it’s still not all destroyed. And—but it’s beautiful to go up on Longs Peak and to look out and in the summertime you can—you can go up and it’s the last—the last couple a hundred feet is almost straight up, you know, climbing on little thin rocks and getting up to the top, but I’ve been up there twice. And it’s just—it’s magical because you can see s—for such a huge area that normally—unless you drop in an airplane, but
it’s just beautiful. And the mountains are beautiful, so, I mean, I like the mountains. We don’t have a lot of mountains in Texas. But, you know, I love going out to nature and I love to see the wildflowers every spring here in Texas. So, I have a lot of favorite places and my wife and I go out and walk and—and I point out the wildflowers. And all year long, if I can find anything blooming, I love it, okay. So, you know, I just—I love nature. And so I don’t—I don’t have any one magical place, although I love the Rockies and—and I’ve been up there into the mountains several times in Colorado. And California, we’ve been into some of the mountains and—and a few other places. So I—I don’t know, I like the mountains, I guess, partially also the air is—is fairly clean, s—the smell of the pine trees, you know, I li—kind of like that. And—and I—I don’t care much for the heat, so I like the cool temperatures. So I think that’s part of the reason why I like the mountains so much.
DT: Well, good, well I hope you get to go visit there often and I wanted to thank you for all the work you’ve done and, of course, for explaining it to us today. Thank you so much.
[End of Reel 2404]
[End of Interview with Neil Carman]