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Pat Suter

DATE: March 2, 1997
LOCATION: Corpus Christi, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Judy Holloway
REEL: 1006 (Hi-8 and DAT)

[Tape 1 of two.]
DT: This is David Todd, and I’m fortunate to be here with Pat Suter in Corpus Christi on the morning of March 2nd, and we’re gonna visit with her a little bit about her many and sundry roles in conservation in Texas and in Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend area. And we thought we’d tackle that with first just talking briefly about her personal history and where she was born and how she was raised, and maybe any mentors that she had that contributed to her interest in conservation.
PS: You want me to talk now? O.K.
DT: Yeah, please.
PS: [Laughs.] Well, I was born in Louisiana. My father was Professor of Geology, director of the School of Geology at L.S.U., beginning when he first went there in the mid ’20’s. And then later, on three or four different occasions, he was director of the Mineral Board in the state of Louisiana, which had control over all oil and gas exploration. And in those days, conservation as we look at it today was not something that most people were concerned about. But he was concerned about the fact that oil companies along the coast of Louisiana wanted to drill channels from the interior swamps or marshes, as we call ’em today, out to the open Gulf so that they could get their drilling materials into where they wanted to drill. And he was instrumental as director of the Mineral Board there in Louisiana, making the various oil companies–among whom was Exxon, who was the primary driller in those days–put in escrow enough money to be able to restore the marsh to what it was when they got through. Well, unfortunately, this is no longer done today. My father died in 1973. And since that time, dredging and channelization in the marshes of Louisiana have contributed greatly to the loss of the coast line there along the western shoreline of Louisiana. But that’s my first introduction into trying to preserve the best that we have in the natural world. And …
DT: Later on, you went to school in Louisiana or …
PS: Well, I traveled a lot with my father. As I said, he was a geologist. I did get my high school diploma at–I was 15 at the time–from the University Lab School, in conjunction with L.S.U. And then I went to the University of Oregon as a premed student, and later came back to Louisiana and got a Master’s degree plus 45 hours, all but the dissertation for the Ph.D. And there I met my husband, who was a Swiss national, who had been born in Brazil, and had come to the U.S. to get his college, University and advanced degree training, and we got married in Louisiana. We then lived in Brazil, we lived in Florida, where he taught at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He was a chemist. My training is in chemistry, my advanced degrees are all in chemistry–and we came over here. He came to work as a research director for Celanese, which is now Hertz-Celanese. We liked it because there were unspoiled beaches in those days–we came here in the mid ’50’s. Today of course that’s not true. Today we have spring breakers, which are beginning to come in shortly. Next week will be the first week of the season. But, in those days you could go over and camp on Mustang and Padre Island. My children grew up camping on the weekends on the island over there, totally unspoiled. You could get in the middle of Mustang Island, between what are Access Roads 2 and 3–you couldn’t see a light anywhere. You could set up your tent, you could camp, there wouldn’t be anybody on the beach–and it was wonderful, …
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: –just wonderful. You didn’t see anything offshore, there were no oil drill rigs offshore. No people–I like no people. [Laughs.] When I go out, I want no people. But anyway, it was fantastic and so we stayed here.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: Though my husband had grown up in the Amazon Valley in Brazil, and then went–when he was school age, he went for his schooling to Zurich, Switzerland, which was the family home. But, he loved this–western Texas, and his favorite part of Texas was Big Bend. And so we used to spend a lot of time at Big Bend National Park, as well. But in the early ’60’s, it became apparent here that more people were putting more pressure on our resources in this general area. And he was asked by Celanese Corporation to begin to do some lecturing in the high schools concerning research conservation. And he started doing that and making displays that could be used in the high schools. The more we got involved in it–and at that time I had begun teaching chemistry at Del Mar College. And the more we became involved in the resource base for modern industry and for people to utilize, the more concerned we became. And in 1962 or three with Rachel Carson’s book, we really became concerned, because we had become bird watchers, and we knew that such things as the brown pelican, which–when we came here in the mid ’50’s you could find on every–marine or post and what-not all up and down the coast–had suddenly disappeared. And in 1960 or thereabouts, one of the oil companies, which at that time was headquartered here, was doing some seismic work out in Corpus Christi Bay on what is now known as Pelican Island. And they had their little machines with the huge rubber tires, doing their–dragging their seismic equipment across Pelican Island, and they destroyed the last known pelican nests. And my husband and another prominent person here who’s now also deceased, Kaye McCracken, became so upset with that that between the two of ’em, they got all the way to the president of this company, who had his office in New York City, and convinced him that that company had done a very, very, very bad thing.
DT: And this is before the Endangered Species Act.
PS: Oh, yes, this was in ’62. Anyway, this company president from then on–man, I tell you, they tried to do whatever they could do for restoration down here in this area. And, we–the club–the Audubon Outdoor Club, which is our bird-watching club, was organized at that time, and we began through that club strenuous conservation efforts on the brown pelican. Now, it was being touted in the media that the demise of the brown pelican along the entire Gulf of Mexico coast was not due to the oil companies but due to pesticides. And it’s DDT that caused the thinning of the eggs. And you see, the pelicans eat primarily menhaden, and menhaden eat primarily little phytoplankton and they–oh, it’s a long, involved tale with pesticides, but anyway, we became concerned about the peregrine falcon and concerned about hawks in general. At that time we also were worried about the–the eagle, American eagle. And on the King Ranch, which is just south of here, they were using herbicides and pesticides like mad. We became very concerned about all of that. And so, working strenuously with groups around the country, ultimately in 1972, DDT was outlawed, and–in this country, and since that time the birds have come back. The peregrine’s coming back. You can now see brown pelicans on a regular basis, as you drive along the shorelines in Corpus Christi or over at Port Aransas. And so they have made a comeback. Now DDT mimics the female hormone in birds and causes thinning of egg shells, and this seems to be the problem. And it affected many other birds and animals as well, but those were the ones that were mostly–in the news.
DT: You mentioned that at one point you–you were teaching at Del Mar.
PS: Um-hmm. I taught there until 1988.
DT: And you were teaching chemistry?
PS: Um-hmm.
DT: Can you tell a little bit about–I guess two things, one, your feelings about education and–and–environmental understanding, and also that–any personal insights you had about students that you think you influenced or encouraged.
PS: Well, I hope I encouraged ’em all. [Laughs.] You never can tell. As a chemist, there’s some dilemma involved here because if you remember, DuPont used to advertise on the–on the TV, that–better living …
DT: Pesticides for Better Living, …
PS: Yeah.
DT: –Chemicals for Better Living, then?
PS: Yeah, through Chemistry.
DT: That’s it.
PS: The–the last phrase was “through chemistry.”
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: They’ve dropped that.
DT: I see.
PS: And, it’s “Better Living for the Modern World” today, but the “through chemistry” has been eliminated.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: When I taught my students, I tried to teach them with anecdotes about the people who were very important in the history of chemistry, and what it was they were trying to do. For instance, many people today believe that there were two things that were developed in the 1930’s that are mostly responsible for the increase in population today and consequently the decrease in environmental quality world wide. And that was penicillin, which is not strictly speaking a chemical development, and DDT. And DDT was used world wide to eliminate some of the diseases that kept a control on human population, such as malaria and yellow fever. Penicillin, of course, is–was the first so-called antibiotic, though perhaps aspirin should have that distinction today. But in any event, the classes I taught in chemistry–my husband also taught chemistry here, at the University and at Del Mar College. I tried to emphasize for them that there’s a good and a bad with practically everything that you have any control over, such as DDT. And one of the interesting experiences was in a seminar series that we ran in conjunction with the University and this was on drugs, licit and illicit drugs. And so we had students doing research on tobacco or research on alcohol or research on marijuana, or whatever. And we had this one class, one seminar class on marijuana and there were six students that had done the research on it and at that time, Scientific American had come out with a feature article on marijuana, and the fact that the use of marijuana was legal, in this country–until the alcohol–the congressional amendment was removed for alcohol in 19–, in the 1930’s. And so alcohol then was no longer illegal. We had a whole federal bureaucracy on alcohol, firearms and tobacco.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: They had nothing to do, if they couldn’t go arrest the people in the mountains of Tennessee for producing illegal alcohol. And so at that time they made the use of marijuana illegal. But before that it was legal to smoke it or whatever else you might want to do with it, and so the students were quite enthralled with that article. And I told ’em at the time that I had never been around anyone that smoked marijuana. I didn’t–wouldn’t know if I came across anyone smelling marijuana, but that I had been told that it smelled like anise. Now I’m familiar with anise. And so I thought, well, if I came across someone somewhere that created that aroma I might–might be suspicious. Well, the seminar class broke up, and my students went to work in the laboratory. And about 45 minutes later, one of ’em came running in to me, and grabbed me by the arm and he says, “Come, come, come, come!” And I thought, my Lord, something’s happened, because, you know, if you teach chemistry you’re always on alert that somebody might do something or get hurt or whatever. So I said, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “Come in the hall, quick, quick!” So he was dragging me, and along with a bunch of following students to see what was going on, out in the hall, and we stood right outside my office door, and he says, “Smell! Sniff!” So we’re all–and the janitor’s coming down the hall to see what’s the matter, and this young man said, “That’s marijuana, smell!” And sure enough, it smelled like anise. Well, it wasn’t coming from my office, obviously. [Laughs.] But, the janitor opened the door to the machine room, which was right across the hall, and it had a big ventilator in it because the air-conditioning and the furnaces and all that stuff were in there. And when he opened the door, three maintenance workers bailed out on the outside door on the other side, …
DT: [Laughs.]
PS: –and they’d been smoking marijuana in there.
DT: That’s great.
PS: But that was my only experience with marijuana.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: But, the students learned, when we did the seminars on drugs, that some of the drugs used certain ways are beneficial, …
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: –and some of ’em are not, and that you need to be able to use your head about what’s good and what’s bad. But I took them, whenever it was possible, to any public hearings we had here–from the Corps of Engineers, which you mentioned a while ago, to any of the others that had to do with–remotely, chemical products or–run-offs from chemical plants or anything like that–we always went to these concerns. And I will say this for Del Mar College. Unlike some other places around here, they never, ever asked me to decrease my presence as an activist.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: They never questioned anything I did. Now I never spoke from a platform of Del Mar College. In other words, I never said a thing about teaching chemistry to anybody when I was making public presentations. But, I have to hand it to ’em. They never asked me to quit doing what I was doing, even though it might be contrary to what some of the people at the college were interested in. And one time I had a call from the Dean of Arts and science. And he said, “For Heaven sakes, what did you do last night?” And I said, “I don’t know, what did I do?” And he says, “Oh, I got a call from so-and-so.” And he said, “What did you say?” And, whatever it was, I told him and he said, “Oh, my goodness,” and hung up. But I mean, they never, ever asked me to stop.
DT: Well, I’m curious about that because it seems sort of peculiarly relevant now, I think spurred by some of the faculty / administration tension over Freeport-McMoRan in Austin at the …
PS: Um-hmm.
DT: –University of Texas. Some of the faculty have been very outspoken against the company, and in fact against one of the administrators who has a senior role in management at the company, and some of the conflicts about that. And the Legislature apparently is considering reviewing tenure protocol, and …
PS: Um-hmm.
DT: –and I’m wondering, what you feel about that, about the independence of academia and environmental issues.
PS: Well, I believe that academic people should be free to say and do what they believe is right, because how else can you influence the students that you’re responsible for, if you’re muzzled? If you say, “Well, I’m against this but I can’t say anything because the –“, university or industry or whatever–“won’t allow me to do anything, and keep my job,” or get tenure or whatever it might be. Then what are you–what message are we sending? This is supposed to be a free country, we’re supposed to have the freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. And if this is not true, then we’re undercutting the very basis of–of education, in my view.
DT: Hmm.
PS: And as I say, Del Mar was very good about that. They didn’t agree with what I was doing a large part of the time because, again, you know, people are on different sides of an issue. And most issues are not black and white. Most issues are shades of gray. And even if you look at an issue like in some–one of the journals that come around here, there was an article about, “Can you find a green gasoline company.”
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: And the answer is no. You cannot. They’re all involved in something or another that is not green, so to speak.
DT: True.
PS: And one of the worst is of course Exxon, and …
DT: But no one is pure.
PS: No one is pure. Even you and I who drive a car.
DT: Everyone is a sinner and sins …
PS: That’s right.
DT: Right, yeah.
PS: And so you try to do the best you can with what you have. And take what issues you can if you can prevent damage, and do something that needs to be done, by lessening the amount of damage or having no damage at all and you try to take that road.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: But if you cannot, then you’ve either got to live with it, or go eat nuts and bolts and–[laughs]–and things like this.
DT: Right.
PS: So, it’s very difficult.
DT: That’s–a related question that comes to mind that–it seems that academia is–is one source of information and criticism and sort of explanation about what society’s doing and another is the press.
PS: Um-hmm.
DT: And I understand that your husband was active for many years in the newspaper business at the Corpus Christi Caller Times.
PS: Well, he wrote an environmental column. Um-hmm. He was not a reporter in any sense of the word. And the book that Ed referred to was a compilation of his columns over the 20 years he wrote for the Caller. We used to laugh, because we said that he was the conscience of the Caller Times. He gave the environmental point of view, whereas the Caller Times always came out pro-development. Editorially and every other way, pro-development. And here’s your conflict, you see, because the–some of the people at the paper were very much for–in conservation, for environmental protection and–and this, that and the other. But at the same time, they thought we ought to have more heavy industry here, we ought to have more people here, because of course they could sell more papers. And they would not take a stand that would interfere with that, until it was evident that what was going to be done was too expensive, and that the environmental damage would be too great, the cost/benefit ratio was not favorable. When you could finally prove that without any doubt, then the newspaper would swing around and write editorials on behalf of–of conservation. One big issue was the concept of deep port, which was the first presentation by the port of Corpus Christi in the 1970’s, on a deep draft harbor, 75 feet, and a facility on Harbor Island across the Channel from Port Aransas. And they wanted to get these super-tankers from Arabia to come in here. At that time, the first cost that they put out was something like 50 to $100,000. Well, the newspaper came out pro. Oh, it would bring so much more industry and so many more people and so forth and so on. And we kept telling ’em, “No, it won’t be that way. It won’t be that way. Do a good economic analysis.” Well, with each chapter in the economic analysis the cost went up. And then we started protesting with the Corps of Engineers and with various other people when they had to have their permits. Finally came to discover that if they were going to meet the requirements of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] –this was after NEPA had passed, nationally, of course. If they were gonna meet those requirements, the costs of this operation would be approximately a billion, with a B, dollars. Well, by that time the paper had come around and said no, we have to look at this another way.
DT: So they were off by a factor of 10,000.
PS: Oh, terrible! Well, this is the way developers are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re developing a real estate development somewhere or whether you’re doing something massive like a deep draft harbor. They’re going to give the economics favorable to their cause. And it’s only when you have insisted that they look at the whole picture that you can get anything done. Now for instance I give talks all the time to various groups and things like this, and I always tell them that I know of no single project anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world, that has ever been stopped by the environmental movement. Not a single one. They’ve all been stopped because the cost/benefit ratio ends up unfavorable, when they realize that they must mitigate. At least in this country they must mitigate. Now even–there’s a big dam on the–is it the Yangtze River that they’re considering in China today? And they’re–right now they’re constructing it evidently. But they think everything is going to be pro. And of course China doesn’t have any mitigation requirements. The World Bank is financing all this stuff, which is another issue entirely. But, they haven’t done a cost/benefit ratio. They’re only looking at the benefit, which is more power. More power for more industry. And they’re not taking into account the millions of people they’re going to displace, by this horrendous-sized lake that–their reservoir that’s going to be behind that dam. But in this country, at least, with the laws that were passed in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, we must go back and look at the costs, …
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: –the real costs of a project. And I don’t mean construction costs. I mean costs to the environment of one–one form or another.
DT: I guess it’s difficult and the benefits are often …
PS: Oh, the …
DT: –more tangible in their specific industry and then maybe some of the costs are more nebulous, they’re health-related and …
PS: The costs are extremely nebulous.
DT: Yeah.
PS: You see, we have here on the west side of Corpus Christi, which is one of the big involvements we’re in today. We have the highest concentration of heavy refining industry anywhere in the country. Within a 12-mile area we have six major refineries, and two or three smaller ones, O.K.? All of ’em are using the most noxious chemical in the world, and that’s hydrogen fluoride, as part of their refining process. In 1992, we had a major hydrogen fluoride accident at one of the plants. Two people were killed and 80 people were injured. Now hydrogen fluoride is such a dangerous chemical that I never would let my students use it. Though it is a fantastic chemical for certain purposes, I wouldn’t let ’em use it, because you get it on you, it’s necrotic. It rots the skin right down to the bone. Fluoride is bad stuff, really bad stuff. We have, as I say, the highest concentration of these plants along the–Highway 37, I-37–anywhere in the country. They are doing massive amounts of effort to control their pollution–their particulate, and their air pollution of one kind or another. But they have also increased their size in tremendous amounts over the last ten years. Consequently the total amount of pollution has not changed significantly. And I tell this to the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission]. And the way–the reason I’m convinced of this is not only the figures they put out–and I have their figures that were compiled by Mary Kelly and her group there in Austin? You can’t get ’em locally, they won’t give ’em to you locally. You have to get ’em out of Austin. Isn’t that hilarious? The total amount of pollution is about the same as it was ten years ago. Now, I live five air miles from the nearest refinery. So I’m on the outskirts of the danger zone for a massive accident, hydrogen fluoride accident. This was determined in the Nevada desert some years ago by Dow Chemical that did a study. And you can have lethal amounts of hydrogen fluoride carried by the wind for five miles. O.K. Some years ago we used to have a problem with the side of the house which is facing industry, and when we were painting it–we’re no longer painting it today because it has aluminum siding on it. But on the side of the house facing industry, every 18 months we had to have our wooden side of the house treated and repainted. O.K. We could also smell the industry. You can still smell it today, when the wind comes out of the north or the northwest. Now what saves Corpus Christi from being considered to be in the throes of pollution like Port Arthur and Beaumont, Orange, that district over there, is that 85% of the time, the wind here blows off of the Gulf of Mexico, from the southeast, and it’s only 15% of the time that the wind comes from anywhere else. And if it comes from the refining district, in the north or northwest, then you can smell it. Now the TNRCC here has just moved from offices close to the refineries out to the university, which is ten and a half air miles away, …
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: –and they tell me that they cannot investigate any complaint or make any citation for what are called upsets, unless they observe it. Now there’s no way that they’re going to make something if they have an upset, and they can control it fairly quickly, and still observe it.
DT: Let me ask you about something that’s–serious …
PS: So I have major quarrels with TNRCC.
DT: I can imagine.
PS: Currently that’s our biggest problem right now.
DT: Yeah.
PS: Non-enforcement of Texas laws.
DT: Well, I’m curious, your talking about your husband’s role with the newspaper and the newspaper’s role …
[Tape 1, Side B.]
DT: Well, I’m curious, your talking about your husband’s role with the newspaper and the newspaper’s role in the community at large and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how a newspaper–particularly as towns go increasingly to single newspapers dominating the …
PS: Um-hmm.
DT: –coverage of news in the community–how they balance two different industries. I mean, it seems like Corpus Christi has a very large petrochemical refinery industry that’s located here but they’ve also got a burgeoning tourism industry, and they’re not entirely compatible and I’m wondering how …
PS: They’re not compatible at all.
DT: –Corpus Christi Caller Times or a similar newspaper can balance competing businesses like that.
PS: Well, the Caller Times has not really gone into the tourist business, at all. They’re not pumping it. They have not–really encouraged it. They have concentrated on two major industry types here. One is the refining industry, and the other is the Navy. And the tourist industry has been kind of lost in the doldrums. Now the city of Corpus Christi has tried to promote tourism by having what is called the Bay Front Plaza downtown. We have a convention center. It’s down on the Bay under the entrance to the–the bridge going over the entrance to the harbor channel. There is a science and history museum there, there is an aquarium there. There is an art museum there, and there is the Harbor Playhouse. And so they have tried to attract the tourist industry there. But you know, the second most–visited area in Texas are the beaches of Padre and Mustang Island. That’s going all the way to Brownsville. The National Seashore. If you ask people coming into the state what it is they’re coming–or want to do, they want to go to the beaches. And when they come to Corpus Christi they go to the beach. They don’t go downtown. Now the downtown tourist attractions are geared for conventioneers. And one of the major topics that will be coming up sometime soon is an attempt by the city to pass a half-cent sales tax, to put money into the downtown area to enlarge the convention center and improve the tourist attractions downtown. But most of your visitors do not go there. They go to Padre and Mustang Island. And we have been working very hard over on North Padre Island since the late ’60’s, and on Mustang Island during the ’70’s when the Driskill family put the–portions of Mustang Island for sale, and half of it was bought for a state park and the other half was opened up to development? That’s the side towards Port Aransas. But on North Padre Island, in 1968–and the year is important because at that time the toll on the Kennedy Causeway was removed, when the National Seashore was open. The Kennedy Causeway was built by bonds lent from Nueces County in ’49 and ’50. And one of the prominent geologists along the Coast here was a man by the name of Armstrong Price, and he was a consultant to the construction of the Kennedy Causeway. And he thought, until they actually began construction, that they were going to follow his precepts and put it on pilings, to allow the circulation from Laguna Madre and Corpus Christi Bay to proceed naturally. Well, it’s cheaper to dredge and fill, so they dredged and filled. And at that time he made the statement that he–that they were killing Laguna Madre. They would cut off the circulation to Laguna Madre. Well, it hasn’t been quite as pronounced as he anticipated it to be, because they dredged the intra-coastal canal, about four or five years later, and that has allowed circulation from the Laguna to go into Corpus Christi Bay. But it has pretty well stopped circulation up along the mainland shore by Flower Bluff. And so part of the reasons now for raising the causeway, to the tune of some $40 million or so, onto pilings has been the stagnation essentially of the water circulation close to the shoreline of Flower Bluff. And it’s now before the Texdot [Texas Department of Transportation] for funding and environmental assessment and all this kind of stuff. But on North Padre Island, once the toll was taken off of the Kennedy Causeway, then the land at the north end of Padre Island, which was held privately but there’re some 10 or 11 miles there before you get to the National Seashore. Part of it’s in Kleberg County, and part of it is in Nueces County. And the part that was in Nueces County was bought by a consortium headed by a man by the name of Ben Marks. And, they wanted to develop it into a resort area, similar to Fort Lauderdale, and that was the–illustration they used. They convinced the City Council and convinced the county commissioners that there would be 50,000 people at the north end of Padre Island within ten years, and “Look at the increase in the tax base!” You know, this is what’s–governments look for, tax base increase. They don’t really care about anything else. He got special concessions from the general land office commissioner, a fellow by the name of Jerry Sadler at the time, and he was able then to make connections with his canals to the IntraCoastal Canal. We fought that development tooth and nail, in ’67 and ’68–we being everybody environmentally concerned here. And this included people from Parks and Wildlife and people from Fish and Wildlife, as well as people from the environmental community. A fellow by the name of Dr. Henry Hildebrand, who’s still living here–and you might like to talk to him, lives out in Flower Bluff. But he was quite instrumental. There were others here, and we fought it. We had no federal laws. Nothing you could hang a hat on. The only thing that we could do was to try and convince the developer that if he put his canal proposal into place, which had a series of finger canals, dead-ending, that in 20 years they would be septic. Do you know what his comment was? “I don’t care. In 20 years it’ll be the landowner’s problem. Not mine.”
DT: That’s frank.
PS: And–well, but developers–this is the way developers look at these things. They come in and they put in the roadways, or they have a master plan developed of some kind. They make their money plus three or four or 500%, and then they’re gone. Within five years this man was gone. He had sold it out to a concern in California. The whole development’s gone broke three times. Four times now. But in the meantime he did a lot of nasty things. One was to put a sea wall–on the beach. It’s 4200 feet, I think, or 4300 feet long. All right. We went over there when he put that wall in, and we told him two things. First of all, that it was on the public beach, because by then we had the Open Beaches Law. You know, that was Dave Schwartz and his group, and Bob Eckhardt and that group. That was in, I think, ’57 or ’58 or something, that they passed that. Anyway, he said he didn’t care. They had to stop him. Well, they didn’t, of course. They didn’t come and stop him, so he put that sea wall there. At that time, there was 250 feet of beach in front of the sea wall. Today there’s none. When the wind comes out of the north, the water is lapping on that sea wall. But anyway, two or three–this was in ’72. By that time Bob Armstrong was land commissioner, and he was a friend of Ed Hart’s, a friend of ours. And, we were going to Austin for some reason or another, and we had an appointment to go by and see Bob. And just before that–about three months before that, an activist here by the name of Harry Hogue, who was a lawyer, was a state surveyor, and an avid fisherman–had been out in Packer Channel, which had been–disturbed by all the development going on out there, and was casting his line into Packer Channel, and he got accosted by a security force fellow with a ’45. And this guy said, “You’re on private property, get off.” Well, Harry knew better. He knew that land washed by the salt water belongs to the state, etc., etc., you know.
DT: Open Beaches Act and still *** …
PS: Yeah, well, it’s not Open Beaches Act, really. That’s–it was on the Laguna side.
DT: I see. So it’s more of–I guess …
PS: But anyway, he got off. He says, “You don’t argue with a .45.”
DT: No.
PS: But he went down to the court records, and he found out that there is a triangle out there, behind–fronted by the sea wall, and–the side portions are arms of what historically was Packer Channel, old Packer Channel. One went south and came to the Gulf in time–before they dredged the ship channel at Port Aransas, before 1926–emptied down where we have what’s called Bob Hall Pier, the county park.
DT: These are all growing?
PS: Yes.
DT: I see.
PS: Not growing, just–just old exits for the channel.
DT: Oh, O.K.
PS: All Texas bays have a natural exit at the southeast corner.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: And that starts at the Sabine River and goes on down, …
DT: *** …
PS: –so the natural exit of Corpus Christi Bay was at Packer Channel. Now old Packer Channel encompasses three channels today. That’s Packer Channel, Newport Pass, and Corpus Christi Pass, and when you go back to Port Aransas you will go over bridges for all three of those. O.K., so you’d watch the signs. But Old Packer Pass emptied at what is now Bob Hall Pier and the county park, and then there was another little arm that came by just north of the sea wall area. Well, Harry Hogue was down at the fork there, where he was trying to fish. But this triangle had never been patented. It did not belong to the Jones estate, from whom Ben Marx had bought his property. He thought it did. But he knew in the back of his mind–I have a copy of the deed here. He knew in the back of his mind that it really didn’t belong to anybody. It had never been patented with the state.
DT: Well, is–was it …
PS: Consequently this triangle belonged to the state of Texas. It did not belong to Ben Marx. He had put …
DT: So this was tidal land only, and he alone …
PS: Yes, yes.
DT: O.K.
PS: It had–he had put his sea wall on state land, he had put what he called the Million-Dollar Inn on state land. Two huge condos had gone upon state land. Well, when Harry found that out, he sent copies of his maps to Bob Armstrong. And we didn’t hear anything and didn’t hear anything. And, finally when we went up–this was about three months after that–Hans asked Bob if he had looked at Harry’s maps and what he thought about ’em, and Bob had never seen ’em. They’d been short-stopped by somebody in his office–who’s still there, by the way. Anyway, Bob got furious. And, we looked at those maps and he said, “Well, I’m going to bring some–I’m coming down to look at that.” So he brought someone from the attorney general’s office down. We met them at the airport, took ’em over there. We walked all–that whole area, and–they were getting madder by the minute, and we wanted ’em to bring suit, to stop what he was doing. We didn’t–we weren’t really asking to have the sea wall removed because it was, after all, already there and stuff and all the condos were there. But we did not want him to extend that sea wall across where they want to dredge today, across Packer Channel, one of the outlets. So, the state had just lost a case down in Brownsville, and the fellow from the attorney general’s office didn’t want to bring suit. But we thought, well, to be fair, they should go and talk to the proponents of Padre Isles. And so this–at the time …
DT: This is Marx’s development, Padre Isles?
DT: Um-hmm. Yeah, Padre Isles. So to be fair, we wanted them to go talk to ’em. At that time they had their sales location and their topography and their little maps and all that stuff on the top floor of the Million-Dollar Inn. And we said–we told ’em we’d wait for ’em in the bar. So we went into the bar. I thought we were gonna all be drunk before they came downstairs because they didn’t come and they didn’t come and they didn’t come. And finally when they came down, this fellow from the Attorney General’s was red, his face was just flaming red. He was bald-headed, he was red all over the top of his bald head and he says, “We’re gonna sue those blankety-blank-blank-blanks.” He had looked at that development and read everything that they had up there, and the more he read it the madder he got. So we took him back to the airport. And sure enough, they brought suit. Actually they brought it through the county attorney here.
DT: I see.
PS: IT was settled out of court, and Ben Marx Development was allowed to keep this triangle. But, they had to return all land north of the sea wall and south of the sea wall, they couldn’t use anymore. That became clear title for the state. So he ended up with just a little piece of the triangle, and the rest of it went back to the state. But anyway, with the Kennedy Causeway, that development was allowed to go through because Ronald Bridges, who was a Senator, and–from here, was very involved in development–real estate development down here. And he was interested in having that development go fourth. But in one of the sessions of the legislature in ’65 or ’67, whenever it was, he had introduced a bill that called for a committee to be formed to look into development along the Texas Coast. It had very high-sounding ideals, all right. Armstrong Price was chairman of that committee when it was formed. And when the Padre Isles Development started, it had to send its proposals before this committee for passage before it could get anything else. It–before it could get Jerry Sadler to agree or before the county could agree or before the city could agree, it went before Armstrong’s committee. Well, Armstrong was so mad at what had been done to the Kennedy Causeway, and he felt that Laguna Madre had been killed, you know, by that and he says, “Let ’em go ahead, what difference does it make?” And so that’s how it got started. The fact that he had been, as he put it, unscrupulously treated with the construction of the Kennedy Causeway led ultimately to North Padre Island development. I mean, all this intertwining is–is–interesting. But when the …
DT: And interesting how many decisions were made in Austin about issues in Corpus Christi and Padre Island.
PS: Right. Yes.
DT: One thing that–that sort of–this all brings to mind is the–you’d mentioned something about dredging and some of these finger-filled canals and I was wondering if–if you can just touch a little bit on some of the–marinas and port proposals that have gotten offered over the years and–I think you’d mentioned some about the port of Corpus Christi’s dredging back in ’75 and a 70-foot channel of Corpus Christi’s bay mouth, …
PS: Well, …
DT: –and the deep water harbor that you touched on briefly.
PS: The–most of the dredging that has gone on here has been dredging–not for marinas so much as been dredging for the Port of Corpus Christi. We did have a big marina development proposed in Oso Bay. And this was proposed by the Tandy Corporation in the early ’70’s, and what they wanted to do was to open up what we call a blind Oso, where the Suter Park is today–to a marina development patterned on North Padre Island. In other words, finger canals. They wanted to go in and to dredge it. You mention Sissy Farenthold. She was in the Legislature at the time as a representative from here. And they went out to do some core sampling to see if it would be possible to do, and they couldn’t get in from the City of Corpus Christi side so they came in from the Ward Island side, where the University is located today. But they came in and put a dredge down there and they found out that what we told ’em was right, that there’s 50 foot of silt there. It’s not suitable for dredging up and making land, as they wanted to do. But anyway, Sissy was very instrumental in getting that dredging stopped. And that marina went the way of–of all bad proposals. That went with Bob Armstrong’s help, though. We fought it here. We went to a City Council meeting here, where the whole Council room was full of protesters. The high schoolers came out and they had little signs that they had hand-made, and it said, “Save Oso Bay.” And it was just full of kids, and full of–of citizens who did not want a marina development similar to Padre Isles, located right out at the terminus out here at Corpus Christi in Oso Bay. The city wanted it, again because of increased tax base. O.K. Well, it was all going to happen on state-owned land, because it’s washed by the salt water. And so they had to have a permit out of Bob Armstrong’s office to do that, and they also had to have a special bill in the Legislature, which would enable that land, which was state land, to be transferred to a private corporation for development, and so forth and so on. Well, it wasn’t as easy to do under Bob Armstrong as it had been under Jerry Sadler, and Bob Armstrong was against it. But we were having great, great difficulties in stopping it locally, but at the City Council meeting–it started in the middle afternoon, public hearing on this. It went on till 10 o’clock at night. None of us left. The City Council people went in and out and went to get supper or whatever.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: But none of the–the opponents left. So we were all against it–except one, and that was a developer. And he said he wanted to put another Fort Lauderdale here. WE were well situated to be the Fort Lauderdale of Texas. Well, this was the same time the Federal Government was spending millions of dollars to restore the beaches at Fort Lauderdale, which they still have to do periodically. WE didn’t want our beaches destroyed and then restored, you know. But anyway, everyone spoke against it except this one developer, and he made his statements to boos and cries and what-not from the audience. After it was over, the Mayor said, “Well, anyone else want to speak?” No one else was–we’d all spoken, and then he said, “I’ll entertain a motion from the City Council.” And one City Council person said, “I move we accept the Tandy proposal.” It was seconded and voted unanimously. And that’s when I became very cynical about public officials. I’ve never let any of ’em forget it, either. [Laughs.] But it was stopped in the Texas Legislature. And the way it was stopped was that Bob Armstrong succeeded in having a rider put on that bill, so that if that land–any land that was created out of state-owned land for the purpose of development and then transferred to a private corporation–I’ve forgotten how it was worded exactly, but a certain proportion of that increase in value had to be given to the State School Children’s Fund or whatever they call it. Well, it was that rider that killed it. The city wanted all that money, and they didn’t want to have to pay. If they took it from the Bay bottom which is worth nothing, to making it a home site worth 20, 30, $40,000 an acre, then that–a portion of that money, which the city wanted to put in their tax base, would go to the state. And so it never happened.
DT: Well, …
PS: I mean, this is an area where environmentalists did not defeat it. What defeated it was economics. And …
DT: The tax revenue question.
PS: Yeah. Yeah. And with the port of Corpus Christi, they were given–in the early years after 1926, when the first deep harbor was dredged–they were given rights to fill–well, in–first to dredge oyster reefs and things for industry, and PPG came here in the 1920’s and dredged all the oyster reefs out of Nueces Bay, to–do their operations out there. But the port had the right to fill–to dredge and fill, in the–Nueces Bay, one-third of the original size of Nueces Bay. They haven’t filled that much yet. But when they wanted to dredge in the mid ’70’s to 45 feet, to become the deepest port on the Gulf Coast–and they still are. They’re trying to dredge the Houston Channel now to 45 feet but they haven’t been able to find beneficial–“beneficial” uses for spoil, so they don’t know what to do with it. Up until very recently they’d dump all the spoil–all the dredge material right along the shore–right along the side of the Channel, so it would slither back in and they can dredge it again in three years. That’s what you call insurance policy or something. [Laughs.]
DT: Right, the Full Employment Act then?
PS: Yes, yes. But anyway, the inner harbor at Corpus Christi was–and still is, but at that time was exceedingly contaminated, because we had a number of industries located along the harbor channel which simply dumped unpurified effluent into the Channel. And so we had minable quantities of zinc, and cadmium, and mercury, and other materials of varying toxicities in the sediments. Now as long as they were in the sediments in the Channel, they were not available for the water column and were not being–concentrated in the benthics and ultimately into the fish–though there are pockets of cadmium and zinc and mercury out in Corpus Christi Bay, which is an example of circulation, because it’d go in the water and then it’d–have a little eddy.
DT: It’s really like a–a tracer, in a sense.
PS: Yeah, um-hmm. In a sense. That–that work was done by the U.S.G.S., in the late 1970’s. But anyway, we fought that tooth and nail. Even though the–you want to cut that off, since he’s on the phone? Anyway, we–fought it tooth and nail because we said that stuff is contaminated, particularly cadmium. Now if you bring cadmium to the surface, it will be oxidized and form cadmium sulfate. It’s cadmium sulfide in the sediments, which is insoluble. But if you bring it to the surface, it is exposed to oxygen and becomes calcium sulfate, which is then soluble in water, and consequently would get into the fish. Now cadmium is the element which came to world attention as the “itai-itai” disease, the ouch-ouch disease of Japan.
DT: Yeah.
PS: And, consequently, we were able to prevent their doing that, dumping all that spoil. Now it’s of concern today, 20 years later, because when they dredged that, they were required by the Corps of Engineers ultimately to put the spoil into areas–spoil site areas that were levied. And then when they’re full, they’re supposed to cap it with Frio Clay, which is very impervious. But none of ’em are full now, and the levies, I’ve been told, have cracks in them. So if we have a major storm, then that stuff’s gonna slither into the bay regardless, and it’s very worrisome. I made a complaint to the Corps of Engineers a week or so ago that somebody had told me that those levies had cracks and would they get out there and look at ’em. Well, you have to go back and follow it up, so in a week or so I’ll call ’em again and ask ’em for a report on it. They keep telling me, “Oh, yes, we’ll go and we’ll let you know,” you know. Well, they don’t always let you know–unless you call ’em back.
DT: Can we go back to some of the rationale for permitting, you know, and encouraging these developments? And, that it’s also often couched in the need for a larger tax base? And I’m curious …
PS: Most developments are. [Laughs.]
DT: Yeah, I’m curious if there have ever been looks at how the possible revenues are offset by …
[Tape 2, Side A.]
DT: Yeah, I’m curious if there have ever been looks at how the possible revenues are offset by the costs of extending infrastructure–you know, providing the utilities and–all the support services the government is bound to provide for those developments?
PS: They don’t calculate that way. The–North Padre Island is now within the city limits of Corpus Christi. But when the development took place, it was outside the city limits and was part of the county. And a friend of mine was county auditor for a number of years, and I asked him to look into the revenue that came in from county taxes on North Padre Island versus the amount of money they spent for fire protection or for streets or for police protection, and he said, “There’s no comparison at all. It costs us much more to provide the services out there than it does–or brings in in revenue.” Now when the city annexed it, they annexed it for the tax base, O.K. The streets had been put in by the developer, so the maintenance then becomes a city problem. The sewage that was put in over there was put in with the private developer. They tried to get the city to pay for it, and then they tried to get the Federal Government to pay for it but we fought ’em tooth and nail, because we said it should not be a subsidy. That’s a private development, the developer should pay. So the sewer plant was originally put in by the private developer, though they did try to get an E.P.A. loan, and we fought it and they did not get the loan. Today the city is spending a lot of money on North Padre Island, and–they would like to annex Mustang Island up to the city limits of Port Aransas–but they have not because of the tremendous cost of providing services. Now, if you ask the city taxing department or the city revenue ad valorem people what the difference is between the cost of providing these services and the tax revenue brought in, you cannot get an answer. There is no way they’ll calculate that for you.
DT: It’s possible to figure but they just, well, they’re not candid.
PS: Well, I’m sure it’s possible.
DT: Yeah.
PS: They will not.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: And, something else that I find very fascinating in Texas law is that if you pass a bond issue, and the public votes for this bond issue and they vote the bonds to do whatever it is that they’re doing–and one of the things that–that the public voted for was to put sewer lines into Flower Bluff, which is right across Laguna Madre from Padre Island. They didn’t do it. And those bonds passed overwhelmingly–to put it in out there because that portion of Laguna Madre sometimes smells. They’re on septic tanks. O.K. So you ask the City Council, “Why don’t you do that?” Well, it’s more important to them to put a road in over here than it is to put the sewer in in Flower Bluff, and it turns out that the law does not require that the bonds be spent for what you voted them to be spent for. It’s only the good will of the City Council that is in place at the time the monies are to be expended that determines where that money goes. I think that’s incredible! But it’s evidently the way the law is written in this state.
DT: Little discretion.
PS: Yes! That’s why we …
DT: How convenient.
PS: That’s why we lost Texana, by the way, is a quirk in the law. You see, our City Charter requires that for any utility contract longer than five years, it be put to the voters. O.K. Well, Texas revised its water code several times over the last 20 or 30 years and there’s a quirk in the Texas water code that allows cities to do things to water, or with water, that do not follow for other utilities. So what the City Council had to prove was that water was not a utility, in the same way that gas or sewage is, and–or garbage, and therefore it fell primarily under the Texas Water Code. And the citizens–they could allow a vote but they were not required to have the citizens vote on this water from Texana. So we won it in the first court. That was in Austin. I’ve forgotten the judge’s name. But when it went to the Appeals Court, they pulled out this 1938 law that exempts cities from having to put water problems to the voters. And that’s what they hung it on. So water’s not a utility. But …
DT: Now we know.
PS: Now we know.
DT: I think that’s a nice segue to some of the water supply issues that you’ve been active with for, lo, these many years, and I was …
PS: Well, …
DT: –wondering if you could talk a little bit about Lake Corpus Christi, Lake Texana, Choke Canyon? I’m sure you’ve–you had lots of memories there.
PS: [Laughs.] Well, we first became–my husband and I first became active actually in the conservation movement over the infamous Texas Water Plan in the mid ’60’s. And this was defeated at the polls–statewide polls, statewide vote–by Houston and Dallas, primarily. Those were the citizens that voted against the Texas Water Plan, and it was narrow. At that time what they wanted to do was to bring water from the Mississippi and pump it to Brownsville along the Coast, along canals on the Coast–and up to the High Plains, because everybody recognizes that the Ogallala Aquifer is getting a little bit low and they need water up there, or think they do. And so as part of the Texas Water Plan in the 1960’s, they proposed a series of dams. And one of those dams was Choke Canyon, on the Frio River, and another one was Lake Texana, which is on the Lavaca-Navidad conjunction up there. Another one was Wallisville. There were dams proposed as part of the Texas Water Plan along the Coast, and connecting those would be Burley’s Ditches, remember Burley. Well, today they’re a little bit more sophisticated. They want to connect these dams with pipes, so that they can take water in pipes. They don’t have the evaporation from the ditch, it’s not quite as much of an eye sore and–and things like this. And so they proposed–beginning in 1992, the Texas Water Development Board, having been charged by the Legislature to come up with a 50-year water plan for the state of Texas, proposed the Texas Water Plan. And this is a modernized version, the Texas Water–Trans-Texas Program …
DT: Trans-Texas?
PS: –they call it today.
DT: Sure.
PS: But it’s just a watered-down version of Burley’s Texas Water Plan of the 1960’s. The difference is that today they’re concentrating only along the Coast. They’re no longer proposing that you raise 4,000 feet water from East Texas up to the High Plains because that’s prohibitive in cost. You’re pumping costs are tremendous, going uphill. If you bring it on flat land along the coasts, you don’t have that much in the way of pumping costs. I mean, there’re some, of course, but not that much. Well, Lake Texana and Choke Canyon were both constructed beginning in the late ’70’s. The loans were through the Texas Water Development Board and the Bureau of Reclamation, and they were balloon notes. So you paid only interest costs until a certain date. For Choke Canyon, the first payment on the principal came due in 1992. For Texana, the first payment on the principal came due in 1996. Now that’s very important. The people involved in Choke Canyon here in Corpus Christi were pretty smart, as far as the repayment of the loan is concerned, because they began collecting in their water fees the amount of money needed to repay the loan back in the 1970’s. So we have paid over and above the cost of water coming down the Nueces River, over and above that true cost, since 1977 when they began construction.
DT: So they were amortizing the cost …
PS: They were amortizing it.
DT: –while their loan was actually a balloon note.
PS: Yeah, they put it in an escrow account.
DT: That’s interesting.
PS: And so in the escrow account there’s something like 28 or $29 million. O.K. They began their payments on schedule in 1992 on this note. Now, the people at Lake Texana, their dam, the–well, they’re interconnected here but their–their dam was built two or three years later, and their balloon note came due, as I said, in 1996. Now prior to that, the Texas Water Development Board and the city of Corpus Christi, and major industry here, got together in what I call a collusion, and decided that they really had to have more water here. Now, more water needed here goes back to the mitigation requirements for Choke Canyon, because it was opposed by all environmental groups–federal, state, national agencies. All opposed another dam on the Nueces River or the Nueces River watershed, which includes the Frio River, and this is because the water comes from the semi-to-arid west Texas. And therefore, the water delivery to the Bay System is very bad, very low in years of drought. O.K. Now the importance of having the water delivery to the Bay System is something that is hard for non-biologists or non-fisherpeople to understand, and this is because Nueces Bay and the Nueces River delta is second only to Galveston Bay as an important nursery area for–I think it’s 75 or 80% of the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Texas Coast. The baby shrimp, both white and brown, all of the commercially–and sports fisheries have their nursery area in Nueces Bay. Now for that they need fresh water. Now, people think that the fresh water has to come down the river to dilute the salt water, but that’s not the reason at all. The reason is that the fresh water brings nutrients, and primarily vitamin B12, which is a growth factor. But you can’t measure easily the amount of nutrients coming down the water–down the river, but you can measure the change in salinity. Therefore, when they came to an agreement here in 1991 or ’92 about how much water they would ultimately release into Nueces Bay, the measurement was done on salinity.
DT: But it is a proxy for these other extensions.
PS: Proxy for these other things, …
DT: Uh-huh.
PS: –yes. Now to go back. The Port of Corpus Christi now wants to deepen and widen the Shim Channel coming across Corpus Christi Bay, and the only thing that is holding ’em up is what to do with the spoil. There is a continual question along the Coast about dredging the Intracoastal from Corpus Christi Bay to Brownsville. And they say for every barge that goes down there there’s a $2,000 subsidy, and there’re very few barges that go. But, of course the people along the way, for instance at Mansfield and on down at Brownsville, are for that Intracoastal.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: And there’s a big push to dredge one along the coast there in Mexico, because they have the same kind of topography we do, all the way down to Tampico.
DT: Um-hmm.
PS: These are going to be the issues that come up in the future, and right now we’re fighting Packer Channel like mad.
DT: Well, I’ve talked a lot and probably asked too many questions. Do you have some thoughts you just like to put out there?
PS: Well, what can you say? All you can do is fight for what you believe in.
End of reel 1006.
End of interview with Pat Suter.