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Rick Lowerre

INTERVIEWEE: Rick Lowerre (RL)
DATE: June 18, 1999
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REELS: 2005 and 2006

Note that the raw tape includes roughly one minute of color bars and tone at its outset. 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: This is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s June 18, 1999 and we’re here in Austin, Texas interviewing Rick Lowerre who’s a prominent environmental lawyer in the state and has been for many years. I wanted to take this chance to thank Rick for participating.
RL: You’re welcome, David.
DT: I’d like to start with some of your early experiences. Are there any people in your family or early friends who were interested in the outdoors or conservation that you share this with?
02:31 – 2005
RL: No. This was not an early activity at all or an early thought at all. This came probably in college, the interest.
DT: And how did it rise up?
02:46 – 2005
RL: I don’t know. I—I guess kind of combination of doing some things outdoors, hiking and canoeing and some influential people and deciding that I didn’t want to do what I was sort of programmed to do. The, of course, I was just told my whole life that I should be an engineer, that I did well in science and math and did terrible in English so I should move—move into those fields and went to engineering school and just didn’t find anyone there who I ever wanted to work with again. Professors or students, not—that’s not quite true but it was not, you know, experience that made me think this is what I wanted to do. And everybody was being programmed to go work for oil companies or other chemical companies and that also didn’t really excite me. There was very little vision or sense of place in what we were doing or sense of doing something good. It was gearing up to go help corporations make money. And that didn’t interest me. And so I sort of struggled to find out what did interest me and landed here.
DT: I think we skipped some years there.
04:05 – 2005
RL: Yeah, yeah. A few.
DT: Was there anybody at Rice or at Berkeley who was a teacher that suggested to you that there might be another career or different educational path that would be better?
04:22 – 2005
RL: No, no, in fact, probably just the opposite. There was really and—and that’s probably what got me here was the fact that there wasn’t anybody that I thought was doing the right thing or going the right direction or even had good ideas. And it so—that sort of forced me to think in a whole different line, in a whole different way as to what I wanted to do. You know, the professors at Rice were—they’re good—they’re real focused on what they were doing and—and they were interested in the students. And then I went to University of California at Berkeley and it was sort of the same thing. None of them really had any sense of where they were in the world or what—what they were doing or—you know, much sense that they were really happy with their careers or getting much out of it except the—the money. So it just—it was really hard to follow that and it was really hard to sort of get trained by them to move into what they were training people to do. So it was the sense of doing something else and we did some environmental engineering work in the area and that seemed—seemed interesting and seemed like it was potentially where to go but even that was so hard to do back then. And so it was, I guess a time when there was new environmental laws being passed and the—the law field sounded sort of interesting.
DT: Before you went into law, can you talk about doing environmental consulting or working for the EPA?
06:00 – 2005
RL: The—actually the EPA work was done after—when I was in law school. It was some summer work and some additional work at Rice, between Rice and Berkeley at Berkeley that, you know, on the ship channel down in Houston seeing how they were running things. It was pretty gross and just did not, you know, the people I was working with, it was like—like the students, it was like the professors. It was not people that I really felt like this was going to be the way I wanted to have my life go in the future, so again, that’s sort of why that—after Berkeley when—it didn’t—I guess I went to Berkeley thinking that well maybe I could find some new people, different interests. I could become a teacher, professor and do better and it just didn’t seem possible. So that’s when I sort of decided well it’s time to make a big change. And I did. So I just—just stopped that graduate work and decided to go to law school.
DT: So you came back and went to UT [University of Texas] Law School?
06:59 – 2005
RL: Um hm. It was just sort of a spur of the moment deal and I applied late, they accepted me. I said hell, just go do it. See what—what it’s like. It was, you know, it was a—a strange time because of the draft and Vietnam war and things like that that everybody had—was dealing with at the same time. So things were a little bit uncertain and up in the air as it was. That probably led to willing to make these kinds of changes. But it was—it was mainly searching and sort of feeling that this might lead to the path that I was more interested in doing. And—and it was, you know, it was a little different. There weren’t many people doing that, going from engineering to law school at the time.
DT: Any thoughts about the mentality of an engineer and the mentality of a lawyer?
07:59 – 2005
RL: You know, I’m not sure there really—there really is. You know, you’re trained in the way—different ways of thinking. You’re trained in sort of different approaches to problems but it just—we’re just—you know, it’s just a bunch of people and there’s just—in the engineering field there’s all types. In the law field, there’s just all types and it was hard to make the switch from engineering to law because of the—the originally because of the—the way they taught. There were not answers in the law. There were answers in engineering and that’s what you looked for. In law, you looked for how do you think about things rather than how do you get to an answer. The process was more important than the—than the results.
DT: When you got out of law school, what was your first gig?
08:51 – 2005
RL: Well, actually the thing that probably made it—made me think it was possible to do this was having met—I met Stuart Henry when I was in law school and so while I was in law school, he hired me to work with him lobbying the legislature for the Sierra Club in 1975. And that was the—my last part of law school and there weren’t many classes left so it was pretty easy. So I spent most of my time over at the legislature trying to learn that process. And at that point, I figured I was going to go in this direction and was just a question of what I needed to do to get—to get there. And that was a real good opportunity.
DT: Well tell about that.
09:37 – 2005
RL: I was pretty naïve from, you know, going in straight from school into that mess but it was a good experience because we actually had success. There were some efforts to pass—we—basically Sierra Club was leading an effort to pass a—a strip mining law in Texas and we got that law passed that session for coal and uranium. And I probably didn’t know enough about how bad the legislature was at that time to know what was really going on but there were a bunch of good people work with—Max Sherman was the Senator who was carrying it and he was, you know, a real statesman and that was a real good experience. But, you know, there was also a lot of bad experiences with that. There was—obviously not many legislators wanted to see me, wanted to talk with me on these issues. Sierra Club was not real popular over there. But—it was all right—there were—we were—Stewart and I were about the only, you know, environmental voices over there at the time. And so if they needed a—a perspective, they’d call us, they’d ask us so it was interesting. It was a time when they were still planning these grandiose water plan schemes, bringing water from the Mississippi to West Texas and that kind of stuff. So there were some pretty easy things to—to fight, pretty easy things to go after and show how stupid they were, even back then. Have—you know, having six nuclear power plants to pump water from Mississippi to West Texas. Even then it was starting to raise
11:13 – 2005
RL: kind of—kinds of questions that obviously now everybody would go—just laugh at the idea.
DT: Can you tell more about Trans Texas?
11:21 – 2005
RL: Well, I mean, there was the—the whole scheme—there were a number of different schemes about water for Texas. How serious people were about them, it was really hard to know because, to a large extent, I think these schemes were efforts to give sort of a bigger picture and gain support in West Texas for building reservoirs in East Texas. But because you had to pass these constitutional amendments to get these bonds or you had to get some authority, you had to have the support—support of the State and the people in West Texas were always voting overwhelmingly for these funding schemes which were supposed to bring water to them. And I think no one ever really understood the schemes. Everybody thought West Texas would ever get any water. They just needed their votes. So they’d put these schemes up in order to raise money to build reservoirs in East Texas for Dallas and Fort Worth and others, knowing that they were never going to link these reservoirs up. You know, the people that were really in the know. Now politicians, legislators, all these other people, probably had no idea what they were really doing but it was just a big scheme to get a bunch of reservoirs built and get—keep—keep the whole state supporting the idea by promising ridiculous things.
DT: Do you recall many of the proponents, what they were like?
12:44 – 2005
RL: Well General Rose, Mark Rose’s father was head of the water agency at the time and he’s the one that kept throwing out these schemes but he just—you know, one day in a—in a meeting he basically said to a bunch of us. Well, you know, we’re never going to build these things. This is just a way to keep the voters voting for it, things like that. So it was an amazing admission. I was—it was one of the kind of big shocks in my life that he—that someone like that would really admit that in a public meeting. But it didn’t matter … everybody, you know, I can go around saying General Rose said this but nobody would believe me. Everybody thought gosh, we’re really going to bring all this water to West Texas and link up all these reservoirs along the coast and just be a flood of water. Enough people knew. Enough people understood it, you know, because those things never did get—never get the funding and support they really needed. It just got more funding and more support than they should have gotten because of the lies.
DT: Was there a woman named Katherine Fry(?) who was active back then?
13:54 – 2005
Sure, sure.
DT: What was she like or is…
14:26 – 2005
RL: Katherine Fry was just—she—she understood that she could be effective and what’s really nice about—the thing that I’ve enjoyed most about my work is sort of working with people and their discovery that they can be effective and do things. And most people like, you know, Katherine was sort of discovering that she can go to the legislature and be a voice and, you know, say things that other people weren’t saying and have an effect. It helped, of course, that she had the League of Women Voters behind her and—and others. But she was just real determined to stay in. She—she knew that she could make a difference if she just stood there. And she did it and she stayed with it for a long time. She—there’s a few people like her that—that made a big difference back then.
DT: You also mentioned the bills about coal and uranium mining. Can you tell about that?
15:29 – 2005
RL: Yeah, probably the most interesting thing—most surprising even there. There were—we were trying to pass a bill to deal with certainly coal and uranium mining because, at the time, congress was also working on a bill to regulate coal and at least coal mining. The bill we had in Texas covered coal, uranium and sand and gravel, all—all mining. And as far as I know, we got the bill out of the senate and it went to the house and, as far as I know, it was the only time in 20, 30 years of the legislature that the speaker actually
16:09 – 2005
RL: handed the gavel over to somebody else to come down off the stand to speak against a bill. And he came down and took the mike to try to persuade the house not to pass—well to—to accept an amendment that would strip out the sand and gravel and the other minerals. And he was successful. I mean, he was the speaker. So they adopted the amendment that removed everything but coal and uranium and then we got that bill passed. You know, the result is, of course, you just have pits all over Texas now that are open—that were never reclaimed, you know, that people—they’re filled with water or worse. And that’s a real shame. That was a real disappointment but the bill passed. The house and, at the time, I think, I guess, it was Ford, I believe, I’m trying to remember which it was—vetoed the federal coal mine bill after it passed congress. So Dolph Briscoe from Texas, I believe, was the governor then was considering vetoing the—the Texas bill because now there wasn’t really a federal mandate or federal need or federal bill. And Bob Armstrong and Max Sherman took him on a plane trip around Texas showing him what strip mining looked like, both coal and uranium and he came back and he signed the bill. So it was a—a pretty good victory. And so Texas actually had a bill before the federal government passed one.
DT: Can you talk about the changes in the house and senate over the years?
18:03 – 2005
RL: Yeah, it does seem like it—it does change. For a while, in the ‘70’s, it was certainly the–the senate was the more conservative on environmental issues and the tougher house to work in and the house had a bunch of leaders and—who cared about the environment. Mattox was there at the time. Johnny Bryant came in. Some real leadership on these issues. And so you had to pretty much—you seemed—you lost in the senate unless you had a strong senate sponsor and you—and you could kill things that were bad from the senate in the house. And you might even pass something in the house and the senate but the house was really much better. It kind of changed in the ‘80’s so that the senate became better than the house and the senate was where you had to kill all the bad stuff. In the ‘90’s and the late ‘90’s, that’s reversing again and—and the house is becoming a more friendly forum than the senate. The—the—you know the efforts have changed a lot too. The sophistication of the lobbying in—in ’75 really was—lobbyists were people who didn’t know anything about the subject and were just there to sort of carry money around and convince people not on the merits, but on whatever matter—whatever way they could do it, how to vote. And at least for industry. And I think it was really the public interest lobbying community that forced industry to hire people to lobby that actually knew the subject matter and could argue the issues and not just basically tell lies and pass money around. So they’ve had to become more sophisticated and they have become much more sophisticated. Obviously money still is the big deal. It’s no longer carried around in brown paper bags and handed out. It’s now more given for the elections and becomes more important for elections now. So money still—still is the issue.
DT: Talk about money in the legislature. What kind of roles does it play and where does it come from?
20:46 – 2005
RL: Well I didn’t ever see it actually delivered in paper bags. But you certainly still heard about that kind of thing happening. At that time, money was probably less important in terms of getting elected but more important in terms of a lot of the legislators just getting a little extra because payment was so bad for working at the legislature. People didn’t really work at the legislature and—and—and get big opportunities back home, you know, to own the beer distributorship which now is sort of what happens. Is you become a legislature—legislator and you get these opportunities to invest or opportunities to—for employment that are—that are lucrative. I think money’s much more important now in terms of campaigns and having enough money because campaigns are so expensive. So raising the kind of money to run elections and with all the media means that, you know, legislators, even the best of them, have to be really worried about offending the people that are giving them money. And so it’s—it means it’s much harder for—there’s very few state representatives or state senators who really can take positions that they really believe in on some of these issues, environmental issues, just because they—they’re having to go to such a wide base support for funding. And they’re worried about losing that—that support. So it—it makes it real hard and I—and as a result, the environmental community is starting and needs to start thinking about helping the friends out that are running for office with some funding. Something we’ve never had to do in the past.
22:36 – 2005
RL: We’d always done some grass root work or, you know, help get out the vote. But it really is depending so much more on money now.
DT: I understand you’ve been active in the legislature in trying to keep public participation and access to the courts. Can you talk a little bit about that?
23:01 – 2005
RL: Sure, and it’s just—and it’s probably the area of—of law and even—not even environmental law but the place I sort of feel strongest and what keeps me coming back to this work and continuing to do it is the idea that the—the people I get to work with get these opportunities to affect change and to protect themselves. And it’s a combination of—of—there’s laws now that allow them—that give them certain rights to do those things and the process of them understanding how to work with those rights and use them. So I had a great experience working with people, them understanding that they can fight City Hall, that they can—one person can make a real difference. And it’s been so important, I think, to the communities that I’ve worked with that it’s meant—meant that when people tried to change those laws or reduce those rights, it’s the thing that I will work hardest to defend and have for the last few years because there’s been a real serious effort to eliminate those rights to—of the public to participate in decisions of—of government that affect them. And it’s been a—it’s been a real interesting fight and it’s—it’s something that those people that—that had the experience understand how—how important it is to keep those rights and the industries and the regulators who are affected
24:31 – 2005
RL: by that are learning that that’s—if they want to do what they want to do without the public, they’ve got to do something about those laws. They’ve got to eliminate some of those rights. So there’s been major efforts to do that. I’m hoping after this session, because of all the publicity, because of all the organizing that went on across Texas on these rights, that we’ll have a year or two, maybe three or four where we won’t have to fight that battle again. But it’s something you just going to fight for every—every session almost.
DT: What are some of the ways they try and restrict people from participating?
25:08 – 2005
RL: Well, I mean, the obvious thing is don’t give them notice. If people don’t know what’s happening, they can’t get involved. And so how you give notice and when you give notice to people about what’s happening in the community, you know, if a new facility’s coming in or a reserv—reservoir or something like that, if you can keep it under wraps as long as possible then the public doesn’t have the opportunities to learn what’s going on and get involved. And it’s so much harder at that point and you can just, you know, those people that are promoters of the projects can do their political activity and get support from county commissioners, city officials, legislators and get them commitment early on because they’re not hearing from the other side. So that’s a big—a big scam and it—real important that when a—that projects be brought to the community early in the process and that the—the community gets a chance to help participate in—in whether that
26:07 – 2005
RL: project’s going to get tax incentives, whether it’s going to get permits and variances, whether it’s going to get state permits for pollution and there—so there’s been a big effort to eliminate the notice and, in addition, the—eliminate the opportunities to either comment or request some kind of hearing on the—on the project. And so you can—it is a game now of, in many cases of—in cases of new smelters coming in or landfills or—the competition is such that the applicants, the people that want to do these projects will come in with as little information as they can, see what they can get buy with, try to convince the agency to give them a permit that’s as flexible and as open-ended as possible. And that just, you know, for business, that makes sense. You want as many options as you want and you want to be able to undercut your competitor. You want to be able to put out more pollution and you want to be able to put it out at the time you want it and if you can keep the public from there in the—the process and it’s just a negotiation between the state agency and the proponent. And the state agency may have really good people, really trying hard but there’s—it’s still a negotiation. And with the public there, the agency’s really then more in the middle hearing from both sides and making a decision. Without the public there, it really is—becomes this negotiation process. In the last—the last 10 years probably, the agencies have been converting more and more to the sort of idea that we’re no longer the arm’s length regulator, we’re now do customer service. We now work with the industry and try to find ways to solve their problems with them. Whereas it used to be here’s—here’s what the laws—rules and laws are so this is what you have to do. It’s become much more, everything is negotiable and the agency then puts themselves in the position where they negotiate away rights. So it’s
28:17 – 2005
RL: a combination of citizens being there to keep the pressure on from the other side and also the citizens coming in with their own experts and with their own information helping the agency understand the full impact of what they’re doing. We’ve had cases where applicants have come in with applications that are supposed to identify all the springs and creeks and well—water wells on their property and off and they don’t identify anything. And as a result, the staff will just assume that there are no surface or groundwater sources that are at risk and will issue permits that therefore don’t deal with those problems. And then the public will come in and go, there’s springs on this property. And, you know, otherwise the agency would never know. And unfortunately, the agencies are not inclined to then go punish applicants for omitting that information. So there—the incentive is there for every applicant to come in and see what they can get away with. And that’s why the public really has to be there. Really has to be overseeing and watching and participating otherwise, you know, it doesn’t matter if the agency is—is really trying to do a great job or not, they just—they can’t do it because they don’t have the information.
DT: Can you tell about your experience being at an agency when you worked as Assistant Commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture?
29:45 – 2005
RL: Yeah, and it was—it was really good—helped—helped my perspective on what’s possible in government. First of all, I assumed that agencies really could turn things
29:54 – 2005
RL: around quickly with—with good leadership and the right people. But bureaucracy is really are bureaucracies and even with the best intentions or the worst intentions, it’s kind of good that they can’t—they’re not as efficient—as effective as you might worry they would be. It’s sort of like, I used to think how ineffective and inefficient congress and legislators are. And then I realized thank God, they’re so inefficient otherwise, you now, it would be a disaster. And, to some extent, that’s true with agencies also that the—they’re set up in a way that it’s hard to make change. And change is incremental. And so going into an agency thinking that you could make change and realizing sort of what those limits are helped—at least helped me understand when I go now from the outside and try to get an agency to make change, I understand what those internal limits are and how they can make changes and how they can’t. And I think a lot of people still expect be—what now I would view as mira—miracles from agencies to do things in both a matter of time and taking the right steps. And, you know, it’s ashamed they can’t do that right but then again, like I say, it’s good that they can’t do it the other way efficiently either. If they want to go in the wrong direction, there’s some built in brakes on it too.
DT: What were some of the hopes you had at TDA [Texas Department of Agriculture] and some of the initiatives you got through?
31:44 – 2005
RL: Well, a big—a big concern there and—and it still should be is—is exposure to pesticides and particularly for farm workers who really, you know, are not—don’t have the
31:56 – 2005
RL: resources, capabilities to do much for themselves. And a place where government really needs to serve a role in protecting people who, you know, have to have the jobs, have to have the work and are at real risk if they complain or report exposures. Their jobs, their family’s jobs are at real risk. So trying to set things up so that you—we’ve moved the agricultural community into thinking more of reasons to protect and reduce risks and exposure and given them incentives, both having them understand better why you shouldn’t send farm workers in to pick onions the day you’ve sprayed the field with some pesticide. You know, it’s a question of education and finding ways that they can do things that don’t undercut their—their economic gains. And so I think that was a big success, both in providing some additional regulation as a back-up, and then really a pretty strong education effort in the farming community and farm worker community on the risks and the ways to deal with it. So, you know, what pesticides should you be using for certain—at certain times because of the risk of the—to the farm worker. And usually there are alternatives and if you use a pesticide that may cost you a little bit more but doesn’t have as long an effective time so farm workers can get in quicker without the risk, kind of balances itself out. So there was that effort to sort of convince farmers not just to spray with whatever the cheapest thing was and then to send people back in but figure out—it—it’s a management issue. It’s both management of the crop and management of—of the worker in a way that makes sense. And it took a while to convince both sides to that, you know, it was in both their interests to make this work right. And obviously there’s still—unfortunately people on both sides that don’t think it’s working right and aren’t working well with the system. And I’m afraid there’s just not a
34:32 – 2005
RL: lot of effort by government to try to continue that—that process right now. I don’t know when they’ll change. So it was—it was good because I think we did a lot to both protect farm workers and help farmers understand that they could still be—still make a good living and still, you know, get their crop in without exposing the farm workers. And, you know, there’s–what’s good about the practice I’ve done both at TDA and outside is that most of the people I work with are rural—people in rural communities and there are some out there that are evil and there are some that we should just get rid of. They’re—you know, you shouldn’t let them be out there. You should put them in jail. But most of them are trying to do the right thing and if you can work with them a little bit, it’s a real good experience.
DT: Can you give us some examples of working with farmers on the one side and farm workers on the other?
35:39 – 2005
RL: You know, I think the—the—obviously the big issue for farm workers is a big location problem was in the valley and, like I say, there are some farmers down there that never did accept the idea that pesticides were a risk—created a risk and therefore, took the kinds of steps they needed to do to protect farm workers and themselves and their family and all their workers. Not just the farm—just not—not what we think of farm workers in terms of people who are picking and hoeing but, you know, ranch hands, people that live and work with them all year round. People they call their friends and their co-workers.
36:18 – 2005
RL: And those, you know, we just never got through to them but there were a number of farmers down there who did, who really wanted to do it right and, if you worked with them, would find a way to—to—to make it all work right. I don’t think I want to mention any names but, you know, it’s—it’s a mixed bag and that was a—that was a real good experience at TDA. Probably the best. I mean, that was sort of one of the goals that was successful. There were a lot of frustrations.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about your boss, Jim Hightower and how he differed from the previous administration and subsequent ones?
37:05 – 2005
RL: Yeah, you know, and it was—I think he went in office idealistic about what you could do. He—he spent his first—he was smart enough to spend his first four years in office working on things that were cooperative efforts for—with farmers—marketing, trying to improve, trying to give diversity—bring diversity so people had alternatives, trying to do rural economic development, trying to keep small farm—keep—give small farmers some options. And, for that reason, gained a lot of support and he didn’t spend the first few years really in the regulatory realm working pesticides and some other issues. He kind of let that area just slide in large part because I—I think he assumed and everybody did assume that that’s where he was going to come in and really make some changes. And so after he’d gone and gained some support though obviously not with corporate ag or large agriculture interest, who he really didn’t feel like government needed to help them at all,
38:17 – 2005
RL: didn’t need to go out and market their products. They had the resources and capabilities of doing that. He was more in doing for the farmers, the small farmers. You know, he wanted to then try to deal something with the reg—regulatory systems and that’s when I went in and he pretty much was real good about not having to make the decisions. I mean he—he ultimately made the decisions but he was pretty trusting, he was pretty good about delegating. Not—he’s certainly not a micro manager. He was looking for the big picture. He was looking for some—some advancement, some changes but was real good about, you know, hiring people and then letting them do what they thought was the appropriate steps. And, you know, obviously keeping them advised and talking about major things with him. So that was a really good experience. He was—he was great in that fashion. He—it—it did—it did result when he started doing some of that—that work in a lot more attacks on him because the chemical companies, the large farm interests, you know, it was change and anything that brings change, brings controversy. And so I think the attacks on him got stronger again. So it made it, you know, a little more difficult to get the stuff to work because he had to—you know, he’s elected official, he has to worry about reelection if he wanted to do it again. And well for a while he didn’t but decided he would. So it—there was, you know, you got to make—you got to make decisions in those roles. You just can’t go ahead and just do what you think you should do. You have to sort of recognize you’re in a political arena. And the main political arena that caused the most problems for him, of course, was the legislature because they controlled the purse strings and if he would take a step out that was controversial with one of the key legislators, it could be a serious impact on whether he had the resources
40:25 – 2005
RL: the next year to do anything. So there was a lot of time having to be spent with legislators. They really do get—and—and—as legislators, especially the ones involved in—in financing and appropriations have a lot of power in Texas. Yeah, they can make agencies jump up and down a lot just by threatening to cut their budgets. And that happened a lot. But he was—what was really good—he was a good—good inspiration to the staff, brought—hired—tried to hire really good people, tried to let the people then do their work, tried to insulate them from the—the political problems. But having said all that, you still have to deal with the fact that it’s—it’s an elected office, a political agency. And, you know, like I—like I say, those are—all those things are checks or brakes on making big steps and I view them bad when you have somebody you want—you really like in office and wants to make some major changes but, of course, it’s good when there’s somebody you don’t like in office and who’s going to make changes in the other direction. Those brakes and controls limit what they can too.
DT: You worked with the Attorney General’s office as an assistant AG [Attorney General] in environmental protection from ’77 to ’80. Could you talk about some of the work you did there and the cases and…
42:14 – 2005
RL: Sure, sure. Okay—I went in when John Hill was Attorney General and he really was a very good Attorney General and also very, you know, very honest, tried to make the right decisions, politics obviously mattered but it seemed to play less a role. He was a lawyer, understand—understood law and therefore could hire other lawyers to work with him and understood what it meant. The funniest thing about Mark White coming in after that was he—Mark White even tells this story or told the story at the time. That, you know, the first couple of days he was in office, he was sitting in this office looking down and he’d see a young Assistant Attorney General walking over toward the courthouse and his—it was just his fear that that Assistant Attorney General would do something to ruin his career. You know, it was sort of that, I don’t control this, there’s all these people working for me. Any of them could just do something that would just destroy my career. You know, it was a combination of not understanding the office and really the practice of law in that kind of business. But it, you know, also a reflection of—of why these people do what they do. They’re—there’s a lot just fear that they will—they prefer people didn’t do anything. It’s sort of a—one of these things about bureaucracies, is if nothing happens, nothing bad happens. So and—and White was a very political creature. He—when I was there and he came in, I was working on representing the state on the nuclear power plants and, of course, nuclear power—state hadn’t taken a position against the nuclear power plants but we had, under John Hill, taken the position that the public ought to be able to be there and participate in decisions on nuclear power plants. And that did not make HL&P and Texas Utilities very happy. So the second day Mark White was in office, I got a call from him to come see him and he had just been visited by the lobbyists
44:25 – 2005
RL: for HL&P and Tex—Texas Utilities about what role the Attorney General’s office ought to play in the licensing of nuclear power plants in Texas. And he didn’t tell me that—not to do what I was doing but he clearly made—made it very clear he was worried about what the role was and, you know, what—what we should be doing and there was a signal there. And I—I suspect it was partly because, you know, it was early on in his career. He didn’t really know a lot of what was—how to doing but it was—it was—he got me slowed down a little bit for a while on that stuff. Cause my role really had been just being there, making sure that those people who wanted to participate that should be able to participate, were there—where the state was supporting broad public participation, broad input. And, you know, I didn’t think you could lose, even Mark White could lose on that, in terms of the—the public view of what the Attorney General ought to be doing. But like I said, it was not exactly what HL&P and Texas Utilities wanted to happen.
DT: Can you talk a little about South Texas nuclear project and the Austin role and all that?
45:43 – 2005
RL: I—I’m participating again in—in the licensing. I didn’t really participate at that time in efforts to keep Austin out or L.C—L.C. (?) who was in for a while and backed out and who was—all that game. Really got that—those decisions were made before I was around doing any of this. And so what I was basically doing was trying to make sure that the decision makers about whether the license that nuclear power plant had the
46:12 – 2005
RL: information, all the information and could make a good decision. That was what I thought my role was. And so HL&P was—was the, you know, the lead on it and the City of Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, they didn’t really play much of a role so it was mainly the anti nuke community, some landowners down there in Matagorda County and a few others who were trying to raise questions or stop the—the nuclear power plant. And like I said, the state was in there sort of as a party looking at the issues and trying to make sure there was—if there was something we were—needed to know about, we could—we could know about it. It was—it was a scam. It was, you know, the nuclear regulatory commission was going to license these things if they, you know, met the minimum requirements, but the—the process itself helped educate the public a lot about the problems. They gave—they gave the public an opportunity to get to the press, to have the press to come and hear experts on different issues. So that’s, of course, why HL&P hated it. And they hated the idea of the state encouraging the public to come forward and express their positions and (?). They just as soon wanted a nice, little quiet process where they get their license and go forward.
DT: Can you describe some of the anti nuke community and some of the landowners that were opposed…
48:02 – 2005
RL: Lanny Sinkin out of San Antonio was probably the most effective advocate and just very bright, very hard working and connected with sort of the national effort…
DT: Is this Fay Sinkin’s son?
RL: Fay Sinkin’s son, exactly. Lanny did this—did this work without pay, without any, you know, body thanking him, with—with very little reward except his—his own interest. And he did an incredible job. He did—he worked on a number of these in Texas because, you know, he did have a couple of power plants that didn’t get built in Texas. Probably this came along when the economics was getting bad and people were finally realizing this was a stupid thing to do. But he worked very hard and—on—on the South Texas project and was very effective at bringing in—he had—he had developed a good network around the country of people who had information from other nuclear power plants and the problems they were having in other nuclear power plants. And so he brought a lot of information in that was really valuable. And like I say, in the process, because he brought it in, there was a forum for it, he started educating the public. And people started understanding the problems elsewhere. He was great. He was fantastic and he kind of got burned out on—on fighting nuclear power fights and moved to D.C. and did some very good other public interest work up in D.C.
DT: Landowners?
49:45 – 2005
RL: Yeah, there were some—a couple of landowners down there who just—this was not what they thought their community should have. Some of them were worried about the risk. Other of them was just—this was, you know, this was a rural community and this was—was—was obviously really going to change. One of the big issues will all these power plants was you had this incredible influx of workers during construction and you got—and construction takes couple of years. So you have housing issues, you have school issues, you have this influx of all—children coming in and all of a sudden they’re gone. You don’t have really large revenue streams for tax base increase at the—at that time. That comes later. So you have these—these real issues for communities about how do you deal with this large influx of workers and—and children and demands and then all of a sudden they’re gone. So there’s this real transition phase for these communities after the nuclear power plant’s there and chugging along and making money and paying a lot of taxes, then all of a sudden schools are—are—get sort of a lot of money and—and they’re more stable but it is extremely disruptive. So that was one of the—one of the major issues that these community landowners and—and some of the elected officials were really concerned with. How do we deal with this? How do—you know, yes we’re going to get this benefit down the road but is there any way to reduce the—the negative impacts in the interim? And so they were working for and proposing and had done really—a really good job of getting help from others around the country to show what the problems were and the kind of solutions. I mean, basically you needed to get HL&P to put some money up—up front for infrastructure before they started bringing all these workers in. HL&P wasn’t very happy about that but that was the obvious solution.
DT: I understand that you worked on the open beaches act and trying to use the public trust doctrine to make sure that people had access to the beaches. Can you tell about that effort?
52:11 – 2005
RL: Sure, sure. I mean, sort of thanks to people like Bob Eckhardt and Ralph Yarborough and some of the people that had originally supported public rights to public lands and fought hard for them. We had a very good open beaches law and at the time, it was very creative. It basically looked back and said, gosh we—our common law comes from England. English law is, you know, you have all these rights in England for like walking trails. They have trails throughout England that anybody can walk on. They go on private property. But it’s how people used to get around and so the law created these rights that if enough people have used this piece of property for a long period of time, it becomes a custom, it becomes a—a sort of public easement by use. And that the landowner then has no right to basically gate that—that trail or grate that road up. And it’s a great tradition that—that fits with sort of historic activity and the open beaches act was based a lot on that because whereas the—the state owned beach is basically the wet sand. The dry sand up to the dunes is private property in Texas and in many states. When—when the lands were given out or sold by the state or the Spanish crown or the Mexican government, whoever made the transfers, they went down to the water’s edge. And because essentially the public had always had access to the dry beach, the open beaches act basically used that custom, that tradition, that right of way, that easement to say the public shall always have that. And so it didn’t create an open beaches, it basically
54:19 – 2005
RL: said, the open beaches had been created by the public’s use and we’re going to recognize that and we’re going to direct the Attorney General’s office to make sure that those always remained open. And what you had to do in cases where people were trying to build hotels or houses or anything out on the beach, on the dry beach, you had to go to the law and basically say well there is this custom and then you’d have to go find evidence that, in fact, people had used the—the beach historically. And so it was the greatest—the most fun was go out and find some of these guys that had been around, you know, they were—that were 70 or 80 years old and they had spent 60 years beachcombing. Stories about them driving up from—driving from Corpus Christi to South Padre Island and actually driving through cuts in the beach, you know, in the—in the islands. You know, packing their—their carburetors full of grease and driving in the bo—you know, almost being submerged in these cuts and driving up on the beach. And just the stories of things they would find that had washed up on the beach. But that’s how they made their living. So those were the people who actually created the open beaches because they are the ones that drove the beaches, that used the beaches and, you know, you could—you could find lots of history of people coming over from Corpus Christi to say the Port Aransas area and how they would get there and they would camp and they would beach—work on the beach or live on the beach and—and of course, the landowners didn’t object. They, at the time, probably didn’t know they were creating this easement in the—in the sand. But it just to hear the old stories about how the people used the beach, how they got to it. It was great and the juries loved it so when you had a case and you needed to prove this—this area of the beach had been used by the public
56:11 – 2005
RL: historically, you put these old people on and the juries just loved it then they just, you know, always—as they should, they always voted that that was an open beach and that that hotel couldn’t go there. And, in some cases, we actually had hotels removed from the beach, small ones. In other cases, we stopped them from ever building out there. And a lot of the battle turned out to be—the other sort of interesting thing was, where is the—the beach because these islands are real move—they move a lot. They both—in some areas of Texas the sand is building up so the beach is moving to—out to the sea. In other areas it’s eroding and moving back toward the mainland and the islands themselves are shifting and so if you get the aerial photographs over the last 50, 60 years, you can just see the—the progress. So the question is, where really is the beach? Where was the easement and then that required, because we started to realize that that old beach the people used to use was now under water. There was now a new beach which where—where it hadn’t been before because it eroded in and so we had to kind of be creative and—and think of a way to create what we called the rolling easement. The easement moved with the beach because again, traditionally throughout history, people using the beach used it where it was not where it had been or where it will be in the future. So the whole idea of—was that the use of the beach was wherever the beach was and that—the courts accepted that I—the idea that it—it moved with nature and it does. And so the real problem now and we’re going to have a major fight in the next two years over open beaches again because you’ve got so many people building down there. And you’ve got so many people now out encroaching on the beach because of erosion, them all wanting to—to build sea walls or something to protect their house from washing in—into the ocean. And the fact that if
58:26 – 2005
RL: you do that, then you have no beach left and no access. You know, it’ll all work out twenty years from now. Their house will be gone. The beach will be back where their house was and it will be open again but in the short term, you know, they—they want to keep the public out of there so they can reclaim their—their area. And it’s understandable but luckily, over the last twenty years, there’s been provisions in the law that required notice. When they bought that piece of property and they built that house or they bought that house, they knew that that was an area of erosion. They knew that, at some point, the beach would be under their house. They knew, at some point, they had to abandon and so, you know, you can understand their—they would like that to go on as long as possible but that’s one of the—the real interesting issues here is how do you balance those different interests; the public’s right to the beach and these private ownership interests. And right now, I’m afraid, the private ownership interest is—is winning, in part because of the numbers and part because we don’t really have any advocates for the open beach. None of the Attorney Generals recently have been willing to sort of stand up and really say, we’re going to protect the—the beaches and the beach access. And no one else has either.
DT: Can you talk about how the politics have changed at AG’s office and recent years of this disbursement of the environmental protection lawyers that once worked there and now have been shipped into other divisions.
01:00 – 2006
RL: You know, I think it’s probably a reflection of—of some of the politics because it—it—it, you know, there was an erosion during White’s administration about the role the—of the lawyers and their ability to take strong positions under the law. It got further eroded under Morales and it’s just hard to know whether that is a—a reflection on the individuals alone, certainly it is to some extent on their position and how they view things. It’s also, I think, a reflection of changing times. Where as I sort of talked about earlier, there’s this sense of the laws not for certain things—kinds of activities, industrial activities and things you want to promote for jobs and things like that—that the law can be bent and, you know, it’s no longer sort of black and white. It is, let’s figure out what will work and that allows us to bend things and it—and that puts people in a tough position because if you come out and you say, this is what the law is and this is what it should be, and then the politics is such that that creates problems. So what’s happened is the lawyers over there have become much more politically inclined and those that are good lawyers who really understand the law and want to promote the law and protect the law because otherwise it gets eroded, it gets more and more difficult to use it. The more and more exceptions, the more and more reflects a kind of bending you do in the law, the next time you want to use it, it’s no longer as clear. It’s no longer as easy to use. And so, a lot of the lawyers that, you know, felt like you needed to protect and—and enforce the law, you know, equally have—have had a hard time there. And so they—they have been moved out of the roles of making decisions on environmental cases and were scattered, like I say, to other parts of the agency. Three of the—the—the best—three of the people I think everybody would say wanted to do it and could—and were capable of—of doing good enforcement, good legal advice, Brian Berwick, Ken Cross and David Preister were—were moved out…
DT: Could you tell us more about the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Division?
01:20 – 2006
RL: Yeah and it’s—actually—I don’t—I don’t know whether it’s a reflection of—of the people that were elected only though clearly that is the, I think, moving from John Hill to Mark White to Morales. You found people who are—more and more political and less and less understanding what the office and the law’s all about and less really good lawyers and therefore re—the office didn’t reflect that legal training and that legal perspective. So it was harder for Mark White and Morales to know what to do and they—they felt more comfortable with political decisions rather than sort of legal decisions. So when you had to enforce the law and it had, you know, obviously some negative impacts on somebody, they were more inclined to look for ways to—to find compromise and to move the—and to change the law or bend the law or interpret the law in a way that found the middle ground rather than just enforcing the law. And the lawyers who are, I think, recognized the—the value in having a consistent interpretation of the law, having consistent enforcement of the law buckled at that, you know, and understood that 20 years down the road is important that this law not be eroded, it would be useable. That every time you made a change or you made a little adjustment to it really affected its—your ability to use the law in the future. So you had these lawyers who were there recognizing the value of the law and wanting to defend it, support it
02:56 – 2006
RL: and—and suggesting that the legislatures be the place where you would change the law, not the interpretation of the law. And political players who were more concerned about if you interpret the law that way, what enemy would you make. And I think the Brian Berwick’s, the Ken Cross and David Preister’s of the world were then suspect because they had been there enforcing the law, they understood it, they had a broad perspective. They’re very bright, very good lawyers. And I think the desire was to have people in there who made it more political decisions. And, as a result, they got moved out of a number of important decisions and important roles, into different areas. Most recently they got shifted into a whole area of colonias, in part because it was a place to shift them but the truth is, I mean, I think it was a decision—a lot of this thought was bad at the time because it moved them out of a role where they were very valuable and very effective into a role that no one had any idea what you could do in this area, what—what was possible. It looked like sort of just sending them some place else where they could just get lost. But the reality is it’s been a very good move because you’ve had some very effective lawyers, very creative lawyers trying to now solve some very difficult problems that include a number of environmental issues but a lot of human health issues and they’ve done a great job. And they’ve had their careers broadened, their knowledge, their capabilities, are improved now. It’s because they’ve seen new things and it’s been a very effective thing. So sometimes what, you know, it may look like a bad deal, it may look like sort of a negative thing on them and but it actually has worked out pretty well. And they’re sort of being brought back into the environmental community division now because their expertise and their experience is so strong and so valuable. It—it—you
05:08 – 2006
RL: know, so for a—for a while certainly I would say the environmental division and—and still is—is not a program that has as much public support and public trust as it did. It—it—it might get back there. Still has some very excellent people there. But those—those are the kinds of things that happen to these agencies and you just have to—to recognize again that these are political creatures. And it’s why again, I’ll stress it as much as I can, unless the public is there overseeing, watchdogging, participating, things go bad. And you just—you just—you know, anybody tells you you can just trust government, sit back and let it do what it’s supposed to do is just crazy. You’ve got—you’ve got to be ever watchful. You got to be there and that’s why, you know, I think what my law firm has done and what I’ve done, I feel so good about because, to a large part, what we are attempting to do is making it possible for the public to participate, take advantages of those opportunities to get there and affect government. And I think that’s good for them and I think it’s really good for government. Because if you don’t have that public participation, if you don’t have that public oversight, the public input, you really—the—the employees, the politicians, everybody, they lose perspective. They start to have different views of what they’re doing and the public needs to be there to help them understand why they’re there in the first place.
DT: Can you tell me about some of your efforts that helped the public directly as a private attorney?
07:00 – 2006
RL: Yeah. 1980…
07:04 – 2006
RL: Yeah, 1980’s I pretty much decided that I had more fun outside government than in government so I left the Attorney General’s office and got with Stuart Henry and we started this law firm. And, at the time, we were thinking about being a public interest law firm. And we made a decision then that we wouldn’t use a model like Sierra Club or Defense Fund or Environmental Defense Fund where we are non-profit and we went into foundations. Because what we wanted to do was to represent people who were doing that Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and others and we didn’t really want to compete with our clients. And so we decided that we would try to make a go by just representing landowners and individuals, organizations and seeing if they could find ways to raise money to pay us and keep us doing this work. And we’re still here so it’s—it’s worked. Some years better than others. It’s—a lot of ups and downs. But, you know, the—the money issue, we all went into it recognizing that this was not going to be a law firm—the—resources on the other side were always going to be so much greater, the rewards in terms of money on the other side were going to be so much greater. The rewards for us of working with these people, helping people and just the enjoyment of—of working on the issues with them. It’s—it’s been—it’s rewarding. I—I can’t complain at all. I can’t think of a better job. I can’t think of a better thing for—for me to do. It’s been ideal. And, you know, it’s hard work and there’s times when you really question
08:53 – 2006
RL: what you’re doing. But there’s always—you go back. You’ll find these great groups of people that are just, you know, with a little bit of your assistance in—and what we do—we are the lawyers and some people just would really like the lawyer just to take over and do it for them. Don’t bother with the distance. Let them go do the other—whatever they’re doing. And it’s kind of the interesting thing about our—our cases is the clients don’t have the resources to do that and I don’t really want to be that kind of lawyer. What you want is that interplay. You want them involved and then they get—they grow in the process. They get some of the rewards. And it also makes it possible for us to do things. So we do things with—with a lot of clients where they have to go out and gather information. I mean, clearly they have to raise money. Bake sales, fish fries, donations. They have to be pretty creative and what we find we ended up doing with a lot of these groups, is you know, they’ll do well. They can raise some money at the beginning but it’s—it’s hard over the long term to keep—keep it because a lot of them don’t have the money, don’t have the resources. And our position basically with them is that as long as they continue to work hard trying to raise the money or work hard trying in the effort, we’ll continue to work hard with them on it. When they give up, it’s harder for us, you know, to stay and fight especially if there’s—if there’s not the resources to do it. But we end up with great relationships with people who are just wonderful. There was a woman down in Brackettville, Madge Belcher, who was just, you know, one of the best people you ever want to meet. Just warm, wonderful, just a spark plug of energy and, you know, pointed in the right direction, given a little assistance, convinced that she could change the world. She changed the world down there.
DT: What was she working on?
10:57 – 2006
RL: She was fighting radioactive waste disposal site down in Kinney County near the town of Spofford and she organized the people, she kept them involved. She, you know, worked the politics, she helped raise the money. She was the leader down there and, you know, she had to—she had to change around a county judge and a county commissioner who were supporting the project and got them all kicked out and whole new—new county judge, new county officials elected because of their position. And, you know, slowly over a long period of time, she—she became very effective, extremely effective and people feared her because she could pull—you know, she knew what to do. She knew how to fight politically. She knew when to use the politics, when to use the press, when to use the law, when to use technical expertise. And there are people like that all over Texas. Incredible resources and people who fought, you know, they figured out, part because they kind of knew it or they were willing to try. They can fight City Hall, they—they really can—one person can make a real difference. And a lot of them burn out. They all need assistance, they need support. But a lot of what we’re doing and—and—and in this practice, is getting them the opportunity to do what they could do. In the case of the Tex Corp matter, it took two or three years to get the officials voted out and brought back in so what the—was important that the landfill not get built in that period of time. So that was a role for the lawyers—is to make sure that they had the time to turn the politics around. They had the time to raise the money to hire the experts who
13:02 – 2006
RL: could then evaluate the site and give the valid, technical reasons for why the site was bad. Because we all knew there were, you know, it was over the—it was aquifer, it’s faulted, it’s fractured, it runs—runs off into the Rio Grande. There’s all kinds of reasons it’s a bad site but you have to actually have, you know, experts who will put their stamp, engineering seal on it and say, you know, this is why this is so. We’ve looked at it. That takes money. That takes time. And what happens with these kinds of matters is the applicants have all the time they want. This company, Tex Corp, probably spent four years getting their experts, you know, talking to different experts, picking the one they like the best, sell their story the best, getting the technical information. And they file their application and all of a sudden, the public’s expected, in a very short time, to respond. And, you know, this is one of the issues that—like the notice issue, the less time they have, the less notice they have to get geared up and do things, it’s harder for them to hire experts, raise money to show the other side. So it’s important that the process provide the opportunity, when it’s legitimate, that the time be extended so people can actually do the work and—and develop the information that’s needed. And that’s, to a large extent, what we as lawyers do. And then we help present that information to that—to the forums in a way that’s effective but a lot—you know, really the—the fights that my law firm, I mean, we’ve done hundreds of them across Texas from probably every corner of the state, mostly rural communities, mostly farmers and ranchers who are—are—don’t want to see their way of life, their community changed, don’t want to see their resources sacrificed for somebody’s profits. They have been the ones that have been ext—extremely successful. And I will—I will bet you that in the last ten, fifteen years, there have been
15:11 – 2006
RL: twenty hazardous waste facilities opposed in Texas. Not—we not represented all opponents but we represented a number of them, other people have. And when the opponents have gotten there and had the opportunity, everyone of those hazardous waste permits have been denied. People—public can be extremely effective when they want to be. And that’s what scares the industries. That’s why they want the—they fight very hard to change the laws, to cut out the public participation because they know if the citizens learn how to do it that they can do it and given the time, they’re damn effective, really effective. And that’s just—it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see the communities pull together, become much more of a community because they have a common issue to work on together, pitch in and then win. I mean, it just—it changes the community. It makes—it—it really has an—an—an amazing effect down here. That’s a great thing to work with.
DT: I understand that you represented some groups that don’t have a lot of political clout?
16:27 – 2006
RL: Sure, sure. I mean, there—obviously resources—money makes a whole lot of difference. And—and the fact that, you know, some communities don’t have resources, don’t have the time. I mean, a lot of them were just working people who worked 16 hours a day. I mean, they have—have families, they have—they don’t have the ability or the time or the resources to really—they don’t think they do—to be effective. And a lot of those
17:03 – 2006
RL: communi—that’s where a lot of industries go. They get much—much greater impacts because they’ll be, you know, tank farms and landfills and waste sites and industries all concentrated in areas where the public, the residency area have not historically fought. In fact, there’s a—there’s a study out that was done for waste management that profiled those types of communities that landfill companies should target to be successful in—in getting things in. And they’re Catholic, they’re low income, they’re minority and, you know, there’s other characteristics like that that the companies have more—more successful—more success in coming to those areas. And so they get more of it and what’s really—I think a real change that’s occurred in the last ten years and I think is occurring is those people now are fighting back. They’re getting assistance. They’re learning they can fight back and generally, the public is understanding. One of the best experiences I’ve had was in the town of Athens where a hazardous waste company was going to come in to do a recycling operation. It originally picked a location in the middle class white area of town. They rose up in opposition and the city counsel convinced the company, that’s not where to go. And, of course, what happened was they went over then to the low income, African American section of town and found a site over there. And what was really—it’s a great thing was those people—the middle class white community joined with the low income, African American community and continued to fight them. They didn’t just push them over there. They then went over there helped fight—helped that community fight. And so it was a great effort because, you know, the fact that people were low income or minority doesn’t mean they don’t have—don’t have great leaders, don’t have real effective people. Same thing, we got some great leadership.
19:16 – 2006
RL: Willie Simms in that community is just, you know, he’s a hero, he’s a leader and he can move people, he could—he could talk to them. He could convince them that they could be effective in making this fight. And so, they led the fight but they had the support of the rest of the community which helped, of course, with resources because they needed some experts and—and it also made it more of a—an entire community fight. And they won that fight. There’s, you know, I think it’s going to be—we’re going to see more and more of these fights because I think we’re just seeing more and more people recognize that these environmental issues are really health issues. These pollution problems are really affecting, you know, the ability—the exposure to lead, the exposure to these chemicals is really limiting children’s educational capabilities. It’s affecting, you know, the health of all these people. It’s a, you know, it’s as much an issue like tobacco in terms of drain on the community and I think the communities themselves are recognizing it, are learning it. Communities that for years, I think, looked at, you know, supporting jobs and anything to get them in jobs are now recognizing well, you can’t just blindly support the creation of a new job in your community. There’s trade-offs. And they’re starting to look at that and they’re starting to get much more sophisticated.
DT: You’ve worked on so many cases. Is there some way that you can sort them all out and say that this is one of your greatest victories?
21:12 – 2006
RL: That’s hard. It’s partly because we just—we have handled many, many case. I mean, some of the greatest victories became some of the greatest frustrations. Again, this group down in the Brackettville area fought and defeated this nuclear waste site. Expended their—all their resources, all their energy and after their victory, basically the company decided to come back with another scam. And it’s just, you know, the company was owned by a bunch of investors from Tennessee who were just basically trying to make as much money as they could out of whatever waste game they could—they could play. And so a community that’s pulled together worked very hard 6, 8 years doesn’t get a chance to even enjoy their victory basically. They’re back fighting again. Frustrations, same thing with reservoir projects. If there’s a good site for a dam, seems like it’s always a good site for a dam and you can convince people that it’s a problem there—you know, because of how it’s going to affect the environment or that the dam’s not going to hold water and then 10 years, it’s like after that, everybody’s forgotten the reasons it was a bad site and there was problems with it and somebody else will come up with a dam and the same people are having to come back, raise money again. And that’s the real terrible frustration is to have—having to see these people have to work so hard. That—that there sort of is not a system set up where—where this hard work is rewarded. They’re just given more hard work. And it’s, you know, it—it really is crushing to—to—to a lot of people.
DT: When you look down the road, what sort of challenges do you see?
23:18 – 2006
RL: You know, the—I—the environmental work that I do is really much more focused on pollution and projects in—in rural communities. It’s—it’s always going to be a problem in Texas because local governments don’t have—counties don’t have zoning authority. Don’t have really ability to—to decide where things should be and so it’s just an issue of, for a company, where can I got get a cheap piece of property that’s close to highways. And the—the impacts—almost like the nuclear power plant site but a smaller scale is these things come into communities. They have major disruptions, major impacts. The long term may be—may be beneficial and if done right, they can be. But we don’t have a process of planning, a process of bringing—bringing the community in so that these decisions are made, even siting decisions, location, where’s the best place? If you want this in the community, where’s the best place to put it? What is the—what makes sense? And Texas is still way behind the rest of the county in that kind of planning. I’m hoping that’s changing. It’s going to need to change and, to some extent, I think the fact that the communities have fought so hard and frustrated a number of—of industries from coming in is convincing more and more of them that they have to come in now to the community. They have to get the community support. They have to come in in the early stages. And so whether it happens by law or happens because it’s the only way it’s going to get in. The only hazardous waste facility we’ve had sited in Texas in the last 20 years is a site out in West Texas in Andrews County where basically the whole county supported the whole idea. They went out there and convinced them and worked with them. I don’t know if it’s a good site or bad site but the community—the community accepted them and worked with them and that was the way those things should get done. And I think
25:35 – 2006
RL: that’s the way it’s going to get done in the future in a large part because of all these people who have worked so hard, sort of forced that. Texas is a big state so the message didn’t get out and people are still looking for places where the communities don’t know they can fight or they don’t know how to fight. Is rare—very rare that one company loses an area and then another company comes in and tries that same community. They know that community’s savvy and smart and you’re not going to pull the wool over their eyes. So they don’t—they don’t go into there. They know they’ll have a fight. So they’ll find another community where there’s not been this kind of issue and this kind of effort in the past. And as more and more communities are successful in understanding what they’re capable of doing, more and more people, you know, you now have just an incredible core of people around the state who others can recall—rely upon. They don’t have to call me or a lawyer. They can call a, you know, Madge Belcher, one of these leaders and those people can come and love to assist the communities and—and help them understand what they’re capable of doing. And, as a result, we now have a network of, around Texas, of a couple hundred of these citizen groups or leaders who are—were very effective in pulling together and helping defeat this bad legislation to cut out public right. They all talked to their legislators, they wrote letters and that’s a growing community. That’s a really a grass roots, strong basis for future good government policy decisions in—in Texas about planning and pollution and human health because most of these kinds of cases really, like I say, this is not nature conservancy trying to buy land to protect it or—or that endangered species work, we do some of that too but I—I intend to focus a lot more just on these issues of—of changing the community and creating pollutants in that community
27:47 – 2006
RL: and the abil—people—of people of that community—the ability of the people in the community, neighborhoods, small communities to—to have a role in making those decisions.
DT: Can I sort of turn to the other side of the coin? Is there an unspoiled place that you love in the outdoors that you can describe?
28:30 – 2006
RL: I—I—I think, you know, a large part of the reason that I’m doing this work is that I did learn to appreciate, enjoy our wild areas, our rivers, our mountains and so I still very much like to get away to remote, beautiful areas, get away, if not by myself, with a very few people and really appreciate the—that. You know, it—it—it rejuvenates me. It—it just helps me in—in so many ways. I, you know, I just name hundreds of places. Lots—lots of them aren’t in Texas. Texas is not—Texas has wonderful places but Texas is not doesn’t necessarily have the jewels—the crown jewels. Mountains are probably my favorite things so, in Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend are—are just high on the list. I love to get to those places and have to get to those places. The truth is this work is very intense. It can be very frustrating. It’s very—it’s discouraging at times and I have to get—have to get out of this and get to those places in order to be able to come back and do this again.
End of reel 2006
End of interview with Rick Lowerre