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Sharron Stewart

INTERVIEWEE: Sharron Stewart (SS)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 23, 2003
LOCATION: Lake Jackson, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2285 and 2286

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 23, 2003. We’re in Lake Jackson, Texas and we’re at the home of Sharron Stewart, who is a coastal advocate who’s been working on issues here for many years. And I wanted to take this chance to thank her for joining us.
SS: Thank you, David.
DT: Sharron, I was hoping that you could help us understand when you first got introduced to issues that involve the outdoors or place or nature, some sort of appreciation or love of it?
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SS: Okay. Well, as—as an environmental activist, air pollution was the first thing that interested me. After I moved here and realized that, you know, chemical companies were emitting things that did not smell very good and one of my daughters and I were quite sick as a result. But there was not much information and I spent about a year and a half reading everything on the reading list of American Association of University Women’s Beleaguered Earth Study Group list. You know, and one book would lead you to another book before I ever, ever did anything. And then, I got involved with a local organization
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that was basically labor unions and they had issues with Dow Chemical, the largest employer in the areas, over labor issues. But they were also fighting over environmental issues. And the first issue was the Brazos River, which at the time—as you know, the Brazos is red and muddy. But the lower reaches from Lake Jackson through Freeport and to the Gulf of Mexico were bottle green. They were. And that was—we’re back in about 1970 now. And the union leaders had asked—they formed a separate organization called Citizen’s Survival Committee. Terrible name. They had 4000 members, which does make a difference. And they went to the legislature and asked them to do something and
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to get someone down here and check out the lower Brazos River and so the legislature directed that such a study be done because Babe Schwartz was on the Senate Finance Committee and Neil Caldwell, our state representative, was on House Appropriations. So a study did get done and it was done by Parks and Wildlife in the old water board. And it showed that the lower two miles of the Brazos River had flocculating solids on the bottom from glycol, antifreeze and that were no benthic organisms living there. And this—this was the first attempt to look at anything environmental in this area. As a result of that, I also met Neil Caldwell and Babe Schwartz and became involved in working for
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their campaigns. First time I heard Babe speak, it was on the first anniversary of Earth Day. He gave a speech at the Methodist Church by the capitol to over a thousand people who were there on environmental issues. And he said you cannot beat the big guys with all the money, but you can make a difference. And how you do that is you get involved in people’s campaigns and you let them know that you were involved and that that really can mean a lot. Well, Babe had a very tough campaign at that time and I got involved. And the next thing I knew, he had me working in the legislature as the first environmental aide.
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DT: Well, tell us about that experience, being an aide in the legislature focusing on environmental issues.
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SS: Well, you know, this, again, is back in the—in the early 70’s. And he put me on the Senate Finance Committee and another lesson. That lesson is that your budget is your policy statement. Doesn’t matter what pretty words you write on policy, your policy is where you put the bucks. I learned that one well. Sissy Farenthold was in the legislature at the time and my husband ran her campaign for governor. And so, when there was an environmental issue in the House, Sissy would come over and ask me to brief her. I
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loved it. Babe Schwartz would tweak laws by passing some little change to make things better. It’s sort of l—how freshwater inflows, for example, got done. In recognizing that bays and estuaries need freshwater inflows for fisheries purposes.
DT: Maybe you can give us that as a sort of example or case study.
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SS: Well, it is. But back in those days, the interesting thing is he used to have hearings on bills that he would introduce, or have somebody else introduce, and I would lead the industry lobbyists to those hearings while Babe was off at another hearing, actually getting something significant done. And…
DT: You were the decoy.
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SS: I was a decoy. Yeah. And I spent lots of time lobbying both Senate members and House members for what I thought were good environmental choices. Seldom won, but it’s amazing how many times, even if people can’t go with you, they do things to help. Like help with the debate on the issue, even if you know they’re not going to vote for it or they will abstain and not vote against you. I mean, there—there are a lot of ways—ways to help. And doing that for a couple of sessions, you know, helped with contacts. For somebody in a—a small town down on the Texas coast, it was a good way of getting to know who the players were in Austin.
DT: Can you give us an example of, say, one of these environmental issues? Perhaps the freshwater inflows that she mentioned? How it moved through the legislature and how it might’ve gotten shepherded along?
SS: Well, you know, Babe started it and Babe, again, made it a little stronger a few years later and Mike Martin from Galveston was involved. And I—I think it’s been strengthened about three times since that first recognition. It was a very difficult thing to do. You need to ask Babe about that because I wasn’t actually there.
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DT: How about another example? I understand that Babe Schwartz was involved in the Open Beaches Act here. Did you have a hand in that as well?
SS: No. No. Eckhardt drafted the Open Beaches Act and Babe passed it, so he is truly the father of the Open Beaches Act. And he—he, even now, is concerned enough about the Open Beaches Act that he’s—has started another nonprofit organization to try and protect the Open Beaches Act.
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DT: Is it under threat right now that you can describe?
SS: You never know what’s going to happen. Every time you change commissioner at the Land Office, you sort of reinvent the wheel all over again and it takes years to get people up to speed. And now we have a Land Commissioner who’s new again. The one
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before him was only there for one term. It takes a while to understand the importance of the job and the importance of the issues. So you just never know because the folks who challenge it are always going to be there because they have the economic interest to challenge it. You know, you just never know.
DT: Maybe we should back up a little bit to how you first got introduced to some of these environmental issues. I think you mentioned in passing that air pollution was one of the first stories and problems that you confronted. And my understanding is that you actually stood outside of some of these chemical plants and monitored what they were doing and what sort of emissions they were having? Can you tell about that experience?
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SS: Well, it—it was interesting. People from the Texas Air Control Board came to my husband and I and asked us if we could get together enough people to do monitoring. They wanted to monitor in early February. They wanted cold weather and they would have three stations around Dow. One would be out at Quintana Beach, one would be in the Jones Creek area and one would be across Highway 332 in Clute. And we found locations for them. And two other couples, besides my husband and myself, we did the monitoring for them, checked the stations. You know, they tr—Dick Flannery. You’ve
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met Dick? He’s just recently retired and he’s now working in air pollution issues in California with Erin Brockovich. He was the one who trained us. And we did. We did the monitoring. Was interesting. And then the Air Board came back and said they needed a monitor down here—this was the head of the Houston area. His last name was Stewart, too. Bill Stewart. And we found him a site and they decided the—this many would’ve dedicated his property to the state to put the monitor on it, but they decided that wasn’t probably such a good idea, so they put it at the softball field in Clute. And until the 2000 AQS study on air, it was the only monitor in the whole county. And I also got Babe and Neil to fund it.
DT: I understand when you were monitoring this, you were essentially checking up on some of the bigger employers in the county and this municipality. What sort of reaction did you get from some of your neighbors and people you might meet in church, whatever? Was this a difficult stance, position to have?
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SS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, back in those early days, I even had people that we had socialized with cross the street rather than talk to me. And in old—the old part of downtown Lake Jackson, you’ve got to walk a long way, as there are parkways out in the middle of all of the streets with parking on either side. So it’s a long distance to cross the street.
DT: And why did they see this as an unpopular thing to do?
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SS: Well, you don’t do anything that Dow wouldn’t approve of. Dow didn’t approve of people fighting on environmental issues. And certainly, not working with labor.
DT: Perhaps you can go into that a little bit. I understand that one of the early nonprofit groups you worked with, the Survival Committee, was a creation of the union here.
SS: Right.
DT: What sort of role did the union have in environmental issues around here?
SS: Well, that organization lasted for several years and really, really did go after Dow
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on air and water issues and sort of hung in there. But, like all grassroots organizations, you know, they fold once their main mission is—is accomplished. And they never, by the way, even one time, addressed a labor issue. They just did the environmental issues.
DT: They didn’t bring up workplace exposure problems?
SS: The unions themselves did. But the people involved with the Citizen’s Survival Committee did not. ‘Cause the officers and the people who worked with that organization were not the union leaders themselves, although some of them later became union leaders.
DT: You had your own work as well. You were the principal consultant for Quintana Environmental Services. Can you tell us a little bit about your work aside from some of the volunteer work that you were just talking about?
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SS: Well, you know, over the years, my interests changed and I learned a whole lot about a lot of things I had not expected to. And I’ve done a lot of marketing research, particularly science connected with the offshore industry, because I had contacts with those people and I also had contacts with the kinds of people they might be, you know, interested in finding out information about. As you know, I’ve also done some resource work as I—I recall being involved with one of your former employers when you were
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still in school, doing environmental assessments in coastal areas. And doing that kind of work, for the most part, I’ve preferred to work for government entities rather than for industry or developers.
DT: Well, when you were doing these assessments, what sort of resources can you describe on the coast of Texas that people should appreciate and understand more about?
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SS: Well, hmmm. I don’t know, I—if you’re talking about coastal resources or wetland habitat resources. I mean, right here, we’re sitting in Lake Jackson and this whole area was once nothing but a bottomland swamp. You know, right where this house is, there were once giant trees and it was in giant trees when I moved here. This was not developable land; it’s all been logged and developed. Dow built this town; this is a Dow company town. They came in here in ’41 as the head of—because of the natural gas available, because of the saltwater available to build a magnesium plant for the
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government for tanks and airplanes. And Freeport didn’t want the workers in Freeport, so they bought all of this land in the Lake Jackson area and the old downtown area; they put up duplexes for workers to live in. And they were supposed to be gone in ten years, but they’re still here. And that—the streets were laid out by Aldren Dow, the son of the founder of Dow Chemical, who was an architect and was a teacher for Frank Lloyd Wright. The streets were laid out with strings to protect big trees, so there are no straight streets. Oyster Creek Drive is the only through street in the city. Yaupon, out here, is
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another through street, but it wasn’t then. I mean, that’s it for through streets. If you’re not on Yaupon or Oyster Creek Drive, you’re going to get lost. The first house I lived in was only 927 square feet and it was designed by Aldren Dow. The—those older parts of town that had the Dow houses, they were really efficient. Space was well used, you know, and they’re—they’re still doing well because those tracts he laid out still have all of the beautiful giant trees with 90-foot canopies. Incredible.
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DT: Maybe you can mention some of the work that you’ve done to protect these trees in that bottomland system. I understand that you’ve, over the years, helped U.S. Fish and Wildlife preserve large portions of the Columbia bottomlands. Can you talk about those experiences?
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SS: Yeah. Back in the 80’s, the city of Lake Jackson bought a large tract of land for a wilderness park. And it was land that had been marketed all over the world, but to develop it, you’d have had to have built a very expensive levy all the way around it because it’s in the flood plain of the Brazos River. It’s on the Brazos River. And only about 7 ½ miles, river miles, from the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s also—was an uncut area. And part of that tract, they purchased in 1990 for a golf course, the tract next to it. And
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the Corps of Engineers made them go back and redo their environmental assessment because it was wetlands. And it took them five months to get on site because it was too wet to do the evaluation. There was a battle between Fish and Wildlife and the Corps over the amount of wetlands. One of the most significant things from that battle that occurred in the 90’s is that they now understand that all of that area was wetlands. They’ve done further studies on what’s called the Dance Bayou Tract that was the first piece of preserved Columbia bottomlands for the Columbia Bottomland Refuge. And
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they’ve done soil test studies for the past five years that show that in these bottomlands, where you have this dense Pledger clay soil, that they are wetlands, but they are formed differently than from saturated soils. So when the new manual comes out for the Corps, there will be a section—and I’m not sure whether they’re couching it in terms of
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wetlands in Brazoria County with dense clay soils, or just wetlands with dense clay soils, which is what it ought to be. Because all of the really important, significant soil scientists from Soil Conservation Service—what are they now? NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service”? And from the Corps and Fish and Wildlife, Parks and Wildlife, all agree that these are definitely wetlands. That, however, was not what the federal court found. You know, I sued, along with Houston Audubon and Sierra Club, the city of Lake Jackson and the Corps of Engineers over that assessment. And it was in court from ’96 to ’98. And appealed to the 5th Circuit and the
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5th Circuit threw it out. But in the meantime, in ’95, Fish and Wildlife circulated their environmental assessment for the Columbia Bottomlands Refuge and because the controversy over the lawsuit was raging, and raging is a good word for the controversy. You know, I filled volumes of newspaper clippings in five-inch binders that stood this high. Blackburn was the attorney, I made copies for them. Richard Morrison worked on the case. We came very close to winning that issue, but we didn’t. There was a bond election that had the largest voter turnout ever. We lost by 56 votes. I—that was very discouraging, I think, to the city because our elections—from that bond election in January of ’97, each election cycle, the percentage of people voting kept smaller and smaller. And we had the largest percentage of people who voted in elections in this county prior to that. Anyway, they’re building the golf course. They’re stripping the land as we speak.
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DT: How do you think they got their permit if the soil scientist agreed that it was a wetland?
SS: But that was after, you know, the legal—the court—the case was in court.
(silence on tape)
SS: Case was in court. The Corps—the Galveston’s—Galveston District of the Corp of Engineers is the worst district for wetland preservation in the United States. They are far worse than Louisiana. They never saw a wetland. They are really, really bad.
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DT: When you say they’re bad, maybe you can give us examples and try and help us understand, is it incompetence or negligence or just disregard of the law? What is it?
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SS: Some of mo—both. Their mission is military and Congress gave them the authority to regulate wetlands. And I think that the biologists in the Corps district are basically looked down on by the engineers as not being significant. I really think that has an awful lot to do with it.
DT: Just a culture within the agency.
SS: I think that’s a very big part of it.
DT: And why is the Galveston district unusually poor?
SS: Location.
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DT: And, in what sense?
SS: They’re in Texas. They’re in Houston. They’re at the heart of the oil industry. Lots of developers. And what the Corps does like, the Corps likes big water projects, i.e.
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Houston Ship Channel. Those kinds of things. Wallisville. Do you remember Wallisville? It eventually got modified, but you know, that was a big project. And there were also Congressmen pushing it. And the Corps of Engineers is also sort of a Congressional playground. Big projects, send money back home, get reelected. Maybe—maybe it’s not getting reelected in all of the citizen voters who want that project, but big people who help finance campaigns might want that project. So it is—it’s—it is Congressional playground.
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DT: Can you help us understand it by maybe describing the ship channels, dredging, which, I guess has gone on for many years and with some controversy, to try and get it deeper to allow larger ships in?
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SS: Well, you have to remember that when Texas was a republic, Galveston Bay’s average depth was 3 ½ to 4 feet, that you could literally walk across the bay. You know, you might have deep spots, but you could walk across the bay. In fact, when Audubon visited Texas, he walked from the end of Galveston Island out to Bird Island. That—you couldn’t do that now. And when you dredge that deep channel, you change the dynamics of the bay and you lose the habitat. You lose your sea grasses. You know, there used to
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be a turtle—gosh, what would you call it? A factory? That processed turtle meat over in Chambers County and that area of the bay wasn’t called East Bay, it was called Turtle Bay. The sea grasses went from Chambers County all the way through Brazoria County. Probably not up in the San Jacinto area because it would be too—too much fresh water. Now, the last remaining sea grasses are only found in Christmas Bay, as—as I’m sure you’re well aware of. Galveston Bay Foundation, along with state and federal agencies, has been transplanting some of those grasses into West Bay, where the ga—the grasses have been gone for 30 years. And reestablishing them.
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DT: And why did the grasses disappear?
SS: Change of the dynamics due to the deep, draft channel and all of the traffic. Sedimentation. It’s what dredging does, it—you know, it’s muck, it’s mud. And it—you need clear water for the sea grasses. So the small area known as Christmas Bay is a last place where we have them. And mostly at—up towards the Galveston end, where you get more circulation and more fresh water both. You know, around Cold Pass.
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DT: So the problems with opacity in the water, transparency, are not just where the ship channel is, but it’s also the Texas City Channel and the Galveston Channel and the (?) Waterway. And the Corps of Engineers is the agency that lets in and approves these contracts?
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SS: Well, the Corps of Engineers not only approves the contracts, they—I mean, they’re responsible for the projects. Initially, the channel to Houston was built with private funds, but the Corps took it over. It’s their responsibility.
DT: I understand that there’s a new project underway, or at least being proposed by the Ship Channel Authority, for Bayport that might involve another channel. Have you been involved in that issue?
SS: Yes.
DT: Can you tell us some of the controversies about it?
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SS: Not—not one of the leaders, but it’s—that’s the same issue. When I got Galveston Bay into the Clean Water Act, the biggest threat that I used—and the Bay System had to be threatened—was a 50 foot channel to Houston, which was before Congress at the time. And after Galveston Bay was declared an estuary of national significance and we began the development of the Ga—Galveston Bay program, Senator Bentsen helped the newly created Galveston Bay Foundation and—and the state program, the Galveston Bay Estuary Program a lot and helped us keep the Corps from getting the 50 foot authorization through Congress. He was chairman of the Senate Environment
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and Public Works Committee at the time. And yet, I had spent a year lobbying him and couldn’t get the—the program submitted. You know, he could’ve just done it and I ended up having the Bureau of Economic Geology and Texas Sea Grant prepare a formal submission. And Texas Sea Grant and Texas Environmental Coalition, that I represented, signed the initial document and submitted all—answering all of the Congressional question with the environmental study. The first submission was done by an education entity and a nonprofit. So after—after it—Congress included it and the House accepted it unanimously after the Senate passed it on the floor. And this was at a time that Reagan was president and Reagan vetoed the Clean Water Act. Phil Graham, who voted against the Clean Water Act, took a walk for me. He was off the floor, which meant to the Republicans he wanted it to pass. So we got a unanimous vote in the House and the Senate.
DT: Can you speculate about the politics of these environmental bills? And you, earlier, talked about the passage of some of these bills in the state legislature, but here you’re mentioning ones in the Congress. And I’m wondering how it is that environmental issues, which generally seem to poll well, have such difficulty often in the legislature and the Congress. Why is that? Why is there this disconnect, do you think?
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SS: Because the opposition has more money. That money goes into maintaining friendships, that money goes into campaign coffers. It’s why, you know, reform of campaigns is still the biggest issue for democracy to survive. And, you know, it doesn’t matter whether the issue is in—environmental or is an issue of public health, welfare, whatever it is. You know, it’s—it’s the same thing.
DW: Going back just a bit, you said you entered all of this sometime around 1970, 71, about the time of the first Earth Day. Perhaps you had read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in school.
SS: Was one—no, I read it then.
DW: Here you come to all of this and it seems like in a very short time, you get, what I would subjectively call, a rather rude awakening, it sounds like, to the realities of politics. Or the idealism of the first Earth Day and the next thing you know, you’re in these hallways where guys are shaking hands behind backs and slapping each other on the back and this would be a good ol’ boy network.
SS: Hmmm-mmm.
DW: How did that either disillusion, energize? I mean, what was it when the rubber met the road and the reality that the goals for the environment and the guys, you know, the boy’s club in charge of it, was clearly antithetical to that? Did you have reactions to that at the time, in terms of either getting—was it anger? Was it energy? What was it that worked for you at that time?
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SS: You’re right. Energy, which I was 30 years younger. More than 30 years younger, so I had a lot more energy. And anger goes a long way. And the decision that, at some point in your life, you have to fight problems, not ignore them. And, for me, that was a decision I made at that time. And, in fact, by the first Earth Day, I already thought there was, you know, an incredibly serious problem. I just didn’t realize how long it was going to take to address it. And once we began addressing it, how seriously, 30 years
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later, we would start backsliding. I always believed things would continue to get better. And I—I think the fight itself was energizing.
DT: Was it a personal sort of impact on yourself that being exposed to malathion and having the allergic reactions, both yourself and your child? Or was it the more public policy issues you’d read about in the newspaper or see in Congress when you were lobbying? Which was it that really got you energized?
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SS: It was more the fact that industry was so blatant with their disregard.
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SS: I—I’m not sure how to get back to where we were after the interruption, but how I got involved with statewide organizations was testifying on air issues before the Air Board in Austin. I was contacted by Ned Fritz, who then came down and visited with us and stayed with us in Lake Jackson and, at the time, they were getting ready to do a statewide umbrella organization, Texas Environmental Coalition. And he asked this—the CSC to…
DT: Which stands for?
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SS: Citizen’s Survival Committee. The local group? To come to the initial two-day workshop to try and form TEC. They’re initially San Jacinto Lung Association. You know, the Houston Area Lung Association had put up a 45,000 dollar grant, which was a lot of money back in the early 70’s. And so, I went. And it’s very interesting, John Rogers was a delegate there with AF of L-CIO, and I had met him down here because he had gone into the plant with O.D. Kennemore and photographed a lot of these rather egregious things that were going on. And he had his wife come to the meeting and it turns out I had gone to junior high and high school with his wife and had not seen her since we both went off to college. But we recognized each other instantly, and you may know her. Mary Beth Rogers? It is a small world, isn’t it? That—sorry. I’ve forgotten why I was on that topic.
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DT: You were explaining how you first got involved in statewide environmental politics.
SS: Oh, well, truly, that was—was it. I ended up becoming a delegate, initially, to
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Texas Environmental Coalition for Texas Committee on Natural Resources. And doing that got me involved with Texas League of Conservation Voters. That, and I believed in Babe Schwartz’s idea of being involved in campaigns and that if—if you want to change the world at all, you have to be involved in politics. You know, and that’s not a real popular thing to do in the environmental community. And so, you really need to do that when you’re younger, anyway, because it does take a lot of energy.
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DT: Well, that’s an interesting remark, because I’ve noticed that some environmentalists believe that if you present the story, make sure your facts are accurate, tell everybody, you know, get it out through the news media or through the schools, that people will do the right thing. But it sounds like what you’re suggesting is that there’s some real politic involved, that you’ve got to not just make the case, but somehow do some horse trading and do some politicking. Is that accurate?
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SS: Pretty much. You definitely—you may not have a whole lot to do a lot of horse trading with, but if you’re going to be persuading just because you’re right and you get your message out, nothing’s going to happen. You have to be pushing all of the time and if you don’t push, either on the administration side—if you’re not continually pushing the agencies, and if you don’t go to the decision makers in the legislature, in Congress, you know—and let me tell you, Texans don’t go to Congress a lot. In Congress, you don’t see a lot of environmentalists from Texas being there, trying to influence legislation.
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People are flying from California or Oregon or Washington all of the time. They’re there. They’re coming from a longer distance. Probably doesn’t cost much more, but we Texans don’t do that. And, you know, it’s—I know it’s expensive. I know it’s difficult. I was doing it raising three children and sometimes wondering where the money was going to come from, but I had a husband who made sure I could do those things. He was committed to the same causes I was, but, you know, one of us had to earn a living.
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DT: Why do you think it is that Texans are somehow different from those in California, other states that have had more successful, or more aggressive, environmental programs?
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SS: I really don’t know. I’d—I’d hate to say it’s because, for the most part, Texans don’t care. And we are the good ol’ boy state and that really does influence what we do and how we do it. But, you know, it’s—it’s just like conquering of the West. There is no West to conquer anymore and we didn’t conquer it in the first place. We may have destroyed it, but we didn’t conquer it. I don’t—I can’t answer that question. I mean, those may be some hints, but I don’t think that’s the total answer. I’m sure there’s much more to it.
DT: Well, let’s try something that’s not maybe as rhetorical and, you know, unanswerable. Getting back to coastal issues, you’ve told us about the bottomland issues of wetlands and about dredging and about public beach access. As I understand it, another coastal issue you’ve been involved in is oil spills and that you’ve helped write some of the first oil spill ordinances along the coast. Can you tell about why you became concerned about this? Maybe some of the instances of earlier oil spills that you were aware of?
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SS: Sure. Again, going to back to the 70’s, I read that Dow wanted to—along with other large companies—build an offshore port to import oil. This was called the Sea Dock Consortium. The port was going to be called Sea Dock, as it would be 26 miles offshore. And, at the time, I was also reviewing a proposal for dams on the upper Brazos for Friends of the Earth. And so I got into reviewing environmental impact statements and I reviewed the environmental impact statement. I also, for Texas Environmental
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Coalition, was looking at a proposed 60-foot channel into Galveston. And, as I looked at these proposals, became clear to me—you know, we’re talking about environmental impact statements that were many, many, many volumes thick. Very, very big. The first ones were really awful. I—I read them and I felt like the offshore proposal for the oil port was the smartest, most sensible thing industry ever proposed. And I developed a taskforce on TEC to look at those issues. And we looked at all of the port issues and came up with a statewide position supporting the Sea Dock position.
DT: And why did you support it?
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SS: Because it was safe. It didn’t come through a single bay margin. There was no necessity to dredge deep channels into shallow bay estuarine areas and cause all of the—the problems associated with that and destruction of habitat and loss of fisheries resources. So I literally sold that position to statewide organizations, particularly Sierra Club and they supported that position strongly. And what happened with the Sea Dock proposal is that after the energ—second energy crisis in ’78 and ’79, the government
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believed that we were going to need to import a whole lot more oil and they wanted the facility to be built a whole lot larger than what industry thought it should be. And so, Congress had passed the Deepwater Ports Act, whereby you can site a port offshore, but they required at the time that it be very large and some of the bigger companies like Exxon were not willing to back the bonds. So Dow, Phillips, Conoco, some of the others, went to the legislature and got them to pass a Deepwater Ports Act and set up a
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Deepwater Port Commission strictly for the purpose of building the Sea Dock facility. And I was appointed to that Port Commission, I was the environmentalist on that commission. And Bob Casey, a former Congressman from the area, was chairman and I was vice-chairman and together we walked 27 permits through the system. We got the Deepwater Port permit. But with Exxon not backing the bonds, none of the others were willing to spend enough money on the bond issue that the whole thing collapsed. And it was never built. At the same time, they did a similar proposal in Louisiana called Loop.
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And Loop was 18 months behind Texas, but Shell backed the bonds because they needed to get the oil to go up the Caprock Pipeline from Louisiana to Chicago and various other—other spots. And they were used to dealing with bureaucracies that were much worse than U.S. bureaucracies. You know. We should’ve done it. It was—it was the thing to do. And industry was right; there wasn’t a need for a facility that big. But there was the need for the facility. As a result, we have the Port of Houston, one more time, going after deepwater. They all want 50 feet, then they’ll want 60. And it’s the wrong place to do it.
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DT: You explained part of the problem with having these onshore oil loading and unloading facilities is the risk of simply dredging and changing the hydrodynamics of the bays. But I understand that spills are another problem. Can you talk about some of the more notorious spills in this area and some of the ordinances that you’ve worked on to protect against them?
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SS: Well, yeah. While I was a Deepwater Port Commissioner, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a lot of conferences dealing with the importation of oil. And while doing that, I met the head of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Oil Spills and he said, you know, you ought to be trained, as an environmentalist on the Port Commission, you ought to know everything there is to know about what it takes to clean up an oil spill. And I said, do you know what? You’re right. Because one of the things we were required to do was to write an oil spill plan. So I took the NOAA training and spent a week being certified as an oil spill responder for the Scientific Support Team for NOAA. And within a couple of weeks, there
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was a major spill off Puerto Rico and they called for me to go work. Also, shortly thereafter, we had the Ixtoc oil spill and by this time in my life, I was serving also on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere [NACOA]. It no longer exists but it’s—it’s been replaced by the Ocean Policy Commission, some of the same people I served with are on the Ocean Policy Commission. And we were holding hearings on the Ixtoc oil spill. There was an oilman from Houston who was on NACOA, who just happened to be the Chief Operating Officer of Zapata Offshore. And you know, he was aware that it
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was Governor Clements oil rig and actually what had happened and we literally held hearings in Congress on the spill. And I was getting phone calls daily from the NOA people. They were mad in Mexico at the U.S. and mad at Texas, in particular, because there had been a natural gas pipeline that was being built in Mexico to the United States that President Carter, after listening to some Texas people, cancelled. So everyone was onshore in the Bay of Campeche at the spill site, except the U.S. Government. Bob
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Armstrong was the land commissioner and the NOA Scientific Support Team held a meeting on tar balls and it just happened to be in the same building where the Land Office is located. And some of the members of the Scientific Support Team met with the land commissioner and the next day, they went flying to Mexico because the oil was rapidly approaching Texas shores. Now this is the largest spill in the world. It happens in ’79, people have forgotten about it. You know, it was eclipsed by what happened in Alaska. But this went on. We responded for 16 weeks directly to that spill and I worked
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12 of those for the Scientific Support Team. We were in Corpus Christi and I was out everyday in a helicopter for 8 hours mapping the oil. Then it—we would come back at 6 o’clock, have a meeting and hear from all of the different teams on what they had found. And then, I would go with a Scientific Support Coordinator to the Coast Guard, brief the Coast Guard, stay for the press conference afterwards to hear how the Coast Guard would describe what was happening.
DT: And what was happening?
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DT: Sharron, earlier we were talking about Ixtoc I and the explosion off the coast of Campeche. Can you try and outline what happened and what some of the impacts were that you saw when you were flying over in the helicopter or were hearing reports from some of the folks on the shore?
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SS: Well, you know, it was interesting. The—the flight with the NOA guy and Bob Armstrong was the first one to actually see the oil. And the U.S. Government Oil Spill Response Team said oh, you know, it’s not there where they say it is. At the same time, NOA had arranged for a NASA overflight that went out the next day. Found it just exactly where—where Armstrong said it was. So the National Response Team then kicked into gear and all of the agencies who had been fighting each other then worked harmoniously and on adrenaline and—and, you know, did a—did a great job. But, you
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know, the thing about that spill, it occurred because the crew operating the rig operated under Mexican rules and, you know, they didn’t have people working 24 hours a day. They had times where they didn’t work and the Mexican rules allowed that to happen. But to drill in Campeche, they had to have a Mexican crew. Now, I know all of that changed as a result. I don’t know whether American rigs operate with American crews or whether Mexican crews are trained by Americans or what, but I know the experience is now different. It was the largest oil spill in the world and it was incredibly well
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documented. When the oil got to Texas, we were flying Trans X out and taking samples, 10, 20 and 30 miles out on at least three and five, if we could get them done, different stations each day. And as the oil—the leading edge of the oil moved north, my team got transferred to Galveston, which was great because I could go home at night. And we were actually transferred to New Orleans and were getting ready to move to New Orleans when Tropical Storm Claudette hit. Do you remember that? We had officially 45, and in some spots, 47, 49 inches of rain in the Alvin area. It happened—I was at home. I got
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flooded into my house. For three days, I couldn’t leave my house. And it was—the miracle—Governor Clements—it was the hurricane—Governor Clements asked for to stop the spill because what happened is the freshwater coming down the Brazos River, which is the second largest streamflow into the Gulf of Mexico, was so strong. The Brazos and the rest of the rivers on the Texas coast, the currents changed and turned south five weeks early. Happened the end of August instead of in October. So we were—we were saved. I didn’t have to move to New Orleans and our team quit monitoring the spill because the currents were now carrying it back the other direction.
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DT: Did you get any tar balls or other effects on the shore?
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SS: Sure. At least seven years afterwards, they could still identify tar balls as far north as Port Aransas. There’s a scientist at Texas A&M whose very good at identifying tar balls. And for seven years, she could identify tar balls related to Ixtoc. We did have problems here, but they were nothing like what they could’ve been or what Mexico experienced. But the leading edge of the oil was all the way up here, you know. It—it was all the way into Louisiana when the event was considered over.
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DT: Speaking of tar balls, I understand there’s some controversy over—some people saying they’re a natural phenomenon, natural oil seeps in the Gulf sea bottom.
SS: They are.
DT: Others saying that, no, these are from spills and leaks from the oilrigs.
SS: Underwater salt domes do have natural seeps and there were plenty of them in this area. The Krakowa Indians used to get the oil off the beaches, you know, as a—a way of fighting mosquitoes. They used—and used to use it in their canoes as well. You know.
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DT: Let’s talk about some of the other oil spills that you’re aware of in this area. The Lightering explosion, the Mega Borg, I understand, was one of the early ones that you knew of.
SS: Yeah, when the Mega Borg occurred, I was serving on the local emergency
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planning committee for Brazoria County. And as a result, having had this great training from NOA, I drafted the first county oil spill plan for beachfronts in the entire United States and it’s the basis of what’s being used now nationally in all the counties. And a couple of years later, in Galveston Bay, when there was a collision between barges at the Apex and Shinoussa, I developed the—the first spill plan for onshore responses for bay and estuarine areas. You know, but I was lucky. I have a friend here who’s an
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oceanographer, who’s the chief pilot for the Port of Freeport, who also has an airplane. And he could give us, every morning when he goes out in the channel, he could—he could give me the oceanographic information on currents, as well as we could fly and do an—an oversight and through other people on the LAPC, we could arrange anything we needed to do. But it came down to the simple thing is we armored the beach with sand. Built a berm a foot and half high above the high tide line. And then we had county employees patrolling to make sure people didn’t knock it down, so that as the oil came in, we could stop it, dig it up with shovels because we have an extremely high erosion rate
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here. You know, all of the men wanted to bring bulldozers and bulldoze the oil out of there. That wasn’t the way to do it; it was to deal with it with people and shovels. Not with all of the big equipment we could gather and accelerate the erosion rate. And it was—was an interesting thing to do and our local county person, who is in charge of emergency management took it to—took our draft plan to a conference and that’s how it got used nationally.
DT: You’ve told us a little bit about liquid pollution, you know, these oil slicks. Can you also tell us something about your work on debris, which I guess is more solid jetsam and flotsam that comes up on the shore and some of the agencies that you’ve worked with to try and mitigate that?
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SS: Well, sort of as a result of fighting ocean incineration for Texas Environmental Coalition, that was putting on a conference in South Padre in January of—I don’t know, ’86, ’87. And Linda Marinas, who was with an environmental organization out of Washington, had just…
DT: The Center for Marine Conservation?
SS: Mmm-hmm. They’ve changed their name. They were the Center for Environmental Education at that time. Had just moved here—moved to Austin. And she
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and David were on the beach the first morning and she said we’ve got to do something about this terrible trash on the beach. And she said we need to organize. And I said I’m not going to do it, but I’ll tell you how. And I pointed out that the Land Office owns the beaches, that every county has a Marine Extension Agent with contacts throughout the county communities. And that if she would get the land commissioner and the extension service together, that she would have a built in steering committee to start addressing the
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problems. And, as a result, Linda did that. I served on that steering committee for many years. And that Charlie Moss, our marine agent here in Brazoria County, had already been looking at—at doing this kind of thing and had been doing both dune restoration project along with beach cleaning. And Charlie worked with Linda and Gary Morrow and that committee. And we started doing the beach cleanups, which are still done. What isn’t done today, though, is the fact that the first, oh, seven or eight years, we collected data and the data collection was the important thing. It didn’t matter what you
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picked up, it was the fact that you kept a record of it. So we identified the debris and then started identifying the sources. And what we found out is, of course, that the mid-coast area, Matagorda, Brazoria, Galveston, is the center of the Gulf of Mexico. And, as I pointed out, currents change twice a year, basically. Half the year, they’re going north, half the year, they’re going south. That’s the longshore, the near—near shore current. And trash from all over the Gulf of Mexico is deposited here. So more of it comes from
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offshore than what we would have supposed. You know, we always just assumed it was messy Texans. Still a lot of messy Texans, but the trash could be coming from Mexico, it could be coming from China, it could be coming from Iran. You know, you identify light bulbs and other things that—that get thrown overboard. We know shrimpers throw their trash overboard. Well, pretty much, Gulf shrimpers don’t throw their trash overboard an—anymore. That’s a result. We have offshore operators on platforms covering their workboar—workboats with tarps because if they get reported not having all of that material going to the offshore ba—rigs covered, you know, they could—they could get a
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fine. And the industry didn’t like the black eye of being named as a chief source of things like those big wooden drums that have cable around it that keep washing up on the beach. We got light sticks from shrimping and lots of different things. People got identified and they started working together with the Land Office on the problem. Now we have different land commissioners now and the beach cleanup continues and the pick—the pickup of the trash is significant, but it’s near as significant as the information gleaned from those years of study that CEC did under contract to the Land Office.
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DT: I guess there’s a clear aesthetic reason to be picking up the debris on the beach.
SS: Sure.
DT: But is there also an entanglement, biological reason for pickup?
SS: Absolutely. You know, fish and wildlife become entangled or they swallow this stuff. You know, most of the turtles, for example, that wash up on the beach have plastics in their gut. When they get around to having the money to do the necropsies, to look at the turtles, is it the fact that they’ve been caught in a shrimp net that they’re dead?
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Or is it a fact that they were dying anyway or they simply died because of all of the plastic that’s inside of them. You know, they see plastic floating and they think it’s like the jelly balls—jellyfish that are the main source of diet for turtles. You see birds and other things destroyed by fishing line. Entanglement is more of a—a problem for wildlife than it is for people. Aesthetics are one thing, but survival is another. There was a pygmy whale—baby pygmy whale that washed up on Matagorda Island and it was necropsied—can’t think of the name of the scientist from Port Aransas who did it, but he’s the guy who that the trash studies.
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DT: Amos.
SS: A—yeah. Tony Amos. He cut that pygmy whale open and out pulled a plastic bag from its gut. You know, it’s—it’s a serious problem and it’s—it’s a threat on land as well. But it’s been more documented as a result of Tony’s studies, which he released through the land office request early and then worked with the Gulf of Mexico Marine Debris Committee.
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DT: You said that you got first started with the debris problem because you’d been organizing to oppose the incineration off coast, I think you said the Vulcanus Offshore incineration. Can you try and explain what that whole controversy was about and what you did to try and shut that down?
SS: Okay. The Vulcanus was an old oil tanker that had been converted into an incineration ship. And in the early 70’s, they did a series of test burns off the Texas coast. It was the summer of ’74 because I had a Sea Grant fellowship and I was going over to Galveston every day of the week and taking courses in estuarine management and
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water quality testing. And, in fact, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we went up the Houston Ship Channel and did the water quality testing for the state. But some of the people I was taking this special course with worked for EPA and they were called out to do the monitoring on the Vulcanus. And they never had what you call a complete burn. You know, it never worked right. It’s—incineration of hazardous waste is a very difficult thing to do on a stable platform. You put it on a rolling platform, which is what you have if you’re on a ship offshore, and it’s very—even more unstable. Well, in the 80’s, Waste Management bought Vulcanus I, although it had never gotten a permit to burn in the
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United States. They had been burning naval waste in the South Pacific, where they didn’t need a permit. And they commissioned Vulcanus II, which was built like Vulcanus I, only bigger. Now, they commissioned it with incineration technology that even then was out of date, which had never done a successful burn. All their burns were compounded by what’s called PICS. Products of Incomplete Combustion. And they did another series of burns, but unlike the one—the first ones, which were off of Galveston and Brazoria County; these were down off of Brownsville. And a group of women in Brownsville got
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really upset about it and started organizing the local communities along with the—oh, trying to think of the group that’s still down in the valley that organizes through the churches. Valley Interfaith. And there was a hearing in the valley and it was the largest
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public hearing EPA ever held. They started at 9 o’clock in the morning and it went on till almost midnight and over four thousand people attended and hundreds testified. And I was there and I testified right after the elected officials because the hearing examiner knew me from studies I was participating in as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. And he wrongly assumed that I would be for it and had no idea I would be totally opposed. So one testimony early on like that that was negative really energized the crowd and I became involved with the women from the Brownsville area in fighting this. And it was fought, believe me, in Congress and in EPA. And, you know, at some point, they finally held a second hearing in Brownsville. They turned out another four thousand people and EPA lied about the numbers. It was really interesting. Jack Ravan, who was head of the Office of Water, held a seminar in Washington, it was held in two parts, on regulations. And I wasn’t at the first part; I was at the second part. And this was to—with all of the interested parties, to draft the regulations. And somehow or other, I had acquired a set of the draft regulations the night before and somehow or other, a whistle blower at EPA just happened to walk in with copies of it. The Attorney General’s office from Louisiana and Texas, Greenpeace, the
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women from Brownsville and myself were all very organized. We literally destroyed that meeting. They made the press leave. There was a—a local Potomac news service video crew that was there that got thrown out. And the next day, the women from Texas were meeting with Jack Ravan and it suddenly dawned on me, we did this great takeover of the meeting and exposed that they had been lying and there was no recording. They had one woman taking minutes and once all this happened, she threw her hands up and didn’t take minutes anymore. And Ravan had been out of the country and so we met with him and told him what had happened. And no one had told him. Not one word.
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DT: Why do you think EPA was so supportive and so resistant to the citizen’s criticizing it?
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SS: Well, Steve Shatsall was best friends with one of the chief lawyer lobbyists for chem waste management. And Shatsall was in charge of the Ocean Incineration Program. And Ocean Dumping. And he was determined that there was going to be a program. And the women from Brownsville were determined that there wasn’t going to be a program. And it ended up—one of those women, a woman by the name of Deyaun Boudreaux, whose husband was a shrimper, and I knew her from work I had done to save habitat with shrimpers. Other than union people around here, the only
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people who would ever help me were the shrimpers. And they would help save the resource, they did so time and time again. And Deyaun and I kept pushing EPA and pushing in Washington. And Jack Ravan came up with the idea for the creation of the Gulf of Mexico program. He looked at the Great Lakes program; he looked at the Chesapeake Bay program and said we need something to address all these things happening in the Gulf. And he went back to Atlanta and took a job as regional administrator there and pushed for the Gulf of Mexico program and Deyaun and I got
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Congressional agreement and got—well, got the Congressional agreement and I got letters from the governors of Texas and Louisiana in support. Ravan already had the support from Region 4, he was the administrator. He really did—did that just to get this problem going so there would be some way of addressing issues, sort of like the estuary program that is non-regulatory, but is an involvement of all of the agencies and the public and industry and the fishing interests, both commercial and recreational.
DT: Well, could you give an example of a problem that the Gulf program worked on? Perhaps the dead zone off the…
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SS: They’re still working on the dead zone and they’re—they have been carrying that message all the way up the river.
DT: What is the origin of the dead zone and can you explain sort of what the problem is?
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SS: Sure, it’s the sedimentation runoff from agriculture and development, but primarily from agriculture, that comes down the Mississippi. As a serious problem, it was first noted by LUMCOM, Louisiana University Reser—Wetland Research Consortium by Nancy Roblay and—and Jean Turner back in ’86 and has grown ever since. It now gets into Texas. You know, it’s not just a Louisiana problem. It’s 20 miles of dead ocean offshore. There’s nothing living in the entire water column and, you know, one, there won’t be anything on the bottom. How do you avoid a 20-mile wide area that
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covers the entire state of Louisiana from the Mississippi River to the Texas border? And now, on several occasions, on into Texas waters. You’ve got to address the source. The runoff, the sedimentation. Sedimentation from dredging is one source on the coast, but what’s coming down the Mississippi is the most significant.
DT: And is it phosphates and nitrates or is it the sediment itself from runoff from these farms and developed areas? Or a combination of all three?
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SS: It’s—it’s a combination of all three, but the sedimentation itself is enough to do it by itself. It’s certainly, you know—phosphates and—and nitrates—nitrates cause algal bloom. Phosphates do, too. I mean, it—it’s a—the Gulf of Mexico addresses that issue. You were talking about marine debris. That issue has been as successfully addressed as an issue can be. We no longer have a Marine Debris committee on the Gulf of Mexico program, but we do have the report which shows the sources and what you can do about it and those things are, you know, spread well within the Gulf States. You know.
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DT: Let’s talk about one other thing that expands across almost the entire Gulf Coast—certainly the Texas coast—and that’s some of these offshore oil rigs and perhaps you can give us a little bit of history as to why Texas’s coast and that of Louisiana is so much more developed than many of the other portions of the coast of the United States, as far as oil and gas development goes.
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SS: Yeah. Well, Texas own three leagues. Louisiana has offshore rights that are a little different. Their boundary doesn’t go out as far. But Texas and California, theirs are based on Spanish land grants, which give—gave—gave California and Texas three leagues out—that’s almost ten miles. Somewhat over nine miles. And there was a lawsuit, tidelands case back in like 1949 that was settled by the Supreme Court and I don’t remember what the basis for the settlement was, but California didn’t get the three leagues of tidelands, but Texas did. And so, Texas, early on, began its—it was an oil development state. The oil seeps you talked about, which, as I explained, are—are salt
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domes under the Gulf, and it’s on salt domes where you find oil and gas. So geologically, they look for domes on the Gulf floor and drill there. They started drilling near shore in the early 50’s—‘50, ’51—off both Louisiana and Texas and they’ve been drilling there ever since. Louisiana has more, but you know, we’ve been doing it just as long as Louisiana has. And controls took a long time to come to industry offshore. You know, that’s something in the past 20 years. It really—there really were no controls on anything through the 50’s and the 60’s. Controls weren’t even talked about until the 70’s.
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DT: Controls in what sense?
SS: In regulations on checking on pipelines that were breaking and, you know, oil spills are problems. Now they’re less of a problem in Gulf waters, which are very warm then they are in cold waters, like California with its 50-degree ocean water in the summertime. Or in the North Sea or Alaska. Oil in a coldwater environment persists far longer than it does in a warm water environment. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t developed such a strong philosophy about being against it as we would have if our water here was cold and it would do so much more damage.
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DT: Recently, there’s been a discussion about drilling on the coast—not offshore, but in the—on Padre Island. And I was wondering if you have any views about that or any sort of story of the history of that issue?
SS: Well, there’s really no point in them drilling along the beaches on—on Padre, particularly in the National Seashore. I mean, they—when the National Seashore was
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acquired from Charles Wilson, who was a former Secretary of Defense and, as I recall, head of General Motors. The oil and gas rights didn’t go with the land, they were sold separately. That happens a lot. Federal land for refuges or parks is often acquired without the minerals that go with the land. But they could drill somewhere on the island, not on the beachfront itself where the turtles are nesting and where they have been encouraged to nest since the 60’s and they are now doing so. It just doesn’t make sense.
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You know, we developed the art of directional drilling in the crooked East Texas field around Kilgore and they can easily directionally drill the same pool of oil and they don’t have to be where the turtles are going to be nesting. It just doesn’t make sense. They can get those rigs far enough away where they won’t interfere with the nesting period. I’m not involved in that issue, but you know, I agree with fighting it.
DT: You mentioned the encroachment for the sea turtles. I guess this is the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
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SS: Yes.
DT: To move their nesting up north from the original Rancho Nuevo in Mexico to Padre Island and further north. Can you tell about the history of that?
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SS: Well, turtles have been coming ashore at Padre Island all along. At Rancho Nuevo, when the turtle issue surfaced, the Mexican marines who guarded the beach went off duty at 5 o’clock. And they didn’t carry arms anyway to keep poachers off. So while American shrimpers were being blamed for turtle deaths, the shrimpers I knew could tell you about every turtle they had ever had on board. It was like I can tell you about what I was doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Turtles on board are a very unusual occurrence. Far more usual for the shrimpers at Port Isabelle, at South Padre by the Mexican border than anywhere else. And you may remember seeing Ila Loetscher on
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Johnny Carson. She had been saving turtles since the 50’s. And the shrimpers would bring her injured turtles and she would rehabilitate them and those that could go back at some point would go back into the Gulf and those that couldn’t, she somehow managed to get local people to help her raise money. She kept them in big, round concrete tanks. And some of the people who helped her tried reestablishing nests on South Padre Island, south of the seashore, and eventually they moved up the seashore. It wasn’t successful for a long time, but at some point, it did become successful. And part of the problem was in the temperature of the eggs that were incubated and then released on South Padre.
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They didn’t have the temperature right so for over—over ten years of the Head Start program; all of the turtles that were released were male. You know, eventually they got it right. But at Rancho Nuevo, all of those things continued and it finally ended up—the shrimpers established the relationships with the government in Mexico and shrimpers work down there themselves and provide money to keep people, during nesting season, living down there all of the time, keeping poachers off. Because eggs—turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac and they are highly prized in Mexico. And, you know, Fish and Wildlife Service works with them, but you know, they couldn’t stop poachers because they couldn’t have guns down there either. It’s all working far better now, but it took a lot of
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controversy. Trust me, the most—no, you should never believe anybody who says trust me. The—the—most turtles were lost, you know, at—at Rancho Nuevo. One of the interesting things that—why do they come to beaches like that? Why do they pick one place over another? One of the things may be visual cues and behind that beach, there are high bluffs, which give them a visual cue. It’s sort of like birds heading for the Brazos River in the Gulf of Mexico. They can see it 200 miles out, into the Gulf. You know, there are—they use—birds use a lot of different cues. Maybe turtles do, too. And that may be why Padre Island is a good visual cue. All of the high rises at South Padre let you know that you’re in the right area.
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DT: Speaking of tall things, from dunes to high-rise condos, I understand that there are proposals for tall windmills that are being discussed and maybe proposed shortly. Do you have any views about that? These coastal windmills?
SS: Just read about that this morning. I was at a meeting Commissioner Patterson of the Land Office held last Friday and didn’t have any idea that—that he would be announcing that he was going to lease state land offshore for wind farms. You know,
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wind is a great, non-polluting source of energy. But are they going to shut them down during the months of migration of the offshore birds? Because they’re going to be a slaughterhouse for all of the birds that migrate across the Gulf, as they migrate right across the Texas Gulf. There are some birds from the East Coast who will come across Cuba and Puerto Rico, but most of the birds when they go offshore, they go off Louisiana and Texas.
DT: And this is the main flyway for birds coming up from Central and South America?
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SS: Yes. And for the central flyway of the United States. Right through here. We’re in the heart of it. You know, so whether they’re coming directly down the central flyway or migrating across, it’s a serious problem. Many of the birds just migrate along the coastal counties, but a lot of them go directly across. Yeah.
DT: Well, how do you strike the balance between this sort of tempting source of renewable energy and this very worrisome effect on the migration?
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SS: Well, the Land Office also has a lot of land in West Texas and whatever they need—do, they need to do a complete environmental impact statement for a full year, not an assessment that’s just done as a one shot deal, to look at this issue to see what harm could be caused. And to do that, you know, they’re going to have to look at bird—bird migration studies for years back and, you know, that’s—well, it’s easier to do now that they’re doing it with Doppler radar.
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DT: Texas are known for their own migrations. For hundreds of years, they’ve gone to the coast and we’re lucky in Texas to have public beach access, which is a very strong tradition here. Can you explain how that tradition came to be and how it became legally protected?
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SS: Yeah. The original concept for the Open Beaches Act was that beaches along Texas had been used for drying of fishing nets and as highways for stagecoach lines, quote, from time immemorial. And those beaches, where you could show that they had been used for those things, were included with a public easement. And that easement gave them the right to cross private land to get to the public beach. And the case really centered on Galveston and Brazoria County, where of—of course, the beaches had been
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used. You know, the first colonists came in right here at Freeport to Velasco. Velasco is the north side of Freeport. And there was a stagecoach line from Galveston to Freeport. And there was a ferry at San Luis Pass, which brought the stagecoach across. So, you know, it was well documented. And part of the fear of taking cars off of the beach is that, without the cars on the beach and the use as a highway and the right to use it as a highway, which is what allows you to cross private land to get to that public beach. You know, the beach may be public, for example, on Wolf Island down here, which is 8 ½ miles of beach. But there’s no bridge to get to that 8 ½ miles. You’ve got to get there by boat, or plane or helicopter. So the public doesn’t have a right to utilize that beach. You
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know, they can’t get to it unless they come by water. You can land on any beach if you come by water. And every few years, there’s another push to get the cars off the beach and when you do, the legal premise for allowing people on the beach is gone. I know it’s not a concept that’s understood other places, but it was a way of ensuring access to the beach in a state where those things are difficult to do. Our private property rights are held sacrosanct.
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DT: Well, speaking of private property rights, the (inaudible) of the beach moves. It accretes and erodes in Texas at a very rapid rate and sometimes, especially after a tropical storm or a hurricane, you may lose 100 feet of beachfront. And all of a sudden, your house that had a road and a foundation is now—has the Gulf waters lapping at its base. And my understanding is that those houses then become untenable and become on public property. How do you work out this balance between the private property right and the house and the public right to the beach?
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SS: Well, in other issues of law, they’ve utilized what’s called the 50 percent rule, which is if the house is destroyed 50 percent, it belongs to the Land Office. If it’s 50—if—if it’s 49 percent, it belongs to the landowner. And that’s the rule that’s been used and, even with that, there are very few houses that have ever been removed. And this has been an issue here at Surfside. All along, Surfside has been the poster child on the issue of house removal. And what’s happened recently is that the current land commissioner got the legislature to issue a two-year moratorium on enforcing the Open Beaches Act.
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And, as a result, I—I think there is going to be an attack on the Open Beaches Act in the next legislative session. Because people don’t want to lose their property. Now understand, one of the things that’s changed is, since ’85, there’s disclosure in every deed to every property that tells you what the hazard is of buying that beachfront property and what’s going to happen. And most of the people I see complaining didn’t own that property in ’85. So they had to read that disclosure. You know, that—it’s—and most of the people who complain—not all, but most, are simply renting property from the beach. They’re not living there.
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DT: I was wondering if you can look back over your last—what is it, almost a generation of advocacy on coastal issues and tell us if there are a few of these issues that really pop out as being the highlights, the most important things that you’ve worked on? And maybe tell us why?
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SS: I don’t know. Nationally, ocean dumping and ocean incineration were significant because, as a result, the sites got removed from the maps and if they ever want to do this again, they not only have to start all over, to develop regulations. They have to do a complete environmental impact statement and, you know, it would be more accurate than ones that were done in the early 70’s. Getting Galveston Bay into the Clean Water Act and helping to establish the Galveston Bay Foundation. I think those are really significant. I—I think it’s probably the only instance where one lobbyist with no money actually got a program established and it’s because the fisheries resources of Galveston Bay are so significant. We have half of the nation’s chemical facilities in four counties
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around the bay, dumping into the bay, and we have 30 percent of the nation’s refining capacity. Now, I think that’s rather significant. And, you know, that sort of names who the players are in all of these games. It’s the petrochemical industry that’s the big player in all coastal issues. I don’t know, getting an approved coastal management program and keeping it were significant things.
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DT: And looking forward, are there issues, do you think, will be significant in the years to come and that you might encourage others to get active on?
SS: Well, on the coast right now, the issue of importing LNG. We stopped an LNG facility from being built in Matagorda Bay back in the 70’s. But it was a whole lot easier. I knew the attorney for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC], who had also worked in the Texas Senate in earlier years. And I—I knew the person who was head of FERC. You know, I don’t know those people now. But there are four proposals for the
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Texas coast right now for LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]. And like oil, these are unsafe. There’s one proposed for Quintana Island, right at the mouth of the jetties. That’s right. And when those ships are in there, everything in the inner coastal and the harbor is shut down. And they initially plan to have ships a minimum of every three days and probably two. That’s a long time to be shut down. The flash point, if something goes wrong, it could blow up this place like a hydrogen bomb. Unlikely that it would happen, but since the Port of Freeport is already an al-Qaeda terrorist hit point, we shouldn’t take that lightly. This is something that would be far safer offshore. The only reason for not doing it is it costs more money.
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And the fact that local industry needs both for energy source and for product base, the gas, they’ll pay for it. These proposals should be forced to go offshore, to do it where, if it becomes a terrorist target, it isn’t going to wipe out the resources it would wipe out here.
DT: I have just one last question. Many of the people that we talk to worked for many years on things that involved paper and computer screens and sort of abstract office life, but what really gets enthusiastic about this kind of work and sacrificing those kind of hours is a love of a particular place. And I was wondering if there is a place that you might have that gives you solace or encouragement?
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SS: Well, I turned 65 last weekend and had a wonderful day at the beach. Sitting on a porch at the walking beach at Freeport, just watching the water. And, you know, the water will do that wherever you are. I don’t have mountains, but I have the bottomlands. However, the bottomlands in anything but this time of year, through the end of February, are so full of heat and mosquitoes because there isn’t a breath of air in there, that you have to be prepared. But it’s so neat, so beautiful, there’s so much there, that it’s worth doing. I think almost anywhere you are, there’s someplace that’ll give you solace and recharge your batteries so you can live another day.
DT: Well said. Would you like to add anything?
SS: No.
DT: Well, good. Well, thank you very much. Really appreciate your time.
[End of Reel 2286]
[End of Interview with Sharron Stewart]