INTERVIEWEE: Steve Frishman (SF)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 16, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
[Please note that the numbers given below mark the time codes for the interview recording.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s November 16, 2018. We’re in Austin, Texas. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Steve Frishman, who has had many jobs—worn many hats, including being a newspaperman, a Coastal Resources Consultant working on canals, oil spills, shipping, fishing, other issues, and as a Radioactive Waste Consultant and Advisor in—both in Texas here at the High Plains, and—and in Nevada in the Yucca Mountain facility.
And that’s a very brief introduction to his many kinds of work but I wanted to take this chance to thank him—thank you—for taking time to talk to us.
SF: I’m pleased to be with you.
DT: Well good. Well we usually start these interviews by asking about your—your very young years and if—if there were some early experiences or mentors—parents, teachers, scout leaders—somebody who might have introduced you to the outdoor world and to conservation issues in general.
SF: Well there was one when I was very young that still stays with me and that’s—this was I guess when I was in kindergarten. I was living in Kensington, Maryland and I had a friend down the street who we went to kindergarten together and we also watched his new circular TV screen in his house. And his dad was an avid hiker and a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. And a few weekends a year, he would take us out on w—w—w—one of the hikes that he took because he was in charge of keeping a certain portion of that trail cleared in Virginia.
So a few times a year, we were on the Appalachian Mountain Trail doing—doing a job. And it—he was explaining to us that the, you know, it takes cooperation to—for everybody to enjoy this resource. And so that—th—just pictures in my head of that have stuck with me for a long time. And yeah, I also remember just in the course of doing that, my first view of a copperhead snake. So and so he explained what they were and it—it was really a—a thing—a memory that has stuck with me all my life.
DT: And were there any teachers maybe in grade school or junior high or high school who might have taught you about these things?
SF: No really but we lived in Silver Springs, Maryland and we were just like two blocks from a section of Rock Creek that became—becomes Rock Creek Park in D. C. And I spent many of my afternoons and weekends in—just along Rock Creek, you know, observing what was going on. I had a, at one point, I had a—a turtle collection where I’d bring box turtles home, box tortoises, and water turtles. I built a cement pond in my backyard and a—a large area where my turtles lived.
And when we moved from there—we moved quite a bit—when we moved from there, mo—most of my collection went to the Washington Zoo because I had a snapping turtle and I had a couple other sort of odd species of water turtles that I had collected. So they were happy to have my collection.
DT: Well and so you—you moved from place to place but I understood that you went to boarding school. Is that right? Was that..?
SF: No, I went to Phillips Andover Academy because, at that time, I was living in Andover. My family had moved there and I went to seventh and eighth grade or actually wh—when I was in sixth grade when we moved there, I went to seventh and eighth grade in Andover Public Schools. And the constitution for Phillips Andover Academy requires that they take a certain percentage of day students from the town. So there was one teacher in junior high school whose job it was to sort of screen who—who those people should be. And I was one of them.
So I went to Phillips Andover Academy without having to live there, without having to pay for it, and just got an education that’s too good for people that age.
DT: Well and was part of that education about sort of natural world or biology or—or other aspects that…?
SF: Well I took the—sort of the standard science courses in, you know, chemistry, physics, biology and yeah, I guess it—one of the things that I us—used to do fairly regularly that had to do with nature at least was, because I was a day student and had a car, I had a few friends where we’d sneak off on weekends sometimes and go to Plum Island to the beach.
DT: Well and—and as you—you went through high school and then graduated, I understood that you went to Clark University and studied geology. Is that right?
SF: Yes. And it was at Clark University and I ended up actually being a teaching assistant to, you know, the assistant in geology which helped to pay all my tuition. And—but there was also the—the—in Clark University, the Geography School is a pretty famous Geography School. So I took a number of geography courses—physical geography, social geography, climatology—took a number of those courses all from one professor who was young, very dynamic. And, you know, we had sort of an open class. It, you know, it wasn’t a—we had textbooks, yeah, but it wasn’t a textbook exam type class.
It was—here’s—here’s how things work and why. And yeah, and with a good geology background, it just made it that much better. And he also was an outdoors person and he liked whitewater canoeing. So we spent quite a few weekends whitewater canoeing all over New England. And so, you know, we were good friends and he was—I wouldn’t call a role model but he was an inspiration.
DT: So after studying at Clark, my understanding is that you came to the University of Texas to the Marine Sciences Institute. Is that—is that right?
SF: Right. I, yeah. After I graduated from college, I worked for a graduate student at Clark University and he was doing a project studying the physiology of lichens. And it involved work in both Antarctica and New Zealand. So I helped him design his field equipment and then went along to Antarctica and New Zealand as his field technician. So yeah, and that was yeah, starting in the early—well late summer and then going through till early February because that’s the summer season on the—in the Southern Hemisphere.
And yeah, so I got—I—I was going to be done with that job just in time to be a late registrant at the University of Texas in the Geology Department. I got there one day before the close of registration. And I had thought about going to Florida State in Marine Geology and Oceanography but things weren’t quite as flexible. And it just turned out that University of Texas was a good place for me to go. And it worked out in—in a lot of good ways, yeah.
And the job in the Antarctic was pretty much just a job and also my interests in the—the—the work that was being done plus just the idea of going to the Antarctic and New Zealand and—and getting paid for it. But we were working on a project for NASA where they were looking at the possibility of lichens being a life form on Mars. And that’s because there was a suspicion that has since been founded that there was water on Mars. And so, you know, lichens are symbiosis between an algal cell and a fungal cell.
And what we were studying was how the same species of lichens live in very extreme climates. And so we were working on primarily one species that lived in the Antarctic and also in the rain forest in New Zealand, same species. We’re trying to figure out how they can do that. So…
DT: Tolerate that whole range.
SF: Yeah. So we had designed and were operating in the field equipment to where we could measure a lot of their metabolism parameters in situ, where we could take a rock with lichens on it and put it into a container where we con—we controlled all the air flow and could measure what was going on with the air, which is representative of what’s going on with their metabolism. And so we’d take that and put it right back where it was and we were measuring solar in—inclination.
And so we were getting all the environmental parameters and seeing what happened in their—what their metabolism did to the air because that tells you about CO2 and oxygen. And so we were just trying to piece together how these things do it. And we came to some pretty interesting answers that nobody really suspected but the answers, as far as I know, are still valid.
DT: Well and what—what brought you to the Marine Sciences Institute? What was [overlapping conversation]?
SF: Well I was—I—I was interested in marine geology and pa—Florida State had a good program and also I had found out about the unisa—University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which was pretty primitive at that time compared to what it is now. And I—the way I could set up a program was I could take a series of courses here in Austin and then work on my master’s thesis at—choose a master’s thesis project at the Marine Science Institute and go live in Port Aransas and do it there.
So I chose a master’s program working with a major professor there and we had—we—he had a project going on in Baffin Bay, which is about the middle of Laguna Madre, going towards—between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. He had a project going on there and I decided to do a master’s thesis on some really currently unusual carbonate formations that happen—the only—only place it happens in the Western Hemisphere, that we know of, is in Baffin Bay. And there’s one place in—on the North African Coast where it happens.
But those are the only two places in the world where it’s happening. And it’s—carbonate coatings on sand grains—on quartz sand grains and the chemistry in most seawater is not right for that to happen. But in—through geologic history, the—there have been massive formations of these type of carbonates. In fact, there are some of the major oil reservoirs in the world. And people go looking for them because they’re—they—they’re porous and yeah. And they were, you know, very common marine sediments and then, all of a sudden, it’s just doesn’t work except at a very few places.
So I—my master’s thesis was looking at what will you name this new field that other people were working in in different—with different types of geologic materials. But we named it biogeochemistry because you’re looking at the possibility that there’s biological influence on how this precipitation is taking place, chemical influence, and geochemistry because these are actually sediments that be—have, in the past, become massive areas of sedimentary rock. So I was curious about—about it and there was only one other person in the world working on it and they were working on the ones in the Mediterranean Sea.
So he and I were in some contact, even without the internet. But so yeah, it was just—it was a good place to do the project and I wanted to continue it. I—in fact, I wanted to skip a master’s and just turn it into a PhD dissertation. And—but we were having problems because I was using equipment from the Chemistry Department and, yeah, and they had good equipment but they thought that I should have a grant of my own that would buy them new equipment as well. So they made it very difficult for me to use the equipment that was there.
And I finally, yeah, just decided that, you know—I got a grant but it didn’t include the equipment because they knew they had already—that same granting organization had already funded equipment to the lab. So they wouldn’t fund my equipment. And I think rightfully so because it would have been duplication. So I—at that time, was sort of upset with that whole system and shortly after, started the newspaper.
DT: Well and tell us about the—I think it was the South Jetty, the newspaper that you began in the early ‘70s.
SF: Right. Yeah, we had had Hurricane Celia in 1970, in August of 1970, which was a small, very fast moving, very high wind hurricane where the eye passed right over Port Aransas. And I know a fair amount about that because I was one of the few people that stayed on the island. And there were less than a hundred of us. And, yeah, they…
DT: And there were winds I heard from 160 to 200 miles an hour or 75.
SF: Yeah, it had tornadoes with it. And the wind—the wind gauge at the Coast Guard Station broke at just over 200 miles an hour. And, yeah, we had a storm surge, even though it was a pretty small storm—we had a storm surge of just over ten feet, which flooded most of the downtown area. And so we, you know, had sort of a firsthand experience of how just a fairly small but very strong storm can cause problems that it takes years to get over. And one of the observations that I made by being there during it and afterward was I just had a real problem with the local officials.
They just were not either interested, willing, or capable of doing the kind of job that needed to be done to get the town back on its feet. And so after discussion with a woman who I knew plus her father who was a realtor, we, after a few months of griping about local politics, the realtor suggested well why don’t you guys just start a newspaper. So we thought about it a little bit and, yeah, decided to, after talking, and said well, let’s quit talking. Let’s just do it and see what happens. So, yeah…
DT: There had never been a newspaper [overlapping conversation].
SF: Yeah, there had been—years before, people told me that they had been somebody who did like a mimeograph newsletter, not on a regular schedule or anything. So—so the town really had never had a newspaper. And so we did some thinking about well, you know, how does it—financially how does it work? So we—the—our first thought and it turned out to be a very successful one—was that we would print it on white paper. We would have very high qu—qu—quality photographs of the tourists with the fish.
And—because people came to Port Aransas then primarily for the sport fishing. So that—that—and we figured that will give us a subscription base because there aren’t enough people in town year round to pay for the paper. And, you know, advertising is up and down, depending on the season. So we decided that, unlike almost all other newspapers, yeah, we needed to have at least a part of the financial base subscriptions. And it worked. And so we, you know, sort of made that work but, at the same time, we used it as a vehicle to go after local politicians.
And, yeah, tried to get them to sort of clean up their act. And if they had to—proposed a—a new zoning plan or a zoning plan. We never had a zoning plan. They proposed a zoning plan so we decided, okay; this is the way to kick off a newspaper. So the front page of the first edition of South Jetty was a article and the proposed zoning map, which naturally, as you might expect, most people don’t like zoning when they first hear about it. So immediately, we became the local newspaper.
DT: And was there an aspect to the zoning map that tried to deal with the risks of hurricanes like Celia?
SF: That was the problem. It didn’t. And we didn’t see that it did. It also, across the ship channel, was Harbor Island, where there was a—it was an ol—it had two docks for oil tankers and a bunch of, yeah, oil tanks on—on land. And it was—its function was sort of slowing down. It was, yeah, to take South Texas oil, load it onto ships and take it to refinery—other refineries on the U.S. Coast. And that business was sort of slowing down because imports were coming up.
But the zoning thing at Harbor Island just an open invitation for industrial development and we didn’t think that that was necessarily the right way to go, given the fact that it’s not out of the question that somebody would eventually want to begin building refineries right there at that—at that port. And—and…
DT: And Port Aransas is mostly a tourist [overlapping conversation].
SF: And Port Aransas is—is a tourist and sport fishing town. And the—and, at that time, most of the tourists were from San Antonio but also we had tourists which we found out through subscriptions—we had tourists from almost every state in the country and because we had subscriptions going to every state in the country. And so—and then those people would show up and some of them would stop into the office and say we want to meet the whacky people who write this newspaper. [laughing] And so it was kind of a fun thing.
We met a, you know, a lot of really interesting people. They liked the paper. Most of them liked the paper as much as they liked Port Aransas. And, of course, because of what we were doing with the political side, we had our political enemies in town. You know, the good old boys defending the good old boys. And so, you know, we had some rough time with a few advertisers who didn’t like what we were doing sort of week to week. But we survived and…
DT: We were talking just a moment ago about the South Jetty newspaper and—and that one of the—the early stories that you were covering was about a zoning plan that was proposed and—and I think you had the feeling that it really didn’t deal adequately with hurricane risks, such as Celia had posed.
SF: Yeah, it looked to me like it was just sort of a cookie cutter thing that was largely influenced by the people who had the most influence in town. You know, they got their stuff zoned the way they wanted. And I—I didn’t do much more than point this thing out so that other people could see and interpret the plan for themselves but there were two areas that I thought it just didn’t recognize at all and one of them was the area that actually got flooded by that hurricane surge. It just said put it back the way it was.
And, yeah, the other was a—sort of a long-standing thing that on barrier islands everywhere, and that’s sand dune protection. And so the—for the flood zone, a few years later, the federal froo—flood insurance program finally started that required that everyone who is below the hundred year flood plain le—level was required to have federal flood insurance or else they couldn’t get a mortgage. And so the town had to—or Port Aransas, the city, had to adopt a flood con—insurance ordinance.
And, interestingly enough, the only time I ever—the newspaper ever got sued was when I discovered one small developer who was actually building spec houses below the 100 year flood plain and not getting a permit. And so I published it in the paper. He filed a lawsuit immediately. And eventually I was able to—because all it was was a slap suit. He was just trying to shut me up. And I didn’t shut up. I wrote about it the next week, wrote about the lawsuit. So—so finally after whatever is the state limit, I think it was either two or three years, he had never done anything other than it being a slap suit.
So I went to court and just got it dismissed for failure to prosecute.
DT: Well it’s interesting to me that—that you—you studied geology at Clark, you come to the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, and you’re studying this—this, you know, very high level specialized issue with the lichen involving biology and physics and chemistry and—and—and then within a very short period of time, you’re—you’re running a newspaper and being quite an activist. What—what [overlapping conversation]?
SF: Yeah, well I—well I told you about the one disappointment about getting work for my PhD, yeah, or for just the equipment at the Marine Science Institute. The other was that I had been told that if I got a PhD, I could get a research position at Shell Research Laboratory in Florida. And, in the course of trying to get a PhD, Shell shut down that lab. And—and so I was disappointed again and I knew the one thing I didn’t want to be was a university professor. So—so I, you know, left the Marine Science Institute and, yeah, after we had decided to start a newspaper and figured there’s a lot of things happening in this area that depend pretty much on the—the unique environment that we have.
So one of the things I immediately started doing as part of the newspaper was the Coastal Bend Council of Governments had a couple committees that dealt with environmental issues. So I started showing up at those meetings. And pretty soon I had asked enough questions to where I actually got on a couple com—subcommittees. And so I had, you know, I was using my s—scientific training to deal with what were, in that area, you know, environmental issues but very largely political issues. So they’d been trying to get reason into decisions.
And—and this has been sort of the theme through everything that I’ve done where you—first thing you do is you get the science right. And if you’re an activist, it’s particularly important that you never get the science wrong because you—if you get it wrong even once, then you’re kicked aside. So…
DT: You have to keep your credibility.
SF: You have to keep your credibility immaculate. And if you—if you don’t know that what you’re saying is right, go find out whether it’s right before you say it. And—and I’ve stuck to that throughout all of this where I—I—I don’t do fake science. I don’t do insufficient science, meaning take—assume that an uncertainty is okay even if you don’t have to make that assumption if you can actually go find information that eliminates the need for an assumption. And so that’s pretty much what has driven me through everything that I do.
And that’s get the facts and do it right and keep your credibility up. And then if you want to be, depending on the field you’re playing in, you can play softball, you can play hardball, you can play it any way that seems to be effective. And, in almost every situation, it’s different but you’re dealing with personalities, you’re dealing with biases, you’re dealing with agenda, and yeah, so it’s in—the only common thread that I work on is get the information right first and then if they’re wrong, you figure out how to prove them wrong.
So—so it’s a—you know, I—I sort of turned sc—my science into—in—into a practical application that was…
DT: Well maybe you can apply some of that—some of that how you dealt with Deep Port is maybe one example of bringing together your interest in science, your—your access to the newspaper, and then the political aspects of that [inaudible] controversy?
SF: Yeah, we started the newspaper in 1971 and in 1972, I was in a meeting where we had the first official announcement of the idea of using the Harbor Island shipping terminal as a place to bring super tankers with imported oil, in order to support the refineries and the refining capacity in Corpus Christi. So the channel, at that time, was authorized for 45 feet deep. These tankers are—were just monsters. They’re—they were actually some of them bigger than what is sort of the run of the mill tanker now. And they—they had their own safety problems.
But in order to bring these tankers into a new—newly dredged an area they proposed to dredge out in order to have a harbor for two of these tankers at a time, they would have to deepen the Corpus Christi ship channel from offshore into Harbor Island from 45 feet to 80 feet. And my first thought about it was what are you going to do with all that dredge spoil because that’s an enormous amount of spoil. And the—the reason you get hurricane surge effects is because of the way the land funnels water.
And with all of this dr—dredge spoil, they were talking about putting it on St. Joseph’s Island just in an area that is actually—has historically been where the channel was over the last 150 years until they stabilized it at Port Aransas, a very low area that’s actually a storm surge relief and it functions as that. If water builds up in the bays, what it does rather it all having to go out the jetty channel, it cuts across this couple mile stretch of St. Joseph Island and this is so you don’t have the water all stacking up right at the junction where the relief points are either through the ship channel or straight into Port Aransas.
So, yeah, they’re—they’re dredging—dredge spoil—there was so much of it that it was inevitable that they were going to change the nature of storm surge. And so that was my first through. And, beyond that, you know, you—it doesn’t take much thinking to go to well this dredge spoil is going to go on active wetlands. So we’re going to lose a bunch of wetlands that is part of the local ecology. And then you start looking at things like the economics. What’s this going to do to Port Aransas’ reputation as a, you know, recreation spot.
And, yeah, you look at things like if it’s going to be owned by the Navigation District so im—unless there were private sector things going on, we weren’t going to get the tax because the—we were getting tax when it was owned by Exxon and Arco. And when the Navigation District took it over, in order to build Deep Port, than they would not be taxable even though they were in our city limits. So there’s a whole bunch of features that to—made the thing just m—m—in my view just totally wrong and actually really damaging to everybody.
DT: You know, I—I think I remember when similar dredging proposals were presented for Galveston Bay for the Houston Ship Channel that there was a question about saline wedges coming up and into the bay. Was that a—a concern for Deep Port?
SF: Not so much. And it’s because Nueces Bay or Corpus Christi Bay has Nueces Bay and Laguna Madre connected to it in ways where, especially for shrimp reproduction, you have to have a certain level of salinity wi—that requires some fresh water. Galveston Bay’s freshwater system is very different from the Corpus Christi Bay and our Port Aransas area. So in Galveston Bay, yeah, they were worried about saltwater intrusion because it affects shrimp and oysters. They also, if I remember right, had a major issue over, you know, what would happen if they had a fire at the m—at—at—at the me—dock area that they were proposing.
And I—I remember that there was a big argument over whether the environmental impact statement had to in—include in it or not the unlikely event of a ship fire. And that’s because they had experience with ship fires. So—and eventually that one wasn’t built—it took twelve years before Deep Port was finally shut off—the headline “Deep Port is Dead” but it took from ’72 to ’84.
DT: Well what do you think the—the death knell was for Deep Port? What—what finally [inaudible]?
SF: Well for Deep Port, first of all, there were a lot of people opposed. It was getting more expensive all the time. The Navigation District of the Port of Corpus Christi had to write an environmental impact statement which was really sadly bad. And there was a environmental impact statement public hearing where about a thousand people showed up in Corpus Christi. It went almost all night and then into next day. At the beginning, over 150 people had signed up to speak. And so it was just a long, long process.
And the Corps of Engineers—the chief engineer at the Galveston District, which was in charge of the—this area—I got know pretty well because he knew that I was the one who was sort of arranging what was going on and what was going to go on with this environmental impact statement hearing and—and getting lots and lots of people there getting really good testimony, some from graduate students at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute who I knew and—and had worked with. And so that hearing went on and on.
Then the interesting thing was the chief engineer knew at the time that there was a real problem that he didn’t even know about until a week before the hearing or just short—not—it was a few weeks. He had invited me to a preview of the draft environmental impact statement at the Corp’s office in Galveston. I went and there were port people and there were Corps of Engineers people and he was there. And we spent all day sort of reviewing the draft and there were parts of it that I knew were going to be real problematical.
But then, at the end, I was talking to him and his deputy and he was just saying well how do you think the meeting went? And I said [to the chief engineer] well, you know, pretty much what I expected except I think you have a problem. And he said what’s that? And I said where’s the pipeline from Harbor Island to the refineries in Corpus Christi? The—shouldn’t that be part of the project or are you just going to take in two million barrels of oil and let it sit there? And so he looked at his deputy and his deputy just went [shrug]. And that was the beginning of the end.
They tried to work out a way to have a pipeline but there were some m—m—very difficult issues of wetlands, you know, for that—for a pipeline going from the refinery area to Harbor Island. You—you were going to have to significantly destroy some wetlands and they never could quite get it together to do that. And in—in terms of being able to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers to do it. And, at the same time, the interest in imports was falling off and so it looked like it was going to become sort of a white elephant.
And as—so they finally in 1984 said it was dead, we’re not even thinking about it anymore. And actually some of the, yeah, m—m—people who had pushed pretty hard for it a few years later essentially thanked me for stopping it, which I felt—I felt somewhat gratified but not much. So…
DT: Well off-camera, did you tell me that—that there are proposals to bring back something analogous to Deep Port?
SF: Right. Just—just in the last year, all of a sudden, the Port of Corpus Christi is now looking to sort of reverse the flow again. You know, Harbor Island started out, as I said, with taking South Texas oil and shipping it to other U.S. refineries. Deep Port was to handle imports to support the refinery. And now just in the last year because of all the South Texas and Central Texas or North Texas oil production, they’re—the port now has the idea let’s do another deep port only this time for very large tankers to take oil out and—and to get it m—to other U.S. refineries or even into the world market.
So now they want to—they’re—they already have authorization to deepen the channel to 54 feet from 45 but now they want to go significantly more than that and the number keeps changing, depending on the kinds of ships because right now they have no customers. But so—it’s a—it’s a guess how deep the channel should have to be based on what your market’s going to be and the size of the ships that are going to meet that market. So, at this point, we know it’s a—it’s a very large increase over 54 feet. We just don’t know how—how many tens of feet beyond 54 feet.
So, once again, all the same arguments are there. There’s a group that is determined this will never happen in Port Aransas. And they use virtually all of the same arguments that I used. And—and I think they’ll—that—but included in this one is a pipeline bringing the new oil in. So it may be they have to find another fateful flaw. But there—it’s—it’s—I th—sort of horrible. And, at the same time, if you look at what was done with a portion of Harbor Island that would have been built up to twenty feet of spoil, that is now a kayak park with kayak trails through the wetlands.
And so that may be a little problem for these port developers on foot. But it’s a—it’s a state park and it gets a lot of use and no motorized beh—boats and it’s just a way to en—enjoy th—th—natural Texas wetlands and all of the ecology that’s involved.
DT: You mentioned Texas wetlands and—and, of course, Deep Port and the—the channel that would have been part of that. And—and from what I understood, you worked on other channel proposals that were for servicing oil and gas wells and maybe for other purposes. I was wondering if you could talk about some of those experiences?
SF: Yeah, what I was—what I was doing—because the Corps of Engineers is so involved in anything that goes on in wetlands and m—m—the wetlands in Texas are all managed by the Texas General Land Office. So what I was looking at was there’s—especially in—in—in—Laguna Madre—it—there’s a lot of oil and gas drilling and that had gone on and still was going on. And what I did was sign up with the Corps of Engineers to look at every notice for a dredging permit from about Aransas Bay south through Laguna Madre.
And lo—looked at those and tried to figure out which ones actually n—n—n—could be served in an alternative way to dri—dredging a new channel. And so I—I have maps of the channels all through Laguna Madre and I could place some of these permit applications where instead of taking the shortest route from the intercoastal canal and just dredging into their drill site, they could use an existing channel and just take a short jump off of an existing channel. So they dredge very much less and—and end up, you know, not just making Laguna Madre a great big Swiss cheese.
And—and, you know, dredging involves spoil disposal. Spoil disposal covers n—n—the—the grasses. Spoil disposal di—messes up the me—ecosystem tremendously, not only by covering m—important areas but also by changing circulation because there—it’s—it’s a topography rather than just a flat floor. So I would object to m—m—a—a number of these dredging proposals and do it in a way where th—I—my hope was that the Corps of Engineers would say we’ll give you a permit to do the alternative.
And that worked fairly successfully just by—just by threatening to have a hearing. And because I was entitled to call for a hearing on the permit. And hearings take a lot of time because the Corps of Engineers is a nice bureaucracy that’s not in a hurry to do anything except when they want to. And so, you know, if—if somebody wants to dredge a channel into their drilling site and you’re going to have to wait a year for a hearing on Section 40—a permit for—under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, then you got to wait a year for this.
When, if you just use the alternative, you could probably get it done in a few months. So most of the time they chose the—the more efficient way rather than playing hardball.
DT: Did—did you get involved in counting any of the maintenance dredging on the—the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway along maybe the [overlapping conversation]?
SF: Not very much on that but I did get involved with La Quinta Channel. And where they were deepening La Quinta Channel, which is the channel that goes into m—m—the—the industrial development in Ingleside. And I got involved in that because m—m—they were going to open up new spoil disposal areas for wh—in Corpus Christi Bay while they were deepening the channel, rather than using areas that they had already pretty much messed up and—but still had capacity.
They were going to do m—m—new disposal areas at—farther out into the bay on the south side of the Corpus Christi ship channel. And it didn’t look to me like it was necessary to disturb another large area of Corpus Christi Bay with dredge spoil when it wasn’t necessary. So, on that one, I had to be a little more circumspect in how I dealt with it because it was a job that the Corps of Engineers was, you know, interested in having done and we—you know, were funding. So what I did was sort of played a timing game.
I no—looked at the schedule that they wanted to do it on, where they were going to put their disposal, suggested where it ought to be instead if they’re going to do this deepening at all, and then I waited to file within the filing period that—on the notice—but I waited to file late enough to where the Corps of Engineers had been appropriated money to start that job and if they didn’t resolve this, that money would go away because we were going into a new fiscal year.
So what I did was I essentially forced them into a situation where they either had to reconsider how they wanted to do this or they were going to lose the money to begin the project. And they decided that losing the money to do the project wasn’t a good idea. So, you know, it’s just—it’s—it’s a chess game.
DT: Well maybe you can talk about some of your other chess maneuvers with other coastal issues? There—there were many but—but two that—that occur to me and maybe you can expand on this—one that would be Ixtoc and one would be Vulcanus. Could you talk about those and others?
SF: Yeah, the—the—the Ixtoc oil spill started in late ’79 and finally was capped in spring of 1980. And, at that time, it was the—the—the biggest oil spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico. And it—it—it was clear to me from when I first heard about it, that that oil was—if it—if it kept—if they didn’t cap the well right away, which they couldn’t, that oil eventually was going to get as—at—at least up the Texas coast as far as Port Aransas. And if it got to Port Aransas, chances are very good that it was going to come into the ship channel, meaning get into the bays.
So I was—I—I knew a lot of the n—charter fisherman in town, of course. I had to. And the—and they were—they had friends who were running service boats at the Ixtoc drilling site. So they were talking to their friends and I was talking to these guys and they were passing information to me about what was going on at Ixtoc. And also I was ve—following various sources that were not easy to get about where the spill actually was and what direction it was moving and how fast it was moving.
So I started m—m—publishing this information in the paper, of course, because I could see it coming. And also State Senator, Carlos Truan, the state senator at that time, I had a meeting with him and told him that I thought that it was really important that we prepare early in case that oil gets to us and it looked to me like it was inevitable that it was going to. And I suggested to him since I knew some staff people on the house—U. S. House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee—that maybe it would be a good idea to see if Carlos could get them to hold a house committee field hearing in Corpus Christi to find out just how important it was that we keep that oil out of the bays.
And so I made a couple phone calls and he picked it up from there and ran with it and we had a di—field hearing in Corpus Christi and that got the momentum up so that the Coast Guard actually was getting things together in anticipation of having to keep oil out of the channel. And there were various, yeah, people from the university community—community and science community ta—talking about di—di—different innovative things to try to do to keep the oil out of the channel.
And ultimately, I’m—I’m gratified that I instigated the thing to get going but I’m also gratified that the oil did not come in the channel because they were prepared.
DT: What were some of the preparations for oil slick coming ashore?
SF: Well we knew it was going to come on the beach. There’s no problem there. What we primarily were interested in was that it not get into the bays and the wetlands. So it was primarily fe—in the end, just working out good plans for how to use n—th—top—the—the—the top technology in oil booms to make sure that we didn’t get a flow of oil on the surface coming in the channel on high tides. And it—it took more than usual dedication on the part of the Corps—the Coast Guard to get the contract, the right contactors working, to get the money in place for the contractors to work, to in—require them to use the best technology.
And it was just—the main thing that the field hearing did was na—gave an opportunity for the importance of early preparation and also got it up on the radar of the people who were responsible for actually doing the work, primarily the Coast Guard. And so it—that—to me, it was staving off the inevitability. And—and I, in that case, used the political process. And fortunately it worked. And…
DT: Well and—and I think another controversy that drew a lot of attention was this proposal for a ocean going, hazardous waste incinerator called Vulcanus.
SF: Right. There was a company that was working out of the Netherlands that had this ship that was incinerating hazardous waste in the North Sea. And they—the Netherlands finally cancelled their permits because they were just almost constantly caught in violation of permits. So the company decided to move to the Gulf of Mexico. And they were going to m—m—work out of Mobile Bay and they were going to m—m—take their ship m—m—off of sort of the southernmost part of the U. S. coast [00:50:46] off of Brownsville.
And so they would actually be working in international waters nt—off of the U. S.—likely because it was a little closer and also probably off of Mexico. But the prevailing winds are from the southeast so whatever they did, some of that was going to get back to land, whatever, you know, was the exhaust from the incineration and they had such a bad record, they were getting caught on, you know, way too much exhaust from their incineration and there wasn’t any indication they were going to clean up their act at all.
They were just looking for a place and I think they were primarily thinking they could get by m—m—by making it look like they were working off of Mexico and when, in fact, because of the prevailing wind, it would have affected the U.S. more than Mexico probably. So the Environmental Protection Agency had to issue them permits because they were working out of a U. S. port. And the—the—so we were concerned—we ta—I had and others—we had one person who you interviewed you I think in—in 2006, Sharon Stewart, she and I were—worked together quite a bit on coastal management stuff as well as this, in particular.
And, at that time, I was working in the governor’s office for Governor Mark White on the nuclear waste issue. But th—I also was following this and Sharon and I were trying to figure out what do we do about this. And so I was able to bring it up to Mark and Governor White and make it important to him and tell him, you know, just what I thought was ju—that—that the consequence of this permit were they would never physically touch Texas other than the exhaust from their incinerator. And so he n—got interested in it.
And now he—wi—his—people in his office were instrumental in getting the archdiocese of San Antonio because—interested as well—because they handled whole—southern—or ea—ea—Eastern Rio Grande Valley. So and the archdiocese—they—Governor White and the legislature had just done them some major favors in terms of medical care. So the archdiocese was willing to return the favor. And we ended with the—the largest environmental impact statement hearing that EPA has ever had—about six thousand people in Brownsville.
And it just went on and on. And n—n—it was good for Governor White because he led a parade of people to the hearing site and the Brownsville paper—the front—half of the front page was Mark White and Jim Mattox leading a parade down Main Street to the hearing. And ultimately through, in this case, just through major, major objections from the public and good solid technical n—n—evidence that n—n—the proposal would do irreparable damage. Now eventually the permit was denied.
And—but it took a lot of noise and we were fortunately in a position where we could engineer the noise. And it made life better for a lot of people because, you know, the people in the Rio Grande Valley didn’t need any more environmental hazard than they were already living under. So it saved that from happening and I think, in that case, I don’t think anybody will ever make a proposal like that again.
DT: Well, you—you’ve mentioned a number of different things you worked on that regarded coastal resources, you know, from the Vulcanus to Ixtoc to Deep Port to zoning issues, you know, in a coastal town like Port Aransas. And—and I—I believe you also worked on a lot of fisheries issues. I know one—I think you—you were involved with shark research and protection. Maybe there’s some other topics related to fishery work.
SF: Right, yeah. The m—m—Port Aransas being a, you know, sort of a prime sport fishing area, I got interested in, yeah, making sure that it stayed that way and stayed that way for good reasons. And, you know, and using my newspaper and the fact that I could announce that I was the publisher of the Port Aransas paper. And so I got involved with the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, which was based in Tampa. But they had jurisdiction over the entire gulf. They’re the ones who, for instance, set catch and size requirements for red snapper.
And, you know, their—their whole idea or their whole purpose is to manage sustainable fisheries. And the way you manage it is by—primarily by looking at wh—wh—what is a sustainable fishery and then putting limits on catch. And, of course, the commercial people don’t like that. And the commercial people are largely the constituents of the Marine Fisheries Councils around the country. There’s the New England Council, the Southeast Council, Northwest Council and—and then the Gulf Council.
And so I started going to their meetings and making noises about protecting oh—n—n—protecting billfish from the Japanese longliners who were coming into the western gulf primarily to catch tuna and to catch giant Bluefin tuna, which have a breeding area in the northwestern gulf. And—but these are fleets that go worldwide. They follow the fish. And—but they come into the Mex—Gulf of Mexico—and they have a very large bycatch of marlin and sailfish. And that just gets thrown back overboard because it—and—and it’s dead on the line.
So and—and, you know, the sport fishing interest is that let’s catch and release marlin and sailfish. And, yeah. So here we had an industry that saw our sport fish, you know, our primary sport fish as trash fish. And so I worked pretty hard in the Fisheries Management Council to get the Japanese thrown out of the Gulf of Mexico and we eventually did.
DT: How—how would that work because I imagine some of the fishing was going on beyond the—the [inaudible]?
SF: Yeah, it was—it was all in international waters but the U.S., when it set up the n—n—concept of fisheries management, declared a 200-mile economic zone and asserted the U. S. authority and the entire Gulf of Mexico as in a 200-mile economic zone. So we asserted our authority for 200 miles away from our shores. And the Gulf of Mexico, we were able to just get rid of the Japanese longliners.
And there was a small industry that started up with U. S. shrimpers who, because shrimping is sort of an up and down business and there’s a lot of investment in a shrimp boat, U.S. shrimpers started as sort of, for a while, a relatively small fishery for swordfish longlining in the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s much more prevalent on the Atlantic Coast. And in the Gulf, they’re relatively small usually and the way swordfish are priced, the small fish don’t bring as much money as the large fish.
So the shrimpers, you know, it’s sort of a fishery of last resort sometimes but it’s not a major issue. But with the Japanese longliners, it was a major issue. So then—n—n—the reason I got involved with the shark subcommittee is because there is all over—or throughout the Gulf, there have been an ongoing decline in king mackerel. And king mackerel were not only a m—m—one of the favorite sports fish, but also a favorite commercial fish. And they were declining to the point where it looked like th—th—there were going to be regulations to limit the catch.
And the commercial guys didn’t like that. For the sport side, the idea was coming up well for the people who used to fish for king fish that aren’t going to find many, well maybe they should fish for certain species of sharks just for sport. And as soon as that idea came up, then the meeting I was in, the commercial guys jumped all over it and said oh, yeah, we’re going to go shark fishing too. And, at the time, we had virtually no information on the distribution or numbers of species of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.
We just didn’t—we didn’t know what a fishery would look like. And th—since there were other fisheries that the commercial people were much more interested in and other ways of fishing su—such as using factory ships. I n—n—n—sort of got made the head of the Shark Advisory Committee because nobody else wanted it and I didn’t really either but I felt it needed to be done and if—if anybody was going to do it, yeah, I’ll do it.
So over a period of about three or four years, we tried to figure out what sharks were there, what were available, and also find ways to d—d—discourage the u—commercial industry who knew where the sharks were that they really wanted and they were planning to just decimate that area. And the problem with sharks is they reproduce very slowly. You know, they’re—they’re not like fish that have millions of offspring to begin with and, you know, management ju—is responsible for understanding how those populations are sustainable.
With sharks, they have very few offspring, not very often. And so it occurred to me that n—n—there may be some principles to things like forest management that are more applicable to sharks than fish management. So I had, you know, I talked to some forestry people and got just some sort of general ideas about how to think about sharks different from the way we think about fish. And—and then finally, the—the shark issue sort of went away for the commercial people.
And—and part of it was because we also, nationwide, had come up with restrictions on finning sharks, meaning p—p—people catching—commercial people catching sharks just for fins to send to n—n—the Asian countries because they like shark fins. And—and so we had restrictions on that in the Gulf of Mexico. And so the—the shark thing got to be sort of less important and also by then, I had moved on to working on nuclear waste stuff and, yeah, it just not—I resigned because I didn’t think m—m—by not being there I was going to have any damage done. So…
DT: Well—well I—I’d very much like to hear of your work radioactive waste but maybe before we move on, there are a—a few stat—scattered questions I have about the fisheries industry and maybe you can help see if—if you can respond in any way. First of all, were—were—were you ever involved in the challenges in the shrimping industry because of bycatch or [inaudible] and other sea turtles?
SF: Yes, I was. And there was an effort to have shrimpers use nets that had actual chutes in the nets. It’s because th—turtles would get caught up in the nets and drown. So these were a nets—nets that were designed to actually have chutes. And, yeah, it’s—the same concept is that the—in the Pacific, the—the—the rounding up yellowfin tuna with chutes for porpoises to get out because otherwise, they were killing a lot of porpoises because the porpoise swam over the tuna and that’s what they feed on. So the idea is you m—m—give—gi—give these animals a way out.
And the Gulf Coast Shrimpers were n—n—very opposed to having to use nets with chutes. And so I worked as a consultant for them and n—n—n—to me, it was inevitable that they were going to have to do it. So m—m—I mostly tried to help them prepare for that day. And rather than spend a lot of time and they—they spent a fair amount of time trying to fight it off, realizing that it wasn’t going to happen. So n—now I have sort of helped them figure out ways to where th—they could still n—they could still make a living without having to kill so many turtles.
DT: So they, as I understood it, they—the—a lot of the shrimpers were concerned about the drag from these turtle excluder devices and the chance that one of them might swing and hit them when they pulled up their nets. Were there other concerns that they had?
SF: Mostly that they just thought that it would m—m—one way or another diminish their catch which means that they would diminish their income. And people don’t like change. And people don’t like change especially if they m—m—if they believe it’s going to harm them. And they were sincere in—in their concerns. But, at the same time, if they—if—if they hadn’t been willing to be somewhat cooperative, th—they were going to get damaged even more probably.
DT: This may be earlier in the game but I—I’d understood that it—in—in—in recent years, there’s been an interest in tradable quotas for managing fishing stocks. Was there any discussion about that at the time that you were involved with coastal fisheries in Texas [overlapping conversation]?
SF: No, it was all just accounting work, as I recall anyway, it was just working out quotas m—m— per species. Be—and looking at like the decimation of the cod on the Grand Banks and the cod and halibut. And there wasn’t an—any idea of trading. It was that here’s a species that was or a couple of species that were the backbone of the market that were literally fished out. And so n—n—trading—we didn’t discuss it but, in thinking about it, trading doesn’t necessarily bring them back.
DT: Too late.
DT: One last question with the fishing issues you dealt with. I think you’ve touched on this with—with shark fisheries, that there’s this tension between sport fishermen and commercial fisherman. And was that something that you ran across frequently?
SF: Yeah, it’s always there. And, yeah, I think there’s—there’s room for both and the—the—the commercial fishing, if managed properly, is—is—I don’t think is harmful to sport fishing at—at least in the part of the Gulf Coast that I spent my time on. And through time, that n—n—that has shown. And, yeah, the sport fishing, meaning primarily protection of re—re—redfish and speckled trout, sport fishing is good. And meaning that the—it’s—it’s not getting fished out. There are certain protections involved but there’s also room for the commercial fishery if they’re mi—willing to be conservative as well.
And through time and—I’ve—I’ve watched how the sport fishing people have n—n—improved the situation. Sometimes I think they’ve been overzealous but mi—for the most part, I think the situation is in way better shape now than it was when I was living there thirty and forty years ago. I think there’s more fish for everybody.
DT: Can you give an example of how the sports fishermen—I guess the C—you’re talking about maybe CCA and some of their work with redfish and…?
SF: Yeah, and primarily m—m—putting, for instance, size on redfish, you know, maximum size and minimum size on redfish. That’s important because you’re letting them grow up and you’re also not killing off the breeders. And, yeah, areas where, yeah, no—no motorized boats and so you’re not messing up the grassland, you know, the—the grass wetlands. And, you know, things like this and b—b—[inaudible 01:09:38] catch limits and, yeah, and I think also the—the—the effort to d—the effort to grow trout and redfish and release them I think is not a bad idea.
And so it takes a lot of—a lot of these things put together and it’s been n—like this organization’s that sort of pushed it, got together with Parks & Wildlife and eventually came up with something that maybe started out in what I would think would be overzealous but maybe finally got m—compromised out to where it works for everybody.
DT: Okay. Mr. Frishman, so when we’ve been talking over the last hour or so, you’ve been telling us about a lot of coastal issues that you got engaged with but I had said there was kind of a tipping point in your life where your interest and time really went towards more of the high level radioactive waste problems that—that the state was facing. And I was hoping that you could explain that—that segue to—to this new interest.
SF: Yeah, because I was Vice President of the Texas Environmental Coalition, there was a seat for me on the Texas Energy and Natural Resources Advisory Committees—Advisory Committee on the writing of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was an act designed to n—n—set a national policy for the m—isolation or disposal of high level radioactive waste, both the used fuel from commercial reactors and the n—waste—the liquid waste left over from nuclear weapons production by the U.S. government.
So in 1982, the m—m—congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. It was signed in January of ’83. This Advisory Committee had a—yeah, we call it m—m—TENRAC, Texas Energy and Natural Resources Advisory Committee, which is a mouthful in itself. Now the purpose of this Advisory Committee was to l—l—look at the—the couple—or more than a couple—about three years of drafting that was going on for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. And, of course, m—m—different states had different interests.
Some states didn’t advise—didn’t ha—talk to their m—congressional people at all. There were some very dedicated interests in both the house and the senate for getting some kind of a policy done. And I had earlier—a few years earlier—written comments on a draft environmental assessment for what to do with high level radioactive waste and it—looking at various disposal options and, you know, such things as shooting it into space, although, you know, that never got into the EIS. I saw a letter talking about how—sure that’s safe too. But it never got into the EIS.
But they talked about oh putting it under the ice cap in the Antarctic and [inaudible 01:13:13] sea floor di—disposal, building offshore islands for disposal. And—but ultimately it came down to the one that had been first talked about in the ‘50s by a National Academy of Science group, which is deep, geologic isolation. Find—find a right—the—the right geologic setting and since that setting theoretically or m—m—at—to the extent that we understand it, that setting hasn’t changed in millions of years.
Maybe we can put the waste in there and it’ll be just like the setting. It won’t go anywhere. And it won’t be influenced by m—m—geologic processes that haven’t influenced that site before. So anyway, yeah, working on various drafts of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, yeah, m—m—m—Bill Fisher, who is—you know, Dr. Bill Fisher who was the Director of the in—in—Texas Bureau of Economic Geology was also on that panel and he had been one of my professors when I was in graduate school so we knew each other well.
And w—w—we made the—the—the strongest points—we were involved in a lot of the political stuff that went with it too, but we were making the strongest point for you’ve got to figure out how to find good geology first and then you’ve got to figure out how to use a regulatory system to make sure that only good geology can survive in the decision process and inside screening process. So that was the place where we were making most of our moves but also there are political things like the question came up about what—n—m—given the opportunity probably every state would say no.
Nobody likes nuclear waste and nobody’s ever going to like it. So the—-so can we have a provision that would, one way or another, give the states some say in what to do. And there wa—was one concept that they started out trying to use at the government site in Carlsbad, New Mexico that’s called WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where they started out with New Mexico using a concept called Cooperation and Concurrence—no Consultation and Concurrence. That was it. And that would mean if the state didn’t concur, it wouldn’t go.
And so they started out doing that thinking they were on that track and then DOE suddenly just changed the program and said we’re doing it and didn’t want concurrence. So it quickly got shifted over to Consultation and Cooperation.
DT: So the state lost its veto power.
SF: That’s—state lost its veto power. So for this, we pretty much insisted that the states have some kind of veto power. So what they—what finally got built into it was one that was m—m—sort of window dressing and we knew it but we—we knew we weren’t going to get anything much better. And that’s that, at the time that the secretary of energy repro—recommends a single site to the president for development or repository, the governor of the state or if the legislature has the equivalent authority, can file a Notice of Disapproval with congress.
That Notice of Disapproval giving all of the reasons why the state objects to the site being developed as a repository. And then both houses of congress have to affirmatively vote to override that Notice of Disapproval before it can go to the president. And so well in Nevada, we wrote a fifty page really technically very, very tight Notice of Disapproval only for the record because we knew we were going to be overridden. And, you know, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get overridden.
But at—at least that was the best provision we could get in that even approached a veto.
DT: And that was from the Yucca Mountain site [overlapping conversation]?
SF: That was for Yucca Mountain, yeah. And—and because Yucca Mountain wasn’t recommended for development or repository until 2002. But before the Texas program, ne—this—the Texas program went from 1983 until the end of 1987.
DT: And what were some of the sites that were under consideration?
SF: In—in—in Texas, they were looking—they initially—before the Waste Policy Act even existed, they were looking at salt sites and a salt dome—two salt domes in East Texas and two sites with bedded salt in the panhandle. And this was a previous Department of Energy program where they were just kind of looking around without any real authority. And the reason that the Waste Policy Act is important in 1982 is I started to say that that Draft Environmental Impact Statement was looking at geologic disposal as the preferred option.
That was used as the ba—the policy basis or the—the—the analytical basis for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Once they—the EIS made that determination of the preferred alternative, then the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was written to implement deep geologic disposal. And so they—they, for the first time, the government actually had policy that said you’re going to try to figure out how to dispose of the waste and this is the policy procedure that you’re going to follow.
And ss—so th—there were previous—there was a previous government program or a few previous pr—government programs where, you know, they were looking at sites, they did the usual for the Department of Energy—didn’t tell anybody they were doing it until they got caught and then got thrown out. So in the—in looking at the an—a new program just prior to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, they actually were letting n—states know that we’re at least interested in looking at these sites. That doesn’t mean anything’s going to happen but we’re interested in looking at these sites.
The reason that were looking at salt in Texas is because n—n—back in 1957, the National Academy of Sciences convened a group of m—m—physical scientists, social scientists, and a few sort of other generalists and came to the conclusion that—that old salt deposits are at least one po—good possibility for how to isolate the waste because if the waste is going to get removed to the environment, it’s mostly likely going to happen in water. And if you have these old salt deposits, that means there’s no water or they would have dissolved already.
So th—these salt deposits themselves aren’t impacted by water so your—the mechanism for moving the waste out to the environment isn’t there and the salt—the fact that the salt is there proves it. So Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi all have m—m—salt deposits. So salt domes were being looked at in Texas and the bedded salt—the bedded salt became much preferred in Texas of the—before the Waste Policy Act even passed, the salt domes were gone. But they were looking at a dome in Louisiana and two domes in Mississippi.
And but with Nuclear Waste Policy Act, what we had set up is that you have to look at other geologic types as well—other rock types as well.
DT: Well, we—while you’re talking about the—the domes, were the domes dismissed because of the possibility of oil and gas development later on or storage in those domes?
SF: I think it was—I think it was mostly m—m—that they’re attractive for oil and gas development. And I’m not sure about the ones that they looked at, whether, in fact, they had not already been—had some drilling activity. But—so I—I wasn’t working on the project directly at the time that the domes went away so and—and the bedded salt in Deaf Smith and Swisher County was at a depth that they thought was okay of—which was about three thousand feet. And what they sort of discounted was that they were going to have to drill through the Ogallala Aquifer to get there.
And, yeah, they—they thought they could do it. And the people in the panhandle were smart enough to know that it’s—it’s—if you can do it, it’ll be a real surprise because it is a real risk and we—we can’t live without the Ogallala Aquifer being pristine because that supports all the farming. And Deaf Smith County at that time was the second richest agricultural county in the country. The first was in Colorado because of a bunch of feed lots. So—so for—just for—oth—other than n—n—feed lots, de—Deaf Smith County was the top on, you know, just ground production. And…
DT: And I guess a lot of that was supported by groundwater from the Ogallala.
SF: All of it. It—they couldn’t have farmed it without the groundwater. So th—the—the—the salt was somewhat attractive. We learned some things to—about salt later that made it much less attractive. But n—n—the salt was pretty well described already because there had been enough oil and gas exploration to where they knew—they—they knew the geologic setting quite well. So DOE decided they—th—this is where it’s going—this is where it—at least in the screening process—this is where we’re going to start with these two counties.
And the Nuclear Waste Policy Act had a screening process that started with what they called potentially acceptable sites. And it turned out that they named nine potentially acceptable sites. And they only named them because they inherited them from the previous program before the Waste Policy Act passed. And it was two sites in Texas, one in Louisiana, two in Mississippi, two in Utah, one in Nevada, and one in the state of Washington.
But under the Waste Policy Act, whatever number of potentially acceptable sites, the first step in the screening process was to narrow it down to nomination of five sites, meaning they had to do a statutory environmental impact statement for each of the five sites. And the five sites were Washington, Nevada, one in Utah, one in Texas, and one in Mississippi.
And it was funny when I—when the program was just beginning to start and I was, at that time, working m—for TENRAC as an employee from, you know, working on the state’s oversight of the program, I got a call from the siting director in—from DOE in the Forrestal Building in Washington and he said we’re just kind of sounding things around. What would you think if we left Louisiana off the list? And I said you have to ask me what I would think. [laughing] And so it—it didn’t get thrown off the list.
But the—this is, you know, this is just months after the act passed and they’re already looking for ways to cheat. And it’s because th—there had actually been n—n—on—m—m—well an election was going on, the 82 election was going on, there had actually been sort of a promise. If they supported—if Louisiana supported Reagan, they’d take the site off the list. And we found a telegram that said that. And so, of course, we exposed it right away, which means they had to retract. But—but—so anyway, that’s sort of the way it went.
But the process of the act is you nominate the five sites out of how many potentially acceptable you have. And you do a statutory environmental assessment for each one of those where it’s not the environmental assessment that you would expect under the National Environmental Policy Act but it’s an environmental assessment where the act laid out what it had to include. So it was sort of an abbreviated statement and no alternatives were allowed. You—you write a n—write a book for each one of these sites and if it was DOE had to sort of make them all competitive, you know.
Every one could be the best site. So after that part and hearings on those in—environmental assessments, then the next step in the process is three sites are—of those five—are nominated for detailed site characterization, meaning every one of those three sites is characterized to the point where it—you have enough information to take it to a license application from the NRC, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for development of a repository. So the idea was by the time you got down to the three, chances are, out of those three, you might find at least a hierarchy, some, you know—one is better than another is better than another.
And—and also understanding that if a site got to that position and if it was sort of a hierarchy in the sites, then if the president made a selection decision that was somewhat shaped by politics, at least you’re starting out with what people think might be a pretty good site. So these are the kinds of compromises we’re having to make when we were working on advising the—the congressional delegation on writing the act, trying to build in these kinds of safeguards that at least were politically attainable in getting an act passed. So that’s sort of the way it went and that’s how Deaf Smith County ended up as one of the three sites.
And because the act required that generic guidelines for site selection be promulgated as a rule before site selection started, you know, before site screening started, meaning we had the potentially acceptable site but before you even do the nomination of five, you have to have n—n—siting guidelines—they’re called Site Recommendation Guidelines that actually had qualifying and disqualifying conditions for sites in the screening process. That was all done by representatives of all of the states that were involved with those nine potentially acceptable sites.
So we had meeting after meeting with the Department of Energy, negotiating out these n—siting conditions that were both [inaudible 01:29:51] technical, hydrologic, and also socioen—socioeconomic. But—and the act required, and this was something we worked very hard to get in—required that these conditions be qualifying and disqualifying conditions. We had to have conditions that said if that’s there, that site is gone.
DT: Well were there some disqualifying conditions that applied in the case of the High Plains sites?
SF: We thought so. That’s part of what we—what we—we negotiated in.
DT: Well [inaudible] could you describe those?
SF: The—the—the primary one, if I recall, was that we were concerned about the Ogallala. And we were concerned that there would be pathways created by constructing the repository through the Ogallala that could actually have waste come back through diffusion, through just a connection with a land surface. We also had a lot of n—n—n—socioeconomic problems in terms of disruption of the n—the base economy. And so we were, you know, we were—we were pushing in developing these guidelines—pushing for things that, if they became disqualifiers, would work for us.
And we—w—we didn’t have n—any that were, based on what we knew about the site at the time, which was not very much, we didn’t have any that we thought were just dead killers because we really didn’t have any in any of the sites, but we had things that we thought with fo—more data collection would become disqualifying.
DT: Was there any sort of disqualifying aspect to just the reputation of—of the High Plains as an agricultural area because of the risk that something might leak and might con—contaminate the food that’s being grown there?
SF: We spent—we spent years in Texas and then again in Nevada trying to make stigma a—an acceptable n—screening issue. And the Department of Energy constantly refused to allow that. And—and I even did—for the Deaf Smith site—I even did a survey internationally on the effect that having the repository in Deaf Smith County at the location where they wa—wanted to, which was on the n—Richardson Seed Farm, which is a—a seed farm that supplies n—the—sort of the—the first run of genetically produced seeds.
They—they’re responsible for hard red wheat that’s used ev—everywhere. Th—they developed that strain of wheat. And so I did a survey of people who buying—buying seed in North and South America and just asked them if you knew that your seed came from an area like this, what would you do? And, you know, without trying to ch—trying to chill the system at all, just figuring out ways to ask the question without it—with—without it having a market impact just that I asked and we worked out—we worked with some professionals to try to figure out how to ask those.
And it turned out yeah, people did care. You know, the buyers of seed did care. And so we tried to use that and never got anywhere with it.
DT: What were some of the—the arguments that did seem to have some strength and—and effect against those waste repositories in—in the Texas area?
SF: Well on—one of them that shows just how ridiculous the Department of Energy is when they’re trying to do something like this is the—the quality of crops in Deaf Smith County, at that time—I’ve told you this, you know, the highest—second highest agricultural producing in the country—the quality of the crops were respected everywhere and—and primarily n—n—sorghum, sugar beets, grain, and su—you know, some—a good part of the grain was going into organic production.
And so we were concerned that not only would the stigma be there which, you know, we wouldn’t allow us to talk about. We were also concerned that this thing is going to be mined in salt. And so when they bring the mi—salt out, they got to pile it up somewhere. So we’d end up with a big salt deposit on the ground surface. And with irrigation farming, salt buildup is your biggest problem because you’ve—you’re spraying water on, it’s evaporating and it’s leaving salts behind. So th—they have to go to great pains to m—mitigate their salt problems in irrigation.
So here you’re intentionally putting this massive pile of salt out on the ground where, you know, it gets rained on and it sort of runs around. It—n—n—surface fractures in this hot sun so it blows around. So you end up throwing salt on sort of a undefined, large area that otherwise is top quality agricultural production and has been for years and will continue to be for years. So we confronted DOE with, you know, you’re going to contaminate this [inaudible 01:35:41] protuctive—productive agricultural area with salt just because you don’t want to haul it away and which they had refused to do.
So the—and we said, you know, what are you going to do? Why won’t you mitigate? They said well we don’t have to. If the far—if the salt really becomes a problem, why don’t the farmers grow spinach instead because it’s salt tolerant. That was their answer. And so that—that gave us things to work with if—not just attitude building.
DT: Well and was—was part of the—I guess the argument against the—the sites in—in Texas political? Were you getting some support from—from the local farmers that—that was…?
SF: No. M—m—when I was director of the program, I made a few decisions, yeah, that, yeah, wi—with the concurrence of the [inaudible 01:36:41]. What I did when I came in as director was I gave him n—three options, yeah, on how we would face this because under the Waste Policy Act, the state is responsible for oversight of the federal program. And the state, yeah, gets grants to do that. So I was operating under a federal grant to the State of Texas to oversee the Federal Nuclear Waste Program and especially as it’s being done in Texas.
So when I, yeah, became director of the program with Mark White, I gave him three options about how w—w—how—how to deal with this on a policy level. One of them, of course, was be cooperative. One of them, of course, was be in opposition to the—or be opposed to the extent of working within lawful manner. And the other one was remain neutral for the time being and make some decision about your stand at some time in the future when we know more about what’s happening.
And my recommendation and, you know, I included my recommendation with it—and my recommendation was to oppose to the lawful extent. And it took Mark about three blinks of an eye to check that box. So—so that’s where—that’s where we started. And because we were using federal money, there were some constraints on it and we had fights with the Department of Energy about how we could spend that money. Well they naturally were trying to limit our ability to use the money for things that they didn’t think were supportive of their program.
And Nevada actually went to court and won a case over that one at one point.
DT: Can you give some examples of things that—that the state wanted to do because they might weaken the case for having waste repositories in Texas?
SF: Well—well the way—the—the first place it really started was the Department of Energy, whenever, in our gr—wi—annual grant applications, whenever we proposed a research project that was not one that was in DOE’s agenda for research, they refused to fund it. And so, you know, any time we wanted to do any research other than what they thought would help their case, they just refused to fund it. I got to the point one time when I was doing an interview for our annual grant in—in D.C. and I was there representing the state myself.
The m—m—DOE n—grant program manager was there. He had five of his, you know, sort of second tier technical people and they shot down every project that I had in my grant. And d—I asked them why and they gave me that reason. And I got up and said until you change your ways, you’re not seeing me again but I’m after you. And so about a month later, they approved all of my stuff and because, you know, I was announcing to people that they were treating us in a way that where were could not fulfill our duty under the Act and something had to break somewhere.
And my first move was to walk out and advertise to everybody else why—why—why I walked out. And so this is the kind of hardball you had to play with them.
DT: Well ca—can you talk a little bit about why the—the news—nuclear waste repositories were eventually cancelled in Texas?
SF: Right. In—in following the screening process, at—in—when the process was first designed and the act passed in ’83, it was thought that if you go through the screening process and get to three sites that are recommended and candidate sites, that each one of them would cost about eighty million dollars to do the site characterization, meaning the detailed work that could bring you up to being able to write a license application.
By the time we got to 1986—that was in 1983—by the time we get to 1986, it was estimated that each one of those sites would take maybe a billion dollars per site to characterize, maybe even more. And it—so—and that was at the same time they were looking at all of the environmental assessments for the five sites. So that—that price came up while those environmental assessments are being looked at.
So, in 1987, the n—n house person who was m—m—most involved in di—writing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Udall, wanted to, at the recommendation of some of us who were running state programs, let’s have a moratorium here and—on siting before we get down to the three to find out whether these m—assessments are actually honest assessments and whether any of them have a chance to advance other than just on a b—b—bloody political battle basis. So he got fifty sponsors—co-sponsors—for that bill.
In the senate side, there were a couple senators who said well, really, a billion dollars for each site is way too much. Can’t we just select one site first, characterize it, and see if it’s okay. And if it—if by some chance it’s not—wink, wink—then we’ll characterize another one. And so these two very different positions were passed—house and senate. So it went to a Conference Committee. Nobody from Nevada was on the Conference Committee. Th—we had—in Texas, we had the very strong support of Jim Wright, who was then Speaker of the House.
Now, the State of Washington had Tom Foley as the—I think the whip. And, yeah, Texas had—well—well Jim Wright. And so the—the three sites that would have come up and Nevada had nothing. So we have Washington, Texas, and Nevada are the three sites that were going to go to the next stage primarily because they were all different rock types. And it was a—sort of a rigged system that way. And Nevada had nobody in any power—any position of power at all in the congress. We only had two senators and one rep.
And so Te—at that time, Texas I think had 27 house members. Washington had 16. And so they go into the conference and somebody in their this—said well, we’re going to just go with one site and we’re going to go with Nevada, aren’t we? And everybody said yeah.
DT: Okay. So—so we—we’ve been discussing the—the whole discussion and—about siting a nuclear waste repository in Texas and in Washington and in Nevada. And it sounds like a decision was made. And—and then that was at the federal level but then there’s some personal decisions that were made in your case.
SF: Right. The ve—in 1987, congress passed the amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which named the n—site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the only site to be n—n—studied for a license application. And, at the time, everybody knew that it was a political decision. There was no question about it. There were—there wasn’t anybody in the room to say no. And it immediately n—n—got named by the people in Nevada as the—the screw Nevada decision. And—and yeah, that’s what it’s still called.
But I got into the—the whole n—n—nuclear thing in—in Texas partly because of that first EIS that I reviewed as part of the de—Texas Environmental Coalition. And then after n—the—the Waste Policy Act was sort of on the way, yo—yo—Bill Fisher, who was the Director of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, asked me to come to work for him in about 1980 and a little—and a little later. And what he wanted me to do is he had a contract with Battelle Memorial Institute that had a contract with DOE to study the salt sites in Texas.
And so he had a n—n—he was doing technical work, first on the n—n—salt domes that then went away and then the—the bedded salt and that geologic setting. And n—n—Bureau of Economic Geology was doing that work and in order to n—n—do it n—n—the way that would be sufficient to be used in a license application eventually. They have to apply what’s called qu—a quality assurance program. And it’s not just sort of a m—m—m—you know, be—be careful type program.
It’s a defined program that applies to the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. So it’s nuclear quality assurance that has to be applied to, you know, science—site characterization type science. And geologists don’t work like engineers and geologists sort of have their own way of keeping track of their information and analyzing it and tracing one step to the next. Nuclear quality assurance requires a very careful documentation of everything that is done.
And the scientists working for the Bureau of Economic Geology were very uncomfortable with this, how—being dictated to about how to do science because they’re all good scientists but they’re—they’re not used to following somebody else’s rules that they don’t think should apply to them. So because I knew from graduate school most of the people who were doing this work, Bill after me—asked me to come in and try to put together a quality assurance program that the scientists could live with and would also be acceptable in the grant and, you know, for receiving the grant money.
And so di—I became—I went to n—n—n—training of—for first a Nuclear Quality Assurance Inspector and then for the next level up—a supervisor. So th—so I learned nuclear quality assurance from the people who teach it to everybody in the nuclear industry. And then came back to the Bureau of Economic Geology and tried to build a program that the scientists were comfortable with, we could track to make sure that it was consistent with what ne—they needed to do and, at the same time, provided us the traceability of everything that the bureau was doing.
And we worked out a method that worked pretty well and was at least satisfactory. And, at least for part of it, it’s keeping track of samples that are taken, you know, physical core samples and water samples and so on. And it must have been pretty good because when DOE started a serious nuclear quality assurance program for their sample facilities and for their samples, they adopted the program that we put together and hired two of the people who worked for me. So it became DOE’s quality assurance program for—for the sample work. So it must have been good enough.
And we—we—we actually got the—the scientists to not complain and do the work. They were never actually n—n—you know, happy but, at the same time, it w—wasn’t a cause of contention that affected the quality of their work. And that’s was—that was the purpose.
DT: And—and so was this a—a kind of protocol that you took on when you moved to—to work on the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada?
SF: No, once we—once we set that up, that, you know, didn’t need to do anymore. And, by then, the Waste Policy Act had—when I did this for Bureau of Economic Geology, by then the Waste Policy Act had passed and TENRAC was going to be the state oversight organization with the federal money. But TENRAC was in trouble in the legislature. And actually TENRAC got unfunded and—very shortly after I had a position at TENRAC to be working on the High Level Waste Program.
So TENRAC disappeared and the state still had an obligation to do this so they moved me as director of the Nuclear Waste Programs Office into the governor’s general counsel office. And so that’s where we did the state’s oversight out of that office because—partly because there was space available and partly because I could be in a general counsel office and work specifically on this issue without having to become involved or without it being required that I be involved as part of just his environmental staff.
I could dedicate-because I had dedicated federal money, I could do just that part. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do other stuff in the governor’s office but—but the—it worked out pretty well. But, yeah, I was segregated from them. The reason that I—my office ended up with the Department of Public Safety has nothing to do with anything really. The—Mark White’s governor’s office had a total of 212 people in it. There were members of the legislature that were screaming that that’s too many. So it got negotiated down to where he could have 200 people.
So I was—my office was—a total of five people—was moved to the Department of Public Safety—we still stayed in the general counsel’s office [inaudible 01:52:32] public safety administered my federal money and I answered to Mark White. So it was just purely shift—political shift. It had nothing to do with what we were doing at all. It had to do with how the state’s oversight program was managed within the—the state’s sort of legislative politics.
DT: Well you—you’ve done such a good job of describing the activity at—both at the state and the federal level regarding the Texas nuclear repositories. And—and I was hoping that you could give us just maybe five minutes or so about your many years after you left Texas when you went to Nevada and worked on Yucca Mountain. And then we’ll try to wrap it up with a few questions after that. They’re more general, if you don’t mind.
SF: Okay. Well once it was clear that Texas was no longer going to be involved in the High Level Waste Program, it was just going to be, you know, m—m—closing it out, because I had worked with people representing the other states that were involved as m—as nominated sites and either—ev—even earlier, I—I knew people in all of these states. And sp—when Nevada was going to be chosen, I knew the—my equivalent for the State of Nevada who ran the Nevada Oversight Program, I knew the governor of Nevada pretty well because he was both hands in on m—m—nuclear waste not being in Nevada.
And I knew a former governor who was sort of the head of making sure that the state was doing y—you know, the things needed. He was sort of the—our—our public affairs person on opposing Yucca Mountain and very—very, very bright old gentlemen who’d been—he was the governor who pretty much kicked them out—out of Nevada. And so in—back in—way back. He’s a real nice guy. And so I knew all of these people and the director of the program said well, you’re, you know, you’re done. And, yeah, n—n—n—n—he said, would you like to come to Nevada and work for us as a contractor?
And because they knew I didn’t want to be a state employee. And so I agreed to do that and that was 31 years ago. And—and w—w—we thought the i—the idea was if we have killed it pretty quick in Texas, maybe we can kill it pretty quick again in Nevada. And that was our whole point. And but once they thought they had Nevada and they had absolutely no alternatives, it was just a tug of war game ever since. And, at the time that I went to work for m—m—m—Bill Fisher was when—in about 1980—was when I sort of had to make a decision.
Was I going to continue with the nuclear waste thing or was I going to in—continue with essentially being—working as a consultant and looking at coastal and environmental issues. And I guess, at that point, th—maybe I was starting to burn out on the coastal stuff after all that time. But I did—was looking at the nuclear waste thing just at the beginning. I had an interest in it that had to do with, once again, just as with Deep Port, governmental agency on the verge of making an irreversible, very large error.
And fi—figured that th—the coastal stuff, other people are working on it all the time. They, you know, I had won a couple pretty big issues. Other people understood the issues were, you know, there was constituencies for a lot of it. So I figured the nuclear waste thing is sort of new and I know an awful lot about it so maybe I should—I can’t do both because I just don’t have room in my head for both. So I decided, okay, this nuclear waste thing I know is not going to be easy but I know an awful lot about it and I know for sure that DOE is the bad guy in the game.
They don’t know how to play fair and—even when there are rules that try to force them to play fair. They also rely on political decisions, whether they’re in—in—in the safe—whether they’re safe political decisions or not, they rely on the ro—political decision and worry about safety later. So that—I—I sort of—when I went to work for the Bureau of Economic Geology, I made the decision that I’m going to go on with this because I know too much about it to throw away.
DT: And it sounds like you—you brought with you when you moved to Nevada a—a skill for—for identifying the—the weak link, the fatal flaw that might slow or stop a project. And I—I think David had a question related to that kind of strategy.
DW: Well it’s two questions. The first is, as we hear about your string of accomplishments in working with big administrations, you worked for agencies, you’re not an outside person that’s a member of the Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund. You’re working within the system. We’ve interviewed hundred people—hundreds—a lot of times, they don’t meet with success—that’s what frustrates them when they leave to go work for the Sierra Club because they find themselves unable to move the issues, especially if it means opposing big business and monetary interests. Yet when we hear your story starting with the coastal issues, oil refineries, fishing industry, somehow within agencies you’re able to move in that positive or a direction that satisfies you scientifically and politically without having to run into those brick walls that cause so many others to just bail on it. Now maybe it was a great time in Texas and Mark Wright was the great progressive governor and you happened to fall in a lucky period of time, although that would have had to been a very long period of time, what might you attribute your ability to move along your career in that way from inside the system, making a change that frustrates so many others? And you can address the answer to—to David.
SF: Well I started out working outside of the system. And I think that I was in—I think it was an important decision to make because I learned that you can manipulate the system just by making them have to live by their own rules or making them have to have rules to live by. And so I started out—and one of the things you had asked me about was—or at one point was, you know, did my family support on this. They supported me to the extent that the whole time I was working out of the system, they were willing to be pretty poor and eat a lot of fish and shrimp on the island that we didn’t have to buy. [laughing]
So that was—that was their support mostly. But no, I—I—and then I got into the system with—like being in the Coastal Marine Council—that’s considered an institution and I did stuff with Ash—with the—the, you know, Gulf Fisheries Management Council. That’s, again, an institution. So m—after being on the outside, I used m—my outside persona, I guess you could call it, and reputation, to get on the inside to the extent that I could try to make them do the same things I was trying to make them do from the outside.
And one of the reasons that other state agencies, you know, just hated me and—when I was in Mark White’s office and the agency that I’m consulting to now in—in Nevada is pretty much is hated is because we live by our own rules. We have—we have a n—n—a stated position that is supported by the legislature and we’re not—we’re not the bureaucrats who think we’re going to be there forever and we can just sort of get by in the system and you have to get along to get by and if you get promoted, that’s good. Our job is to work ourselves out of a job.
And we do that by, as I said earlier, any lawful means. So—and so that’s—you know, I—I—I—I learned it on the outside and then exercised it on the inside.
DT: So—so, in other words, it’s almost like judo in a way. I mean, you’re—you’re—you’re I guess persuading or—or—or pressing the—the bureaucracy to live by its own rules and maybe kill some of these projects just following the letter of the law, the—the absolute requirements under the regulation.
SF: Yeah, and I—I call it three-dimensional chess.
DT: Fair enough.
DW: I have a second.
DT: Yeah, please. Follow up, David.
DW: And the second question would be—is it’s—you had mentioned earlier, at the start, something about maybe the best way to succeed with these is it’s easier to stop something than to promote something. And somehow your reputation is such that you’re [inaudible] not to make something happen but somehow you’ve become the expert in not making something happen. Could you talk a little bit about how that fits into the trajectory of your career?
SF: Yeah, I think it goes back to what I was saying about applying facts. And if I n—n—look at a project and often the place where you can—I mean, you’ll sort of finally make a decision about a big project is looking at the Draft Environmental Impact Statement when it gets to that stage. Yeah, you know, before that if I don’t like it, well so what, I don’t like it. But—and I can see all kinds of things and what I’m doing is preparing myself to look at the environmental report.
And one of the things that has turned out to be really important and, in fact, m—with my newspaper being the proponent of all of the work that we did against Deep Port, at one time, I brought in an intern of—where he was from Antioch College. Antioch College has this five-year, at that time, had a five-year program and one year of that five years was an internship. This guy had an uncle who lived in Corpus Christi so he was interested in the Texas Coast so I brought him in.
And the—what I was doing with him was the thing that nobody ever learns when they go to school and that’s they teach you how to write an Environmental Impact Statement and—but they don’t teach you how to read one. So I spent the summer with him working with him on how to read Environmental Impact Statements. And he also produced sort of a—a pamphlet for our Deep Port stuff too, which was so I’d have something tangible that he could show his m—people in school that he had done.
But it was primarily n—n—getting him to the point where he understood how to read it so he could pass it on to his classmates in college because it’s—m—m—most of the time the problems with a project in an Environmental Impact Statement are in what the statement does not say. So you have to sort of keep a scoreboard of when they—when they say this is this which leads to this, say well you forgot that step.
DT: So it’s omissions more than errors?
SF: Yeah, right. And you have to look at it for what it does not say. And this is—this—this becomes on—on big projects, this becomes the—the really important thing because that’s where the killers are.
DT: Sort of like the pipeline in Deep Port.
SF: Sort of like the pipeline because they couldn’t—they couldn’t approve that project without a pipeline under the National Environmental Policy Act because you can’t piecemeal a project for analysis. So—so it’s—and this is a hard lesson to learn. And one of the things that n—n—goes with it is you have to n—have a mindset where either you can di—have a near photographic memory when you’re reading these things and just, you know, m—m—put little signals on it so—so you know how to get back to it or take really time-consuming, careful notes, whichever way you work.
But, in the end, that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for what’s missing. And that has served me very well.
DT: Well clearly. Well I think we’re drawing to the close here and—and towards the end of—of interviews we often ask a few questions that are pretty standard. And I hope you might help us there. The first is do you have a favorite spot in nature that you enjoy visiting and—and could you describe it and explain why it appeals to you?
SF: Well, I’ll go back to my time in Texas because that’s what’s relevant to you and the people of Texas. And I think the place where I used to go when I needed to just sort of stop and think was the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. And just because I like to see the—that type of ecosystem working so well together. And it’s and I’m—I’m surprised and proud that the country thinks it deserves to have something like that. So—so that was—that’s just a good spot for me.
DT: Sure. Big, intact piece of coastal marsh and full of I guess whooping cranes and other—other species.
SF: Yeah, just a little—it’s as it would be without man.
DT: Well a—another question we frequently ask is—is do you have some sort of advice for younger people who might be interested in conservation that, you know, that can learn from your experience and insights?
SF: Yeah, just and it’s maybe more necessary now just in the past couple years than ever and that’s that we—m—m—people in my generation have worked for years for the environmental regulatory principles that have developed over time and it has not been easy. It takes a long time to g—g—get the things that is—that work. And y—y—the—what young people need to do I—and—I think is they’re developing and are interested in conservation, natural resources, environmental issues—they need to make sure they understand what in the last two years and for at least the next two years, is going to be taken away from us, in terms of environmental regulation and just the—the attitude that environmental regulation is necessary.
And so for young people, I think it’s important to le—learn what we had in order to understand what we’re losing and in order to try to do as I said before, use the existing authorities that are out there to try to make sure, in this case, here I am stopping something again, make sure we don’t lose what we already have. And so that’s—I would in—and that sort of goes to if you’re an activist, you need to know your material and you need to know it very well and you need to know when somebody else is trying to fool you and have facts enough to make sure to stop that as well.
So that’s, yeah, we’re—in—in the nuclear waste stuff, most of us are around my age and we’re out there looking for young people. And what’s happening is young people are coming in on some of the new nuclear issues but on the one where n—n—n—the old folks like me seem to have captured the territory. So far, we’re having a hard time bringing young people in mostly because it’s n—d—n—d—it’s such an experiential thing where they’re—th—there’s n—n—a snake under every rock and—and we know where they are.
For young people, th—they can have—yo—you know, they’re—they’re used to sort of quick gratification on things. So, you know, it’s a problem. Let’s fix it. Well until you know the depth of the problem, you can’t understand or accept the idea that you probably can’t fix it. And with high level nuclear waste is one of those where you probably can’t fix it but that doesn’t mean you should make irreparable mistakes with it. So I think young people are sort of impatient with just what’s happened over thirty years with high level nuclear waste because if you weren’t there, you really don’t get it.
And what we’re hoping is that, in the pretty near future, if we can kill off the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, meaning that Yucca Mountain is no longer a site, we can maybe try to rebuild a system that is at least sensitive to what we have learned over thirty years and sensitive to maybe a new set of priorities and the need for how to ke—keep people safe from high level nuclear waste. And there are other ideas that come out if you don’t have Yucca Mountain being the only alternative.
So that’s where we’re looking for—maybe not on the high level waste stuff but for many other things. There’s a place for young people right now and it mostly has to do with learning, learning what we have done, what we have, and what, without resistance, we’re not going to be able to keep, in terms of progress in conservation, environmental protection, and, yeah, just essentially quality of life as best we can in an age where we recognize that climate change is going to change everything. And they will be living with it. I won’t.
DT: Well you’ve taught us a lot. Is—is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap it up?
SF: No, I think that—that—that last is pretty much the plea for the young people. We need them.
DT: Well thanks for putting in a good pitch there. And I appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
SF: Okay, well, thank you.
[End of Interview with Steve Frishman – November 16, 2018]