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Terry O’Rourke

INTERVIEWEE: Terry O’Rourke (TO)
DATE: October 2, 1999
LOCATION: Houston and Pasadena, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REELS: 2030, 2031, and 2032

Please note that reel 2030 includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd with the Conservation History Association of Texas and it’s October 2, 1999 and we’ve got the good luck and fortune to visit with Terry O’Rourke who’s a environmental lawyer, prosecuting attorney in an earlier incarnation and all round conservationist. Pleasure to be with him. Thank you very much for spending today with us.
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TO: Bienvenido al Jardin de Esperanza. Me llamo Terry ‘El Tigre’ O’Rourke, abogado de la gente. Esta es mi jardin y mi officina. [Welcome to the Garden of Hope. My name is Terry “The Tiger” O’Rourke, lawyer for the people. This is my garden and my office.]
DT: Where are we right now?
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TO: This is my law office and it’s my home also and I call it the Jardin Esperanza because it is the Garden of Hope and it is part of who I am and what I do. It—it is a manifestation of the life I want to live in the 21st century. So what about it? Why would a guy practice law in a garden? Maybe that’s what you ask. I came to the view early on about that there was something about—that the table wasn’t even in terms of the environment and I’ve been doing that for a long time but, just in the last few years, I came to an understanding that what is wealth and what is health? What is the movement all about? So I teach also here in this garden. I teach a high school class on environmental science from Austin High School and the way I teach the kids is I ask them this question like, how many cells do you have in your body? Do you know? Does anybody know how many cells you have in your body? It’s about a trillion. There’s not a real good count. How many microorganisms do you have in your body? Well you have more than a trillion. That is to say that you have more onboard visitors in a colony than you do cells. So your health is really connected to how healthy are your microorganisms. Like what keeps you free of disease? See one of the questions. Is it because you take pills or you eat well? Yeah, yeah but mostly because you invite into
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your system beneficial organisms. Ever think about that really? What is health? Well you think about it like when you go to Mexico and you—and you get tourista, dysentery, something like that and somebody says well hey, you got a bad bug. Right. Well you literally did get a bad bug and most of the time you’ve got really good bugs inside of you that have like elbows and they say hey man, stay out of here. This is our place. If you die, these bugs will go somewhere else. They are independent of you but you cannot live without them. So what is being healthy about but having healthy microorganisms in you, not just in your stomach and in your intestine and in your mouth but also in your brain. You have microorganisms all over your body. That’s what organic gardening is all about. It’s having—having microorganisms that are healthy. That’s why Miracle Grow or all these commercial fertilizers are like poison. It’s like pouring refined sugar on your—on—on your plants. Yeah, they’ll bloom but it kills the soil. So if you were a wealthy person, if you had a hundred million dollars, what would you have around you? You would have healthy microorganisms. You would have the manifestation about your home and your office of the health of life that would be there to say, stay out to the pathogens. Kind of like the canaries in the coal mine in the old days. They used to bring canaries down into coal mines, you know, because then they know the gasses were bad. Well all of these plants and animals out here in this habitat are like the canaries in my coal mine in one sense. Like if they get sick there’s something going on here but the other side of it is they are vibrant in beauty. And I really believe, I really believe that the call of the 21st century for us, as environmentalists, as conservationists, is being in beauty and that that’s the call, the allurement, that’s going to bring people out of this ecological
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holocaust that we’re in. So personally, for me, why am I here? Why am I here on the banks of Bray’s(?) Bayou in Houston, Texas in a suburban house practicing law out of my home? Because I found it impossible to go to the law office. A year and a half ago I—I had an office in the Galleria in a glass building, beautiful glass building. Right, you know, and I’d go in there in the morning and it was nice. They had, you know, lovely spaces and all that but I found more and more—I felt like I was in a glass—a glass incubator of some kind. I mean, it was a nice area. People were well dressed. They had good food at Eatsie’s(?) and places like that. Gourmet food around but I felt like I was checking myself into prison every day when I’d go to the office. And I found that I could be more productive working right out here in the garden at my own table in the backyard and I had a computer and a modem and a—everything else. And so I would say hey, I’m working at home this morning. They’d say oh fine Mr. O’Rourke. And then finally I found I wasn’t going in the office at all and suddenly I was practicing law in the Jardin Esperanza.
DT: Can you show us your garden?
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TO: Oh yeah. I’d be happy to. Like…
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TO: And so I started thinking about, what is all this life about here, about me? So I would take things like I would have pineapple, you know. I’d eat a pineapple I’d buy at the store and I’d cut the top off of it and plant it. And pineapples are bromeliads. I’ve got lots of bromeliads because, hey, I’m a typical Houston guy who loves, you know, Central American plants. But not every bromeliad is a pineapple but look at this. Nobody ever told me you could grow pineapples in Houston but this is my second year of these crops and they are delicious and sweet and wonderful and grown in all organic soil and it’s not Hawaii but it is Houston, Texas. And I’ve discovered that there’s so many things like if you take a look here. I used to feed the birds, you know, bird seed and the bird seed came from New York City or something. But they would actually be grown in Iowa and then shipped to some place in New Jersey and then be shipped to Home Depot or Builder’s Square and I’d buy it on sale. So I’ve started planting the bird seed and so what I have here is millet. And the birds just love it. If you take a look at—the same kind of millet that I have in my cereal or the same kind of millet so I get—trying to create in a—in a—my own way a habitat that’s rich compared to the St. Augustine grass that I grew up in. And you could say also that it’s an aspect of anger because I hated mowing the lawn when I was a kid but the other is that our St. Augustine grass that we have here is another ecological disaster. People put water on it, they put fertilizer on it, they mow the hell out of it and what are you doing? You know. You know lawnmowers in Houston, Texas are a significant cause of air pollution because they have no catalytic devices on them at all. It’s—it’s a significant percentage so that in the 21st century we really ought to have electric lawnmowers or mow the lawns in the afternoon where you
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don’t have the same ozone effects that you do with the nitrogen oxide during the day. So I started looking at it and hell I hated mowing the lawn so this used to be just all a forest and—of—of St. Augustine grass and now it’s, I hope, an ecological zone of—of happiness. Most of it’s native plant though. Most of it’s habitat. As you’ll see here like I planted the things for the animals instead of—instead of planting them for myself for food, I ended up with a purple salvia and red salvia and bog salvia and hummingbird bush and all those things and people told me if you just plant it, they’ll come. You know, like Field of Dreams. It’s true. And what you’ll see is that I have a—just a world of hummingbirds and butterflies and oh, you know, all kinds of animals when they’re flying north or south, we’re in the central flyway here. Lots of birds come through this part of Texas. They come to Terry’s place. Why? Because there’s no poison here. The only predator here is a cat that’s around. No toxicity of any kind. Plenty of water and plenty of shelter. So I get just these wonderful little visitors. Now, do the animals really talk to each other and say hey, let’s go hang out at Terry’s place? Well, I think so. You’ll see that there are a lot of them here and—and of course, the bees and—and toads. I would say if you said, what is my favorite animal that I’ve been the happiest about being in the production of or being the father of or the generator of, it’s toads. I put out at least 10,000 toads a year in these waterways. Almost every time after there’s a significant rain the toads which, of course, are amphibians come out of their holes in the ground and they have sex here in these ponds and then they produce just literally thousands of little tadpoles and because I’ve got a good habitat and the ponds don’t dry up, they turn into little tadpoles and they go all over the neighborhood. My toads are, you know, three and four blocks away. And what is—is what’s the greatest thing in—in
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an—in an environment is to produce the animals that eat the other animals so that my toads are terrific. They’ll—they eat more insects than any of the pesticides or herbicides would ever do of the—of the unwanted ones. So that’s a part of it also is the joy of being there present and watching the life forms as they grow. And then in the ponds themselves I have gambusia, mosquito eating fish which I discovered many years ago working with Dr. Walter Quebedeaux, the great leader of the Harris County Pollution Control Department. Gambusia are probably the most unattractive fish. Little brown fish, you know, about this long and they’re fast. They’re surface breeders. They can live in water with zero dissolved oxygen and we used to use them at the Harris County Pollution Control Department as tests of toxicity. That is, if you had a solution that killed the fish, it was toxic. EPA didn’t recognize it because they didn’t have gambusia nationwide but it was a good, simple, cheap test with gambusia. So I found that if you put gambusia in ponds, what they do is they’re a net—negative because the mosquitoes that would otherwise be laying their eggs somewhere else come here because they love the ponds and the gambusia love them. They’re like caviar to them. They eat the mosquito eggs so I have far fewer mosquitoes in my garden because every mosquito’s laying their eggs in the pond and all these gambusia—gambusia like I say are virtually impossible to kill. They go through the dry weather periods. So—so I have the fish and the amphibians and then reptiles—I have places to encourage snakes to come to the yard and—and then, of course, a good population of mammals and the normal raccoons and possums and other kind of what you call clever wildlife around here.
DT: What’s your attitude about snakes?
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TO: I love snakes.
DT: Some people are frightened of wildlife and especially snakes.
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TO: Once upon a time when I was prosecuting Harris County Judge John Lindsay for corruption on a removal case, he said—and I worked for Harris County Attorney, Mike Driscoll, he said, Terry O’Rourke is a snake in the grass. And it was like the greatest compliment I ever had. This guy from the Houston Post came by to me and said, you know, that’s pretty strong when the County Judge calls Senior Assistant County Attorney a snake in the grass. And I said, you know, I’m severely disappointed for the County Judge who just simply doesn’t recognize the valuable roles of reptiles in the ecosystem. And, of course, they ran it. It was good copy. I—I look at—here’s something in the mythology—I go out in the redneck culture which we’re all a part—I grew up here, you know. I—I’m just as much of a redneck as I am Hispanic underneath, you know. And—and every redneck almost that I know kills snakes. You know, they kill them in the morning, they kill them in the afternoon. A snake on my—on my front porch. I killed it. I said, what kind of snake? Why’d you kill it? No consciousness. I think it comes all the way from the Christian bible story of Adam and Eve, you know, if a snake somehow
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introduced evil into life and, of course, I look at the story of Adam and Eve as a story of a rise of consciousness of the fruit of knowledge and—and—and the joy of life. And so I’m not into fall redemption theology. I’m into the theology that this is heaven, that we are—that—that the earth, you know, instead of saying our father who art in heaven, I say our mother who is on earth or our children who are on earth is a prayer if you’re going to say that prayer because I think that we have plenty of hell around us but we’ve got plenty of heaven. And, for me, one of the greatest things for—was a discovery because I grew up here with this kind of mentality that Houston is a terrible place, right. You ask people about Houston, oh man it’s hot. The season’s terrible, you know, you make your money, get the hell out and go get your place in—in Aspen, Colorado or get your place in Colorado County or, you know, get out. Go get a place in Galveston. Get out. I discovered that Houston and—and the area around here is one of the richest ecological areas in the whole world. And I used to live in California. I loved California especially Northern California. So to come back to Houston was like going to this petrochemical pit and yet, I saw through that to see that there is an ecological richness here because of the wetlands, because of the bayous, because of the bays and because of the heat that is unparalleled. And like, right now, it’s fall in the rest of the United States of America but I call it the second spring in Houston, you know. We don’t have colored leaves like they do in Massachusetts, you know, but we’ve got just—the tomatoes are coming back, you know, they—the—the peppers are coming back. It is truly the second spring. We have two seasons here of—of growth and then we have, of course, the winter rainy season. So I’ve—I’ve come to live in that and love it and—and—and I really sincerely believe that for all of us, in some way, whether we’re in offices or homes that we look around—like
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in the ecology movement, they say not in my backyard. You familiar with that? NIMBY, not in my backyard. What is the one that says in my backyard, you know. IMBY, what do I have in my backyard? And I think that that’s, in some measure, a test. It can be what’s on the balcony of my apartment, you know, or what’s in my office? What do I have there that speaks of life that when I go in there—I’ve often thought why don’t we take coffee grounds or something like that and make compost out of them. You know, we have all kinds of material. Why don’t we have the paper in our offices and make compost out of it and start growing plants around people. But, you know, maybe that’s tomorrow. I think the future’s going to be a lot more people who live like I do. And—and I don’t hold it out as being the way. I’ve got lots of things which are politically incorrect or unorthodox like the water hyacinth that I grow here. I want to show you the water hyacinth. I—you know, water hyacinth are something that any environmentalist will tell you is something you ought not have in your garden because it’s invasive species but I—they don’t get out of my garden. And take a look at them. Have you ever seen an orchid more beautiful than that really? They’re exquisite and they only bloom for a day, you know, this is it. They’ll be more that will bloom tomorrow in some other part but the water hyacinth is just an amazing plant. We now use them in natural sewage treatment plants. There’s one out in Beaumont. Instead of building these massive concrete things that run just enormous amounts of electricity to run them, you can have water hyacinth that are gobbling up those nutrients. And, of course, here because I don’t have heavy metals or anything, I just take the water hyacinth, throw them in the compost heap and they become the raw material of the next life of plants. So I’m turning sunlight and water into vegetable material here. Yeah, I got that—but it does clean the water in an otherwise, you know, essentially muddy area of a swamp. So
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the other thing, what about this backyard with all these ditches in it? You know, you look around, you’ll see that there are all these ditches. You know, say ditches man. So I used to represent the Harris County Pollution Control Department and we spend literally billions of dollars controlling floods. Houston is flat. I mean, have you ever seen about Houston—the Gulf Coast is flat. There used to be a beach, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs were up there on the beach but the beach was in Austin, Texas. Well it’s gone back and forth from time-to-time but this area’s flat and so that you have clay that’s left over from the old grasslands and you have sand which is the old beach sand. But it’s flat and we used to say when I studied geology at Rice University is that if Paul Bunyan or the scale of Paul Bunyan, you know the mythical figure that dug the St. Lawrence Seaway, if he were down here in Houston, he could play pool because Harris County is flatter than a regulation pool table. The old joke about Texas being so flat in some parts you have to have signs that tell the water which way to run really is true. You—is—is here just the—it’s that flat that you make decisions about water flows just almost like traffic patterns. And what it means when you have these tropical storms and rains is that one helluva lot of water falls in this place at one time. So what do most people do here? Get it off my house as fast as I can so you have gutters. So everybody in Houston, you know, three million people, take all the water that falls on their house and driveway and get it as fast as they can off their property, into the gutters, into the bayous and
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waterways. What happens? Then it takes billions of dollars to alter the streams, the beautiful nature of the streams, pouring concrete into the streams to make them flow faster. You destroy nature in order to take this water. In addition, I found that the greatest cause of fish kills in the summer—I would sometimes be down at like Braz—at—at Buffalo Bayou—I used to office down at the courthouse cause I was a County Attorney, Assistant County Attorney, and I’d walk across Buffalo Bayou every morning and every afternoon back from where I parked my car so I’d watch how the bayou changes every day. And then one day I’d see God, there’s thousands of dead fish. And, of course, I’d call the Harris County Pollution Control Department because they’re my client, you know. I’d be like snitching off the fish kill because I was a citizen. But, you know, I was their lawyer so they came out and would check and say, what killed the fish? Did some polluter do it? Well no, we’d had a once inch rain and hardly anybody noticed it but the one inch rain takes all the grease and the oil off the streets and all the kind of yard clippings and everything else out of the—out of the ditches and the greatest cause of fish kills in July and August in Harris County is a one inch rain. Now think about that. So I thought well what would be a response to it? Well I thought why don’t I retain all the water from the one inch rain because see if it rains two inches then there’s enough water that it dilutes the biological oxygen demand or the chemical oxygen demand of the—of all that material. So instead of getting water off my property as fast as possible, I save every drop I can so I have it all come down and instead of it—have it flowing downhill out in front to fill up the streets and the gutters, I have it flow backwards and to fill up these which are like detention ponds and rise when the water comes up. And I keep gambusia in them, of course, so they don’t have mosquitoes. In fact, they’re ecologically rich zones and they’re—they’re plenty tolerant of the stuff in my backyard. So hardly
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any water goes off of my property. So that’s—and I thought well if we all did that—if I were going to practice it, I would like practice it before I preach it to try and test it out. Why don’t we give tax credits to people who dig ditches in backyards as opposed to taking tax money to give to contractors to—to put concrete in our bayous and waterways? All right. You want to talk about politics? Why? Because County Commissioners run the flood control district. You get money to run for reelection from contractors. Contractors get money because there’s something to do. Nobody wants to pay some Hispanic kid to come dig holes in your backyard when they can go pay Brown and Root to—on a three million dollar job to pour concrete in an ecologically rich zone and destroy it. It’s just that simple. And that’s the consciousness that we’re completely lacking. We could solve our flooding problems. We could recharge our aquifers if we just thought differently. And I’ve—I’m a victim of the same thinking.
DT: Talking about thinking and consciousness, what sort of reaction to you get from the students and other visitors when you have them in your garden?
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TO: Well it’s good but it takes—you know, it takes a—I don’t—I take no prisoners on this thing. I—I was laughing—one time when I was an Assistant Attorney General, I did the normal Terry O’Rourke speech. You know, I came there and told them about the world and all that and one of the guys got so fired up he ended up being a State Representative by the name of Scott Hochberg. And I think I did something similar once upon a time when there was a student in there named Jim Blackburn. He became probably the greatest private environmental lawyer we’ve ever had in this area. So the answer is quite positive. But I’m asking them to think in a completely different way and I’ve done it myself. I mean, I grew up here. I’m completely from here. I had all the same thinking. So when I speak of my own change of consciousness, I try to do it in a way that other people get it in—in their own way. And so like I went to Rice University. Rice University’s got one of the most beautiful campuses that there is in the entire United States of America, maybe the whole world. You go look at Rice. I mean, it’s just a beautiful place. And I—when you go there you—you look at it and you think I’m home. I mean, this—it—it—it speaks in its architecture and in its grounds of quality. Right. I see it in an entire different way now. I see Rice in the—in that—in those lawns as a kind of emaciated culture which is reflected in the gardens of River Oaks as a kind of anorexia of a—of an emaciated—when I grew up here—let me give you an exam—I grew up in a segregated society. When I was a kid they had colored and white water fountains. Blacks rode in the back of the bus. There was a colored section in the balcony that colored people had to go to. They had restrooms at the service stations, men, women and colored and the colored restrooms were always filthy. I mean, just—it’s despicable. Today, you want to know about change—Harris County—Houston embraces its diversity. We think, believe that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. And I sincerely believe that. I—the—the change in like the restaurants that you go to and the talent, I mean, for people who are from here, it’s obvious. But hell you go to Austin, Texas or you go to Dallas or Fort Worth, man, that’s like being in white world again. And—and I don’t feel comfortable there anymore. I don’t feel comfortable and, of course, we still have our zones of it. You get in downtown Houston you get—there’s a white zone, you know, of these big high rise buildings or something where the temperature is always between 71 and 73 degrees and people are wearing clothing that would be normally fit for, you know, fall in the—in the depths of summer. So—so there’s still that, I mean, we still have economics segregation because the power is—is—
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is still so held so tightly in this city. But—but to be asked to be responsive, my kids respond well to it. But I’m—I’m asking them to think in a different way. I can tell you how I found—like you ask about what are the moments of change of consciousness in your—yourself? Once upon a time, when I was a student at Rice in my freshman year I went to Europe. And I got a Eurail pass and there I was—I went to Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, France, I mean, the great Cathedrals, Notre Dame and, you know, St. Peters, Florence, oh God how beautiful Florence is. You know, Sienna, oh I mean just to see Renaissance Italy, you know, when you’re nineteen years old like I was or eighteen years old, I mean, and—and the German cities, beautiful, Leipzig. I was in Berlin, you know, I mean, just God, just the beauty of, you know, when you come from a culture like this where people didn’t drive used cars and they didn’t even live in used houses. Everything was new, right. So to go to a place, you know, where you’d be in like in Spain, I was in this Cathedral and there was El Sid, I mean, you know, not Charlton Heston but the real Don Diego del Vivar(?) who’s buried there with his wife. I mean, in
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this beautiful gothic cathedral. It was just wonderful. Well I got to the south of Spain having seen all the wonders of Europe and—and hablando Espanol, you know, and I went to the—to the—to Granada and I went to the Alambra and I went through there and I was all alone. You know, I had like Europe on five dollars a day. I mean, so that’s how long ago it was. And I was by myself and I went and saw the just beautiful walls of the Palace of the Alhambra where the stone is carved like lace and had fountains some of which I’ve really reproduced here in a—in a—in a kind of pedestrian way. But the—but the—where the water was used as natural air conditioning, you know, and where they—where the vistas and the gardens were just fabulous. And it was clear to me that the Alhambra was more beautiful than anything I had seen in all of Europe, in all of Renaissance Europe, all of Northern Europe. I’d been to Denmark, you know, I—I was a kid. You know, I was looking at the most beautiful things to see. And here I found the beauty in Granada. And so I went outside the Alhambra and I was just like blown away. I mean, I was just—it was like and out on the wall of the Granada—of—of the—of the Alhambra was this poem, it’s real short. Dali Limose Na Mu Hare Que No I en Navida Nada. Como la paina do ser siego en Granada, which is “Give him alms old lady because there’s no pain in life like being a blind man in Granada.” Golly man and I got it. And in one moment I realized all that I’d learned in history was wrong. You see, I learned history from the Christian Catholic European perspective that—that Mohammed had this kind of like, you know, brain explosion and he wrote the Koran out and he had Mecca, Medina and then the Berbers and all these tribes went across North Africa and swept in the jihad of fanatics and they—and they went right through Spain and only were stopped in the battle of Tours in 732 by Charles Martel and for the
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next 700 years until 1492 was the Rey Con Conquista. You know, that was the—that’s what we studied at Rice University, not just at Catholic schools. Everybody got that—that the Barbarians came just like we studied the Huns or something but these Barbarians, these—these Muslims, these Moors, these dark people with their knives who were going to go straight to heaven in the jihad if they died in this fanatic war. When I got to the Alhambra, I realized that the Barbarians were in the north. And then I thought Arabic numbers. Where did Aristotle and Plato come from? They really came through the library of Alexandria. Medicine, so much of medicine—even as a Catholic, the rosary that we said came from India through North Africa, the Sais(?) that—that St. Dominic, the guy who—who had the blessed Virgin Mary appear to him and said say the rosary. Those were Muslim prayer beads that he had, you know. So it was Hail Mary full of grace but it was like Muslim prayer beads. It was a meditation with chanting. Chanting entered Western culture through these Islamic Barbarians. And so like, in one moment—so I went back, I was different, you know. So it’s the same kind of thing to say that we’re the barbarians, you know. Well I grew up here in Texas. I mean, Texas was the biggest state. I was—I’m so old that I—Texas was—Alaska wasn’t even in the union. We had Texas brags. America was the greatest country. We were—we knew we had the answers. We were the children of Greece and Rome, you know, we had the Christian tradition. I mean, we were the city on the hill. We had everything to offer the world. We won World War II. I mean, we were everything. And we were killing the planet and didn’t even know it. You know, that’s the thing. That’s the scary part, you know, that the Holocaust that we look at with the Jews which is so terrible we’re have a holocaust on
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a greater measure that we’re experiencing right now and that’s the consciousness that I came to, not then but later, you know. And I—and I—and I—and I—and I still—I—I’m in that right now so if there’s anything that you do with the history is the question is, how are we right now trying to turn that around as a culture. And so I guess when you know what my practice of law and politics is is to use my own—own life as a form of metaphor so that I act in a way that speaks to others—that there’s no single action that’s enough. You know, I can’t teach enough high school kids at Austin High School, you know, I can’t. I can’t give enough lectures in my garden but with the, you know, the gift of the universe, grace of God, whatever you call it in the days of the internet and—and what you represent here who listen and see this is that if you see and hear, it can happen in a heartbeat. The change can occur.
DT: Well let’s talk a little bit about that. Maybe …
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TO: So one of the things I do when I teach these kids at Austin High School, I have the environmental kids right here in the garden is I begin with little pieces of paper. I give every kid one of these, one of these little stick-ums like see, pass it out. And I say to them, I would like you to write on here, don’t let anybody look over your shoulder, how old you’re going to be when you die. And they say, Mr. O’Rourke, what are you talking about? I say, no, everybody’s going to die right? So how old do you think you’re going to be? This is a guess. You know, I’m not asking you, this is no clairvoyance, I’m not asking for special messages from God or anything. How old do you think you’re going to be when you die? Well they kind of get it and they pass it out and they go that’s kind of interesting. So they write down something, right. And they think oh well, I’m not going to, you know, and—and I get why—why is that even a question, you know? Well I tell them at the time of George Washington, the average age of time of death in the United States of America was 35. And women had, on average, like ten children. Most women, many women died in childbirth and guys would get a second wife, you know. I mean, they had an unpopulated wilderness. So, I mean, be fruitful and multiply, I mean to—from their perspective after the killing of the native Americans, you know, I mean, you had just this vast continent to populate with people and—and humans were labor, you know. And wealth—wealth, I mean, breeding—I mean, looking at a well-bred person literally was well-bred, I mean, cause they were strong or sturdy or could work. 1900, a century later, the average age of death was still 45. The average of death in the United States of American today is about 78, something different, you know, African-Americans earlier. White—old, white women, you know, live a little longer than—than white men, etc. We’re about where the Europeans are, something around 78, 75. All right. But the question is with the technology changing and the knowledge of nutrition like my parents grew up in the depression and World War II and all that. So man, when I
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was a kid, man, we ate bacon and sausage. It’s amazing that I’m alive. TV dinners. I grew up on Coca-Cola and Fritos. You know, when you take a look at the crap that I ate, it’s the same stuff they got in the high schools right now. I mean, the stuff that I ate was just terrible. So I teach them about fruit. And there’s this notion about food that if it’s good it’s not good for you which is just silly. You know, it’s lack of imagination. Some of us—I lived in India and I had the most delicious food. I mean, so—so I give them this test. It’s called Dr. Terry’s five part test, right. Poor people or lower socioeconomic people, what’s the number one question they ask their children when they eat? Did you get enough? Did you get enough to eat? Middle class people, question number two, what do they ask their children? Did it taste good? Did you like it? Right. What do rich people—what question does rich people—what do they say to their kids? Was it well presented? Was it beautiful? Was the ambience nice? Was the service good? You know, presentation and beauty. Now I would say that there’s a more important test which is the fourth test. Was it good for you? Was the food that you ate good for you? And there’s—it could be all those. It can be delicious, nutritious. It can be—everything—you can have it in your food. And I have—Dr. Terry’s fifth part of the test is, is it good for the earth? So if you are tearing apart a rain forest in order to grow corn to feed cattle to have the cattle meat shipped to McDonald’s to make hamburgers and that—or the—or you take oil from Argentina—from South America or from Saudi Arabia and—and to make fertilizer in Houston to ship it to Northern California with irrigated water and you’re growing organic food in California and putting on trucks to send to Houston, it’s not good for the earth but may be good for you. So like, for example, with Bob Randall and the people in the urban harvest around here, I often say and they say too, it’s better to eat non-organic food that’s locally grown for the earth than it is to do the simple advantages of organic gardening. So with that, I grew up in Houston. No one ever told me that you could grow oranges in Houston, Texas. I mean, we knew we could grow them in Orange County in L.A. and places like that or Florida but whoever thought that you could grow oranges in Harris County, Texas in Houston. And these survive
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our—our—our winters here and ah deliciosa and so I change my kids forever by saying, what do you have in your backyard? You know, most of us has stuff that just really is not good for you, you know, but every garden, every backyard, you could be growing these oranges, pear trees, grapes, pear land Texas right here. You know, where are the pears? The—the—the—the peaches that grow in Fredericksburg and that area, Johnson City, in that area, just delicious compared to the stuff that they ship in from California that you end up at Kroger’s that taste like rocks, you know, that have to—nothing, you know. So why don’t we do it? It’s just all in our imagination. So then I ask the kids, how—now to reveal about what your numbers say about how long you’re going to live. Now you know that if you smoke cigarettes, your life expectancy is reduced the exact time of the amount of cigarettes you smoke. About five minutes to smoke a cigarette, it reduces your expectancy about five minutes. So all you kids who smoke here just knowing that you’re just knocking off the back end of your life and, not only that, emphysema is not a pleasant disease man. I mean, it’s just not fun. And also, you know, you get to the headaches and stomachaches but you give them the pitch based on beauty. Do you want to live? Well then, you know, eat fruit out of your garden compared to eating that crap. And they eat—the cereals they have are filled with sugar, they have caffeine, they have
0:36:29 – 2030
everything so I say, you don’t have to do it. It’s not—you don’t need that in your—so then they do the studies. And remember I teach these are lower brown and black kids, you now, so like some of them like how old are you going to be when you die and I’m looking at the tattoos on their arm and they come up and it says 19. They’re going to die—a lot of these kids are killed in gangs, you know, and some of them are 52 or some of them are 58 or some of them like that. And then when I reveal my number to them, my number is 156 and there’s no reason that we can’t live healthy and happy lives. The technology that we’re looking at in the 21st century is one—and longevity isn’t everything obviously but it changes your entire perspective when you think you’re going to live 156 years as opposed to 56. I already have friends of mine who I went to school with who are already in advanced middle age because they’re looking at the golden years or something or playing golf in some place, you know, and I—I don’t get it. You know, I’m just at the beginning of my life really. I’m like 26 years old is at least the way I think or feel because I really want to be a part of the 21st century because I want to be a part of the transition of going from this century of war into a period of peace in a harmonic, erotic beauty because there’s really nothing more pleasurable than this orange.
0:38:29 – 2030
TO: Okay. So this is Bray’s bayou and it’s a rectified stream and you really—how do you feel about something like this with the most natural beauty that there is in all of this area and it was destroyed to build houses. Didn’t have to be. When I was a kid and grew up here, this was just filth. It was just-—t was—it was the silt because they were rectifying the streams but one of the really good news stories of the late 20th century is the dramatic increase in water quality that’s here. And so that now you have thousands of fish, thousands, literally thousands of fish here that just weren’t there before. Carp mostly but we have catfish and sunfish and others. And the water here—this water is cleaner and purer than anything when the streams normally would be because it comes from the Trinity River. It comes out of a dam in the Trinity River, goes into your house. You use it in your commode, your shower, your dishwasher and it goes through a sewage treatment plant upstream so you got terrific quality. What we lack is habitat and I’ve thought that one of the easiest things to do that we really need to do is to change this so that we could reput in the—in the old bows of the bayou because you could have fabulous habitat here. One of the saddest things to come to realization that I had in my life was that the very local government that I’d worked for, the Harris County Flood Control District was essentially a principle destroyer of the environment and it came because people just didn’t know any better or because they were so venial. However—however you write it and that history is still being written today that we’re still destroying habitat needlessly just like this because we don’t know any better. You can have streams like this and have it rectified, have it be just a little bit wider and have bows in it and have just exquisitely, erotic habitat if you chose to but we don’t. Since I live just, you know, really close to here, it’s been one of the sadnesses. And yet, and yet we still have time, you know, because we still got another century to build and we have a beautiful place left here. If you take a look at the counties around it, Houston’s going to double again in
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population and we have a chance to not make mistakes like this. When I was a young prosecutor, when I worked for John Hill as Assistant Attorney General, the greatest polluter was not Exxon or Texaco or anybody else but the greatest polluter was the City of Houston. They had sewage treatment plants up here so that you literally had floating turds here. And to get a statistic in bringing litigation that I did of the—against the City of Houston was I got Dr. Quebedeaux to do quotations of statistics to get it. And it was raw sewage because we had built with development faster than we had built the capacity to handle our own sewage that you could fill the Astrodome to the brim twice a day with raw sewage. That was the volume of it and you could think of that volume going into the bayous and waterways so that it wasn’t just that it was filled with industrial contaminates but you had then live polio virus. I had a—I had a case that I presented against the City of Friendswood and my expert got on the stand and I—and he said there was live polio virus in the water. And the cross-examination, the defendant’s counsel said well you couldn’t get polio virus just by touching the water could you? And he said well no but if you put your finger in your nose you would. Ugh, boy got the injunction—I won. It was a helluva way to win a case though. It was so bad when I was a young prosecutor that the ship channel would catch fire sometimes. It was anaerobic. There was simply no—no oxygen in the upper water and now it’s not that way. It really is of a success story is water quality. And, of course, the bad news is that we’re still destroying the habitat but that we can do things and if you see the thousands of fish here, there’s hope, you know. I guess the message if I had to give you one message is there is hope and I hope that we can learn from these experiences. Just take a look at these fish. Sometimes the Vietnamese fisherman are out here and they’re Carp mostly.
(footage of water)
0:47:04 – 2030
TO: So one of the good things that the County has done is this hike bike trail. This is, I think—how do you develop people’s affection or understanding for the water that’s right there. And so that the more people you get on hike bike trails, they get close to the water and they say, ‘hey, that clean’, or they see the birds or they see the fish. My belief is that the way to bring people into an understanding or a love for the environment is to bring them to it, you know, instead of talking about it. In terms of value of what the citizens and taxpayers have ever gotten out of the County, this right here, this hike bike trail is the greatest investment we’ve ever made in Harris County. And we could have easily in Harris County, which has got 1,700 square miles, we could have the largest hike bike trail system in the world. And I’ve often thought of appealing or attempting to appeal to the kind of megalomania that is the city, you know, that kind of jingoism that’s here that you could have instead of the Texaco Grand Prix where you’re just putting out literally tons of hydrocarbons, why don’t we have like the race of Houston, you know, where we have the biggest hike bike—hiking or bicycle trail race in the world right here, you know.
0:48:11 – 2030
And—and it could—could stretch to all parts. This—this trail goes all the way out to Gessner and into the University of Houston and soon it will go to the Houston ship channel and we should have a completely connected system. We could—we could easily have more people going to work and school and to shop on hike bike trails than we could in cars. And, of course, the—the cost is incredibly lower. It’s a—and—and the amenity value of—of being healthy, you know, of being in the great outdoors. But got to have clean air too and here we have the second filthiest air in the United States of America. I think our air’s worse than L.A. frankly. We’re—we don’t have—our concentrations of ozone this year in the air are higher than any other city in the United States including L.A. Now they’ve had more days of violation but also in L.A. they don’t have the toxic chemicals that we do. You know, it’s real simple to say that, you know, the air doesn’t look so bad but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it. Toxicity is something—it’s so insidious—we are experiencing chronic low dose contamination right now and we don’t have a sense to tell us that. That’s what requires science and we have an entire industrial system that tells us it’s not important, you know. Hey, it’s not going to hurt you. But it is something equivalent of maybe smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day just living in Houston, Texas. But nobody—nobody’s doing the kinds of comparison. Obviously it’s showing up in our hormones. I mean it’s—it’s chemically measurable and I guess if there’s a challenge is that we have got to clean up the air. And, you know, the good thing is the technology’s here. It’s not like—it’s the political will and that’s what we’re not—that’s what we’re lacking right now, political will.
DT: And good lawyers.
0:49:55 – 2030
TO: And good lawyers.
(walked out of picture and more scenery)
DT: You spent five years of your life here at Rice University, a place with fine features, a wonderful facility, but were there some things you didn’t pick up here?
0:54:34 – 2030
TO: Oh gosh, I have a Master’s Degree in Geology and Environmental studies and I guess the biggest part that the—I didn’t learn about the environmental holocaust. You know, I was living right in the middle of it. I’m talking about the campus itself. It is completely absent native grasses and wildflowers and things like that. It’s a—it is a—they have a—it’s a horticultural import from Europe. You know, I mean, it’s got a lot of England—English gardens and, of course, a lot of Italian Renaissance in it as these beautiful arches are but it didn’t have the vitality of the very swamp of Houston that we live in. And in the same sense, the—the grass is done into this kind of color where they chemically turn them to be the right color. Yet—and then—and then to study—to study like I did environmental studies and not look at what happened with the cattle kingdom, you know, just 250 years ago when the white people first came here, this was a—all of Austin and all of West Texas was grassland. You know, when you go out to West Texas now, it’s a desert and the soil is washed away and washed away why? Because the tragedy of the commons, you know, I mean, it happened right here. Over grazing—massive over grazing. I’ve often thought it was funny I went to the University of Texas to law school and the—the symbol there is the longhorn, you know, and the longhorn is
0:55:54 – 2030
the very vehicle of the destruction of—of—of Texas and you think millions of tons of topsoil in such a very short period of time to create the capital, you know, the cattle kingdom and—and yet today one of the hopes for the 21st century is that cattle are raised like you’re raising them where you bring back the grasses to the prairie. I mean you can have—cattle are a part of the future but not cattle that are raised on oil that came from Saudi Arabia and—and chemicals that came out of the Houston ship channel for—for fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides and parasiticides where you’ve got this kind of chemically induced fat animal that you give to make fat people, you know. I mean, you don’t want to die of a heart attack, you don’t want to have Alzheimer’s, don’t eat this crap. I mean, our cows are literally eating crap. And—and I grew up in the culture. I mean, here, I mean, you have this kind of European elite university obviously designed on the Oxford/Cambridge system but it was European and it’s sense—it didn’t see the beauty of what was here and I didn’t learn it. It—it took time. I mean, I…
DT: Why do you think it failed you?
0:57:07 – 2030
TO: It was exactly what it was. It was the highest quality import of education to be to this essentially redneck culture that it could be. And I—I—I’m thankful for it but I’m just saying is it wasn’t here. And—and it’s still not to a large degree. You don’t get the history of ecological holocaust is not taught here as a part of American history. Instead it’s still kind of a political/military history, you know, Sam Houston, Thomas Jefferson, are much more important than the cowboys.
DT: Well where did you learn what you know about ecological change and history?
0:57:45 – 2030
TO: Well some of it from David Todd, you know. No but a lot of it was like when I went up the first time I was on the Perdenales River, I was in law school and a guy who was a professor at U of H was up there and he said, Terry, do you realize that all this caliche wasn’t here that the grasses were six feet tall, that there were Buffalo here not very long ago. And God, you know, it’s—it’s almost a desert up there. When you get outside Austin and go west, it’s like a desert created by human beings, created by a culture that could only see profit for me. And so one of the things that is clear to me that we have to do is look and realize that the economic system, the great commercial system that leads the world that is America that—which we’re built on has failed us. And it cannot be—it cannot go unaltered into the 21st century. That there—that—we can’t do it. We can’t export it. We’ve got to change it, you know. And then I say the other part is realizing that my education failed me. I mean, as pla—this is the greatest university I believe in the State of Texas and maybe between the coasts and it failed me in the sense of giving me that sense of knowledge of where we were. I mean, you could say well we were in the Cold War or we were in the Space Race or something. I mean, I can remember being right over there in Rice Stadium when John F. Kennedy came here to announce that we were going to the moon, you know, from Rice, the famous Rice speech. Boy we all believed and I guess by going to the moon, we looked back at planet earth and saw hey, there’s something really precious going on there that—that we’re—we’re in desperate shape of losing.
DT: If there weren’t teachers, were there mentors like JFK or LBJ or other people that have inspired you?
0:59:19 – 2030
TO: Well I did—I had one great teacher here, Dr. John Adams, who was unorthodox in his own way here. Yeah, I mean, I did—did—I’ve had—I’ve been blessed and all my life with people like that. But—but it…
DT: Tell me about John Adams.
0:59:38 – 2030
TO: Well John Adams was the Chairman of the Geology Department of Rice University and during the Vietnam War I was very much opposed to the war and, at that time at Rice, you know, George Brown was the Chairman of the Board of Regents or Board of Trustees of Rice University. I mean, he was one like the big wartime profiteers and I used to date Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lucy, I mean, and so I became against the war man. I mean, it just like—like the culture they do—they were—this university made a lot of money during the Vietnam war. I mean, oil and timber. I mean, this place is built on exploitation of raw materials in a way. And so when you come here—give you another example of it—I was in the United States Department of Energy before I was in the White House Staff for President Carter and the Chairman of the Rice Board of Regents was then Charles Duncan and he went to be the Secretary of Energy. Well people said, well Terry you’re from Houston, why don’t you get along with Charles Duncan? I went, you know, I don’t you, you know, you have affinities, political things and Duncan’s obviously a great man and—and a dear friend of President Carter’s who I deeply admire but, you know, Charles Duncan had been the President of Coca-Cola and, you know, what is Coca-Cola but selling caffeine and refined sugar to children. Well, you know, it’s not—it’s not tobacco and it’s not beer but I look at it today, how could you do that in good conscience? You know. And I grew up on Coca-Cola and Fritos, you know. I mean, so, you know, it—it—it’s where we’ve come from but if we’re going to live in the 21st century, we’ve got to be eating a lot more brown rice than we are eating Doritos, you know. And it can be beautiful. It can taste wonderful.
DT: How do you teach people to know better…
1:01:17 – 2030
TO: You do—you have dinner. You have them for dinner. You—you prepare the food yourself. You show them how to cook. You tell them you don’t cook in grease. If you use canola oil and—and olive oil. It’s goes back to—to rethinking and teach them that their yard is different, that your yard is not just some suburban landscape to put English horticulture into. And that you just learn to see that a hummingbird being there and bees and butterflies are more beautiful than the kind of almost dead life forms that are out there. It’s—it’s teaching by seeing. It’s by beauty. But you show them that it’s beautiful. You know, we didn’t have butterflies—in the old days we used to have—used to have lightning bugs. You know, they’re gone. I think of all of the life forms that I grew up with that are gone, that we’ve killed with our own—our own contamination here. Shocking. The very place, the garden where I was—I grew up right close to there—we used to have snakes. And, of course, I was like an—I would catch the snakes and kill them and eat them. The difference was I ate them. And I say the greatest change that happened to me in a—in a eating was when I stopped eating animals. And I was studying, at the time, some Hindu literature and it said, Why do you Westerners find it so difficult to understand that the…
End of reel 2031
Start of reel 2032
DT: We’re in the Harris County Courthouse and I thought it would be an appropriate place to ask you about some of your experiences as an environmental prosecutor both for the State of Texas and Harris County for a number of years. Perhaps a place to start would be in 1973 when you went to work for John Hill as Assistant Attorney General for the great State of Texas. Tell me about your experience in that job.
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TO: Sometimes in politics you’re just lucky. And in 1972 that was the Sharpstown bank scandal that Sissy Farenthold and others and the dirty thirty that I worked with in Austin produced the kind of issue that made possible a change in power in 1972. Actually the battle in the legislature was in ’71 and ’72. And what happened was that there was a new Attorney General, John Hill, from Houston. And Hill was elected saying I’m going to clean up pollution. And one of the first things that he did was he appointed me, Terry O’Rourke, Assistant Attorney General of the State of Texas and he had one mission. He said, Terry, he—he personally went in the office of the Attorney General and carried the cases down. They had a backlog of cases here and loaded them in the back of my little Toyota car in Austin and said, “Terry, you just take those cases to Houston, set them for trial and win them. Need some help, call me.” And so I opened up this office here in Harris County, right by the courthouse of the Attorney General and started trying cases. And, you know, to be like I was, twenty-five years old at the time, I’d been a law clerk to a federal judge in Washington, D.C. and the opportunity to take some of the biggest polluters in the United States of America—it’s—it’s hard for people to think back then what it was like but these industries were essentially built in World War II to beat the Japanese and the Germans and so they had no pollution control devices to speak of. Giant smokestacks out in East Harris County like Armco Steel, Tentex Alloy Corporation, Champion Paper just belching out pollution. And back then there was this kind of mentality of a Faustian bargain, you know, of—of you’re going to get rich, you got to be filthy. You know, that it’s—it’s that kind of—the goose that laid the golden egg mythology and—and—and even organized labor was into it. They’d say things like well where there’s smoke, there’s jobs. And so I went into that world and—and me, of course, as an environmentalist, it didn’t matter to me because if you didn’t have clean air, you didn’t have a right to live from my perspective. So I came down with the kind of mentality of prosecution that I’d learned in Washington, D.C. I’d spent a year in the
0:03:28 – 2031
United States District Court watching some of the best U.S. prosecuting attorneys who prosecuted under Nixon Safe Streets Act. They took the power of the government and put it against essentially poor black people who were violent in the streets. Well I took the power of the State of Texas and put it against the powerful, rich corporations that were polluting. I did the same thing that I’d learned except that it was that I was David fighting Goliath but it didn’t matter to me because maybe I didn’t know any better. So like in the first case I had was against Champion Paper Company and I opened up the file from the State of Texas and there’s no evidence, no evidence. The case was 4 ½ years old and no evidence in the file. And I had the joy of—of meeting Dr. Walter Quebedeaux, truly a saint. If there is a saint in the history of Texas in this entire movement, it was the Director of the Harris County Pollution Control Department, Dr. Walter Quebedeaux. There’s a park right over here by the courthouse named in his honor. And he was this eclectic scientist who-—ho ran this department. He took no—he took no compromises any time. He would be up in front of Commissioner’s Court or the City Council. He’d be on television. He would be demanding that people be prosecuted for—for polluting and he kept a most wanted list. Well I thought that was a great idea but he never publicized list. So I took it out and put a ten most wanted list and put it in my office and said, you know, here are the companies and you’re the most wanted and I’m going to take you one at a time. Well they were not used to being dealt with in that way. They had the largest law firms, Vincent Elkins, Baker & Botts, Fulbright and Jaworski, Butler Binion, all of them had kind of divided up the pollution defense business. And so here was this
0:05:04 – 2031
twenty-four year old kid coming down here to say things like hey Bubba, we’re going to trial. And they—they tried to keep me from even getting to trial. I had to sue the judge in the case of State v. James if you ever look it up—I had to sue the judge to get the case to go to trial. And I had great help from Hill. Hill is a great trial lawyer and he—he approved of my unorthodox behavior. So like in the Champion Paper case, what I did is I went to the League of Women Voters and I said, look I need to win this case. That plant stinks. It’s terrible. It’s Pasadena, Texas, Stinkadena. I need your help. I need you to man the phones. I didn’t have the money in the state budget so I swore in these women on television as special assistants to the Attorney General of Texas. You call this number if you’ve got evidence about Champion Paper polluting. And I took out adds in the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. The State of Texas is going to trial against the Champion Paper Company, if you have evidence call this number. Special deputies will answer the phone. Well golly, I mean, you talk about changing the table. One of the lawyers here in Houston, Baker and Botz law firm, Larry Feldcamp, wrote a letter to the State Bar complaining of my behavior. Well what do I think? I was, in a way, honored by it but I was offended at the same time. So instead of going to the State Bar, I went to Marvin Zindler of Channel 13 news and said, “Marvin, can you believe this stuff? A big, giant law firm like Baker and Botz tried to take my law license away for doing the
0:06:24 – 2031
work of the people?” So Marvin had this thing on television. He said, “Larry Feldcamp must go the board and write twenty-five times, ‘I will not try to take the law license away from Terry O’Rourke’.” Of course, it changed and the case only settled on the day of trial for $100,000 penalty and a significant injunction. At the time, it seems small by today’s standards, but it was larger than all of the penalties under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in the whole history of the state in one case. And then the next case I had was Armco Steel case and it was just this big, massive steel company and they would come in and rustle kindle from—from—Vincent Elkins would argue, you know. He argued these cases and—and the judge, I mean, these—you got to imagine that the amount of time and money—it looked like—like I was Paul Newman in The Verdict or something, you know, I was just this little lawyer from the state up against this massive law firm that had just like briefs and briefs and briefs. So he argued this case and I’ll never forget it. It was Wick Wo versus the Board of Supervisors of—of—of San Francisco. Well I knew that case from studying constitutional law and it was a case about how they had prevented the Chinese from having laundries in Chinatown, San Francisco. It’s racial discrimination under the name of the Health & Safety code. And he was arguing that Wick Wo applied to Armco Steel, you know. And I stood in court and I said, you know, to go on the backs of the yellow people, you know, what a—what an incredibly racist comment made by someone from a law form like this. Judge, it doesn’t even speak while Armco Steel is killing the children of Harris County. Boy they just thought, nobody’s going to say that stuff. Anyway, Armco settled for $250,000 which was by then just, you know, these—by their sense, huge settlements coming—Armco shut down, of course, as
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a result of the injunction in that case plus the economics of steel. But I knew that I couldn’t be effective with money because the penalties in Texas were too small. The maximum penalty we had back then was $1000 a day for each and every day of pollution. And that amounted to a lot over the years but you couldn’t add up enough to make it really big so I knew I had to get corporate people in jail. So it was in this very courtroom in 1973 that I had the State of Texas versus Rhodia(?) and for those who are legal scholars or watch this to look it up, State of Texas and Harris County v. Rhodia, it might be listed as Harris County v. Rhodia. Rhodia was a company that put out pesticides and had arsenic. And they had arsenic all over their property and it washed into Vince’s Bayou and Dr. Kibido worked up the evidence just brilliantly in the case. And it was just—and I went out to look at the site, one thing that I learned—who did I learn law from right? I learned law from two people, Percy Foreman and Perry Mason. And so, you know, I was—I mean, I didn’t learn law in Texas Law School. I mean that was just reading books. So I—I learned one thing from Percy and that’s always go to the site. John Hill said that too. Always go to where the location is. Study the physical evidence. Well I got out to Rhodia and it just turned out that right there was this little, tiny marker about maybe the size of this legal file I have in this case. And the marker was just about this big and it said on it—was all—you could hardly read it, it had weeds around it and everything that this was the site where Vince’s bridge—the Vince—that crossed the Vince’s Bayou that was cut down by Deaf Smith on April 21, 1836 prohibiting the—the escape of the army of Santana. So, of course, I got a photographer of my own and got black marks a lot and got—to cut down the weeds and make it look nice and filled in the blanks so the words popped out and then I had them do samples of the soil and there was arsenic right there in the soil at the spot at which Texas’ freedom was won. So when I argued the case, you know, I said, you know, you know, what is it, you know, what does it take to be free? You know, who’s killing whom? And, of course, I pandered the heck out of that I could. But I used the one argument that got that I stuck with the whole time and that was Rhodia, Inc.—I had two defendants, Rhodia which is a foreign corporation.
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I had a chair for that defendant and I said, the defendant, Rhodia Inc., is really a merchant of death. And then who is in the other chair right over here but Herbert W. Jones, the plant manager who is an agent for the merchants of death. Six months in jail. And it really—it changed the whole thing. I mean, it was, you know, it was flamboyant, it was colorful and it was fun. I just—I loved it so much. I loved it too much probably. I remember one case we had against international—Intercontinental Steel Corporation which sounded like a great case, you know, City of Houston, Harris County, State of Texas versus Intercontinental Steel Corporation. Well Intercontinental Steel Corporation was a steel recycling company. Essentially what they did was rip apart boxes cars and—and tankers out on the ship channel for steel that would end up being recycled. Well they had oil and grease all over them and sometimes the fires that were caused by their—by their cutting torches were so great that people would call the fire department. I mean, it was just terrible. There were these—this—they were just, you know, loaded if you can imagine what the bottom of a tanker is with all this stuff and they would be ripping right through it and just these huge, huge plumes of smoke. So I had, you know, having one guy sentenced to jail, I had this other guy who is now the Chairman of the Board of Intercontinental Steel Corporation which did good on the paper. You know, set for another what I would call crucifixions. They didn’t call my cases prosecution, they called them persecution. And I thought you got to have—with the Romans, you got to
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have some crucifixions to get people in line, right. I made no point about it that I had no mercy for these people. In fact, in one case, I said, do you remember the case of Vincent Clark O’Bryan(?), the guy who killed his own son at Halloween for insurance money. Put—put poison in the—you remember that? How different is Vincent Clark O’Bryan than the person here before you? If you had Vincent Clark O’Bryan who was, of course, executed in Huntsville, why wouldn’t you execute this man? Boy, shoot. They didn’t like me. They were not entertained by it. Well anyway, I remember going to court on a Monday morning for the Intercontinental Steel case, another attorney in our office was the lead on it with me and—and when it came time for the case—and man, I had the TV cameras out there and I had these Fire Chiefs dressed up, you know, almost everybody in the fire department’s a chief. You know, they’d be wearing their blue outfits with their buttons, I mean, you know, their hats and everything and they just, I mean, we were ready, we were ready. When you’re ready, you’re ready, right. And this guy said that the defendant, Intercontinental—it’s called the respondent—Intercontinental’s Steel’s ready for trial but the defendant, Philip Arnoff(?) is not because he died last night of a heart attack. And I was so angry. I approached the bench and I said judge, this just proves these polluters will do anything to avoid complying with the law. I was so—can—can you imagine that? I’ve—I’ve thought about that since then but I—it was—the emotion was anger. I would just—because I had a corporate criminal that I was going to put behind bars and that son-of-a-bitch died on me. So that gives you a little bit what I was like as El Tigre, you know, the tiger who—I once, in the later prosecutions, later represented—had the joy of representing the County Attorneys’ Office here. I worked with Mike Driscoll, the County Attorney, I was the Senior Assistant.
DT: When did that start?
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TO: 1986, I was sworn in and I served ten years in that position. And, at one time, I was prosecuting one of the cases and they asked me, do you feel strongly about this case? This was on television, you know. And I said, you know, if they’re HIV negative, I would drink their blood. It was good television, you know. That was true too. So yeah, I mean, I saw all the anger—they’re killing the planet, you know, they’re killing the earth. Who was that person? And when I had a jury, I would say it just this simply, I’d say look you know that lady outside the courtside, the one with the—the band—the—the—she’s got a blindfold on and in one had she has a law book and the other hand she has a sword. Well the law books have all been read and you’re going to go in that jury room and you’re going to take off that blindfold and I want you to take the sword of justice and I want you to cut their heads off because that’s what justice requires. I—the closest I ever came to getting a corporate death penalty was in the case of Harris County versus All Waste and I called it that from the beginning, that I wanted this corporation terminated, its existence terminated and the people in our office said, Terry, that language is a little too rough. I mean, they’re not going to like that. The judges are not going to like that. I said, you know, the judges don’t like that, they’re going to run for election just like I’m going to run for election. If they can’t take the heat of having the—of the law enforced in
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their place, then they don’t belong being judges, you know. I just never saw a right of people to contaminate the air that I breathe. People didn’t die at San Jacinto and they didn’t die at Guada Canal to have children breathe crap. And that’s what these people are doing. They had hazardous waste out on the ship channel in the port area, just barrels and barrels of the stuff un—you know, vented going right into the atmosphere. Just—they had a bare air—they were operating with no permit in a—in a place that had the worst stink, they used tetrahydrathiathene, the smell of natural gas so there would be times that even the polluters were snitching each other off from the ship channel because this place stunk so bad. So I said, it’s real simple. They need to be—their existence needs to be terminated. That until we terminate a company for violation of the law, not penalties, not putting their people in jail, execute them. And I—the District Court for—there’s a whole lot of—I didn’t have the Air Board behind me, the Texas Air Control Board was like this—by this time, this wimpy agency that was the lapdog of the polluters but I did have Harris County Pollution Control Department who supported me all the way but the legal issue was quite difficult when you didn’t have the state with you. So I lost at the District Court and made the same argument for the death penalty in the Court of Appeals. And, of course, they were offended also in a way, what do you mean, using the death penalty. That’s what it was. The death penalty. Well they settled the case and—and—and got right with God is what we used to say and—and they did one of the great things. That case of Harris County v. All Waste was the beginning of the prison work program because, instead of paying the $750,000 penalty that I said they owed plus all this other remediation, we got prisoners out of the Harris County Jail and cleaned up another site in East Harris County, the Wybill(?) Dump, which there was no money to clean up. And—and that was a case where I got people sentenced to jail too, Andrew and Ruth Emily Wybill were running one of these kinds of redneck dumps from hell out there in the—in the wetlands of the San Jacinto River. And, of course, in a capitalist society
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like this people frequently pay to have somebody get rid of their stuff and have it just go out of sight. Well it wasn’t enough—I remember standing on that site the day with the County Commissioner, Jim Fonteno and we were getting our picture taken because I had gotten these people put in jail and their dumps shut down but the citizens said, well that’s great Commissioner Fontino but who’s going to clean it up? And Commissioner Fontino turned to Mike Driscoll, the County Attorney, said well Mike, who’s going to clean this up? And Mike Driscoll turned to me and said Terry, well who’s going to clean this up and I said well, you know, All Waste has got a ton of dough and it—to pay to—for freedom, they would do anything here. And so we got them to manage this team of prisoners who worked for six months to take this illegal dump and, by hand, take it apart and take it to a dump that always paid for it to be adequately disposed. And that was the beginning of the conservation work program. And I sincerely believe that in the 21st century, what we have to do is people who are sent to jail instead of giving each other tattoos in jail and watching television and moving furniture around the courthouse or doing other things, what they need to do is get out and work with nature and—and—and—and—and make something of their lives and begin the remediation process themselves. So as luck would have it, I had another case and of another dump that caught fire in West Harris County, had the same thing, you know where I had everybody on the
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line and you could like put the gun to their head and end their corporate existence and in favor of that they financed the purchase of buses from the State Prison system so we started this program with the State to get—to get prisoners to come out and not treat them like slaves but treat them with education and respect and dignity and teach people. So they started this tree planting program at Sheldon Lake that became the Sheldon Lake Environmental Education Center. In fact, I got a call from Ann Hamilton one day because they had this application from Parks & Wildlife for some money to the Houston endowment. She asked me to take a look over it and then they had this huge amount of labor in this thing to clean up this property. And I said well hey, why don’t we use our prisoners? And that was really the first great experiment and Houston Endowment provided some of the money for the—for the gloves and shovels and saws and—and the picks and—and the things necessary and we had these funds from these suits and so the money, instead of going to the general revenue fund in the State of Texas, went to buy equipment and train the men. And if you go to the Sheldon Lake Education Center—Environmental Education Center today and—you know, it’s just—it’s just this beautiful place built by prisoners. And they were so happy, I mean, the men came back to it afterwards, you know, when they get out of jail, they come back and say well, you know, your old man was in the pen but here’s what he did. He built this pier and we made this—we made this nature trail and we planted all of these oak trees and we planted the—that so…so there’s in public service, my life has been so rich in the sense of being able to do good things and, of course, you wish that you could do more. And it’s the politics of it, you know. You asked about the politics and how it’s changed. I would say that the biggest change that I’ve observed at the courthouse with the most sadness is how much
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money it requires to run for office for judge. In 1992, I ran for judge of the 80th District Court and—and I got a lot of money and did—did well in the race. In fact, on the night of the election, I won the race by 23,000 votes. And you can’t know what it’s like in this system to win when you run a race and win as a judge. And it’s—like I went down to the courthouse club the next day on Wednesday and I ran a really good campaign of working my neighborhoods, you know, the West Harris County places where people knew me plus the issue oriented campaign and it was a tough race. I ran ahead of some elected Democratic judges in that race. You know, Terry O’Rourke the fighting prosecutor from the County Attorney’s office who had a, you know, positive name I.D. And there were these lawyers like jump out of their tables, you know, to come up and say oh Terry, you know, geez that’s a lovely tie you’ve got on. You know, I mean, just—just obsequious, offensively obsequious. I went home on Wednesday and there were fruit baskets at my back door and there was this—samples of cloth of a law firm that wanted to buy my robe. And I thought God, but that—is that subtle, you know, buy my robe. God, you know, I mean, wow. And—and then on Thursday afternoon, I got a call from the clerk’s office and—and they’d done a recount because John the Divine, John Devine, with the Christian right had been running against another judge and all the people that voted in that race, when they counted the recount vote, had voted for my opponent and so I lost by a minor amount of votes. And it was one of those things that what is it the—Rudyard Kipling poem, If, is that it–about if you can know that victory and defeat are the same illusion. Well I had them as the same experience. I mean, if—if you can understand the
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elation of being elected and having that just gushing approval and then have it taken away from you forty-eight hours later is a fascinating feeling because you know it’s not about you. You know, it’s just the power that flows through you. And I’ve often thought if I ever held power again in some significant way that it would be a great reminder. And I’ve thought also that, you know, if you sit on the bench long enough you think that all that kind of adulation and kind of shoe shining and ass kissing and all that other stuff that occurs, all that help they give you, you know, and helping your kids in college, all that kind of little help that you get all the time, it’s not about you, you know. It’s about that they want that decision. And you asked about how it’d changed, the one thing is money. And it’s—it drips in this courthouse. And I can tell you what it’s like when you run for office. You got to have money. You got to have that TV time. You got to have the billboards. You got to have the yard signs. You got to have the appearance because you’re looking for that 5 or 8% of the vote that’s undecided that’s going to go your way. And that takes M-O-N-E-Y. And you get on the phone and boy you call the lawyers. Who gives in judicial races? Lawyers. So you call the lawyers. And when you run for judge, you act like you are the judge so I call up, you know, and say hi, you know, Suzette, this is Terry O’Rourke. I need to talk to John—Judge Terry O’Rourke. I’m running the—this is the Judge Terry O’Rourke campaign and I’m Terry O’Rourke, you know, acting like you’re the judge. You didn’t say I am the judge. You say this is the judge Terry O’Rourke campaign and you just happen to have Terry O’Rourke. I need to talk to John O’Quinn. You just tell John I need 10,000 bucks for the fund raiser that’s coming up because he’s going to be a favored patron and I’m going to put him up there at
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the front of the list and, you know, so she’s sitting there in the reception area. Of course, people are sitting out there and she buzzes the line that says well John it’s Terry O’Rourke on the phone. He wants ten—Judge Terry O’Rourke on the phone. He wants $10,000. What does that look like to someone sitting there? When they walk into the lawyer’s office they ask well did you give Judge O’Rourke the 10,000 bucks because my case is in his court? Or so what is someone calling on behalf of Judge O’Rourke? Judge O’Rourke wants $5,000. Well, so what is this secret document in the courthouse that you have to have that no one’s ever going to be disbarred for malpractice, the number one question in the Harris County Courthouse when you go to trial is how much money did the other side give to the judge? And if you don’t know the answer to that question, you haven’t done your homework. And to think that it doesn’t influence someone is preposterous. And the question is why? Why do we have a system like that? And I think it—it’s just—most other states do not. They have what’s called a Missouri Plan or some modified Missouri plan and I think we have to have that. The idea that you should be making decisions from events or whether or not you’re Republican or Democrat where someone had given you money is just—I consider odious. And it permeates the courthouse. So the only ways that I’ve really be able to win, in a way, is to try your cases in public so that the pressure is on the judge. If you don’t have the money, you got to have the public. And, of course, I’ve been criticized strongly for trying my cases in the press. But as long as you were a public prosecutor it was the public’s business. Who was paying my salary? You know, the taxpayers. And who did I represent? The citizens and taxpayers. So I never had any significant complaints on disbarrment or anything else like that other than the one I was telling you about earlier at Baker & Botz a long time ago.
DT: Let’s go back to an earlier campaign. You went to into the campaigning business in 1976 to run for Railroad Commissioner in the State of Texas and I was curious how that campaign went and how the environment figured into that campaign?
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TO: Oh, this is fascinating. In 1976, I was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Railroad Commissioner of Texas which is one of the most obscure offices in the whole United States. By far, the vast majority of the people of Texas think the Railroad Commission has something to do with trains. It has nothing or just infinitesimal authority with trains. It is the—it was the state agency that set the price of oil in Texas with the oil allowable. It was a whole system of market proration demand that came right out of the 1930’s when oil would literally was ten cents a barrel and being wasted because it was so cheap. And so the Railroad Commission had a system of conservation which fixed the price, kept the oil in the ground and split up the pie so that everybody got cut back a little bit instead of people glutting the market. And they put together a thing called the Interstate Oil Compact Commission where all the states did it together and the result was price fixing and keeping the price of oil and gas higher than it otherwise would’ve been. And in some conservation sense stopped being waste. It became early—it—it was established to protect the farmers and other people from John D. Rockefeller
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and the shippers of oil back in the early period. But it—by the time early on, became a captive agency of big oil. And so when I ran for the Railroad Commission in 1976, I ran as an environmentalist and as a friend of the independent oil. And I had support from the independent oil people. And I’d read this book called Energy For Survival by a guy named Wilson Clarke and Clarke had this thing about alternatives, you know, that there were all kinds of other things that we should be doing, the number one being conservation. To be for conservation in 1976 was a little bit like being in favor of the communist party. I mean, you just can’t believe how much consumption drove everything. And that you see the more barrels of oil you consumed, then the more royalties there were for the state that, you know, helped the school children. I mean, it was just this whole mentality that the more you consumed, the better off you were, the richer you were, the more economic growth was connected to the consumption of oil and gas. And—and Clarke made the position really quite well is that, you know, you’re going to run out of oil someday and that there are decline curves in it and you’re going to end up looking like Appalachia. Said don’t kid yourself and so they ought to have real conservation, conservation of oil and gas with efficiency. And then earlier when I was in law school in 1971 is the one that really turned me onto the—to the Railroad Commission because I did a study for the Interstate Pipeline Study Committee, Senator Roy Harrington out of Port Arthur, and I found out the entire history of the Texas Railroad Commission since 1896 to then to 1971, it had never, ever sued an oil company for pollution. And then the front cover of my booklet report that I wrote had the picture of a—of an ordinary oil spill in the Bay of Galveston Bay and you could see the stream of oil coming out of it. Oil was so cheap you just wasted the oil instead of cleaning it up right. And the numbers were that in Texas we lost more oil every year by record amounts
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in the Railroad Commission logs than the Santa Barbara oil disaster. We had a Santa Barbara oil disaster every single year in Texas. And they didn’t do anything about it.
DT: From oil spills…
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TO: Leaking—leaking oil coming right out of rigs, pipelines and other things and they never sued anybody. What’s that? You know, who’s representing whom? You know, the people simply weren’t represented. So that was my motivation in that we needed to have alternative energy. So I ran the race against this living legend, Ben Ramsey, who had been Lieutenant Governor and he got out of the race—it was a big race. I ended up running third in the race and didn’t make the run-off. The guy who beat me was Jerry Sadler who had been the Land Commissioner and in 1970 when I’d written that report on land off pipes—office pipeline regulations, that report that I wrote for the Texas Senate Committee was put on the front page of every paper in Texas one week before the Democratic primary when Robert Armstrong a then state rep from Austin was running saying we got to clean up pollution and Armstrong was made Land Commissioner. And he was this bright, young guy, Bob Armstrong for clean water and—and all these kinds of things and I was Terry O’Rourke, this, you know, this twenty-four year old kid who had put himself out on the line to write this report for the Senate because if the election
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had gone the other way, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a job for the next week but Bob won by 50.09% of the vote and Jerry Sadler was kicked out. I ought to do one more trans—more little back thing in that—in that Bob, of course, gracious and thankful that I—the help that I had given him in his campaign and the official role of being a Senate Committee staffer and it was just a few weeks later that—that he and I were invited to the Johnson’s. And Lyndon was in that period of knowing that he was dying, you know, he was drinking more and he was smoking cigarettes and he’d built his own mausoleum, the LBJ School of Public Affairs with a library with, you know, written his book with Doris Kearns and—and so we were invited to dinner with the Johnson’s out at the ranch. And there was, of course, Ladybird and Lyndon and we had these little round tables and I sat next to Nellie Connally and Billy Graham was there. I mean, it was just—I mean it was just like—you know, I mean, it was just right out there in the hill country and here I was as this kid. And, of course, Armstrong had his own plane so we flew into the LBJ Ranch in Armstrong’s plane and he was the newly elected Commissioner of the General Land Office. And it just felt—and—and, of course, the Johnson’s were interested. Ladybird was interested in making sure that there was no pollution in the Highland Lakes, especially Lake LBJ. I mean, they were building the legacy from the beginning. You know, it is—but, you know, I knew exactly what it was and it was just these wonderful kinds of experiences of the richness of it. So my life in politics is—has been fun. Well anyway, the very Jerry Sadler who—who Armstrong defeated in 1970 primary defeated me in the race for the—for the Railroad Commission and so it goes, you know.
DT: But from there you went to work for…
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TO: Well yeah—it was—on the campaign trail, 1976, I was on the ballot the same day that Jimmy Carter and Lloyd Bentsen was running for the president against Jimmy Carter, people often forget that in ’76 and so I saw Carter and his people making campaign appearances the same place that I was because he wanted to win the con—the nomination of the party. And it was clear to me that Carter had read the same book. I mean, he—his energy plan was the same. And, in fact, after he won the election Wilson Clarke, the author of the book, was invited to Plains, Georgia and I got invited to become a member of the Carter Administration. So I became the Associate Deputy Administrator of the Federal Energy Administration and—and got to put into practice, nationwide, the very policies of conservation so we wrote the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act that made utilities buy electricity from generators of small power, co-generators of small power, co-generation and hydroelectric and wind and conservation—we put on energy conservation tax credits. I mean, everything that I had dreamed of or tried to do while running for Railroad Commission, reading Clarke’s book and others, I got to do with Jimmy Carter who really did declare the moral equivalent of war in getting the energy plan through. And—and in terms of Jerry, it—it was two years of pain getting the—getting the plan sold to Congress but then the State Department sent me all around the world to explain the Carter Energy Policy like in the Soviet Union. I would go lecture to the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences on the Jimmy Carter plan or to the People’s Republic of China, you
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know. So—so my life and public service have been—been really fun. But I guess to take you back to the politics of Texas, it all came, you know—sometimes when you’re defeated you have a—a greater experience. You know, good things happen if you’re lucky and in the light and right time, right place.
DT: I understand that you visited Saudi Arabia in your tour promoting President Carter’s energy plan…
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TO: They literally sent me around the world and I—it’s a—one of the joys of federal service is that you represent a national government in the most powerful country in the world and the passage of the Carter Energy Plan, we wanted other countries to adopt and understand our policy. And since I’d spent two years on the detail of selling it to members of Congress, you know, I knew the pitch and I knew the story line so I went around—when I got to Saudi Arabia they said, listen, we’ve got this great thing, we’ve got this room and you’re going to love the room and I thought you know what the room. I’d been—I’ve been, you know, by this time giving the Carter pitch like the gospel of Jimmy Carter all over the world, you know, so it didn’t matter to me. But I got into this room and if you can remember the history, it was the room with that horseshoe where the OPEC oil cartel met—if you could—had the image of that and from 1973 and I was
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sitting at the center of it and they had it filled with all these experts on energy and oil from Saudi Arabia and Abu Dabi and Dubai from the other emirates who were there and, you know, I gave the pitch and they’d ask me whatever questions they wanted. And they asked—it was incredible that I would say that I got the highest level of intelligence and questioning in Saudi Arabia of any place in the world that I’ve ever been including the United States on the level of thought that was going on. Like they asked me this question on marginal wells. What would happen if the price of oil went down in the United States? What would they do with marginal wells? And I said that I was sure that we would put some kind of exemption to keep the oil price up, at least for marginal wells. And that also I thought that—that Carter’s plan of…
DT: These are like stripper wells?
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TO: Yeah stripper wells, exactly, stripper wells…that we would have that. And that they asked well is Carter going to maintain the high prices that he was inducing with this crude oil equalization tax or other taxes on oil to boost the price and phase decontrol? And I said I was clear they were going to do it but the reality was if the unemployment rate went up too much that Jimmy Carter was a democrat and that you had to actually look for price reductions in order to keep the economy going. Which they appreciated the candor. That was not the party line, you know, at the time but they—they knew that. It—and so in the discussion especially about stripper wells and a few of the other pricing dis—decisions they said, well you know Mr. O’Rourke, we have modeled our pricing behavior and OPEC off of the Texas Railroad Commission and when you describe the practices that you’re proposing for the United States government, it sounds just like you’re the Texas Railroad Commission with the Interstate Oil Compact Commission in assisting us the possibility in raising price. And I thought golly, it had finally come full circle. You know, the—the environmentalists from Houston, Texas who had run for Railroad Commission was now standing from—I was on the White House staff in this room in Abu—in—in—in the middle of Saudi Arabia, I guess it was Jidda—Riyadh—it was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and they were telling me that they had modeled their behavior after the Railroad Commission. You know, and it was just as frank and as honest and I thought, wow, you know, here it is, the world of oil. And it was clear to me that we had to get out of this, that we had to use whatever means we could to get us unhooked from Saudi Arabia and from Iran and they sent me over there at the time when the Shah was falling. And so a part of my briefing was what were we going to do if the Shah fell. So it really was a, you know, in terms of fascination, in terms of government service like you’d go into these countries and they’d take you into the White Room, you know, that’s the one that has no microphones or anything so you got like the straight poopy. And then I would get stuff from the CIA, you know, of—of what were the impermissible or permissible stuff. I would be sending stuff back and forth and then because I was a visiting guest from the White House, I’d meet with the Ambassador and they would send messages to me so that I could send them back to the White House so they wouldn’t have to send it back to the Secretary of State and go through the other channel and since my stuff went to DOE as well as the White House, DOE was deeply
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connected with CIA since Sussinger had been the head of the CIA. So, I mean, it was really a fascinating feeling of the thing. And—and you got to—to play in the world of government. It was just—it was a—and—and, you know, the thing is we actually had an enormous effect, that the Carter plan, I believe that history is going to judge Jimmy Carter much more kindly than the public did. His lack of communication skills were obvious but if you could take a look at the firmness and the commitment and the integrity, the biggest one came from me in—in 1980 when Ted Kennedy decided to run against Carter for the democratic nomination. He was going to battle this incumbent president and, of course, Ted’s attack from the left cut the guts out of the Carter plan so, I mean, he cut—we—we had to have the enthusiasm of the entire party because we were taking a lot of decisions—no constituency of the democratic party of significance supported Carter’s decision for phase decontrol of oil and the deregulation of natural gas. It was a courageous decision on what was done right for the country. Very few people in the oil business were smart enough to see what Carter was doing. Instead they were backing Reagan and backing all this right-wing junk and Carter was the one who brought more prosperity in—in a—in a—and—and kept the economy together through this awful period. We had terrible inflation and—and—and unemployment and high interest rates because of the amazing price rises that had come out of the OPEC oil embargo and we had to get out of it and Jimmy Carter—I believe, I sincerely believe that—that to be there and watch him make that courageous decision because the opposite would have been the easy one—turn on the spigots, keep the prices down, just get me through the next election. He knew that if he didn’t do it, it couldn’t get done. And, of course, it set the setting for the 1980’s for the kind of prosperity because we—we had made all these great
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transitions—America broke off of—of energy production as being connected to—to national income and that was—it took courage and it took a way of thinking. I think we have to do that same way of thinking now about pollution and contamination in general, in the same way that we did here in Houston, Texas about racism. That we have to say that we just can’t do it anymore. We have to do it a different way. And it’s—it’s that fundamental.
DT: Following up on the energy story and this same sort of issue, how you disconnect from something that has been the status quo, you went to California later and got involved in the hydroelectric business…
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TO: I did—I did—I wanted to…
DT: …in a different light…
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TO: …I did—I wanted to do something—my life—I had been blessed in government service. I’d been—I’ve worked for all kind of government thing—I wanted to, in 1980, after Reagan defeated Carter, go out and work in the private sector and do things, you know, positively. And so I’d look at the small hydroelectric business and there were wonderful opportunities that had been passed up by Pacific Gas & Electric. But the place that it was the worst position was California in terms of being on foreign oil and also having air pollution so it was the best market, had the highest prices of electricity so it was the place to go to put in small hydro. And the problem with small hydro at the time was that nobody had built hydroelectric plants really since World War II, that gas turbines and—and oil and—and nuclear had replaced it so you couldn’t buy small or medium-sized hydroelectric turbines other than like in Finland or in Switzerland and they were very expensive. There was a world cartel on turbines and it just so happened that I had helped with Dr. Sussinger in getting the normalization of relationship with the People’s Republic of China. So the one group that wasn’t in on the cartel was the Red Chinese. I mean, their technology was like 1930’s. They had like stolen the technology from General Electric in the ‘30’s and they built these hydroelectric plants that were like battle ships, that were completely overbuilt to be abused because they didn’t have the—the maintenance and the—and the precision to do it. So I went over to the People’s Republic of China and I was lucky I had an oil company here in Texas that said, Terry, we’ll finance the deal because they were borrowing money—this was when I was in private, you know, out in the real world, out in the—outside the government is because they were making all this money in the oil business and they knew the price was going to
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fall and they needed to lock in the profits that they had on long-term. So they wanted to get into alternative energy. So I went to the People’s Republic of China and I was the largest—my company, Consolidated Hydroelectric, was the largest purchaser in 1981 of equipment from China and it was—it was different than it is now, to say the least, normalization had, you know, just occurred and they were just—and so I was in this plant, you know, and I saw these just hand-made equipment that was just God my—I had my engineers there and they loved equipment. So they asked me this question. Mr. O’Rourke, we would like an honest criticism of what you see here and whatever deep questions you have about our process. And I said, you know, I’m an American and I don’t know what it’s like to deal with a communist government like this but in our system the customer is always right. We say the customer is always right. Well here, you know, I don’t have the feeling that you’re dedicated to customer. I mean, you’re in a centrally stand—planned state of—from my point-of-view, a monolithic, totalitarian communism, how am I supposed to think that the money from my corporation is going to get me what I want when there are problems that always happen in manufacture and delivery of goods. And they had like my American delegation of which I was the head and I had like insurance person, finance person, technical hydro person and a couple of the wives of some of those people and—and on my side, and then I had on the other side, you know, the head of the factory and the deputy head of the factory and the others who were sitting across this kind of table in the thing. And they—obviously the old man—the—who’s in charge of the plant leaned back and closed his eyes and he said, at the Number 7 Hydroelectric plant manufacturers here in Hongze China, we have a saying that you should tell your people, Mr. O’Rourke. At our plant, the customer is emperor. So boy, I mean, they all knew they could throw their little red books out. You know, it
0:45:21 – 2031
was over. They wanted the money because man I had cash, you know. I was dealing with cash so I could—write the check. And—and so we were suddenly in business and I got a small hydroplant and it’s still producing electricity this very day from the western side of Mt. Lassen which is one of the most beautiful places in the whole world, the north valley of—of California. You know having grown up in the swamp of Texas to be up there with Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen and to be building with environmental integrity to put power into the grid to go to the Silicon Valley to make the revolution in electronics. You know, I felt like I was in the—I felt like I was just doing the work of God, you know. And, of course, it took 125% of my life. I mean, it just—it would—to build a—a $2 million hydroelectric plant just out of nothing and have the equipment shipped from the Shanghai Harbor, you know, to Seattle and to San Francisco and get it put together—it was one of the great joys in my life. And I was so proud of Hydro because Hydro—it took sunlight and gravity. Essentially the photons from the sun hit the water and boiled it and made steam or made it turn into gas and it precipitated in the mountains and the gravity pulling down that water would turn the generator to pump the electrons to make the electricity. So my system was sunlight and gravity and it had like a 78% efficiency. I mean, compare that to oil or coal and things and it had no waster other than the heat. You know, what was heat waste? And—nothing. And so what did I do?
0:46:57 – 2031
TO: And so if you can imagine what it’s like to be in love with beauty, to have a system to love a machine. I was not an engineer. You know, I was a scientist at Rice University but to have a system with no impoundments, no—no dams, run of river so that we had these habitat controls where you would redo the parts of the streams so that our fish production went up and not down. We took water out of the thing to put it in a pipe and run it down through but we enhanced—we had an environmental enhancement program so that we had more trout than when we began and, I mean, gosh we faced terrible environmental opposition. The environmentalists have got feet in concrete and heads in concrete just as much as anybody in the industry so when you say I’m coming in as a hydroelectric developer, they say, stay out of California. Some Texas oil company wants to develop and I’d, you know, sit down and say let’s take a look, you know. I’m not a mining company, I’m not a timber company. I’m a small hydro company and your future is you’re going to have more oil put in San Francisco Bay, build more nuclear plants or have an enhanced environment with my hydroelectric projects that are small, that fit into the grid, decentralized power system that’s power to the people. You know, think about it. It took a lot, you know, but we got through it and Jerry Brown was the governor and I got the stuff through. And God bless Jerry Brown at the time. His—but his big policy people were still against it. I mean, the big policy people in Sacramento—hydro was just—they couldn’t make the big adjustment. But anyway it was—it was—if you can imagine what it’s like—I had grown up here in this kind of—the humidity of Houston and the living on the coast and I’d never seen stars like that, you know, to be at 5000 feet or so—I mean, to have a project that was 2500 feet above sea level that I would drive up
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to and look out at night on this hydro project was underway and see the stars. I’d never seen them like that before over a long period of time. And I was just so in love with hydro and then I thought for a moment, what was I really producing? Those photons at that minute were going for the lights and the contamination that my product was—was contamination, that light pollution—and—and I guess it started my—because I brought the—the plant in China, it—it opened my look into Eastern philosophy and looking into the dark to find the light and to realize that I’d grown up in this culture. This is another one of the—what you call ahas or spiritual experiences in my life, that I came to understand that—that I was a part of the contamination too even though that my production of it was so clean, the end use of it was still so incredibly filthy. And I’d look down there in the Central Valley of California see all that light going up into the sky and that from the perspective of the human species of how many of us were no longer in contact with the awe of what was out there. You know, I was out there—I was—I was thirty-five years old the first time I’d really, really seen the night sky at a—in a consistent way. And the—and I thought, you know, I’m still a part of the problem. And if I want to do one other thing, I’ll tell you about the courthouse if I can. Is there was a day when I was down, just right over here, in the record section of looking for the records on Andrew Wyble(?), he had a fake I.D. and claimed that he wasn’t Andrew Wyble but he had an old fingerprint because he’d been out on bond before that was stored over there in the building. And I went over there and there’s these people there who said, well Mr. O’Rourke while you’re over here, wouldn’t you like to see the old records? And, you know, they have wonderful old records, you know. And I thought well hell, if the records are older than the people, I’d like—I love old documents, you know. So they pulled out records from the Republic of Texas just sitting out there, no air conditioning, no filing system at all and they had—they had—this was 1992 and I remember it just like yesterday. They had like citizenship papers. To become a citizen you could be—you—
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you could be Gerard from—from—from Germany, you know, and you would actually be from Saxony, you know, and you’d make a petition to the Commissioner’s Court of the County of Harrisburg, Republic of Texas with the endorsement of the elector of Saxony or the elector of Hanover and you’d pay your five dollars in gold and become a citizen of the Republic of Texas. Beautiful documents. And then they had documents on like wills, you know, probating wills and very same language that we have right now, you know, comes now, Terrence O’Rourke, Attorney in fact for the estate of Mrs. John Henry Kirby Taylor Hunt, the widow of the—now deceased widow of Colonel John Henry Kirby Taylor Hunt, here of the Battle of San Jacinto would show that her estate has 11,000 acres in Harris County, Brazoria County, etc. and the assets being all these cows and all these people. And for the first time in my life I was looking at the records of slavery and they had these things out, I mean, I was fascinated—I never been through original slave records in my hands. So while the probate was pending they had these records that—that—that lest not the assets of the estate be wasted, they’re having an auction to auction off temporarily the services. So Willy, age 9, went to the Shep’s Dairy and Essomina(?), his mother, went to the Kirby Timber Company. I was watching the break-up of the African families right there in the documents of the courthouse. I’m—just never occurred to me that the very system—I was a Senior Assistant County Attorney—the very system, the very courthouse of which I was a part, was a primary instrument of slavery. And they had titles to the human beings just like auto titles, you know, bought in Mississippi. And I remember, at the time, because I was thinking, what was it like to be
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the lawyer that signed that document? How did he feel? And instead of being my normal judgmental self, on that—I—I—I asked the question, what was it really like? I mean, think about it. What was it like to break up a family in slavery? Well the answer is that a lot of the lawyers, especially Irish lawyers, had been here before the revolution were Catholics and they were not in favor of slavery. So it wasn’t obvious that this guy who signed the document was in favor of it. But I asked the deeper question. I had man—by this time, I had lots of papers around this courthouse that had my name on them. You know, where I thought of myself as this heroic person fighting for a clean environment. But I had this insight because it was 1992, it was the year of Columbus and I’d grown up like everybody else thinking Columbus, the explorer, you know, the hero in 1492 of discovering America. And there was this, of course, enormous reinterpretation of the experience of Columbus from the native Americans’ perspective and including the mission movement of which being Catholic I was, you know, Father Uni Pera Sera(?) setting up these missions like in San Francisco, California and San Diego and Los Angeles and Sacramento. Well they also had them in San Antonio. In fact, the—the Alamo was a mission set up by the Franciscans. And, of course, these missions killed more Indians than the soldiers ever did with diseases. I mean, hey you not have an environmental impact statement. I mean, the history of killing that the religion had
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actually killed the Native Americans. Well I was asking myself the question when you reinterpret Columbus and from the perspective of 1492, he was especially brutal even by the standards of the time. So I asked a 150 years from now, I was looking at these documents of slavery. What if 150 years of now would they look at these documents signed by Terry O’Rourke, these compromises, these judgments made in pollution cases and I came to an understanding it was not—not happy. I looked for a moment and saw myself and yeah, okay, I was making the City of Houston cleaner but what was going out of the Houston Ship Channel, herbicides, pesticides. We had products going out of this channel that could not be sold in the United States of America so that there’d be someone in Salvador that was dying of orange pickers’ disease because they were suffering from the contamination of a product that couldn’t be sold in the United States of America. And we were—we were buying the grapes from Chile that had—you know, had the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers manufactured in Houston, some of which were prohibited from sale here. We had this enormous contamination that we were a part of the green revolution which was turning the earth into a feed lot. And I—because I was more like a health officer, I saw myself in this dark vision as a health officer at Auschwitz trying to make sure that the SS was all healthy as they were going about there business. Oh boy it was a dark nightmare. But anyway, I mean, that’s just a way of seeing but it was a way of seeing myself as being something other than hero. And I came to an understanding that there’s no amount of litigation that if I’d doubled—if I got elected County Attorney and doubled or tripled the staff, that we were still responsive, we were reacting to a system that the death of the earth was occurring and we, in the law, in our politics, in the democratic party, were not doing enough. And I believe that that’s true to this very day.
DT: Terry, you told us a little bit about the history that’s held in some of the records at the County Offices. Can you also tell about some of the history that’s held and people that have lived here such as Elmer Kleb and some (?)…
0:56:21 – 2031
TO: Boy, Elmer Kleb, that’s a guy who wasn’t in the records. I—I remember reading on the front page of the paper is that—is that Harris County and the Houston Independent School District and the Tomball Independent School District and the County of Waller were going to take the land from this old man because he hadn’t paid his taxes and his name was Elmer Kleb. It was right out in Tomball, Northwest Harris County, Cy-Fair School District, excuse me. Anyway, the amazing thing was this guy had never paid his taxes, his property taxes and he had these woods that he lived in. And Elmer Kleb was a literally the hermit in the woods. As a child, he’d always been a little bit strange or different and he’d gone at places like—and collected seeds and so he’d taken this farm, his family—all the members of his family had died and he was the last one and he’d—he was a gatherer of seeds and he had planted this enormous forest that was a—now an ecological relic. There were grasses there that were in no other place because, you see, all these farms—they’d clear the area for farms. So he had like walnuts and hickory and things like that from the early history of Harris County. Always, as a kid, he’d go to the San Jacinto River and pick up nuts and plant them. And his family was okay, they put these trees over there. Well Elmer had had this place for himself for decades and had never paid his taxes. And they finally said, hey man, you don’t pay your taxes, you go to
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go. If he had had an agricultural tax exemption, he could’ve have handled it, you know. But he didn’t have an agricultural tax exemption because Elmer had never had a birth certificate, Elmer never had a driver’s license, Elmer never had a social security number. For the purpose of the United States of Government, for the State of Texas and Harris County, this man did not exist. His native language as he growing up was German. He spoke English pretty well but he lived out there as a hermit and he was like transparent in nature. He had these wild animals that would like come up to him. You know, like in the history of mysticism like Francis of Assisi or something. These animals that were not—not pets of his would come up to him because he lacked the odor. He had no telephone. He had no electricity. He lived on food that people brought, his family and others, just like a mendicant or something in some Buddhist thing. But Elmer was not—he was not pitching anything, he was not selling anything. He was just being Elmer. And he went out there and he said, well why does the government want money from me? I don’t do anything for the government and the government doesn’t do anything for me. Why should—I don’t get it, you know, I don’t understand it. He just—he was in a different zone. He was in—you ought to read—but he didn’t read like the sports page or, you know, what the sales were on at K-Mart or something like that. He would read things about the world and the earth and when confronted with this he said—I asked him, you know, what Elmer, you know, and God bless Mike Driscoll the County Attorney. He said let’s work something out here. And you can’t forgive taxes in our system. You can’t. So what we did was we worked out an elaborate thing where Elmer gave his land to the Trust for Public Lands and Terry Hershey and lots of other people helped in putting
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this thing together but it was a very complex transaction. What Elmer gave his land to the government in exchange for a life estate it made Kleb woods so that forever Elmer’s dream is and was—he said to me, you know, we don’t need anymore parks for people. We need parks for animals. There’s not enough places for animals to be. And, of course, see in Kleb Woods the animals would go out and hunt or gather from there and come back to the Kleb Woods to live because it was clean and safe and there was no hunting or anything like that. So he’s still out there but he’s a man who did not exist. It’s one of those just great pleasures cause this thing was going to be sold to developers and bulldozed and—and we made it happen. It was one of those nice things that you do in public service.
End of reel 2031
Start of reel 2032
DT: Terry, we’re in Pasadena right on the Southeastern outskirts of Houston in front of one of the chemical plants down here that seems like a good setting to talk about air quality, one of the big challenges environmentally for the city.
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TO: We have the second dirtiest air in the United States of America here by everyone’s consensus. And I think that that’s really wrong. I believe that it may be filthier than Los Angeles. This year, for example, we’re going to have a higher ratings on our violations of the ozone standards. What it is is this is Pasadena or as we—we from around here call it Stinkadena. They say, come from Stinkadena where the air is greener. What you’re at is really this is ground zero for the killing of the planet. This is the center of the largest petrochemical complex in the United States of America from New Orleans, Louisiana to Corpus Christi is sometimes called the cancer coast because of the chronic low-dose contamination. What it does to your endocrine system, what it does to your hormones, we’re just now discovering. So you’ve got kids with birth defects or you have organs that are not working right or if you have cancer, we have Alzheimer’s, all kinds of diseases that happen to you, it comes from the exposure just to this. And the reality is that this is a—a city where the business leaders and the government leaders have looked at this as a kind of a Faustian bargain. They thought that it’s necessary. And the reality, the sad reality is it’s not. You can have refineries and have them not pollute but we don’t. There’s technology. There’s green technology for refineries and petrochemical plants just like there is for architecture or engineering but we don’t have it. And we, in Houston, Harris County, are behind the country. Why? Because it is cheaper to buy politicians than it is to buy pollution abatement equipment. Now there is a change of consciousness occurring I pray and I hope and that is that people understand that in the 21st century we are competing against all the other cities in the world for who wants to live here and what you want to draw here. For example, Compaq computer’s here and it’s one of the largest computer manufacturers in the world. They have to compete with Dell computer and the Silicon Valley to bring the brightest minds to design the next generation computer. Well if you said—if you’re sitting at MIT or at Cal Tech and they
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said, hey honey, I’ve got a job offer in Houston, Texas, let me just check out what it’s like. Oh well, it’s number one in sol—in hazardous waste. It’s on the toxic release inventory of the EPA. Texas leads the country and Harris County leads Texas or if they said, they’ve got more superfund sites in Harris County than any other place in the country. Who’d want to go there? So you have to pay more money to get the kind of talent that you want. Enormous costs in terms of hurting people, asthma and all kinds of diseases connected to premature death and pain and this is what it’s about. In another sense…
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TO: So politicians buying politicians is cheaper than buying pollution abatement equipment but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can stand for the best available technology. And it—we could be the leaders in the country, in the world, at exporting the technology of air pollution clean-up but we’re not. Now I think that there’s something happening now. Like I say, I pray that there’s something happening because Texas has to meet the United States standards of the Environmental Protection Agency by the year 2007 and we’re not meeting it. And you say, why are we not meeting it? Because we’re sitting here thinking cut some slack. The effort of industry and the groups that the—of the oligarchy in Houston has been well let’s redefine the rules. The rules say that we’ve got a problem, change the rules, change the standards. And there’s still a belief even now, if we just elect George Bush, governor of Texas, if we elect him President, he’ll be our man and he’ll cut some slack for us. We can somehow make it and keep going like we are. And my belief is that’s not only preposterous, it’s undesirable. The idea that republicans from all other parts of the country would want to give their transportation funds to a place that doesn’t comply. To get an idea how bad the non-compliance is here, can you imagine that if Houston had mountains like Los Angeles does, instead of the Gulf of Mexico, we have the greatest winds so that the mixing that occurs here is, you know, is astounding. If Houston had mountains like L.A. has, our pollution here would be worse than Mexico City but, you know, we ain’t got no mountains. What we got is a whole system of about forty or fifty polluters, mostly on the Houston Ship Channel operating a system if they can just do a few more years. A few more ninety day reports where they’re showing profits instead of investments. And until we have changes in our campaign laws, until politicians are elected because they represent the people as opposed to being kind of the paid lackeys of the industrial complex, we’re not going to be better off. It’s worse than that in terms of death rate. You know, people talk about the war on drugs and we just came from the courthouse, in the Harris County Courthouse, we kill more people legally in Texas by execution and Harris County leads Texas more than any other state, we’re the leaders in killing. And I think that that’s a despicable statistic. We kill retarded people who commit crimes. But you know what’s worse is we kill tax paying citizens like myself with this kind of behavior, that we are leaders in killing the earth. And it’s not just here that we’re doing it to ourselves, it’s the very products that come out of here. The contaminants, you know, the—are one thing but the herbicides, the pesticides, the fertilizers, the plastics, they’re such a part of our life. And I don’t look at these people as villains anymore. It’s easy to say hey, we’re wearing white hats, we’re on the great crusade. They are simply a manifestation of the culture that we represent. And I believe that we will not have change until you and I and others come with a new mythology, a new story about what it’s about.
DT: Can you tell about a new mythology or a message that you might pass onto the next generation?
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TO: If—if I could speak to the writers, to the songwriters, to the poets, to the—to the mystics, to the ones who would be writing the—the new version of the Rama Yana(?) or the—or the Bogalagita(?) or to the Bible or the Koran or any of the great works, it would be to have a message about beauty and loving the earth instead of our father who art in heaven, it should be our mother who is on earth that we love you and that—and that heaven is right here if we can live it. The ecological harmony that’s available to us is available right now if we choose it and instead we’re sitting in an ecological holocaust killing the planet, literally killing the life system of the planet with the chemicals that come out of this system. That’s who we are. And, you know, you could say that Houston, Harris County, is worse than some other place. It’s actually you can see it better because there’s no veneer. It’s all raw and it’s right here but it is our entire culture and—and how we change that—it’s going to be through film and through music and through leadership and—and I believe it’s driven by allurement and beauty. We’ve got to have a better story and more beauty.
DT: Talk about beauty and a sense of a heaven on earth, can you tell us about a particular spot that you have enjoyed going to, a natural spot maybe that…
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TO: Well, you know, I have two of them. One of them is that when I started working with the prison work program out with Sheldon Lake this guy, one of the Parks & Wildlife people came to me and he said, well you know, we’ve got this invasive weed that I thought you’d like to take a look at. He put me on the air boat. It was about 95º but when you’re on an air boat, you know, it gets cool real quickly. And he took me to the Sheldon Lake Reservoir. A—a dam that was built in World War II so that we could, you know, have water for industry to kill Germans and Japanese but this now is a—is a—probably the most exciting environmental education center we have and out there were 100,000 blooming lotus flowers, Texas lotus flowers. And, you know, I who had studied in India, in Japan about the special lotus flower, here it was treated as a weed but when it’s blooming, it’s beautiful. So—so if you can just have a vision of what it’s like to be on an air boat and go through 100,000 lotus flowers, it’s just—it’s just one of the delights. Another would be High Island, Texas right on the coast. The birds come from Yucatan like they’ve come for, you know, fifty million years and they come—and in High Island you see the neo-tropical birds come in of exquisite beauty and this just right here. And—and what we have it and why we have it, the richness of this ecology of the swamp if we will just embrace it and love. I believe that there will be more eco tourists in the 21st century that will come to Galveston Bay than go to San Francisco Bay because we will start seeing life and the beauty that life can be here .
DT: Well said. Thank you very much.
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TO: Thank you.
End of reel 2032
End of interview with Terry O’Rourke