Activists take on a petroleum company in the Lone Star State
by Jennifer Hattam
With 95 percent of the vast Lone Star State in private hands, theres not much wild land for the public to enjoy. So its no surprise that Padre Island National Seashore, just off the south Texas coast, is a popular destinationfor people and marine life alike.
Every April, several dozen endangered Kemps ridley sea turtles venture onto the seashore to lay their eggs. And every pleasant weekend, thousands of families drive down from Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and other nearby cities to camp, fish, birdwatch, and sunbathe on its 80 miles of sand, marsh, and grasslands. "With Texas growing so quickly, this is one of the last special places where people can go to connect with nature," says local Sierra Club activist Mary Lou Campbell.
But Padre Island, the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, may not remain peaceful for long. With the blessing of the Bush administration, BNP Petroleum is moving forward with a plan to build up to 30 natural-gas wells on the seashore over the next 30 years. Their construction will bring 18-wheeler trucks over the beach some 40 times a day.
When the National Park Service granted the first drilling permit in February 2002, it came as a surprise to most local residents: The agency had proposed approving the permit on the day after Thanksgiving, and just before Christmas, the public-comment period closed as quietly as it had opened. With the drilling of the first well now complete, the deep ruts created by truck traffic may keep the Kemps ridley, already the rarest sea turtle, from its usual nesting grounds. "The turtles may lay their eggs closer to the water, where its more dangerous," says Fred Richardson of the Clubs Lone Star Chapter. "The difference in temperature can also change the sex of the embryonic turtle and skew the populations gender balance."
In late March, just before nesting season, Richardson organized a "camp-in" on Padre Island to bring attention to the turtles fate. Almost a hundred people camped on the seashore and participated in a beach cleanup, a hike to the drilling site, and a sea-turtle sand-sculpture contest. (The turtles are accustomed to humans; as part of a 25-year effort to help the breeding population reestablish itself, staff and volunteers conduct daily patrols during nesting season.)
The Sierra Club is seeking a federal buyout of the oil and gas rights below Padre Island National Seashore and the adjacent coastal waters. This would protect the seashore while providing a sizable sum to Texas schools, which currently receive all lease fees and bonuses paid to the state for drilling in national parks. President Bush approved a similar buyout in brother Jebs Florida last year. "The administration said it was because of public sentiment over Big Cypress National Preserve, but I didnt hear about any big demonstrations out there," says Richardson. "Were just trying to show that people in Texas love their parks as much as people in Florida do."
In April, Sierra Club members reelected one incumbent and chose four new representatives to the Clubs 15-member board of directors, which sets conservation priorities and oversees staff and volunteer activities. The winners of the election are:
Robbie Cox, a current director and former Club president, and a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (28,814 votes)
Bernie Zaleha, an environmental attorney and forest activist from Boise, Idaho (28,192 votes)
Doug La Follette, Wisconsin secretary of state and one of the organizers of the first Earth Day (27,283 votes)
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a wildlife conservationist from Ketchikan, Alaska (25,683 votes)
Lisa Force, the Arizona program director for Living Rivers, a river-restoration group (24,349 votes)
Nine percent of Club members participated in this years election; of the 68,474 votes cast, 21 percent were submitted online. To recommend a nominee for next years election, contact Barbara Coman at email@example.com.
Activists take their censored message to the streets
Phoenix residents waiting eagerly for the ice-cream man this summer might be surprised to see a Sierra Club truck cruising down their block.
Instead of selling sweets, its rallying the public: A massive coal mine proposed by the Salt River Project, a local utility, would need millions of gallons of water a month to settle its coal dust. In the fragile desert, a draw of this magnitude could dry up Zuni Salt Lake, a sacred Native American site in western New Mexico (see "The Salt Woman and the Coal Mine," November/December 2002).
With its partners in the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition, the Club went mobile with a paneled truck bearing the political message that two billboard companies, Clear Channel Outdoor and Viacom Outdoor, refused to accept. Viacom suggested the Club use a "positive message" instead; Clear Channel backed out after three months of negotiations because its regional president expressed "personal unease" with the advertisement. (Recently, three Idaho radio stations owned by parent company Clear Channel Communications, the nations largest radio broadcaster, also pulled a Sierra Club ad, this one denouncing factory farms.)
Personal feelings may have had less to do with the decision, however, than cold cash. Clear Channel leases the land for some 30 of its billboards from the Salt River Project, which is also one of the companys major advertising clients. Brett Wilkison
"[Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett] Favre is not known for his conservative tendencies. If he were a politician, hed be much more likely to get his financing from the Sierra Club than the NRA. If he werent a quarterback, hed probably be a riverboat gambler." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 18, 2002
"I heard the Sierra Club has decided to come out against [the] nomination. And, you know, theyre no fringe group. They have a lotta clout." lobbyist to senator on the NBC political drama Mister Sterling, February 21, 2003
Build It and They Will Sue
Look over a highway planners conceptual drawings for a new freeway, and youll most likely see blue skies and little traffic. But those rosy images fail to account for the high levels of polluted air that new and expanded urban roadways bring with them. In Las Vegas, Sierra Club members hope they have found a way to make the process a bit more realistic. When the federal government failed to consider health consequences as well as mass-transit alternatives in its proposal to widen U.S. Highway 95 from six to ten lanes, the Club sued to stop the project. Its the first time a suit has been based on scientific research linking traffic-generated pollution to cancer.
It likely wont be the last. Studies have connected highway pollution to increased childhood leukemia risk in Denver, tagged vehicles as the culprit for air-pollution related cancer risk in Southern California, and linked heavy truck traffic to elevated asthma rates in Buffalo. Club-sponsored research concluded that widening U.S. 95 would cause up to 1,400 more cancers per one million people over 70 years, more than ten times what the EPA considers a serious risk. Even in the gambling capital of America, thats a chance many people dont want to take.
Miami Virtue Stuart Reed wants all 2.5 million Miami-area residents to know the simple pleasure he feels when paddling the turquoise waters and mangrove swamps of his citys waterway-next-door, 428-square-mile Biscayne Bay.
So in April, Reed, chair of the Florida Chapters Miami Group, hooked up with a fellow conservationist and a local outfitter to undertake an exploration that Ponce de León would envy: a 120-mile, eight-day circumnavigation of Biscayne Bay by kayak. They wanted to show area residents whats right under their causeways, and to begin building public support to protect it. "Most people see the bay from their cars, and know its pretty to look at, while most boaters just pass through it on their way to the open ocean," Reed says. "We want to show them its wilderness." In fact, the bays coral reef system, home to 200 fish species, is part of the third-largest reef in the world and the only one so close to a highly urbanized area.
But the bay shoreline must contend with one of the worlds largest ports, a Superfund landfill, a nuclear-power plant, and speeding boaters who put slow-moving manatees at risk. Those intrusions fade away, Reed says, when he paddles out to view dolphins, puffer fish, sponges, and corals. During the tour, in fact, three mullet jumped out of the water and into his kayakproof that Reed isnt puffing up the bays claim to wildness.
Overpowering Georgia Power Georgias forests and Atlantans lungs have a lot in common: Both are damaged by smog-forming pollutants. That explains why the Sierra Clubs Georgia Chapter and Georgia ForestWatch teamed up with Physicians for Social Responsibility this January to file a "citizen suit" against utility giant Georgia Power. According to the suit, the companys coal-fired Wansley power plants on the Chattahoochee River southwest of Atlanta registered more than 4,000 Clean Air Act violations since 1998; if the groups prevail, the U.S. District Court in Atlanta could impose fines of up to $27,500 per violation.
Studies show that ozone pollution from power plants like Wansley obscure vistas and stunt forest growth, while their emissions cause 18,700 asthma attacks in metropolitan Atlanta each year, and some 1,600 deaths annually statewide. "The people of Georgia deserve clean air, and the natural environment requires no less," says Colleen Kiernan, the Clubs Georgia Energy Project organizer.
Meet My Offal Neighbors Most people buy a video recorder to document family memories, but Ben Gregoria used his to capture images of discarded hog parts and the shrieks of pigs on the way to slaughter. His hour-long footageonce shown to a horrified jurywas instrumental in persuading a hog-slaughtering plant in east Alabama to shut down in the middle of a civil trial.
Soon after Gregoria and his wife, Nancy, moved into the Spring Brook subdivision of rural Alexandria in 1998, two meat companies bought adjacent land and set up a slaughterhouse. Nearby residents began complaining of the smell of excrement, squeals of hogs, and teeming insects. When the 300-hog-per-day facility failed to address their concerns, the Gregorias and their neighbors banded together and sued. Citing a state nuisance law, the group claimed that because of the offal next door, their homes "ceased to be a proper place of rest and repose from the cares and troubles of the day." Hammering the point home were Gregorias images of entrails and dead pigs littering the slaughterhouse yard. The Gregorias, both active in the Alabama Chapters Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Steering Committee, hope that the stark video will finally convince Alabama legislators to allow county commissions to regulate industrial animal facilities. Without such authority, local communities can only slog it out in the courts.
Lone Stars To remind Texans of the prairies, forests, springs, lakes, and coastal areas that are quickly disappearing into the Southwests sprawling urban landscape, the Lone Star Chapter prepared "Special Places of Texas," a report that highlights 32 sites that desperately need protection. Well-known locales like Padre Island National Seashore (see page 57) make the list, along with more obscure areas like a ten-acre patch of forest near the Fort Worth zoo. Along the Trinity River, that forest supports great blue herons and turtles and could provide much-needed recreation for residents of the vast Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. The task of preservation is daunting: Texass population could double to 40 million by 2050, and the state places second-to-last in per capita spending on state parks.
Spotlight Sierra Club activism in your area by writing to Reed McManus at Sierra, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; fax (415) 977-5794.
For the inside story about Club conservation campaigns and how you can get more involved, ask for a free subscription to the bimonthly print newsletter the Planet. Send an e-mail to email@example.com, or write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441.