It was about seven or eight years ago when I first started to hear about Las Brisas from an oceanographer I know. I am a busy working mom and had not been keeping up with the local news as much as I should have been. I went to a meeting of concerned citizens and discovered that a big corporation was planning to build a petroleum coke plant right by our port, about two miles from my house, in the center of our highly populated city (the 8th largest in Texas).
No petroleum coke plant has ever been permitted in a population center.
For a reason.
The pollution produced by burning petroleum coke is a public health disaster of amazing scale, respiratory to gestational to cardiac to cancer complications - all there in plenty.
There is technology called gasification that would reduce the pollution to levels in a petroleum coke plant that, while still not exactly great considering that we already have a whole bunch of refineries in our community, would at least be more in line with the kind of pollution one finds near refineries across the nation. Las Brisas did not want to use gasification, though. They said it was unreasonably expensive.
I thought endangering the life of my asthmatic child and all the other people with respiratory conditions in our community would be unreasonable, but that was a price Las Brisas was just fine with having us pay so they would not have to pay for gasification.
All the biologists in our community raised the hue and cry. The doctors did, too, issuing statements from their local medical societies and mobilizing to fight the plant. We joined the fight. My daughter's doctor, the leading immunologist in Texas, told us we would need to move if we lost.
We did not lose.
In Texas, when a polluter seeks a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (whose commissioners do not include scientists or physicians - just the governor's appointees), citizens are allowed to contest the permit before an administrative law judge and make the polluter prove that they are following the law with their permit. Las Brisas was not following the law. They did not get their permit. It took time, though. They did not get their permit mainly because their investors got tired of waiting for them to prove they were following the law - which they weren't - and pulled out. The TCEQ Commissioners had made it pretty clear already that they wanted to grant Las Brisas' permit, even though the state's doctors and scientists - including their own staff - were strongly against it. The commissioners were much more interested in protecting the oil and gas lobby donations made to Republican campaigns than in protecting public health. They rolled their eyes when the mothers talked, rolled their eyes when the physicians and scientists talked.
But they had to let us talk. They had to let the system work.
On Thursday, the Texas Senate passed SB 709 which basically says that the mothers and physicians and scientists do not get a voice anymore. It says that rather than the big corporations having to prove that they are following the law, mothers like me, who do not have rich corporate investors or teams of high-powered lawyers to help us, have to prove they that are not following the law, and we have to do it in six months or the polluters get their permits whether they are breaking the law and sickening our children or not.
If this had been law during Las Brisas, they would have been permitted and we would have lost our home and our careers and our friends and support systems, uprooting our family and fleeing to save our daughter's life. We are just teachers - not rich people - teachers who bought our home back when homes were cheaper and would never be able to afford another. We love our home and are deeply rooted in our community - it would have destroyed us.
And we are so much more fortunate than so many others who would never have been able to flee at all - who would have lost their children to this plant's illegal pollution.
The companion bill in the Texas House is HB 1865. It will probably come to a vote this week.
Please, please look around you at all the people you know who are pregnant or babies or toddlers or elderly, who have asthma or BPD or other respiratory conditions or cardiac conditions. Please do not sacrifice them to this bill. Call your state representative today and insist that they vote no on HB 1865.
Please hurry, Mamas.