November 2018 Volume 1, Issue 8
Environmental Justice News
The Environmental Justice Team at Lone Star Legal Aid welcomes you to the eighth edition of Environmental Justice News. We’re keeping communities updated on our team’s ongoing environmental law efforts throughout our 72-county service area.

In our newsletter, you’ll find an overview of the types of legal cases we’re currently handling for eligible individuals and organizations who are living in fence-line communities and other areas where environmental justice is a concern. If you have an environmental legal matter that concerns you, please
call 713-652-0077 ext. 8108 for more information on how we might be able to help your neighborhood.

Our environmental justice team is part of a broader Equitable Development Initiative at LSLA, with additional teams focusing on fair housing and community advocacy. The Equitable Development Initiative’s goal is to provide legal assistance to foster community revitalization in low-income neighborhoods by fighting systemic discrimination and degradation, and by helping residents create safe, decent and equitable living spaces.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter about Lone Star Legal Aid’s environmental watchdogs with your friends, family and neighbors! To subscribe to our news and/or receive updates about your neighborhood, click here .

Amy Dinn
Managing Attorney, Environmental Justice Team
Woodville German Pellets Agrees to Install Pollution Controls for a Dramatic Reduction in VOC Emissions

In a surprising decision by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) requiring that Best Available Control Technology (BACT) is adopted by a wood pellet manufacturing facility, German Pellets Texas, LLC has agreed to install $6 million worth of pollution controls on its Woodville German Pellets Mill , an action that will reduce the facility’s Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions from 580 tons per year to 91 tons per year. In addition, hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) will be reduced from 12.3 tons per year to 2.4 tons per year through the controls, according to a new permit application submitted by German Pellets to the state agency. Represented by LSLA Environmental Justice Attorneys Colin Cox and Amy Dinn, concerned Woodville residents Marlene Brown and Jimmy Reed III submitted public comments and requested a contested case hearing on an amendment to the facility’s air quality permit through TCEQ. The agency’s decision requiring a reduction in VOC emissions is celebrated by Brown and Reed along with LSLA's community partners, Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club, and Our Children’s Earth.

In their comments to TCEQ, Brown and Reed explained how VOC emissions from the Woodville facility drastically affected their quality of life. Noting a significant change in air quality after the plant first began operating in 2013, the residents would often see an orange haze filling the sky along with noxious fumes that smelled like rotten eggs or burning tires while the plant operated - sometimes day and night. Community members were forced to stay inside during mill operations as particulate matter settled on their lawns and gardens. Initially moving to Woodville for its "better air quality" before the facility opened, Brown and Reed subsequently developed serious respiratory issues including breathing difficulty and chronic inflammation of the lungs. In their comments to TCEQ, the residents pointed out that the Woodville facility was lacking in VOC emissions controls required by the federal Clean Air Act through BACT – the same type of pollution controls that similar facilities in neighboring states were already using to successfully reduce VOC emissions.

Built on the site of a former woodchip factory, the Woodville facility produces up to 578,000 tons of wood pellets per year for export as biofuel. Falsely touted as a “clean” alternative to coal, the use and manufacture of wood pellets produces vast amounts of soot and VOCs, both of which can cause lung disease and cancer. VOCs also play a role in the formation of ground-level ozone which can damage the lining of the lungs, reduce lung function, and trigger asthma, bronchitis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

In 2014, it was discovered that the Woodville facility was illegally emitting a staggering 580 tons of VOCs per year - nearly ten times German Pellets' permit limit. Rather than propose a reduction in VOC emissions, the company initially sought to amend its permit through TCEQ, an action that would have simply raised the permit’s emission allowances to levels with which the company could comply without installing any pollution controls. Due to the advocacy of LSLA’s EJ Team along with Environmental Integrity Project, Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club, Our Children’s Earth and others, TCEQ reversed its decision, requiring German Pellets to install the pollution controls using BACT. The company’s new permit application adopts all of the BACT controls requested by the advocates. 

German Pellets recently re-started its Woodville manufacturing operations after a fire in the company's Port Arthur storage facility caused a temporary shutdown. Because the BACT pollution controls have not yet been installed at the facility, residents are faced with breathing in the heavily polluted VOC-filled air until pollution controls are installed. LSLA’s EJ Team plans to remain engaged on this issue until community members can once again breathe cleaner air. "This result shows that community engagement can make a difference in the permitting process and result in lower emissions and a healthier community," shared LSLA's Amy Dinn, "Lone Star Legal Aid is pleased with the outcome here and hopes to be able to help other communities raise similar permitting challenges."
LSLA paralegal Sal Giovanni Solis with Jimmy Reed III

Top: A fire burns at Woodville German Pellets in May 2015 / Photo: Courtesy Tyler County EOC, Dale Freeman
LSLA paralegal Sal Giovanni Solis with Marlene Brown
Acres Homes Community Fights for Clean Air amidst Continued Threats from Concrete Batch Plant

Ivy Court Ballroom was filled to capacity on October 22 nd as residents gathered not for a celebration, but a fight – a fight for the community’s right to clean air. Taking part in the public participation process for an air quality permit through Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), residents expressed their overwhelming concerns about a concrete batch plant’s shocking plans to locate its industrial operation near homes, churches, neighborhood schools, and a treasured community center and public park in Acres Homes , a historically minority community in northwest Houston. Represented by LSLA Environmental Justice Attorney Colin Cox, Acres Homes resident Donnie Campbell is one of those concerned residents who submitted public comments on the permit. Living just 390 yards from the proposed batch plant, Campbell has also requested a contested case hearing to challenge the permit, which she says fails to adequately protect her health and the health of fellow community members.

Since March 2018 when the public participation process first began with TCEQ and the company applying for the permit, Soto Ready Mix, hundreds of residents and community advocates including the Mayor of Houston, the City of Houston’s Chief Environmental Science Officer and state Representatives Jarvis Johnson and John Whitmire have voiced their strong opposition to the batch plant. Although the initial permit was denied by TCEQ due to noncompliance with a required buffer zone, Soto Ready Mix simply reapplied for a new permit in May after purchasing additional land across TC Jester Boulevard from the proposed site. 

If approved by TCEQ, Soto Ready Mix would be allowed to operate its concrete batch plant across the street from Highland Park and Highland Community Center , a vital and treasured community center and public park in Acres Homes. In her comments to TCEQ, Campbell stressed the significance of this space to the community, where birthday gatherings and family reunions are regularly held, residents walk their infants in strollers and exercise along tree-lined pathways surrounding the park, and children of all ages attend summer tennis camp, play volleyball, football, baseball, or basketball on the park’s lighted courts. “Children are especially sensitive to the negative health impacts of particulate matter due to their developing lungs,” shared LSLA’s Colin Cox. “This location, which is less than 100 feet from the park, is an especially inappropriate location for a concrete batch plant.”

Longtime Acres Homes resident Campbell knows this from experience. “I know a lady right down the street who is on oxygen – she’s not going to be able to inhale this,” Campbell shared. “Another woman who lives near a batch plant right off Mansfield Road – she can’t even take her child outside anymore! Her little girl has asthma, and the batch plant has really affected her health," shared Campbell, "She can't even go outside to play."

Concrete batch plants typically produce large amounts of dust including cement dust, road dust and aggregate dust, also known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Because the particles are very small, PM2.5 can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and travel into the bloodstream, causing serious health problems. Exposure to PM2.5 can cause respiratory symptoms and increases the risk of asthma attacks, cardiac arrest and premature death. Exposure to PM2.5 can permanently impair lung function and is also associated with lung, stomach and colon cancer.

According to the City of Houston’s Chief Environmental Science Officer Loren Raun, PhD, Acres Homes is already suffering from the negative health impacts of PM2.5 exposure. Presenting compelling data at the public meeting, Raun shared that Acres Homes suffers six times the rate of ambulance-treated asthma attacks and twice the rate of cardiac arrests compared to the rest of Houston. In addition, particulate matter is compounded when multiple batch plants are located in the same spatial area, with District B (Acres Homes’ district) already home to 12 concrete batch plants. In fact, shared Raun, environmental data collected by the City of Houston on two separate dates in 2018 showed elevated levels of PM2.5 in the Acres Homes community.

Acres Homes is the definition of an Environmental Justice Community: where race determines a person’s exposure to environmental harms. More than 88 concrete batch plants are currently located in the Houston metropolitan area, with a majority of facilities located in predominantly minority communities. Additionally, minority communities are often faced with exposure to multiple environmental threats including illegal dumping, inadequate public infrastructure, fewer municipal services, and exposure to multiple polluters including metal recycling facilities, municipal landfills, and other industrial operations.

Speaking through an attorney at the public meeting, Soto Ready Mix provided no answer to one community member’s pointed question about why the company chose this historically minority community as its proposed location and whether the company felt this action was discriminatory. In her public comments to TCEQ, Dr. Raun offered up an answer: yes, the choice was in fact discriminatory. While each permit may receive equal scrutiny by TCEQ, Raun stated, “the problem is, that the locations of the batch plants are not equally spread. This is clearly an Environmental Justice concern - because this neighborhood already has tremendous burden from spatially distributed high levels of risk from environmental pollutants." 

Donnie Campbell and Acres Home community members are awaiting TCEQ’s formal response to their comments and requests for contested case hearing. The agency is required to respond to all public comments in writing before making its final decision on the permit, which is expected sometime after the first of the year. 

Top: Playground at Highland Park in Acres Homes / Photo: Courtesy
District K Residents Celebrate Texas Railroad Commission’s Suspension of Massive Brine Pit

In a momentous decision, the Railroad Commission of Texas (TRC) has indefinitely suspended a permit on a massive brine pit that was slated for construction in South Houston, in Houston’s District K . The Railroad Commission’s order, which became final on November 24 th , was handed down after a contested case hearing resulted in a Proposal for Decision to terminate the permit by the presiding Administrative Law Judge. The final order suspending the permit indefinitely is celebrated by members of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition (SHCCC), who successfully engaged in a legal battle to fend off the massive pit. Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Attorneys Bryan French and Amy Dinn represented the SHCCC in its fight.

During the contested case hearing in July, SHCCC witnesses testified that the permit applicants, Fairway Energy Partners LLC, failed to provide timely and proper notice to the City of Houston and residents on their application; therefore, denying due process and public participation in the permitting process and keeping the company's intents to build the brine pit largely hidden from public view. At least half a dozen community members and others made the 3-hour trek from South Houston to Austin in support of the SHCCC and LSLA's efforts.

Required for operations to begin at the site, the permit for the brine pit was initially approved by the Railroad Commission in January 2017, unbeknownst to many community members. After concerned resident Garrett Leeftink discovered the brine pit was already approved for construction to begin just west of the Wildcat Golf Course on Buffalo Speedway, SHCCC community members engaged with LSLA’s Dinn and French to challenge the permit on the 27.2-acre open pit with the important support of two City Council Members for District K, Larry Green and Martha Castex-Tatum. 

An alliance of 25 civic clubs and homeowner associations dedicated to the welfare of South Houston residents, SHCCC advocates for green development that can create economic opportunities while reducing exposure to environmental hazards in this historically underserved environmental justice community. In powerful testimony provided to the Railroad Commission in July, long-time resident and SHCCC founding member Vivian Harris explained that the proposed brine pit posed the same kinds of concerns that prompted the initial formation of the SHCCC in 1993. "We formed that coalition so that we would all have a collective voice to try to make things happen in our community, and that's what we were all about. That's what we're still all about, but we are still being dumped on," Harris stated at the hearing.

Long anticipating positive economic growth, the community has worked hard to bring infrastructure improvements to District K in cooperation with the City of Houston, with special attention paid to landscaping and connectivity. The largely undeveloped west side was recently opened up with an extension of Buffalo Speedway between Holmes Road and West Orem Drive, and a rare bridge spanning the rail line on Holmes Road will further connect the neighborhood to the Texas Medical Center. In contrast to the industrial development dominating the area east of the Wildcat Golf Club, residents believe that a 27.2-acre open brine pit on the west side of the course would threaten any hard won equitable progress with an unwelcome risk to the community's health and environment.

Holding up to millions of gallons of crude mixed with salty brine, brine pits are typically used in the drilling or processing of petroleum products. While conventional oil and gas activities have been a constant presence in the area since the 1920's, drilling on the Pierce Junction oilfield has greatly slowed in recent years as development of the salt dome that gave rise to the oilfield reaches its later stages. In a recent phase of development, brine pits are seeing more use as long-term storage of crude oil. If this permit had been approved, up to 168 million gallons of crude could have been stored by Fairway in an open uncovered pit near residential areas for decades. In addition to the toxic air emissions brought by evaporation of crude from the open pit, risks to neighboring communities would include increases in ozone and particulate matter, contamination of groundwater, explosion, fire, and salt dome collapse. 

Reflecting on the outcome of this case, EJ Attorney Amy Dinn commented: "This victory was possible because of the partnership between SHCCC and the District K Office of the City of Houston, including Council Member Larry Green, Donald Perkins, and newly-elected Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum, who all worked in this case to protect the current and future investments planned for the area. We were glad LSLA was able to help the SHCCC reverse this permit, which was issued without the benefit of public participation or the City's input."

Above: One of two existing brine pits located just east of the Wildcat Golf Course in South Houston / Photo: Bryan French
Catch our EJ team at these upcoming events!

  • Tuesday, December 4th – Public meeting hosted by TCEQ and the City of South Houston Re: Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) Permit # WQ00102870001, to authorize the removal of the total mercury effluent limits, South Houston Community Center, 1007 State Street, South Houston, Texas 77587, 7:00 pm
  • Monday, December 10th - IMPACT Community meeting, True Love Baptist Church, 4029 Falls Street (entrance on Emmet and Sayers Streets), Houston, TX 77026, 6:30 pm

  • Tuesday, December 11th – Texas Coastal Study Public Meeting, Upper Coast, Winnie Community Building, 335 South Park Street, Winnie, TX 77665, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm
  • Wednesday, December 12th - Coastal Texas Study Public Meeting, Upper Coast, Galveston Island Convention Center, 5600 Seawall Boulevard, Galveston, Texas, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm
  • Tuesday, December 18th - Coastal Texas Study Public Meeting, Upper Coast, Bay Area Community Center, 5002 E. NASA Parkway, Seabrook, Texas, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm
For more information on any of these presentations or upcoming meetings, please contact our EJ Team at 713-652-0077 ext. 8108.
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