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Help Protect the Texas Borderlands in Austin March 4th

Please join with some of Austin’s finest bands in supporting the Sierra Club Borderlands Team on Sunday, March 4, from 4pm – 7pm, at the 29th Street Ballroom (next to Spiderhouse Cafe on the University of Texas campus).

Along with live music from Designer Genes and BitterHeaRt Society they will screen the short Sierra Club documentary Wild vs. Wall, which shows the damage dome by border walls in Texas and along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Admission is free; donations for the Borderlands Team are welcome.

Unchecked by environmental protections, the walls that began in California’s borderlands now extend over 600 miles, inflicting tremendous damage upon many sensitive ecosystems. In Texas the walls that slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots. In Arizona the border walls that cross washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have caused severe erosion and flooding. Border walls built in New Mexico’s Playas Valley block the movement of one of the last wild herds of bison, whose range straddles the U.S. – Mexico border. And wall construction in California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area has involved dynamiting steep mountainsides, sending hundreds of thousands of tons of rock into the Tijuana River below.

The Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team is working to prevent further walls and greater destruction along both borders. It is trying to head off legislation that would call for hundreds of miles of new border walls, or waive environmental and other laws along both the northern and southern borders. And the Team is pushing for the Department of Homeland Security to mitigate some portion of the damage that their actions have already inflicted.
Please come out to the 29th Street Ballroom on March 4, and show your support for local music and for our borderlands!


Stop the Madness: Implement New Mercury Standards

By Stefanie Herweck                    The lunacy of the Mad Hatter, pouring tea and posing riddles about ravens and writing desks, has entertained Americans since Disney (and later Johnny Depp) brought him to the silver screen. 

Lewis Carroll’s character arose from the phrase “mad as a hatter,” which was commonly heard in 1865, when Alice in Wonderland was first published.  At that time mercury was used to cure felt for hats, and mercury exposure caused hatmakers to exhibit confused speech, distorted vision, twitching limbs, muscle tremors, extreme excitability, and hallucinations.

Despite this obvious impact on human health, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the United States and other countries enacted regulations to limit mercury exposure, both in workplaces like the hatters’ and the population at large.

Since then studies have shown that even low levels of mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.  It can also harm the developing nervous system of unborn and young children and cause learning disabilities.   

Ingesting just over one-tenth of an ounce of mercury can kill a 150 pound adult.

Now that we recognize that mercury is a powerful neurotoxin with devastating effects on human health, it should be a no-brainer—we should do everything we can to keep mercury out of the environment, so that we can keep it out of human bodies.

But that has not been happening.  In the United States coal-fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury pollution, and they have been allowed to continue to spew huge amounts of poisonous mercury: each year they emit 48 tons.  The mercury that pours from their smokestacks falls to the earth when it rains, where it enters our rivers and lakes.  There it is converted to methylmercury, which is an organic form of mercury that accumulates in the bodies of fish, as well as the bodies of humans who eat the fish or drink the contaminated water.

The alarming results of this are found in study after study.  One in twelve pregnant women has high enough mercury levels in her body to harm her fetus.  As many as 300,000 babies per year are at increased risk of learning disabilities as a result of prenatal mercury exposure.  The risk of autism in children goes up in relation to their home’s proximity to a coal plant.

Texans are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the poison since Texas emits more mercury than any other state.

Coal-fired power companies like Luminant Energy, the largest coal mining company in the state and owner of the dirtiest power plants, have given generously to Governor Perry’s campaigns over the years, and he has done everything in his power to return the favor. 

Rather than working to protect Texans’ health and our environment, Perry’s appointees at the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have helped power plants get around environmental regulations and fast-track new construction.  Last year TCEQ was found to have violated the law to help the Las Brisas coal plant look as though it would be in compliance with the Clean Air Act when it applied for a permit. 

As a result of Perry and the TCEQ working on behalf of polluters instead of the people, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out 16,350 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in 2009 alone.

But this month the Obama administration could finally bring Texans the clean air and clean water they deserve.  Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised air-quality standards to comply with the Clean Air Act and limit the amount of toxins such as mercury that power plants can emit.  The proposed standards would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury by 91 percent, hydrochloric acid by 91 percent and particulate matter by 55 percent.  It is up to President Obama to confirm these new standards and keep these deadly poisons out of our air, our water, and our bodies.

The power industry fought to block these safeguards for decades, and worked closely with the Bush administration to set standards illegally low.  This past September Republicans in the US House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at delaying restrictions on power plants’ mercury emissions.  Ignoring the health benefits, they said the regulations would cost too much.  Thankfully, the Senate has not taken up this assault on public health.

It is up to President Obama to ignore the pressure, and the money, of industry lobbyists and finally put the health of our children ahead of coal companies’ profits.  The question is not the cost of electricity; it is who pays the cost.  Dirty coal may produce a kilowatt of electricity more cheaply than clean energy technologies, but the difference in price is paid at the doctor’s office, and in the suffering of children who live with neurological damage and learning disabilities brought on by mercury poisoning. 

For too long the United States, and especially the state of Texas, has sacrificed the health of our children for cheap energy and coal industry profits.  It is time for President Obama to bring an end to this madness, stand up for our children, and enact strong mercury regulations.

You can sign Sierra Club’s online petition to limit Mercury emissions here.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group.  She lives in McAllen. This article was previously published in the Rio Grande Guardian.

Will Obama Bring the “Dirtiest Oil on Earth” to Texas?

Lower Rio Grand Valley Sierra Club members at the rally against the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House

By Stefanie Herweck

In the coming weeks President Obama will make one of the most fateful decisions of his presidency: whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.  The pipeline would transport liquefied tar sands across the United States for export on the Texas Gulf Coast.

On Sunday protesters formed a human chain around the White House in an effort to remind the president of his own words on the campaign trail: “Let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and it is hard to imagine how mining, transporting, and burning it will help bring to life Obama’s words.  It is also hard to think of a project with more terrible consequences for Texas, and for the world.

A Canadian corporation, Transcanada, wants to build the 1,980 mile long pipeline from the tar sands oil mines in Alberta, Canada across the American heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast.  Because the pipeline crosses the U.S. – Canada border, it is up to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to approve or reject it.

The tar sands underlie 54,000 square miles of boreal forest that is prized for its biodiversity.  Every spring more than half of North America’s birds flock there to nest.  As a boreal forest, it is also uniquely suited to absorb carbon emissions, and it stores twice as much carbon as a tropical forest.

Since the tar sands lie near the surface, these forests are completely obliterated during the mining process.  As these forests are destroyed, critical habitat is lost and stored carbon is released into the atmosphere.  Where the forest once stood, companies dig massive open pit mines and create toxic tailing ponds so big they can be seen from space.  As of June 2009, 32,000 square miles of boreal forest had been leased to companies for tar sands extraction.

In the ground tar sands are a mixture of 90 percent sand, clay and water and 10 percent bitumen, a thick hydrocarbon liquid.  Steam is used to extract the bitumen, which requires 4 barrels of water and a significant amount of natural gas for every barrel of oil.  The lakes of waste water left over from this process cover 22 percent of the mined land and are so toxic that they have killed entire flocks of birds that were unlucky enough to land on them.

Because the bitumen is so thick – the consistency of peanut butter – it must be diluted with volatile natural gas compounds in order to make it flow through a pipeline.  It is heavier and more corrosive than conventional oil, so the Keystone XL pipeline would be far more likely subject to leak.  In fact, the first stage of the Keystone tar sands pipeline had 14 accidents in its first year of operation.

The pipeline’s path across the Ogallala aquifer makes the potential for leaks especially alarming.  More than a quarter of the water for crops grown in the United States comes from this aquifer, and millions depend on it for drinking water.  Nebraska’s Republican Governor, Dave Heineman, has called upon the State Department to deny Transcanada’s permit request out of fear that spills of tar sands oil could prove catastrophic for the state’s water supply.

The proposed path of the pipeline will also cross hundreds of heartland farms.  Transcanada is already suing landowners in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas under eminent domain, even though the project has not been approved.  Many have questioned whether a foreign corporation can use eminent domain against U.S. citizens, but the flurry of lawsuits has not slowed.

When tar sands oil arrives at a refinery it is laden with toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, and metals like mercury, lead, nickel and vanadium.  Refineries in Port Arthur that process tar sands will therefore produce, and release, much more hazardous waste than conventional oil refineries.

According to the EPA, the entire process of extracting and refining tar sands oil from well to gas tank produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil.  Transporting and burning the Keystone XL pipeline’s tar sands would add 27 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere per year.

Beyond this, the sheer scope of the tar sands deposits make Obama’s pipeline decision a grave one indeed.  The tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet.  If we begin tapping them rather than switching to renewable energy sources, it would mean, in the words of James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “essentially game-over” for all hope of reversing climate change.

Thanks to the drought, we already have a taste about what out-of-control climate change could do to Texas.  Most climate projections show a continued decline in precipitation for Texas and an increase in temperatures.  This is likely to have serious economic impacts in a state with a $100 billion agricultural sector that employs 1 out of 7 workers.

Warming temperatures and thermal expansion of the ocean led to a tripling of sea level rise during the 20th century.  If greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate, Gulf Coast waters could rise as much as 1 meter by 2100, a rise that could submerge Texas coastal communities and make others far more vulnerable to storms.  One study of the Houston-Galveston area found that sea level rise could displace 100,000 people over the next 100 years and mean a loss of $12 billion in infrastructure.  The beaches of South Padre Island could disappear beneath the waves.

Potential Inundation Along the Texas Coast from Sea Level Rise

Some are claiming that in these tough economic times, we should sacrifice the environment for energy security and economic benefits.  Unfortunately, the Keystone XL pipeline provides neither.

Reducing America’s reliance on Middle-eastern oil is one argument that Transcanada has repeatedly put forward.  Though they have denied that Keystone XL is an export pipeline, analysts have determined that the diesel fuel most easily refined from tar sands oil will only find lucrative markets in Europe and Latin America.  In fact, the published business model for the Valero refinery at the end of the pipeline explicitly states that the diesel would be exported to foreign markets, rather than put into U.S. gas tanks.

The United States won’t derive significant tax revenue from the tar sands oil before it heads overseas because the refineries at the pipeline’s end are located in Port Arthur, Texas.  Port Arthur’s designation as a foreign trade zone means that the refined diesel can be exported tax-free.  The benzene and other pollutants released by the refining process are all that will stay in Port Arthur.

Transcanada has claimed that 100,000 jobs would be created by its pipeline.  As pressure on the Obama administration to stop the pipeline has gone up, Transcanada’s job estimate has soared to as high as 250,000.  The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of oil corporations, has gone so far as to claim that, “U.S. jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035.”  Of course, these rapidly inflating numbers all come from the company who stands to reap huge profits from exporting tar sands oil oversees without paying any export taxes if they can sell the administration on their pipeline.

For those of us who do not serve on the board of directors of Transcanada or Valero, any economic benefits from the pipeline will be minimal.  An independent analysis of the economic impacts of the pipeline estimated that nationwide there would be between 500 and 1,400 temporary construction jobs would come from building the pipeline.  Once the pipeline is up and running those jobs would evaporate, and it would take as few as 50 full time employees maintain it.

While those 50 people may be happy to receive a paycheck, their side of the balance sheet is far outweighed by the health costs of those who will be exposed to toxic chemicals in Canada and Texas, not to mention the millions of coastal residents around the world whose homes and communities will be threatened by rising seas.

This is why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group is supporting protesters from the Rio Grande Valley who boarded the Rio Bravo Wildlife Institute’s vegetable-oil powered bus for the long drive to Washington DC.  They  joined thousands of other Americans to demand that President Obama uphold the vision and the promises that got him elected.

The ultimate decision will be President Obama’s.  Will he cave in to corporate pressure and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or will he stand with the American people, and people around the world, who will suffer the terrible consequences if this pipeline is built?  This is not a political question to be decided by poll numbers and the next election.  President Obama’s decision will have a real impact on human lives, on human health, and on the world that our children grow up in.  This may be the most important decision that President Obama makes, and it is up to all of us to ensure that he makes the right choice.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group.  She lives in McAllen.  This article originally appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian.

Texas Sierra Club Activist Named “Tyrant’s Foe” by Texas Observer Magazine

Scott Nicol

Scott Nicol has been named a “Tyrant’s Foe” in the October issue of the Texas Observer magazine for his work in opposition to the border wall.  Scott is a member of the Sierra Club’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Group ex com and co-chairs the Sierra Club Borderlands Team.   With fellow Sierra Club members and other border residents he founded No Border Wall in 2007 in an effort to stop damaging border walls from being built.

The No Border Wall website that Scott co-created and maintains is an invaluable online tool to educate the public and the press about the tremendous damage walls are causing in our borderlands.  In addition, Scott has written op-eds that have appeared regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian, and have been printed in the Christian Science Monitor, the Progressive Magazine, Austin American Statesman, and other papers around the country.  With the rest of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, he is hard at work keeping further environmentally-destructive border legislation from being passed.

Just this month, the House Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of HR 1505, which waives 36 laws on all federal lands within 100 miles of the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders for Customs and Border Protections activities.  National Parks from Big Bend to Glacier, along with wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and forests, will have no legal protections when CBP wants to build walls, roads, or bases.

Without loud opposition from environmental organizations and others it will likely pass the House, and quite possibly the Senate.  Scott and the Sierra Club Borderlands Team have been rallying opposition to the bill nationwide.

Visit to learn more and get involved.

Congratulations to Scott and the rest of the Borderlands Team for some well-deserved recognition!

Assault on Public Lands and Environmental Laws up for a House Vote this Week

By Scott Nicol

How does waiving the Endangered Species Act in Hawaii help secure the U.S.-Mexico border?

Simple.  It doesn’t.

But that obvious fact is irrelevant to Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, author of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act (HR 1505).  Bishop claims that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot  enforce immigration laws without violating the rest of our nation’s laws, so his bill waives 36 federal laws within 100 miles of the U.S. – Mexico border, the U.S.-Canada border, and all U.S. coastlines, for anything that DHS may want to do.

Most of the laws that HR 1505 tosses aside, including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act, protect the  environment, but it also waives laws like the Farmland Policy Protection Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

This bill is an expansion of the Real ID Act, which gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive local, state, and federal laws to build walls along the southern border.

The existing Real ID Act waivers, which HR 1505 expands, have caused tremendous environmental damage.  To build border walls 530,000 cubic yards of rock was blasted from mountainsides in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area; walls have caused serious flooding in the Organ Pipe
Cactus National Monument; and walls fragment the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which was established for the preservation of endangered ocelots.  Without the waiver, these walls would be illegal.

Bishop’s bill would also give DHS the run of all federally owned lands, in all 50
states, with absolutely no restrictions.  Has a lack of access to the Everglades, or Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, or the lawn around the Statue of Liberty, prevented DHS from securing the southern border?

Not according to the Border Patrol.

The irony is that the Border Patrol, which operates under DHS’ umbrella, has not asked for the power to overrule land managers or ignore environmental
laws.  Last spring the Government Accountability Office found that, “Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”

When Rep. Bishop introduced a similar bill last year Brandon Judd of the National Border Patrol Council said, “I would definitely look and see if
there are some restrictions that are too restrictive. But to get rid of all
restrictions, you would destroy the land.”

Representative Bishop has a long history of attacking protected lands and environmental regulations.  He is currently pushing for a repeal of the Antiquities Act and a ban on new National Monuments.  HR 1505 is just more of the same.

This Wednesday the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act will be up for a vote in the House Natural Resources Committee, which Rep. Bishop, in a bit of Orwellian irony, chairs.  Packed with deregulation darlings like Bishop, the bill is almost certain to pass and be sent on to the full House of Representatives.

This is the week for Texans to contact their representatives and tell them that HR 1505 is not about protecting our nation.  It is an assault on federal lands and environmental laws using border security as a convenient cover, nothing more.

Scott Nicol co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team.  He lives in McAllen, Texas.   For more information, visit