Texas Prairie Episode with Jim Blackburn

The Next Houston Hurricane May Be Worse Than Harvey – Let’s Get Ready! (Ep. 5)

We face serious danger from Houston hurricane. I’m not talking about just any old storm, but one that originates in the Gulf of Mexico, rides up the Houston Ship Channel and destroys our petrochemical complex. Several thousand tanks filled with toxic substances might buckle and spill their contents into the environment. This would poison our area for decades to come.

Let’s prevent that.

Terence O’Rourke of the Harris County Attorney explains the threat, why we have no protection in place and what’s needed to get us to safety.

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Episode Transcript

To view the episode transcript, either click here to open the pdf file or scroll through the text below.

Houston and Nature Episode 5: The Next Houston Hurricane May Be Worse Than Harvey - Let's Get Ready! with Terence O'Rourke. Transcript.

Nivien Saleh

What if the next hurricane causes chemical tanks to swim?

What would you do if I told you that Houston is facing an environmental calamity bigger than Harvey, bigger than Chernobyl? You’d probably think, “I have barely recovered from having my home flooded two years ago, I am stuck in a pandemic that might send me to the hospital, and you want me to consider something that’s even worse?” And then you might tune into a different program.

Hmm, what to do?

I’ll just come out with it: Houston is facing a catastrophe. No, don’t change the channel. The good news is that there’s at least one great solution that can save us. We just have to implement it - soon.

Hi, I’m Nivien Saleh with Houston and Nature, and my guest today is attorney Terence O’Rourke. Terry has worked in government for much of his life: As a page boy he fetched the newspaper for President Lyndon Johnson. Sixteen years later he was on the White House staff, and today he is with the government of Harris County, Texas.

Terry – who is also my spouse – has lived at the intersection of politics, government, and environmental policy, and he understands it really well. So I asked him: What is the biggest threat Houston is facing? His answer: Storm surge in our petrochemical complex. In today’s conversation he tells me why it is so very dangerous, what it takes to protect this region, why we haven’t done so yet and how we can get a move on it.

But before we get into it, a little bit of housekeeping.

As you know, I don’t have a regular posting schedule for this podcast. So if you enjoy this interview and would like to know when a new one comes out, sign up for the email newsletter at HoustonNature.com, and I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.

And now, welcome Terry. You have worked in government much of your life. How has your work touched on environmental policy here in Houston and in Harris County?

How Has Your Work Touched on Environmental Policy?

Terence O’Rourke
Earliest, when I was a graduate student at Rice University, I was the Eleanor and Mills Bennett graduate search fellow in hydrology, and I studied Galveston Bay and pollution. My master's thesis at Rice University was entitled Pollution versus the People, and the front coverhad a picture on Galveston Bay and it depicted a oil leak from an underground pipeline.

Nivien Saleh
When did you write that thesis?
Terence O’Rourke
I wrote the thesis in 1970 through 72.

Nivien Saleh
That was the first time that you did something with the environment. But you've since then done a lot more, correct?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, yes. My consciousness for the environment and my participation in it has grown and changed, so, I went on to be a law clerk to a federal judge in Washington, D.C. And the biggest single case we had was the case of the Alyeska pipeline. That's the pipeline across Alaska, which was and I think still is the largest civil works project in history of the world, and the building of that pipeline required that it comply with the newly passed National Environmental Policy Act. And the judge that I worked for, Judge George L.Hart ordered the construction stopped. He demanded that the government comply with NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

Nivien Saleh
And that was not in Harris County?

Terence O’Rourke
Very much not in Harris County. I worked in the United States District Court in Washington, D.C. And of course, the pipeline was built in Alaska. So, yes.

Following that, though, I went from Washington, D.C. to be a Texas assistant attorney general.

John Hill was the attorney general of Texas, got elected in 1972 and was brilliant enough to choose me to be his swinging sword on pollution prosecution. And so the attorney general himself went through the files with me in the State offices and walked down and put them in the trunk of my Toyota car, and I drove to Houston and went to the courthouse and started trying cases. So that was 1973. And those were big cases against big polluters, Champion Paper Company, the company ultimately that produced the dioxin that is in Galveston Bay, the ARMCO Steel Company that shut-down in some part as a result of our work. Tenn-Tex Alloy, Gulf Oil Company, Texaco. Dr. Walter Quebedeaux, the head of the Harris County Pollution Control Department, really was the instigating source of litigation. And I worked very closely with him from 1973 through 1974.

Nivien Saleh
And more recently, you became a member of the Harris County Attorney's Office.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, yes. When aaah …. In 1986, I went to work for Harris County Attorney Mike Driscoll, and I did pollution cases for the county attorney's office. They were significant cases, but nothing like the kind of landmark cases we'd done in the ... earlier in the 1970s. They involved typically storage dumps and waste sites, fighting things like incinerators. Probably the most notorious case I had was against a couple who'd built a private dump out in East Harris County, and I got them put in jail for violating the law.

Environmental Protection by the Harris County Attorney

Nivien Saleh
So when people listen to you, they'll probably hear you work for the Harris County attorney and then they think, oh yeah, the district attorney. Explain just very briefly, what is the difference between the Harris County attorney and the Harris County district attorney?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, the Harris County district attorney does criminal cases, and those are all State of Texas vs. Terry O'Rourke because I was speeding, because I was driving while I was drunk, because I shot my wife, because I was stealing money. Those are crimes. And as a result of those crimes, if you're convicted, you go to the penitentiary. That's the penal code. The civil side: In lots of crimes or wrongdoings there is a civil wrong that is done also and there's an entire civil law of prosecution. And I did the civil practice. And so those are about money and orders from the court. It was frequent that there would be some criminal cases brought in parallel with the civil cases that I had. But mostly the civil cases I had stood alone. That is to say, someone had a storage area for hazardous material, and they didn't comply with the law. And essentially what they were doing is creating a hazardous waste dump. That would be a civil violation that I prosecuted.

Nivien Saleh
And as a result?

Terence O’Rourke
The result typically is fines. We call them civil penalties. And those vary from as low as 50 dollars a day to twenty five thousand dollars a day. And they go for each and every day so they can add up quickly. But the most important part frequently is the order of the court for the person who's doing it to stop doing it and to clean it up. And that is what costs real money. For example, in the case of the San Jacinto River waste pits the penalty was 28 million dollars. But the cleanup costs is going to be over 100 million.

Nivien Saleh
So the big difference between the Harris County district attorney and the Harris County county attorney is that the district attorney does criminal law, the Harris County attorney does civil law.

Terence O’Rourke
That's correct.

Nivien Saleh
Which involves fines.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, civil penalties, the word fines really does apply to criminal cases. There is a distinction.

Nivien Saleh
In addition, the Harris County also works with the county government, which the district attorney does not do.

Terence O’Rourke
That's correct. The county attorney's office in Harris County, Texas, is the general counsel for the governing body of Harris County, which is the Commissioners Court. The county attorney also represents the independent elected officials. We're the lawyer for the sheriff, for the constables, for the tax assessor-collector who is the voter registrar, for the county clerk, where you when you get married you get a marriage license, for the district clerk.

Nivien Saleh
And just like the district attorney, the county government, which is the Commissioners Court and consists of four commissioners plus one county judge, the Harris County attorney is an elected office.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes. An independent elected official elected every four years.

Nivien Saleh
You've worked for Harris County Attorney Mike Driscoll.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes. For ten and a half years.

Nivien Saleh
And more recently, you worked for a different Harris County Attorney.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes, for Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan from 2009 to the present.

Nivien Saleh
Tell me what your work involved.

Terence O’Rourke
When Vince got elected in 2008, he asked me to take a look at all of the environmental problems in Harris County and get an assessment by talking to the environmental organizations and leaders in the environmental movement about what needed to be done and what could we do? What could the county attorney's office do? So that when got to the end of a term or a period, we would have actually done something to create our own priorities. And so we went and looked around, and ... and it was clear to me - and I reported this to Vince and he acted on it in 2009 - that what we needed to do was reconstitute the Harris County Pollution Control Department to take it out of the health department where it had been put in for a bureaucratic reorganization. And it had become far less effective because it wasn't an enforcement agency in the same way that needed to be. But programmatically we needed to bring big suits against big polluters. So we sued the biggest polluters that there were. And of course, the biggest single case that we have right now is the case against Volkswagen, the largest manufacturer of cars in the world for their dirty diesels, for making the air dirtier when they said they were making it cleaner.

From San Jacinto Waste Pits to Houston Hurricane

Nivien Saleh
San Jacinto waste pits?

Terence O’Rourke
The San Jacinto waste pits is the hallmark case. If you had to say was one case that you worked on where you could say that the world is different as a result of you being there, it's that case because in that case it was clear to me from my conversations that we would never have life in Galveston Bay like it could be or should be if the dioxin was there. It was only a question of time when the dioxin, which was in the river, buried in the river, would be out. It was already detectable in many of the shellfish and and regular fish in the bay.

Nivien Saleh
The problem was that specific paper companies buried their toxic wastes in the San Jacinto River and that toxic waste contained dioxin, which is incredibly poisonous. And once it is in the human tissue, it doesn't really ever ...

Terence O’Rourke
It is an astoundingly toxic chemical. Of the all the chemicals ever made by human beings, the dioxin that comes out of the paper mill is the most toxic. And it stays in your body. I've met people … They were in the military who got it through the Agent Orange and the defoliants that were used in Vietnam and they're dying of cancer today as a result of drinking the water in the rice paddies that had dioxin in it, and it produces birth defects and cancer and all kinds of things. Yes. And ... it is a normal byproduct of making paper, at least at the time of the process that they had. So they buried it on the edge of the river. But the problem is that the banks of the river sunk into the river with subsidence. And we have subsidence because of the groundwater withdrawal and the withdrawal of oil and gas.

Nivien Saleh
Your work has touched on environmental concerns really from a policy perspective. So you have a sense of what's important and what needs to be addressed. And the interesting thing for this conversation is that you believe that the biggest environmental threat that Houston faces is storm surge coming from the Gulf of Mexico. Please define storm surge.

Houston Hurricane Can Cause Storm Surge in the Ship Channel

Terence O’Rourke
Well, storm surge really is the increase in the water that comes as a result of the flow from a hurricane. And that's rising water. It's not like some tidal wave that you might see in the movies, but it is powerful, and when it comes, it can rip out buildings and steel tanks. But. Yes. In my work for Harris County my job has been to take a look at the big picture to make sure that we're not wasting our time or taxpayer money on things that don't matter. The greatest kind of "aha" sadness moment that I've had in my service is to understand that there is something that I see as a result of scientific evaluations, something that I know is going to happen, a harm that is coming, and yet I and many others have not persuaded the governing body of Harris County and business leaders and civic leaders of the necessity of building a wall to protect us from the storm surge.

Nivien Saleh
The storm surge is supposed to come out of the Gulf of Mexico, up the Galveston Bay into the Houston Ship Channel. And that is where it can produce its damage - in the Houston Ship Channel at the north of the bay.

Now, Houston, the city of Houston, has been on the Gulf of Mexico or next to it for about 200 years. And so far, we haven't had ...

Terence O’Rourke
So far so good, right? Well, let me just back up a little bit. One of the largest cities in Texas in 1900 was Galveston. It was like the belle city of the South. Galveston was a great, wonderful city. And it had shipping from all over the world, it had cotton that came down the Brazos River from the Trinity River, from the San Jacinto River. It had railroads that were there. It was a great, great city. And at the end of the day, in September 1900, it experienced the greatest loss of life in the history of the United States to this very day, greater than in 9/11, greater than any bombing that we've ever experienced. The numbers of people that died is unknown. But it's ... certainly in the several thousands of them ... The low number is like 5,000, but there are numbers up to 15,000 because there were lots of poor people and lots of reasons they didn't count them all. It is storm surge that created Houston. As a result of the destruction of Galveston in 1900, a farsighted leader, Jesse Jones, together with the business community and governmental officials, decided to dig a ditch in Galveston Bay up to the area that we call the turning basin to create the port of Houston, one of the largest ports in the United States and in the world. And one of the reasons was to be safe from hurricanes. And it has been safe. But you have to take a look at climate change and global warming. The data are compelling. It's not a question of if we're going to get hit by hurricane. It is only when. And of course, the question is where? If Hurricane Ike had hit the Houston Ship Channel, it would have been a disaster. If Hurricane Harvey had hit the Houston Ship Channel, it'd be a disaster. The worst case is if it goes over the south end of Galveston Bay at San Louis Pass, and then north, then it takes all of the water in Galveston Bay and forces it up Buffalo Bayou, but other bayous too. Buffalo Bayou is where is the Houston Ship Channel. And there are thousands of chemical tanks and many refineries - product that is so poisonous and so volatile and so explosive that the result of this is going to be the greatest environ mental disaster in the history of the planet. This will make Chernobyl look small because of not just the killing of people, but what it will do to the land and the soil and the earth. And the hard part is for me, that it's a little bit like that Greek myth about Cassandra, that I see it and somehow I, Jim Blackburn and the others have been so far not adequately effective in our communication of the level of threat.

Nivien Saleh
Over a thousand tanks are in Houston Ship Channel?

Terence O’Rourke
Yes.

Nivien Saleh
I thought that there was maybe a hundred or so.

Terence O’Rourke
Oh, no, no, no. And it's all kinds of storage tanks, you know, there are these big giant tanks that they have crude oil in and product in. But there's all kinds of tanks. Thousands. Thousands.

Nivien Saleh
As a result of global warming the Gulf of Mexico heats up. And as a consequence of that, more water evaporates into the air and is kept there. And that leads to more turbulence and greater possibility of violent storms than we have had in the past. You say that if a storm hits Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel at just the right angle, it can push water into the upper Houston Ship Channel where all the refineries are. And that could create a huge environmental disaster.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, it's not just the, quote, upper Houston Ship Channel. All along the west side of Galveston Bay and even the north side, Baytown and there's Pasadena. You don't have to be in Buffalo Bayou or the Houston Ship Channel to have the effect of the storm surge. There'll be water in downtown Pasadena. We use the ship channel because it's a focal point of intensity, because there's so much petrochemicals right there on the channel. But there are lots of places all around. This is the largest petrochemical complex in the United States, and it is 100 percent vulnerable to storm surge in a hurricane - catastrophic destruction.

Does the Texas Government Take Houston Hurricane Seriously?

Nivien Saleh
You just mentioned feeling like you're Cassandra, the famous Greek figure that warns and yet is never listened to. I believe a lot of that has to do with recognition of global warming. In order for us to see the danger that could result from storm surge, we have to admit that global warming is real, that it will happen. And if you don't recognize that, then you cannot see the consequences it may have. And a problem in Texas politics is that our leaders for a long time just have not wanted to see global warming, that global warming essentially is a dirty word. Right?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, yeah, you're talking about Republican leadership in Austin. But it's true in the Republican Party in general. The one institution that stands out that is in climate denial is the Republican Party with President Trump at the head of it. That's true. But that's that shouldn't control me and the Commissioners Court of Harris County, Texas. But it does. It has a terrible effect because in our system, leadership still does come from the top. Our leadership in the United States Senate has been not just zero, but negative. Ted Cruz couldn't get elected dog catcher in the United States Senate. The idea that you're going to get federal funds to go to his hometown to protect his hometown from storm surge with the kind of incredible conduct that he's engaged in the United States Senate ... You have to give to get in in the United States Senate. Without people rowing the boat in the United States Senate, it's real hard to take the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and get results. And I would say the hardest reality that I've gotten in pollution prosecution is to understand the corporate officials who have just not yet gotten the message. Well, the reason they don't is because it is their job not to. Most of these companies on the Houston Ship Channel, you think they would care about this, but they really don't because they've already factored in the complete destruction of their facilities. That's just cost of doing business.

Nivien Saleh
All right, speaking of destruction, what would be the consequence of a hit on the Houston Ship Channel? What would that mean for people who maybe work there, for people who live there, for the economy of Houston, for people who are living in Katy?

Terence O’Rourke
Houston would be a historical past tense reference, something like Galveston is now. With the contamination of such a level, it'll be 20 or 30 years before it was capable of redevelopment. And what would happen is that the city that was here ends up going to Bryan, College Station, or to Smithville, Texas. Essentially what was the city goes upstream. That's what would happen.

Nivien Saleh
People who listen to this podcast probably care about wildlife. What would a catastrophe like this do to wildlife areas?

Terence O’Rourke
The only word is catastrophic. Galveston Bay would be destroyed. It would be destroyed as the vibrant ecological system that it is it would become a giant toxic pond. And it would take, whether it's 20 years or 100 years or a thousand years, to fix it. It just doesn't get well by itself. Dioxin, things like that. It's not like fecal matter that ends up being eaten by bacteria. A lot of this stuff kills microorganisms. It's not food for them.

The Danger from Toxic Spillage is Grave

Nivien Saleh
Let me provide just one example of the impact on humans. And that comes from one chemical that I happened to find nine months ago. I read it in The New York Times in an article that did not deal with Texas, but with Philadelphia. And the article was about the chemical hydrogen fluoride. Hydrogen fluoride is a chemical that kills and seriously injures humans, when they're exposed to just one hundred and seventy parts per million in the air for ten minutes. So. You are exposed to hydrogen fluoride in the quantity of 170 parts per million in the air for 10 minutes, and then you get killed. Now, Texas City houses at least two refineries that process hydrogen fluoride. So we have that chemical in the Houston Ship Channel and could get exposed as a result of the battering from the storm surge.

The New York Times writes: "In the 1980s, the oil giant AMOCO commissioned tests in the Nevada desert to determine what would happen if hydrogen fluoride was suddenly released from a refinery. The results were nightmarish. All the spilled hydrogen fluoride immediately became airborne and formed a dense, ground-hugging aerosol cloud. Within minutes, dangerous concentrations of hydrogen fluoride, twice the lethal threshold were detected two miles downwind." I read this and I thought: Wow. That just gives you a picture of of how bad this could be. So I just wanted to put that out there as one example of one chemical.

Terence O’Rourke
The people who are best capable of providing this information is the SSPEED Center at Rice, and I don't think anyone's argued with them on the toxicity or the reality of it. The challenge is how do you take scientific information that's produced and convey it for the purpose of public assessment and action to protect the public? And that's simply not happening here.

Look, I represent the government. So I'm not here to make admissions against the interests of the government. But our government from top to bottom does not have the kind of preparedness for this kind of disaster. It's just that simple. And we've been defunding or deemphasizing this at the state level and federal level, at least in the last few years. And one county government alone cannot handle it. We have created a very profitable system of taking carbon in the form of oil and gas and turning it into products which are useful and used in the entire world. The miracle products that made the last part of the 20th century and much of the 21st in all kinds of ways come out of this petrochemical complex. It's not that we don't need these. We obviously don't need as much plastics that's in the ocean. But there are a whole lot of things that are made with petrochemicals that it would be impossible to think of our lives without, including all kinds of medical devices that are parts of us and people who couldn't even live without them.

Nivien Saleh
Still, as you say, we need to protect ourselves. And there are three proposals out there to protect Houston from storm surge. There was the Ike Dike. Then there was a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which honestly, I've never understood. And then there's the plan that you like, which is the Galveston Bay Park plan.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes. The mid-Bay.

The Three Proposals for Facing Houston Hurricane Threat

Nivien Saleh
Please describe the three proposals.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, one and two are pretty close to each other. Right after Hurricane Ike, a professor at Texas A&M University in Galveston, Bill Merrell, did a kind of back of the envelope proposal for a dike that would run essentially down the barrier islands and the coast, essentially from Sabine Pass all the way down, depending on how far to Corpus Christi, whatever, to protect us. just build a wall and you stop the water from going over the wall. And it became known as the Ike Dike because it was done after Hurricane Ike when everybody ended up being in favor of the Ike Dike because it was a simple thing to explain. We're gonna build a wall on the Texas coast just like the Sea Wall. But it's like the super duper seawall, bigger than the one in Galveston. Everybody that has been to Galveston sees the seawall? Well we're gonna build one. That simple. Well, it requires some other things, like a gate, because you have Bolivar Roads. You know, one of the big problems is that you you had put a gate over a essentially an open sea. Conceptually, it was very attractive because it was big, and it was simple, and it was expensive, and the United States government was going to pay for it. So every county commissioner, every county judge, all the locals, all the contractors said we're all in favor of the Ike Dike.

Nivien Saleh
And we're talking about not just Harris County. We're talking about Galveston County ...

Terence O’Rourke
Yeah. Chambers County, Grimes County. Everybody who's even close to the ... Brazoria County, Fort Bend County, Jefferson County. All of them want ... I mean, why not. Why not have the United States government spend billions of dollars? It's contractor money and it's gonna make us safe. All right. Simple in concept. Federal government pays for it. Just do it. And the only problem is that it cost too much, would take too long. And for our purpose, it wouldn't work for Houston, Harris County.

Nivien Saleh
Why would it not work?

Terence O’Rourke
Because even if you built the Ike Dike as proposed, the kind of storm that we're looking at, a category four storm that would come up through St. Louis Pass and hit the Houston Ship Channel, the water doesn't come from the Gulf of Mexico. It comes from Galveston Bay. The model for it really is the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, which is next to the death in 1900 in the storm in Galveston the greatest loss of life. And that came completely out of a bay. In other words: To protect the Channel industries and Texas City and Pasadena and these other areas in Baytown, you have to protect them from the storm surge that will arise from the wind in the bay. If you have 130 mile an hour winds and a hurricane that's got a diameter of 100 miles, it will produce catastrophic volumes of water. It's all that simple.

Nivien Saleh
Then there is the plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Terence O’Rourke
That's the modification. That's essentially taking the Ike Dike proposal and making it a practical one. And they've done some significant modifications, but it's still the Ike Dike B, really. And in a certain sense, it was born dead because of the opposition of landowners. When they understood that the United States government was going to take their land. It became a lot less attractive and not only was it going to take their lands. Who was it going to protect? Like if you live in Bolivar Peninsula, is this dike going to protect you? No. It's going to just take your property and destroy your area. It is meant to protect those rich people in Houston or whatever. But it doesn't even protect them. So I would say that the Corps of Engineers plan requires a lot of time. The attractive plan. I mean, can I just jump to the one that, you know ...

Nivien Saleh
Number three.

Terence O’Rourke
Number three is the Galveston Bay Park plan. It's also called the Mid-bay proposal. And that is essentially is that you build a wall right down the middle of Galveston Bay from approximately Texas City Dike to Baytown. And that would keep the storm surge out of the petrochemical complex all the way from Texas City to Baytown and protect the city, Houston, but mostly its refineries and chemical plants. And that would work. But what makes it so attractive is it would have an amenity with a park, which would be hundreds and hundreds of acres of habitat park, so that you would enhance the bay instead of destroying it. And one of the problems with the Ike dike is: If you really want to do the Ike Dike and do it right, it's a real challenge how you don't kill Galveston Bay by essentially building the gate that would go across the Bolivar Roads it creates an occlusion so great that you would stop the flow of salt water back and forth essential for the life of the bay. It's an enormous environmental cost. The alternative is the mid-bay proposal ...

Nivien Saleh
And by Mid-Bay proposal ...

Terence O’Rourke
That's the Galveston Bay Park plan. That's what the Rice University and the SSpeed Center has proposed, drawn up by architect Rob Rogers and others.

It's going to require significant environmental assessment, impact statement. And we have never really done - not really done - an environmental impact statement on the Galveston Bay Park Plan, and that's going to require looking all the way from the coastal prairie to the Gulf of Mexico of the ... of the effects of this. It's doable, but it just requires a comprehensive look.

Nivien Saleh
So the Galveston Bay Park is protecting the Houston Ship Channel. Maybe I should just explain what the Houston Ship Channel is as opposed to the Galveston Bay. Galveston Bay is a large expanse of water and it is very, very shallow. And in order to make ships able to pass from Galveston to Houston, over the decades companies, the government dug out a part of Galveston Bay, that part where the ships navigate. And it's a lot deeper. And that is called the Houston Ship Channel.

Terence O’Rourke
That's right.

Nivien Saleh
So Galveston Bay Park plan is protecting the Houston Ship Channel and sort of ...

Terence O’Rourke
It would be on the east side of the big ditch that is the ship channel. That's right. It would be essentially a wall of dirt that's on the east side of the ditch that is in in the bay called the Houston Ship Channel. Yes.

Nivien Saleh
And it would create an occlusion that keeps the water from battering into the Houston Ship Channel and up into the petrochemical complex.

Terence O’Rourke
That’s right. It would be a barrier against the storm surge in the bay itself. Yes.

Nivien Saleh
The Galveston Bay Park plan, as you say, has been developed by the SSPEED Center. The SSPEED Center is an institute at Rice University.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes. It's an acronym that's S_S_P_E_E_D Center, and that stands for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center.

Nivien Saleh
As ... if I just may say: it's a mouthful.

Terence O’Rourke
It's a mouthful.

Nivien Saleh
And the SSPEED Center came up with the Galveston ....

Terence O’Rourke
The Galveston Bay proposals to protect Houston came out of the SSPEED Center, yes.

Nivien Saleh
And what is the cost?

Terence O’Rourke
It's still very early on, but somewhere within five or seven billion dollars of total. (It) depends on how you count the total total cost. But a round number, low-ball, would be five billion and as much as seven. I think the simplest thing would be to call it a five billion dollar project.

Nivien Saleh
And that price tag would make it a lot more affordable ...

Terence O’Rourke
Than 30 billion dollars for the Ike Dike. Yes.

Nivien Saleh
What has your involvement been in the plan so far?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, I've done lots of things because I work for Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, and one of the issues for us was in litigation of our toxic waste cases, and especially the dioxin case, on the questions is very important litigation is what would happen if a hurricane hit this? And what is the likelihood? So I did studies for court cases about hurricanes. And that was the big wakeup for me because I saw for the dioxin pits, for example, that it really was just a question of when a hurricane was going to come and rip all that dioxin out and spew it over a thousand square miles. And dioxin just doesn't get well. It stays in the environment, and it goes up the food chain. So it became clear to me that we had to win that case and get that dioxin out. As a result of that, I became ever presently alert of just what an imminent danger we're in. So I've worked in that case and then explaining that to the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States as well as the state agencies. And then I have worked to get, the earliest presentations of the Galveston Bay Park plan to the Commissioners Court of Harris County and particularly to Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Nivien Saleh
I just want to clarify for our listeners, when you say "the dioxin pits" or "the dioxin case," we're talking about the San Jacinto waste pits.

Terence O’Rourke
Yes.

Nivien Saleh
So you've been involved with this plan for a while, and in fact, that's how I learned about it. And when I learned about it, I started caring very much.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, at least 10 years, I've had an acute awareness of the danger.

Nivien Saleh
So you've been aware for ten years and ... I imagine that none of the listeners of this podcast has heard anything about this until maybe now.

Terence O’Rourke
Yeah.

Are Environmental Groups Interested?

Nivien Saleh
I would imagine that environmental organizations would care very deeply about this because they want to protect our environment. What has the interest of environmental groups been?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, the interest in environmental groups is across the board as they have interests of their own. Just like governmental agencies - like I could be doing this presentation for the Commissioners Court of Harris County, and they'd nod their heads and say, that's a really great problem and, you know, we're going to take care of it and all that. And nothing would happen or nothing adequate for my purposes. So generally speaking, the environmental organizations are aware of the threat and the problem, but they, like everybody else, are focused on the things that they're focused on. And there is no significant single organization whose job is to protect us from the storm surge in Galveston Bay. Now, the closest one would be the Galveston Bay Foundation, but it too has other pressing needs and priorities. And then stepping back, when you say what is the response of environmental organizations? I grew up in all of those organizations. And most of the people in the environmental movement grow up being against projects as opposed to for them.

Nivien Saleh
Why?

Terence O’Rourke
Because generally speaking, the best way to protect the environment is: just don't do it. Leave it alone. Let the Earth be OK. Don't rip it up anymore. And frequently, when these projects come to them to say, we would certainly like your support for this, they've got some greenwash on it. And so they throw some dough around and put ducks in front of the refinery and act like the migratory birds that come in the duck pond are enough for you to be able to breathe the dimethyl-double-death that's coming out of the plant. But generally speaking, if you're an environmental organization, you're just against all that. It's a lot easier to be against everything than to be for anything. So this is a big lift. It is a change of perspective. Now, when I meet with my environmental friends, I say, you know, this is a moral issue. This is not just a political issue. We know that this is going to happen. We're talking about what Mother Nature is going to do to us if we don't do something. So to not act is not moral. It is not an ethical, moral way to be. In NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the questions that has to be asked for the approval of federal projects is: what happens if you just don't do the project? Well, what I am saying and what Jim Blackburn and what Professor Bedient and Rob Rogers and the others are saying is: That's not really a choice.

Nivien Saleh
OK, yeah.

Terence O’Rourke
So it's hard. That makes it hard.

Nivien Saleh
I would think, if a storm surge happens, there won't be Galveston Bay Foundation anymore because there won't be Galveston Bay, right?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, there will be a Galveston Bay, but it'll have big giant signs on it that will say "do not fish, do not hunt, do not here is prohibited from humans. Passage in this area is ultra-contamination, not safe for whatever. This is a federal zone." You know, just go to the dioxin pits today and take a look at the signs that are on that boy. You know with these yellow and black skulls and bones on them. I mean, it is going to be unsafe for humans to be there.

Nivien Saleh
What was your ballpark number for the ... for the financing of the ...

the Houston Port Authority Wants a Freeway

Terence O’Rourke
Well, five billion. Let's say a five billion dollar project, but you always have to plan it costing more. But even if it costs seven or eight, it's still a lot cheaper than the Ike Dike, where the front-end price is like 30 billion and .... And IF the Ike Dike were to be built, you don't have to be against the Ike Dike to be for the Galveston Bay plan. The United States Army Corps of Engineers has worked with the SSPEED Center, and they are compatible. So please don't hear this as an either-or. But it needs phasing. For this to succeed you build the Galveston Bay Plan in the early part. Then the so-called Ike Dike or Corps of Engineers plan would phase in. And that's a 20 or 30-year plan. I'm not saying that it can't be done, but there are huge problems connected to it that do not exist for the Galveston Bay Plan. And then another part of it that we haven't discussed is: If you talk to the people in the oil companies and the shippers here in the Houston Ship Channel: Their number one problem, they don't give a damn about the storm surge and the hurricane. They really don't. They care about another lane on the freeway.

Nivien Saleh
The freeway being?

Terence O’Rourke
The ship channel. They literally want another lane on the freeway. And that's because the tanker ships that are coming in, they're so large, they essentially block Houston Ship Channel. They need more width. They need it to be a lot wider than it is. So their first goal, goal number one, is what they call Project Eleven, which is the widening of the Houston Ship Channel for the purpose of increasing the traffic to have two-way traffic there with both containers and oil and gas. And a lot of them are against the Galveston Bay Park plan and even against the Ike Dike because they don't want nothing to get in the way of their "road project." Essentially, it's a road project for them.

Nivien Saleh
Yeah.

You already mentioned some of the actors, but I want to get more detail. So the actors that are needed to make the Galveston Bay Park a reality are ... I came up with a list, okay: Commissioners Court, Houston Port Authority, the Texas Land Commissioner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And then there are a bunch of others. Who are the most important actors in the ....

Terence O’Rourke
I think, I think you've just listed them. The Port Authority, because historically they're the ones who have operated and managed the port, have to be in on it. And there's a whole bunch of statutory authority of the Port to be involved in this. At one level, this could be done without any legislation. In other words, we don't need to go to Austin, Texas, or Washington, D.C., to get this plan approved and built because it is a local government project. It could be built by Harris County Flood Control District or Harris County, which is pretty much the same – they are two governmental entities. And the Port Authority of Houston could build it. But they would need permits. And the permits would come from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. There are two or three types of permits that would have to come. There also would have to be approval from the Environmental Protection Agency as a kind of sign-off on an environmental statement. There will be a significant environmental impact statement. And that means that you would have all the other federal agencies that would comment as well as state resource agencies. And there are issues that you would have to deal with with coastal and marine fisheries. Institutionally, for example, if you just walked in the door at the Interior Department or Coastal Marine Fisheries and said, "I want to build an island that's like 30 miles long in Galveston Bay," well, they'd say no. "I've got fish there. I mean, what's in it for me?" You get the same kind of institutional resistance because their job is to protect coastal and marine fish, and this is going to reduce the habitat of coastal and marine fish. The answer to that, of course, is: Do you know what's going to happen to Galveston Bay if we don't build this? "Well, yeah, it's not my problem." That's it. It's not their problem.

Nivien Saleh
All right. So that would be the res....

The Role of State and Local Government in Protecting us from Houston Hurricane

Terence O’Rourke
There's more. There are more agencies. Clearly, the Land Commissioner should take a leadership role as opposed to sit in the back. The question is, who owns Galveston Bay, who owns the bottom? It's owned either by the State of Texas, and it's submerged lands, or the United States Government because it's a navigable waterway. In that sense, Harris County or the Port of Houston has to get the approval of the United States and the Land Commissioner, and then, because most of it is in Chambers County, there'll be some authority of Chambers County. But really quite small. And then who else needs to be?

Nivien Saleh
Yes.

Terence O’Rourke
Well, I'd say everybody, really. But principally the resource agencies in Texas, and that would be the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department taking a leadership role with whoever their partner would be in the Interior Department. The lead agency, I'm not sure how they would do that designation because what you want to do is design the future. It is clear that the amount of water coming down Trinity River is going to be reduced in the next century. It is also clear or true that's going to happen in the San Jacinto River. And it's for whole lot of reasons. But what happens is that for a redesign of the Bay, you take this into account and plan for it. The simplest thing would be to move all the oyster reefs north. How far north they go up in Galveston Bay/Trinity Bay? I don't know. But that would have to be carefully studied. But it could be beautiful. Oysters are incredible animals - what they do for the purpose of cleaning water. But if you work together to revegetate the shores ... I mean, the west side of Galveston Bay has essentially been destroyed by development in the last hundred years. Instead, you could restore much of the land. And the cost of land restoration in the Bay is really small. When you compare it to the kind of dollar bills it takes to build a project like this, we're talking in the hundreds of millions for real environmental enhancement, while billions of dollars to build the project.

Nivien Saleh
What you're referring to right now is objections on the basis of environmental concerns against the project. And you're saying that the project is important because otherwise we're facing catastrophe. And at the same time, there are really good ways of mitigating the harm that will be done by construction.

Terence O’Rourke
Yeah, I'm saying, it's more than mitigating. I'm saying it's an amenity. That we, if we use our intelligence, can create something beautiful. There's a whole philosophy in the environmental business, you know, "the best way to do it is just leave alone." That's not an option here. It's not an option to leave it alone.

Nivien Saleh
Yeah.

Terence O’Rourke
So so the question is: If you don't, then what do you do? A part of this project should be something more than just building a wall to protect us from a hurricane. It would be to build a park for wildlife and for people in Galveston Bay, a tourist destination, a recreation destination, but most importantly, a place for migratory birds and for all other kinds of aquatic life. It could be fabulous.

Nivien Saleh
Thank you. Now, the one entity that you didn't really mention in that list of actors was Commissioners Court. So we have, as I said earlier, four commissioners, one county judge. What would their role be in this?

Terence O’Rourke
The Commissioners Court of Harris County, Texas, might have to finance a large part of it because they sit as the board of the Harris County Flood Control District. There's going to be park opportunities for Harris County in this. Think of it as a county park. And there are flood control opportunities in it to protect us from flood. So their commitment would be dollar bills and also participation in the design of making a beautiful amenity for recreation and wildlife and an effective functioning system that protects us from storms.

Nivien Saleh
Isn't it also that the people in Precinct 2 are even more impacted than the rest of us because they live in that area. So if there were a storm surge, they would experience even worse consequences than everybody else. So you would think that the commissioner of Precinct two, would ...?

Terence O’Rourke
Well, so far the commissioner of Precinct 2, Adrian Garcia, has been supportive of this. But, you know, it's not a one-man show. One of the questions is: What needs to happen to make this happen?

Nivien Saleh
Yeah?

Terence O’Rourke
I've asked myself that. We don't have Jesse Jones. And I'm glad we don't. We don't have some big old rich white men who sit down in places and smoke cigars and decide what our future is. We have a rich, multicultural system. And yet it's challenging to make resource decisions on emergencies with democratic systems. But we need to do it. And what needs to happen is to have real charismatic leadership, and that could be from the government of Harris County, it could be the mayor of Houston, it could be the county judge. It could be the chair of the Port Authority. It could be a member of the Port Authority - members! It could be our congressional members. You know, they are going to do redistricting. I don't know who the congressperson from this area is going to be after 2020. By 2021 or 2022, there should be a new Congress person in this area. And that's important. Perhaps a new United States senator, and I would course hope a new President.

Nivien Saleh
So anybody ...

President Donald Trump Issues Insult

Terence O’Rourke
It must be said that the President of the United States came in with a very insulting offhand joke about the Ike Dike when he came to Texas and spoke in Dallas. And I've thought about what it be like to work at the U.S. Corps of Engineers for 10 years on a project like that and hear the insults of Donald Trump on something you've worked on.

Nivien Saleh
What was the insult?

Terence O’Rourke
Essentially it was that this was some method of extortion, that they just weren't going to do it.

Nivien Saleh
I’ll look for it right now.

It was a rally President Trump held in Dallas, Texas, on October 17, 2019. Here it is:
Donald Trump
[Transcript Donald Trump rally in Dallas, TX October 17, 2019. C-SPAN (see: https://www.c-span.org/video/?465272-1/president-trump-holds-rally-dallas-texas), a few minutes after minute 40]:
And I had John Cornyn on my back, and I had the congressman calling. And you know it was brutal. It wasn’t even fair. And they said, Sir, thank you for being so generous on the hurricane. They made a fortune.

You made a fortune on the hurricane. Thank you for being so generous, Sir. Sir, we want one more small request. Just a small one. It’s not much, and we appreciate you listening to us. We want to build a dam in the ocean. So that if we ever have another hurricane, Sir, the water won’t be able to come in to Houston and all of the areas that it came into, Sir. You think we could do it?

I said, how much? It’s only $10 billion. $10 billion? Right Ted? Right? $10 billion they wanted. Ten. And you know the way they sell it. And it’s so good. They’re salesmen. They’re incredible salesmen. They say it is only $10 billion, I am supposed to be happy. Oh, let’s see. Could we give Texas an extra $10 billion for some, some crazy thing that may work, and it may not, right?

Terence O’Rourke
I'm easy for me to criticize the works of others, which I'm as a big time lawyer do all the time. But there's been a lot of people in the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the resource agencies and the Flood Control District and the Port Authority, who've done a lot of work on this. They're smart, and they're capable. The constraints on the Corps of Engineers are just enormous. There are a whole bunch of formulas, and the formulas, when I look at them, remind me of the kind of medical things, you know, they say, "well, the the operation was successful, but the patient died." Well, the formulas that the Corps of Engineers has to work under frequently are controlled by pork barrel systems in Congress. So that they end up producing things on cost benefit analysis that has really nothing to do with protecting us from the mission here of protecting the largest petrochemical complex in the United States.

Nivien Saleh
Yeah, and I did not get the impression that the Corps of Engineers is a problem here. I believe what the problem is, is that we do not have leadership, and the leadership typically should not come from the Corps of Engineers, it should come from our elected leaders.

Terence O’Rourke
You're completely correct. And the same is true of our Flood Control District. You really don't expect the people whose job is to build it to be telling you what to do. And the issue here is the wakeup call. Why wasn't Hurricane Ike enough of a wakeup call? Why wasn't Hurricane Harvey enough of a wakeup call? How could you say after the greatest rainfall event measured in the history of the United States that fell on you that we didn't have climate change and global warming affecting us. And yet we still don't have that as a ... I mean, go to Austin, Texas, and sit down with the governor and ask him, you know, or the lieutenant governor or the attorney general.

Nivien Saleh
Yeah.

Land Commissioner Bush, Please Protect Houston from Hurricane

Terence O’Rourke
Or the Land Commissioner, for that matter. You know, the Land Commissioner is a very smart guy. If I had one prayer, if George Bush, the Land Commissioner, was listening to this: This is really a time for leadership from George Bush.

Nivien Saleh
Dear Mr. Bush, please help protect Texas and Houston and the United States from an environmental disaster. And anybody who feels the need to do something and who has charisma and is outgoing: Please step forward and take a look at this opportunity.

Terence O’Rourke
Yeah. Oh, yeah, there's a ... there's a wonderful opportunity to be in the front of the band here. But the other is community organizing. Environmental impact assessment, a lot of true assessment and community, needs to occur here. It's not just people downtown or in the high rise buildings, you know, making these decisions. It's people taking a look at how will this affect them.

Nivien Saleh
So this is an opportunity for environmental groups here in Houston to say, "We have our regular tasks that we're pursuing. But we also want to look outside of that and focus on this because it's a really big problem."

Terence O’Rourke
Everybody thinks their problem's the number one thing. I've looked at all the problems, and this is what I believe it is. What we can do here, I learned in the environmental movement from the earliest stage, is you think globally and you act locally. This is the greatest single thing that we can do to produce a harmonic environment.

Nivien Saleh
What recommendations would you have for average listeners? You know, people who listen to this podcast and they are not in leadership positions. They do not spearhead a group. What can they do?

Terence O’Rourke
Well,I think first thing: Go to the SSPEED Center website, you know, S_S_P_E_E_D Center Rice University, and just take a look at the Galveston Bay Park plan. You know, read the plan.

Nivien Saleh
And then maybe ask questions about it, like ask the groups that you're affiliated with about it, or ask your elected officials about it.

Terence O’Rourke
Yeah, What about it? What's the story? You know, we're going into hurricane season.

Nivien Saleh
So we discussed a big problem here. We also looked at a potential solution. And I would like to point out that here is a great opportunity. We could have a beautiful park. We could have great amenities. We could have a level of access to the Bay that currently does not exist because so much of the coast is in private hands. And while this is challenging, there's something at the end of the road here that might be really, truly special.

Terence O’Rourke
You would have a world-class amenity for recreation that you don't have now. There is nothing there for you now. The future of Houston: It's going to have 10 million. It's got five million now. You can't put more people on Galveston Island and Bolivar. It's like going to New York and going to Jones Beach or something. It can't take that many more people. So what do you do to create recreation, water-based recreation? Well, you do the hike-bike-waterway trails on bayous. But the big one, the undeveloped terrific resource is Galveston Bay. It could be an amenity for millions of people to use. It's a true gift to the people. And that's completely lost.

Nivien Saleh
And we need to un-Lose it. And thank you for ... thank you for helping to make this a reality.

Terence O’Rourke
Thank you for having me.

Nivien Saleh
This is it for today. If you’d like to learn more about storm surge in the Houston Ship Channel, visit the episode web page on HoustonNature.com, where I will post resources for you. And then, ask your community leaders questions and demand answers.

If you liked this episode, please tell a friend. I wish you health and safety. For Houston and Nature, I’m Nivien Saleh.

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