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Port of Houston

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

How the East End got its rail line

A great overview of how we got here with the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, the genesis of which go back a lot farther than the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.

Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.

At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.

Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.

This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.

The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.

The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.

Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”

Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.

I had no idea there had once been a serious proposal to extend SH 225 into downtown. What a disaster that would have been. The story continues through the creation of Metro, the 2003 referendum, and the fight over the overpass on Harrisburg. Check it out.

The Galveston oil spill

This is just awful.

While the oil spill resulting from Saturday’s collision between a ship and barge was small by global standards – less than a third of what it would take to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – the local impact is proving far more than a nuisance.

The heavy marine fuel oil is washing up on nearby beaches, killing or injuring waterfowl that come into contact with it, and keeping commercial traffic bound for local ports at a standstill.

The commercial ships should get relief soon as a fleet of oil-skimming vessels continues to scoop up what remains of the estimated 168,000 gallons of oil from the waters near the southern mouth of the Houston Ship Channel. Shipping operations were suspended immediately after the accident to prevent vessels from spreading the oil and getting it stuck to their hulls.

By late Monday, some of the oil could be seen floating in patches in Galveston Bay. But a large portion of the spill was driven by wind, waves and currents into the Gulf of Mexico and was headed southwest, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port, said at a Monday news conference. An aerial survey will determine where and how far the oil had spread, he said.

[…]

The waterfront oil made its way from the Texas City Dike to the eastern end of Galveston Island, and a small amount reached beaches frequented by tourists on the Gulf side of the Island, said Charlie Kelly, Galveston emergency management director.

Kelly said a number of tar balls had washed ashore between 29th Street and eastern end of the island, but the amount was so small that it was easily picked up. No tar balls could be seen on the beaches Monday afternoon.

“I’m not worried about anything,” Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen said.

Less sanguine were environmentalists who noticed oil covering a section of island beach that fronts the Ship Channel. Mort Voller, who heads the Galveston Island Tourism and Nature Council, said several oiled birds, all dead, were seen on an area near the Galveston jetty known as Big Reef.

“Big reef is hugely natural, a wonderful collection of salt water lagoons, sand flats and intertidal marsh and prairie-type uplands,” Voller said. It’s far enough away from the tourism beaches that animals are largely unmolested, he said.

The potential impact on wildlife is tremendous.

The heavy oil spilled into Galveston Bay showed signs Monday of harming one of the nation’s great natural nurseries, with biologists finding dozens of oiled birds on just one part of the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scientists found the birds on a wildlife refuge just two miles from where a partially sunken barge leaked as much as 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil after colliding with another vessel Saturday.

“We expect this to get much worse,” said Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

The concern comes as tens of thousands of birds are passing through the upper Texas coast on their annual flight north. But the worry also extends to the bay’s oyster reefs and the shrimp, crabs and fish that rely on the coastal marshes for shelter and food.

Scientists said that while the spill’s damage will be magnified by its awful timing, it could take years for a fuller picture of the ecological toll to emerge.

Galveston Bay was under stress from development, drought, pollution and storms. But its oil spills are typically small, averaging about 100 gallons per incident, according to an analysis by the Houston Advanced Research Center. The latest spill is the largest in the Ship Channel since a facility leaked 70,000 gallons of bunker fuel in 2000.

For now, the primary concern is the marshes, which have declined over decades because of sea-level rise, erosion and subsidence, a condition caused by sinking soil.

Here’s the optimistic view.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“This spill — I think if we keep our fingers crossed — is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Let’s hope that it’s not as bad as it could be. There’s a great irony in this happening almost exactly 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the effects of which are still being felt today. I pray that isn’t the case with this spill. Statements from the Environmental Defense Fund are beneath the fold.

(more…)

Watch the county’s business

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

Meetings of the Harris County Commissioners Court and the governing boards of the Port of Houston Authority, the Harris Health System and the Harris County Department of Education soon could be streamed live online.

County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday [asked] the court for permission to find a vendor to provide “live-streaming and archiving services for Commissioners Court and other public meetings” held in the ninth-floor chamber of the county administration building.

On Friday, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack added a supplemental item to Tuesday’s meeting agenda calling for that search to include other taxpayer-supported agencies – the port, Harris Health System and the county education department – and for them to foot the bill.

Radack said Emmett has “got a good idea and I think we might as well expand it to include those other people and see if the other members of court agree or disagree.”

“Frankly, I would like to tune into some of them myself just to see what they do,” said Radack said, a frequent critic of the hospital district and port.

He added that including more agencies could reduce the overall cost quoted by a vendor.

Emmett applauded the expanded proposal, and most commissioners expressed support for it.

“I think my original proposal was quite good and I think the supplemental just makes it that much better,” Emmett said. “My attitude is that if you’re going to have public meetings and it’s an easy way to allow the public to look in on your public meetings, I’m all for it.”

About time, I say. This should be the norm for government entities. It’s inexpensive to provide, it promotes transparency and involvement, and it’s just the right thing to do. Kudos to Judge Emmett for proposing it and to Commissioner Radack for improving on Judge Emmett’s idea.

Fifth Circuit rules for EPA against Texas

It’s always a pleasure seeing our litigious Attorney General get slapped down by whatever court he’s bothering this week.

Martin Lake coal plant

In the latest turn in a saga pitting environmental regulators in Washington against those in Austin, a panel of federal judges on Friday sided with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in its effort to tamp down Texas pollution.

The state and the Business Coalition for Clean Air Appeal Group — a group that includes petroleum refiners, chemical manufacturers, electric utilities and other large industrial sources of air emissions — had argued that the EPA had acted capriciously, abused its discretion and exceeded its authority when it rejected a portion of the state’s air permitting program.

A four-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit said it did not.

The weird thing about this is that I can’t tell what lawsuit this is. I think it’s the one about the EPA’s rejection of the TCEQ’s flex permitting program, but it could be the one about the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The story doesn’t give enough detail for me to tell, and for whatever the reason it’s the only such story I can find. If it’s the former, the state and the EPA may be on the verge of a deal in which the EPA would give its approval to the TCEQ. They almost had a deal two years ago, so assume nothing is set in stone just yet. It’s also not clear what effect such a deal would have on the ongoing litigation.

In related news, the EPA also announced it would begin enforcing a stricter soot standard. In this case, the EPA was goaded into action by a lawsuit filed by states such as New York and California that were tired of waiting for the agency to implement a promised review of that provision of the Clean Air Act. This action could have an effect around here.

Harris County would be out of compliance if the EPA sets the standard at the lower end of the range or gets even tougher with the final rule, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. No other Texas county is in jeopardy of violating the limits.

[…]

Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s air quality chief, said Harris County and others should not need pollution controls beyond those current and proposed rules require.

“It is unique to put a standard out there when we are already headed in that direction,” she said of the proposed limits, which came under a court-ordered deadline.

Environmentalists, however, said the EPA’s projections for Harris County may be too rosy. The area nearly fell out of compliance because of high levels of soot along the Ship Channel in 2009.

Monitoring shows the air near along the heavily industrialized channel is getting cleaner because of new rules for idling trucks and the paving of gravel lots. The Port of Houston, meanwhile, is expecting more freight with the 2014 opening of a wider Panama Canal.

Matthew Tejada, executive director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston, said federal regulators are making a “fairly foolish assumption” because no one has looked at how the port’s expansion will impact soot levels.

“If things stay steady, we should be fine,” Tejada suggested. “But we are trying to grow a port, and nobody is asking themselves, ‘Are we building ourselves into non-attainment?’ ”

According to a recent conversation between the Chron’s editorial board and County Judge Ed Emmett, port expansion is on the menu, at least theoretically. So this is something to keep an eye on.

Council shakeup

Things are getting mighty interesting down at City Hall.

Mayor Annise Parker has parted ways with two major conservatives on the Houston City Council, removing Councilman Mike Sullivan from his role overseeing redistricting and accepting the resignation of Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck as mayor pro tem.

The development, which stems, in part, from a recent spat over who would be appointed to serve as a Port of Houston Authority commission member, comes at a critical time for Parker, who is about to confront three issues that are expected to greatly test her ability to rally the council’s support.

Passing an extremely tight 2012 budget, a drainage fee mandated by popular vote and redrawing the lines of City Council boundaries could become far more difficult as her allies dwindle at City Hall.

The issue also apparently is tied to concern among Parker’s senior staff that Clutterbuck is gearing up to oppose her in 2011, the councilwoman said. She denied any interest in challenging the mayor.

[…]

Clutterbuck denied interest in Parker’s job.

“I find it unfortunate that questions like that are asked in her own office because they are a distraction from the real work that needs to get done,” she said.

Not the strongest denial I’ve ever heard, but never mind. A few people have told me in recent days that they’ve heard CM Clutterbuck is planning a challenge to Mayor Parker. What I know is that there are always more potential candidates for Mayor than there are actual candidates, and until someone designates a treasurer or takes some other formal step it’s all just rumor. Doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it, but it doesn’t mean much more until there’s something other than just talk to point to.

I should also note, by the way, that Clutterbuck isn’t the only current member of Council who is rumored to be running for Mayor next year. I know many people who believe that CM Bradford also has his eyes on the office. Again, it’s all just talk now, but in this case that talk has been around for awhile.

The port commission vote, in which the mayor’s preferred candidate was rejected by a majority of council, was “indicative of her inability to strongarm this council into doing what she wants done,” Sullivan said.

“It’s a precursor of more to come. We have very strong council members who have worked with another administration that was much more diplomatic and much more concerned about council issues than this mayor is. I think that is showing in the vote.”

Sullivan said the mayor told him Friday about her plans to run the redistricting process and was removing the issue from his committee out of retaliation for his vote to reappoint Janiece Longoria as port commissioner.

The councilman had given her repeated assurances he would vote for Parker candidate Dean Corgey last month but changed his mind after hearing from several influential Houston conservatives, he said.

Sullivan has been pretty openly critical of the Mayor recently, so the Longoria thing may just be the tipping point. His implicit comparison to Mayor Bill White is at least somewhat unfair, since Mayor White had the good fortune to take over during much better economic times; it’s a lot easier for everyone to get along when you’re not having to talk about furloughs and tax increases and so forth. One hopes Mayor Parker will get to experience some of that in her subsequent terms. Greg has more.

On a side note, I have an observation to make about the Port of Houston Commission, since that was apparently the catalyst for the falling out between Parker and Sullivan. The Port of Houston has seven appointed Commissioners:

The city of Houston and the Harris County Commissioners Court each appoint two commissioners. These two governmental entities jointly appoint the chairman of the Port Commission. The Harris County Mayors & Councils Association and the city of Pasadena each appoint one commissioner.

Ms. Longoria, who was re-appointed by Council against the Mayor’s preferences, is the sole Hispanic on the Commission. The other City of Houston appointee, Kase Lawal, is the sole African-American, and is the other City of Houston appointee. The other four, plus the Chair – four white guys and Elyse Lanier – were appointed by Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, and the city of Pasadena. In other words, the City of Houston is 100% responsible for the diversity on this governing body. Call me crazy, but I don’t see why this should be the case. Perhaps the next time that Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, or the city of Pasadena has to appoint or reappoint someone they might be persuaded to pick someone other than another white guy. Perhaps some of the people who expressed such a strong preference for Ms. Longoria could express that wish to Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, and the city of Pasadena as well. Just a thought.

Locke’s crimefighting plan

In the past week or so I’ve had several Mayoral candidate issue papers hit my inbox. As there was one from each campaign, I thought I’d try to do a little analysis of each of them. We’ll start today with Gene Locke‘s Seven Point Plan to Keep Houston Safe, which you can see here. Locke’s issues page is a bit light in comparison to his opponents, and this was the first such release I’ve received from his campaign, so it was with no small amount of interest that I took a look. As with Annise Parker’s plan, I’d say the priorities Locke highlights are good ones, ones for which there’s a fairly broad consensus. Not to put too fine a point on it, but six of the seven items Locke highlights can be found in Parker’s plan as well, and almost as many can be found in Peter Brown’s plan as well. That’s what I call a consensus.

(Interestingly, one thing Brown doesn’t mention that Locke and Parker both do is a promise to put more cops on the street. Of course, neither Parker nor Locke say how they plan to pay for those extra cops, so perhaps it’s just as well. And as noted before, while both Locke and Parker support the idea of closing the city’s jail and folding it into the county’s system, Brown opposes the idea. So it’s not all Consensusville here.)

Locke’s page here has fewer details than those of the other candidates, so there’s only so much for an armchair quarterback such as myself to quibble with. One place I really wish he had gone into greater detail is the matter of the city’s jail, for which Locke claims credit as the originator of the idea to close it. The city’s jail has been in the news quite a bit lately, especially with that story from Monday about a possible TIRZ deal with the county to pay for a replacement facility. What does Gene Locke, or Annise Parker or Peter Brown, think about this? Whoever wins in November will inherit this deal that the city makes, so it would be really nice to know where they stand. I figure I’ll get statements from one or more of their campaigns now that I’ve posted this, but frankly this should have been in the story. At this point, getting comments from the three of them on anything newsworthy that Mayor White and/or City Council is doing ought to be standard operating procedure.

The one point of Locke’s plan that’s unique to him is this:

HOMELAND SECURITY With the growing importance of Houston to the economy of the nation and the world, Gene knows we need to take special care to protect institutions like the Port of Houston. Gene will lead the way in developing a regional plan to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from an act of terrorism or any other type of catastrophic event. Safeguarding our engines of economic development will make Houstonians safer in their homes and communities.

The City of Houston currently has an Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, while Harris County has an Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. The former is more focused on crime, while the latter is more about hurricanes, at least going by their web pages. I’d like to know more about what Locke thinks about these current setups, and how his plan enhances or adds to them. I’d also like to know how he sees the role of the federal government in all this, since this clearly falls under the rubric of the DHS. I think this is a good issue to highlight, I just need to hear more.

That’s all I’ve got for this one. I’ve got Parker’s education plan and Brown’s energy plan in the works as well.