Has the fight over port expansion turned a bay watchdog group into a rubber duck?

A packed Pasadena Convention Center crowd listened intently to a stream of speakers on the evening of August 17, Linda Shead took her turn at the microphone. For the allotted two minutes, the executive director of the Galveston Bay Foundation gave her organization's stance on the Port of Houston Authority's proposed Bayport container terminal -- specifically, what GBF thought needed to happen during a critical upcoming technical review of the $1.2 billion project.

"We are particularly concerned that Š container shipping and the proposed Bayport project proposes changes that could threaten the health of the bay's resources and severely encroach on the bay's other uses," said Shead. Noting that GBF asked the Port to be more responsive to concerns about Bayport, Shead stated that "[w]hile some of these requests have been honored, we are not at all confident that the way they have been honored will lead to success."

"So far, insufficient information has been available to allow for an independent evaluation of the impacts and alternatives," Shead concluded. "The Galveston Bay Foundation cannot support any container terminal expansion in Galveston Bay until that information is available."

Looking for the win-win: GBF executive director Linda Shead.
Steve Lowry
Looking for the win-win: GBF executive director Linda Shead.

Shead's statement, while couched in restrained language, seemed like the kind of fightin' words that would elicit shouts of "Solidarnösc!" from the project opponents filling the hall. But for those who have spent much of the last year battling Bayport, the GBF stance fell far short of adequate. "I was unimpressed and very discouraged," says attorney Dick Morrison, who helped found the organization in 1987.

Morrison recalls with pride the early days of GBF, which was organized to coordinate efforts to protect the bay. Its first task was to fight an immediate threat: the deepening and widening of the Houston Ship Channel, which as planned would have caused irreparable harm to the bay's ecosystem. The foundation won that epic battle, using a take-no-prisoners attitude to help leverage a dramatic reduction in the scope of the dredging. A far cry, he says, from the GBF he heard in Pasadena. "It didn't sound to me like the Galveston Bay Foundation that stood in the breach [in the past]," Morrison says.

The Ship Channel victory gave the fledgling organization instant credibility, and it has grown substantially in the decade since then. A staff of more than a dozen manages a variety of education and conservation programs with an annual budget approaching $1 million. GBF has lobbied effectively to establish an oil spill response program, acquired more than 2,000 acres of critical habitat and monitored more than 1,000 wetland permit applications.

But Morrison says that in recent years the foundation has been too willing to strike deals with industry to the detriment of the bay. "We became an accommodator," he says. "I was shocked at some of the positions I saw GBF take."

Morrison's sentiments echo those of an ever-increasing chorus of GBF critics who contend that until recently the foundation has been practically invisible in the Bayport struggle. Instead, other groups have had to pick up the slack: raising funds, commissioning studies to counter Port claims, organizing turnouts at important meetings, coordinating action with various non-industrial interests. "I've gone through a tremendous amount of personal effort to essentially work around the Galveston Bay Foundation to fight Bayport," says attorney Jim Blackburn, one of GBF's original prime movers. "I shouldn't have to do that."

Part of the problem, says Blackburn, is money. GBF has become increasingly thirsty for funds to support its expanded programs. Though the bulk of its revenue comes from government grants and foundations, about 25 percent of the money is donated by local industry (including the Port, which regularly gives $6,000 toward the foundation's annual Bay Day festival). Blackburn charges that the reliance on corporate cash -- and the presence of industry on its executive board -- has weakened the foundation's resolve on such watershed issues as Bayport. "A question you always have to ask is: Where are you getting your funds, and what are the consequences of seeking and accepting certain funds?" Blackburn says.

Glenda Callaway, another founding member who still serves on the GBF board, bristles at the suggestion that money has influenced the group's decisions. "GBF has never been compromised," Callaway says, adding that she can't recall any instance of pressure from funders or board members on specific issues. "Anybody who intimates otherwise either is wrong or has other agendas."

The rancor is more than academic, because Bayport is the most significant proposal to hit the bay since the Ship Channel dredging. Given the potential impacts on air quality, the cities and towns in proximity to the terminal and the bay itself, the project will have permanent, sweeping ramifications. The effects of thousands of trucks and trains belching diesel exhaust and clogging the area's meager transportation routes have yet to be analyzed. Nor have the consequences of additional ship traffic, erosion and dredging for the overtaxed bay been reviewed. The position that the Galveston Bay Foundation adopts will have at least some bearing on the final result.

Shead acknowledges that GBF is at odds with the anti-Bayport faction. "It's true that we don't categorically oppose the project right now," she says. "If that's what your position is, no, that's not what we're doing."

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