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 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."
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."
What they want to do, Callaway says, is what GBF has always done: sit down with all interested parties, gather the facts and try to build a consensus before taking action. At this point, the jury on Bayport is still out. "The foundation is a consensus organization," she says. "It's got to look at all the interests."
And, says Callaway, that philosophy works. "We've been incredibly effective," she says, "and we've been effective without dividing the community."
But the community is already bitterly divided over Bayport, and consensus looks impossible. The Port has indicated a willingness to tweak aspects of the project but thus far has rejected any alternative to locating the container terminal at Bayport. On the other hand, communities surrounding the massive project don't want it at all, nor do at least some of the bay-related environmental and recreational groups. "The current Bayport design is non-negotiable," says Larry Tobin, who heads the opposition group Taxpayers for Sensible Port Policies.
Shead maintains there's almost always enough common ground among adversaries to forge agreements that meet everyone's needs. When conflicts arise, she says, GBF negotiates solutions that satisfy all the bay's users. Until those opportunities are exhausted, GBF resists the call to arms from a particular segment. "It's not just the environmentalists' bay," says Shead. "It's everybody's bay."
The foundation's cautious approach and quest for inclusion has fueled fears among Bayport opponents that GBF won't act until it's too late to influence the process. "The longer the proceeding goes, it gets tougher to stop the train," acknowledges GBF executive board member Harless Benthul.
Worse, say Bayport opponents, is the prospect that in the interest of compromise the foundation will strike some Faustian bargain with the Port that will ultimately cause irreversible environmental damage. "I think GBF is clearly at a crossroads, and I've told the board that," says Blackburn. "I think they've lost sight of their mission, which was to protect Galveston Bay."
When Exxon filed to renew the wastewater discharge permit for its Baytown complex in 1994, Rick Abraham resisted. The head of Texans United, an environmental organization with a reputation for confrontation, Abraham had compiled a wealth of evidence that the oil giant had discharged millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Houston Ship Channel.
The discharges included more than 50 releases of hazardous waste and petroleum products in excess of permitted levels. Abraham concluded that the complex's wastewater treatment system was inadequate, and he embarked on a crusade to have the permit renewal denied.
Abraham's evidence was compelling enough to convince several agencies and environmental groups to support his cause. The Harris County Pollution Control Department joined the fray, and he successfully enlisted the aid of the Sierra Club, Common Cause and other organizations. Though the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission eventually approved the permit, Abraham persisted, filing suit in federal court and appealing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for relief. In December 1996 the EPA ruled in his favor, and Exxon was forced to stop the discharges. He won in court, too: A year and a half later, the company paid $107,500 to cover Abraham's legal expenses.
Abraham wanted the Galveston Bay Foundation to take a stand against the permit renewal as well. In an August 1995 letter to Linda Shead, he laid out his case and offered to meet with the executive board to document his claims. "Please consider writing a letter to the executive director of TNRCC and ask him to review this matter," he asked. "There should be no authorized discharges which bypass treatment systems."
But no letter was forthcoming. Nor did GBF weigh in eight months later, after the TNRCC extended the public comment period on the permit in the wake of widespread concerns and Abraham made a frantic appeal for another letter. "At a minimum, please ask that the TNRCC implement the recommendations of the Harris County Pollution Control Department, [which] says this permit will not protect public health or our public waters," he wrote.
Shead defends the decision not to take a stand on Exxon's permit. "That was a difficult issue, and we looked really hard at it," she says. "We concluded that what was being asked for by Texans United did not appear to be an accurate reflection of what was going on." In addition, she says, the solution proposed by Exxon in its renewal application seemed adequate. Discussions with the company and the TNRCC bolstered those conclusions.
But Abraham says GBF didn't give him the chance to dispel doubts about his position. "They never asked me for facts or information," he says. "They never questioned one fact with me."
Shead delivered the verdict by phone. "She just said she called Exxon, and Exxon assured her there was no problem and they were operating legally," Abraham recalls.
The experience left a bitter taste, and not just in Abraham's mouth. Sharron Stewart, a GBF founder and executive board member, says that although Abraham's reputation as a bomb thrower made it politically risky to hold hands with him, the foundation had other options. "GBF is not going to align themselves with Rick," she says, "but we needed to oppose that permit, and we didn't."
Contrary opinions didn't stop GBF in the beginning. The organization was modeled after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a hugely successful group founded in 1967 that coalesced varied interests on bay issues into an aggressive, dynamic force. Through education and restoration -- and sometimes litigation -- the Chesapeake group conclusively demonstrated the ability of a unified front to protect and defend that bay.
Initially GBF drew inspiration from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's willingness to take on tough political battles. During the fight against the deepening and widening of the Ship Channel, GBF worked against the bond referendum that accompanied the plan, threatened legal action and otherwise warred in the trenches. "We basically told the Port we were gonna fight 'em every which direction," recalls GBF co-founder Jim Blackburn.
The foundation won some and lost some, but never seemed to waver in its resolve. In June 1992, however, Morgan's Point mayor John Grimes was killed by an 18-wheeler while bicycling. GBF lost not only one of its stalwart founders, but one of the bay's strongest advocates. "That created ambiguity about how far GBF was going to go as an activist organization," says Stewart.
At the time, GBF was involved in the effort to stop the Texas Copper smelter, a project owned by Mitsubishi that was to be built on Virginia Point across from Tiki Island. Two weeks earlier the TNRCC had issued a water permit to Texas Copper, but the coalition of groups opposed to the project refused to give up.
Then the foundation negotiated a settlement: In exchange for the company's agreement to employ state-of-the-art pollution controls at the plant and hire GBF's handpicked consultant to work on the design, the foundation would drop its objections to the water permit (though it reserved the right to contest other aspects of the project).
That didn't sit well with Galveston attorney John Campbell, who headed a grassroots group of area residents combating the smelter. Campbell had no knowledge of the negotiations (which, ironically, were conducted by Blackburn), and he didn't feel the agreement was good enough. "I was very disappointed in Mr. Blackburn and the position of Galveston Bay Foundation," he says. "Right at the end, they just caved completely. They revealed that they had a big yellow stripe down their back."
Blackburn and other GBF members active at the time take issue with Campbell's assessment, stating that the deal was adequate to protect the bay, at least as far as wastewater discharge. And they emphasize that GBF might have vigorously objected to the pending air permit. "We felt like it was acceptable, that they had significantly enough reduced the [discharge]," says Shead. "We were doing what we thought was best for the bay."
But Mitsubishi eventually pulled out of the project, and Campbell and others who felt they were left to continue the struggle alone still have a tainted view of GBF seven years later. "I think it does a lot of good work," Campbell says, singling out Shead for praise. "It just always has to be understood for what it is."
Over the years that understanding has taken root elsewhere in the environmental community. Charlotte Cherry, a resident of the El Jardin community adjacent to Bayport and an outspoken critic of the project, approached the foundation more than a year ago and asked to make a presentation to the executive board. At the time, the public details of the proposed container terminal were still sketchy, and Cherry had accumulated maps and other information she thought might interest the board. But she says she was told that GBF would not let her use the organization for political purposes. "All I wanted to do was share my notes with them to see if they'd be concerned," Cherry says. "I was shot down."
The foundation's hesitance on Bayport has fueled the impression that GBF is no longer willing to take the lead on issues that may create political ripples. While the foundation has continued to expand its important education and restoration programs, the energy devoted to activism seems to have dwindled. "As an advocacy group, the GBF has not done an outstanding job," says board member Jake Hershey.
Shead says that any impressions that GBF has lost its zeal for advocacy are mistaken, especially about Bayport. "I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about our position," she says. Still, Shead says, when trying to consider all perspectives, GBF may sometimes err. Citing Exxon's permit renewal as an example, she says, "In hindsight, I'm not as sure of that as I was at the time. If I had the opportunity, I would look at it again."
On September 23 the Galveston Bay Foundation hosted its second annual business luncheon at the tony Houston Club downtown. The keynote speaker was a federal EPA official talking about "Green Ports." Developed by the EPA in conjunction with the American Association of Port Authorities, the green ports initiative looks at ways ports can reduce environmental impacts through sensitive management practices.
The luncheon was chaired by Sharon Mattox, an environmental attorney with Vinson & Elkins. Mattox is also the lawyer handling the Bayport permit application for the Port of Houston Authority.
The struggle to make ends meet is the constant that unites all nonprofits. As budgets swell, the need to find new revenue streams and maintain old ones becomes ever more acute.
As GBF takes great pains to remind the public, it has a natural advantage in fund-raising. Its mission statement reads, "The mission of the Galveston Bay Foundation is to preserve and enhance the bay for its multiple uses." In other words, anyone with a commercial, recreational or residential connection to the bay is a potential donor.
The foundation has historically been able to tap those constituents for funding. Its 2,500 individual members pay dues of $25 annually or $50 for families, which generates about 5 percent of GBF's income. More money is collected at such special fund-raising events as the annual gala or business luncheon. Government grants, usually for specific programs, cover another 40 percent. Private foundations and corporations each contribute about 25 percent, with the balance trickling in from various sources.
It has been a tough few months for the foundation. Expenses always rise, and GBF has no fat to cut. The annual gala, which took in $25,000 last year, raised only $6,000 in 1999. Bay Day, which was a wash in '98, lost $4,600 this year. This summer a staff position went unfilled for lack of funds. At the executive committee meeting on June 21, the budget report noted that GBF was "[s]till operating negatively, dependent upon our line of credit."
With limited human and financial resources for development, the natural tendency is to try to get the most bang from each fund-raising buck. Government grants require intensive applications that can take weeks to complete, topped by additional mounds of paperwork if they're awarded, and most foundations have their own rigorous requirements. That leaves two less demanding sources: corporate wallets and individual contributors.
When it comes to yield, there's no question which of those is the more efficient route. Companies like Exxon can write $10,000 checks from their public relations or marketing accounts without a second thought, whereas harvesting the equivalent from the grass roots requires a monumental effort -- that's 200 new family memberships or 400 individual memberships.
Not surprisingly, GBF has taken that route of late. Events such as the business luncheon, with $500 tables and $40 minimum tickets, tend to bring out the suits rather than the boots. Corporations provide the vast bulk of Bay Day's $120,000 budget through sponsorships. At least a third (probably more) of GBF's crucial unrestricted funds, which pay for administrative costs rather than specific projects, comes from the business community.
In contrast to the volume of corporate funding, which has risen in proportion to the budget, individual memberships have been stagnant at about 2,500 for the last three to five years, according to Shead. "Actually, that's pretty remarkable," she says. Organizations like GBF usually lose as much as 35 percent of their membership annually through attrition and must maintain their numbers through periodic campaigns. Though more grassroots outreach is on the foundation's to-do list, Shead says, "We've done none of that."
The foundation is aware of the perception that corporate giving might influence decision making. At the June 7 executive committee meeting attended by several Bayport opponents, the minutes reflects that chairman Byron Morris started "by expressing his personal sympathies with the individuals around the Bayport area, and his assurance that GBF's position would not be influenced by the $6,000 [5 percent] that the Port of Houston contributed to the Bay Day budget."
The same goes for Exxon's contributions, which rose dramatically the year its permit renewal application became contentious. In 1994 the company donated $9,000 worth of dues and sponsorship to the cause. The following year, when Rick Abraham began knocking on GBF's door, Exxon more than doubled the total to $21,500. In 1996 GBF reaped a veritable bonanza of $37,570, almost four times as much as from the next-largest corporate contributor, Texaco. The amount dipped to a more modest $29,000 in 1997, making Exxon easily the largest single corporate contributor in that three-year span.
Still, GBF insists Exxon's largesse had nothing to do with its silence on the permit matter. Nor did the presence of Barbara Carroll, an Exxon manager, on the executive committee. "I'm sure if there were a vote taken [on an issue concerning Exxon], that she would not vote," says Shead.
The choice of the Port's lead permit attorney to chair one of its major fund-raisers -- and the choice of green ports as a topic within a few weeks of the $387 million Port bond referendum -- doesn't raise many internal eyebrows, either. Shead says she was unaware of attorney Mattox's role with the Port, but the selection was logical. "She chaired [the business luncheon] last year, and she volunteered to do it again a second year," says Shead.
But not everyone on the executive committee dismisses the appearance of conflict of interest so lightly. "I am concerned about the control of industry over the foundation because of the money we need to operate and keep our projects going," says founding member Sharron Stewart. "If it doesn't influence in an [overt] way, it does in a subtle way. That's not just true about GBF; that's a general truth."
Joe Nelson, a retired commercial fisherman whose family is in the oyster business, puts it more bluntly. "I have no trust in 'em," he says. "You're not gonna go out and bite the hands that feed you."
Unfortunately for GBF, Nelson's view is not uncommon among the more ecologically minded of the bay's users. And they see Bayport as a litmus test of whether the foundation is truly able to draw a line in the sand and simply say no. "They are not fulfilling their mission statement, and that's the thing that is most disappointing," says Jerry Cooney, who represents the Houston Yacht Club on GBF's board of trustees. "They've refused to take a position [on Bayport] either way."
Cooney says his group will be monitoring GBF's Bayport strategy closely in coming months. "An option the Houston Yacht Club would consider if we find their continued position is not appropriate," Cooney says, "is to withdraw from GBF."
The Port has trotted out a number of facts and figures in support of its Bayport plan. It has examined alternatives to Bayport, including the Texas City site favored by some, and concluded that they're unfeasible. In particular, Port officials have stated that it would cost about $600,000 more per acre to build on Texas City's unstable soils than in Bayport, and that the added transportation costs to get products to Houston make it economically impossible for shippers to justify.
In addition, Port officials claim that the immediate need for the container terminal precludes the time-consuming effort to create a regional port plan. "That makes a lot of sense 20 years in the future, after Bayport is built," says Port spokeswoman Rosie Barrera.
A number of internal Port documents have also made reference to a 50-foot-deep Bayport project, a major environmental bone of contention that was at the heart of the Ship Channel dredging dispute (the agreement limited the dredging to 45 feet). The Bayport Terminal Complex Executive Summary, for example, includes information supporting a design depth of 50 feet. Nevertheless, Barerra says there's no plan to go that deep. "The Port Authority has made no request to Congress to deepen Bayport to 50 feet," she says, "and our project is not dependent on a 50-foot channel."
A study by the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton paints a bleak picture of life in the Bayou City if Bayport isn't built using bond money from the upcoming referendum. "Without [public bond money] and under current pricing, Bayport would be a financial disaster," the report states, "which would bring down the entire Port of Houston."
Jake Hershey, a GBF board member and retired barge company chief executive familiar with the economics of the shipping industry, scoffs at such predictions. "I don't think there's been any study quantifying the alleged economic fallout if you just don't do it," he says.
Hershey, who has argued for a regional approach to the bay's ports for years, says the Port is clearly angling for a 50-foot channel, its repeated statements notwithstanding. "You believe that, you believe in the tooth fairy," chuckles Hershey. "But they're certainly not gonna admit it in their propaganda."
But as a starting point, the Port's propaganda is okay with at least some at GBF. "I tend to take the Port and the people who work at the Port at face value," says GBF co-founder and board member Glenda Callaway.
Some time next year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will issue its draft Environmental Impact Statement, the key document in the Bayport permit process. The document will include an analysis of the alternatives as well as all conceivable environmental impacts. Or at least opponents hope so: The Port has asked the Corps to consider air emissions only from the construction of the terminal and operation of the diesel cranes in its analysis of air quality -- not the exhaust from the 5,500 or more trucks that will eventually serve Bayport, or from the increased ship traffic that will steam down the channel.
When the Corps review comes out, Callaway says, GBF will be there, fine-tooth comb in hand. "I assure you, when the document comes out, we will be poring over it," she says. Until then, says GBF trustee John Bartos, the foundation will take a wait-and-see attitude. "Our stand is that we do this in a businesslike manner," says Bartos, a former executive committee chairman who now represents the Houston Canoe Club on the board. "We want to get all the facts rather than just making knee-jerk reactions."
Opponents aren't waiting for the Corps, which has historically been more concerned about cost than the environment. Texas City has commissioned a geotechnical analysis by an East Coast firm with port engineering experience to refute the Port's assertion that construction costs would soar by $600,000 an acre. Though the study is not completed, preliminary results seem to indicate that the Port's numbers are grossly distorted. The city is also supporting a study to examine transportation costs.
Larry Tobin's Taxpayers for Sensible Port Policies is the lead group fighting the bond referendum, though he faces a campaign spending imbalance of at least 500 to one. And Jim Blackburn has reconstituted the Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association to do battle on the technical front. Before the formation of the Galveston Bay Foundation, GBCPA existed as a bay advocate but agreed to be subsumed under the GBF umbrella.
Rather than wait for the environmental impact statement to be issued, GBCPA put together a two-inch-thick response to the Corps's request for comments, suggesting various methodologies as well as arguing for a broader scope than that desired by the Port. GBCPA also commissioned a just-released land-use analysis that quantifies the impact of Bayport on the surrounding communities, and the group is trying to raise money for two other technical studies. One of those would be a detailed examination of air quality issues, which Blackburn and other opponents feel may ultimately be Bayport's Achilles heel.
Blackburn says he went to the GBF executive committee and asked for whatever support the foundation could lend to the various efforts. "GBF was basically unavailable to help us," he says. "In the fight against Bayport, we have had to resurrect the coalition that started the foundation, [but] outside of the foundation."
Galveston Bay Foundation has taken the lead on one Bayport-related issue: public participation. When the project was first sprung on an unsuspecting public last year as a done deal, GBF wrote a letter that, among other feedback, questioned the total lack of public involvement in the planning process. Ignored for six months, the foundation reiterated its desire for "full public involvement in the planning process facilitated by a non-interested third party."
Finally, the Port created a Citizen's Advisory Panel to bring together those who had a stake in the port and the bay. The panel included a few citizens and a number of economic development groups such as the Greater Houston Partnership and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Excluded from the group were the communities of El Lago and Taylor Lake Village, both of which, though clearly affected by Bayport, had strongly opposed the container terminal. The facilitator hired by the Port was John Hall, a former TNRCC chairman who has lobbied extensively for the petrochemical industry. The Port controlled the agenda.
Perhaps stung by the obvious sham assembled for GBF's benefit, Linda Shead wrote a pointed letter on August 3 to Port executive director Tom Kornegay. She informed him that the GBF executive committee wanted "to convey our extreme disappointment" with the Port. "As the current advisory group does not have a defined mission, we can only conclude that its only purpose is to add some bells and whistles to the Bayport project, and not to conduct a wide-open evaluation of container options in Galveston Bay."
The strength of the statement gave reason for optimism to GBF's critics. "The Port has taken advantage of the foundation, and I think the foundation has had about enough of it," says Jim Blackburn. "I hope that's the case."
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Given GBF's recommendations that the process be more public and open to revision, it's hard to see how the Port could possibly meet all of them, especially since the fully developed plan has already been unveiled. The odds of the Port granting GBF's request for regional planning seem equally remote, unless the foundation is willing to wait two decades.
Though most executive committee members are remaining neutral pending further details, at least a few seem to realize the Port has pushed GBF closer to taking a definitive position on Bayport. "There's still a lot of unknowns about this," says executive committee member Harless Benthul, who has expressed little enthusiasm for Bayport. "To have a firm position, I'd like to have those answered. If we don't get those answered, it's hard for me to support it because of all the potential impacts."
GBF trustee Bartos agrees, perhaps foreshadowing a move toward as close to a consensus on Bayport as will ever realistically happen. "The Port has come to the public with a project that is already written in stone," he says. "I'm thinking that the way things are going, at the end of the day all of the opposition groups are going to be together on this."
Contact Bob Burtman at email@example.com.