• Rob Icsezen

Ep. 33 Dr. Bakeyah Nelson - Environmental Resilience in Houston



Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

***radio effect on voice*** Until the state laws are changed, updated, amended, we really need a strategy where we have elected officials in office who are supportive of environmental policy in order for it to be more effective at the local level.


Music

***Intro Music***


Rob Icsezen

What's up Houston! Welcome to H-Town Progressive, Houston's impenetrable fortress of progressive thought! I'm your host, Rob Icsezen!


Few things in this world are more fundamental to human prosperity than clean, breathable air. In fact, it's a precondition to life itself. Without it, well, there's no more you and me. In fact, this beautiful planet Earth, in its natural state, is remarkably well suited for us. After all, we did evolve here. The atmosphere, the water, the balance of life, it has sustained humanity for as long as there have been humans.


But Earth's remarkable ability to sustain human life is only matched by humanity's remarkable ability to shit on the Earth.


You'd think that the single most precious thing in the universe to us would be at the top of our list of things to prioritize for sustainability, wouldn't you? Yeah, well, unfortunately, we tend to think in the short term. It's in our nature to sacrifice whatever ill fate may beget us tomorrow for our indulgences of today.


And the dogmatic religious zealotry of the capitalist machine that we all live in now is really fantastic at supercharging this phenomenon. We KNOW that emissions from cars, from industry, from the many, many things that we are told to buy, will make the earth uninhabitable. We know this! But that Ford F-150 truck, mmmm, it's so hot. And eh! maybe 99% of scientists are wrong anyway. So I'm not going to change my lifestyle.


The corporate machine is very good at taking what is obvious, and calling it into question for the sake of next quarter's earnings report. And the Republican controlled government - particularly here in Texas at the state level - has done little to step in the way. On the contrary, it has greased the wheels. And this year in Houston, we have suffered some of the worst of this, first at the hands of ITC (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/What-happened-at-ITC-facility-in-Deer-Park-over-13713732.php), and then at the hands of KMCO (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Fire-reported-at-KMCO-chemical-plant-in-Crosby-13735191.php). But those are just the latest and most notable offenders. In a way, we're all part of this problem, a problem that's too big to solve without collective action, a problem whose solution lies in a cultural shift, a shift that's being led by people like our guest today.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson is the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston (https://airalliancehouston.org/), a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that all Houstonians can enjoy clean, breathable air. She previously served on the Office of Policy and Planning for Harris County Public Health (https://publichealth.harriscountytx.gov/About/Organization/OPP), and she served on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Regional Air Quality Planning Advisory Committee (http://www.h-gac.com/board-of-directors/advisory-committees/regional-air-quality-planning-advisory-committee/default.aspx), the African American Health Coalition (https://afahchouston.org/), and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (https://www.naccho.org/programs/environmental-health) Environmental Health Committee. She's also the co-founder and serves as co-chair of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience, or CEER (https://ceerhouston.org/), a coalition of 25 organizations focused on raising awareness between people, place, pollution, and public health.


It's my honor to welcome to the show today, Dr. Bakeyah Nelson!


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, welcome to H-Town Progressive.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Good morning. Thank you.


Rob Icsezen

It's really great to have you on on the show today. I'm really looking forward to hearing about your work at Air Alliance. And I think that Houstonians hear about environmental issues it seems these days every day. I mean, there's the ITC disaster that happened recently. There's spills in the Houston Ship Channel that seems to be happening all the time these days. How do you get it all done?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Well, we've been very busy, that's for sure.


Rob Icsezen

Tell us a little bit about, yeah, Air Alliance Houston.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, so Air Alliance Houston was actually formed about 25 years ago, but it was two separate organizations. It was GASP, which was Galveston Houston Area Smog Prevention, and it was Mother's for Clean Air. And those two different, those two organizations came together to form Air Allilance Houston in 2010. So collectively, it's been about 25 years. Our focus is on air quality and our, I guess our principle is that we believe everyone has a right to breathe clean air and that where you live shouldn't determine your health.


Rob Icsezen

That, I mean, that should be accepted by everyone. That seems completely non controversial to me.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah. So you would think that clean air would not be a political issue.


Rob Icsezen

Yeah, but unfortunately it is. So over those 25 years, Houston has seen a lot of change - I hope - in in our air quality, but not enough?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Exactly. So air quality trends over time in Houston, air quality has gotten better. However, it's it's declining again. So back in the in the 90s and the early 2000s, in 2000, I believe it was that Houston actually became the number one most polluted city overtaking Los Angeles. And then we improved after that. But now we're we're again ranked 9th in the, in the latest American Lung Association, State of the Air Report for 2019 (https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/city-rankings/most-polluted-cities.html).


Rob Icsezen

I was going to ask, what is the, when they say "worst air quality" you know, when they rank us against LA and other places, what is the, what's the...


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

What's the metric?


Rob Icsezen

Yes.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

So for the American Lung Association, they look at two different pollutants, they look at ozone pollution, and then they also look at particulate matter pollution. And both of those are known to have very detrimental health affects, both of those pollutants. (https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/about.html) So those are the two main ones that that the ALA ranks cities on. So we're ranked 9th for the most, among the top 25 most polluted for ozone.


Rob Icsezen

And how regular are those those metrics taken, how regularly?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

They do it annually. But I think, you know, the the thing to know about these rankings, or air monitoring in general, is that even though we, we being the Houston region, are the most heavily air monitored - you'll hear people say that we have the most air monitors than any other area in the country, which is relatively true - however, given the scale of Houston, Houston's over 600 square miles, Harris County is another 600. And, you know, given the concentration of facilities, traffic, etc, we don't have an adequate air monitoring network. And so we have huge parts of Harris County that don't even have any air monitors. So the air quality could actually be much worse than than what we know.


Rob Icsezen

So our, our readings might not be accurate, or are almost definitely not accurate in certain places around town?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Well, it's not necessarily that they're not accurate. It's just that we don't have them for some places.


Rob Icsezen

Ah, I see.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

So like in northwest Harris County there's a huge gap in air monitors. Now, the monitors that we do have, that are concentrated on the east side, they they absolutely should be concentrated there, because that's where you have the majority of sources. But if you look at a map of Harris County, you'll see that we have sources that are emitting hazardous pollutants all throughout Harris County. And then to make matters worse, for us who live here, we we don't have real zoning, we do have land use policies. But we don't have a mechanism, a land use control in place to keep land uses separate from people, hazardous land uses.


Rob Icsezen

Well, and this is this is one of those things that that is really- I think environmental policy is one of the hardest things to advocate for, because it's not like crime or something, where it's you can look at the number of burglaries that happened in a particular area, this year versus that year and say, Oh, look, there's improvement. It's sort of, you're arguing for the absence of something, you're arguing for long term health effects, and that requires a certain kind of abstract reasoning. It requires a scientific knowledge, it requires analytical discourse around a topic. And so it's vulnerable to attack by entrenched interests, which I think is absolutely always happening, is that right?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah. So I think that in our local context, and within our state context, there's so many, there's so many different aspects to this issue. Number one is that we live in a state that is very industry friendly. And so over the years, our environmental policies have not been enforced to the extent that they that they could be. So a recent analysis showed that the TCEQ, which is the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, only fined violators 3% of the time. (https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2017/07/07/220537/environmental-groups-say-texas-fined-only-3-of-industrial-polluters/) So 97% of facilities that violated environmental laws were not penalizes the state of Texas.


Rob Icsezen

So this is people who have actually broken the law...


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

They have actually broken the law.


Rob Icsezen

They've broken the law. 3% of them are getting away with it- I'm sorry! 97%, yeah sorry!


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

No no no! 97% of them are getting away with it. And I think, you know, the recent, the ITC disaster, the KMCO, both of those facilities had had histories of violations. (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/article/Deer-Park-plant-on-fire-at-Intercontinental-13697362.php AND https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/KMCO-fined-for-alleged-pattern-of-environmental-14060062.php)


Rob Icsezen

Can you imagine if if that same structure, let's say, that same percentage were applied to traffic violations, or any number of other laws that we have in place? I mean, people these days are arguing for zero tolerance immigration policy (https://www.texastribune.org/series/separated-immigrant-families-zero-tolerance/). And, and for some reason, we we have these debates around zero tolerance immigration, but we're not having debates around more than 3% enforcement on on corporate environmental violations.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, that's, that's one of the things that our organization is trying to work on is raise awareness about the air quality issues, environmental justice issues, throughout the region, but also at the state level. I think we definitely need stronger local leadership on these issues. However, I don't think that many people are aware about how their elected officials are voting in Austin on some of these issues. And really, until the state laws are changed, updated, amended, we really need a strategy where we have elected officials in office who are supportive of environmental policy, in order for it to be more effective at the local level.


Rob Icsezen

So let's, and we focus a lot on local politics here and we want to focus a lot on what's going on in Houston, but when it comes to environmental issues... Let's let's focus a little bit right now on the layers of regulation that exist out there. I mean, we've got the City, we've got the County, we've got the State, we've got the EPA and Federal Regulations. And so all of these kind of layer on top of each other, wholly inadequate all together. But where, where I mean, you mentioned, state regulation, is that kind of the best place to focus right now, what's going on among the interplay of all these various sources of government regulation?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Well, I mean, unfortunately, for us, we are in a in an era where we're almost defenseless, because we have an EPA that's rolling back regulations, or delaying the implementation of regulations that will erode our, our air quality (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html).


Rob Icsezen

So that's at the federal level.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

And that's at the federal level. And then at the state level, we have that state context where laws are not being enforced either. So at the state level, at the federal level, we don't have people in office right now who are really enforcing these environment laws that were put there to protect us. And so locally, that's why there's this need to really ramp up local leadership, because we don't have it at the state level. And we certainly don't have it at the federal level.


Rob Icsezen

And so the way federal, that changes, I mean, that will change, hopefully, when the current administration changes in 2020 - we can hope! - that, and leadership will change at the EPA, when that happens, and hopefully enforcement will, will shift. But then that's not sufficient. We've got state leadership, and it's a different story in Austin. As we've talked about, on this show a lot, that Austin is a bit of a bear for progressives and people who care about these kinds of issues. And so we need to push our state reps our state senators. Unfortunately, we don't hold power, we being people who hold progressive values, who care about these kinds of issues. And in fact, the the folks who really hold power in Austin right now, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker, they represent entrenched corporate interests who specifically push back on this kind of regulation.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Absolutely.


Rob Icsezen

I mean, and it's them, it's it's the the oil companies, it's it's the the various refineries, things like that, that that push back, basically on every regulation that's out there, that we might want, yeah?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yes. So that's, that's absolutely correct. And just speaking to that point, I mean, we're not only - and I do want to talk a little bit about other sources of pollution besides industry, because while industry is a major source of pollution, we also have a huge traffic problem, transportation system issue. But yes, to your point, yes, you're a- you're absolutely correct. In terms of getting a Governor in place or a Lieutenant Governor in place that would be more supportive, that would go a long way to better protecting the public health in the Houston region. The TCEQ while it's the regulatory agency, is taking direction from the Governor and from elected officials. And so, yes, could they do more? Absolutely. However, they are also, their, their purse strings are attached to the legislature. So, it becomes, you know, difficult to enforce, to the extent that you can if the political climate signals to you that that's not what should be happening.


Rob Icsezen

Yup, yup. So that's at the state level. And we can talk a little bit about what's going on right now as Legislative Session is coming to an end. This, this show might actually be released after Legislative Session. But right now, as we're talking in May, it's it's kind of bubbling to its end. But locally, at the at the county level, it's a different story in Houston. We've now got friendly leadership at the county level, at least in Harris County.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Right.


Rob Icsezen

There are other counties around Houston that remain difficult. What can be done at the county level?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

So at the county level, I think what ITC demonstrated or illustrated for all of us is just how vulnerable we really are to these types of accidents and fires.


Rob Icsezen

So ITC, talked, "Intercontinental Terminals Company" in Deer Park (https://www.iterm.com/), I think they should be identified, they, we all should know who they are. Because they they did something horrible, and they should be held accountable for it.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

That's right.


Rob Icsezen

So let's understand what what exactly went on. That's the most recent horrible thing that happened recently.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

KMCO actually happened after. (https://kmcollc.com/)


Rob Icsezen

Oh, yes, apologies. There's an abundant amount of environmental disasters to talk about. So...


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, unfortunately, and I think, you know, in, within our organization, this is something that we are dealing with on a daily basis. And so for us, when these things happen, it becomes a tragic kind of example of what we're trying to prevent. And you know, someone lost their life at KMCO. (https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Crosby-chemical-fire-to-be-investigated-by-U-S-13737843.php)


Rob Icsezen

Yes.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

And, you know, employees, community members were traumatized. I mean, I got a phone call from a woman who said, you know, people are acting like this is normal, and this is not normal. And I don't want to leave my house because it looks like a war zone. So you don't, you know, you don't hear about, not only, you know, the the- you hear about the physical impacts, you know, if when someone dies, but you don't often hear about the mental health impacts of the community that surrounds it, and the stress and the the trauma that people experience when incidents like like this happen.


Rob Icsezen

And there are two reasons I think, tell me if you agree with this, one reason is, is those things happen over time. They don't necessarily happen immediately. Some of them do, but some of them happen weeks and months later. The other reason is that the communities that are affected, the people who live near these areas, tend to be economically underprivileged folks, people of color, and they get less attention in in our media.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, you know, communities of color, low income communities are often, if not always, treated as collateral damage, and treated as, you know, this is just the cost of doing business. And, but it's at the expense of communities of color and low income people.


Rob Icsezen

Yeah, the cost is always the other.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Right.


Rob Icsezen

So long as those folks who are bearing the cost aren't me...


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Right.


Rob Icsezen

...then it's just a cost and we can talk about it in pure economic terms.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Exactly.


Rob Icsezen

It's dehumanized.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

It's dehumanized. And I think that that is, you know, that is yet another challenge, when we talk about any air quality issue or any environmental issue, is just who is bearing the burden of the environmental contamination, and not necessarily reaping the benefits that come, you know, from from these operations.


Rob Icsezen

And that's actually a great point, because a lot of the arguments you hear on the other side as well, These are job creators! This is, the State of Texas is fueled by the oil and gas industry, by you know, all the all the industry that's around the Ship Channel, it is fueled. And if you start regulating them, so the argument goes, that you'll strangle jobs, and you'll have an economic disaster in this state. And, and so we can't do it at all. That's kind of how the argument looks, I think. But I think it's a fallacy. And I mean...


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

I completely agree with you. And ITC is a great example of the economic impact when you don't follow regulations. ITC cost the Houston Ship Channel, I believe the estimate now is over a billion dollars for the time that it was shut down (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Houston-Ship-Channel-closure-could-cost-energy-13716058.php). The, I think it's estimated, like, anytime the Houston Ship Channel shuts down, it's like $500 million per day that that is lost, something around there.


Rob Icsezen

And that's just the, that's just the economic impact.

Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

And that's just the economic impact. So I think that, you know, the idea, or, you know, the putting putting that forth that we can't have strong environmental regulation and a strong economy is is false. I mean, we've, we've had the Clean Air Act since 1970. The the US economy has continued to thrive thereafter. And so, you know, obviously with with dips throughout the years, but overall, since this environmental policy, the Clean Air Act, was put in place, the economy has not, you know...


Rob Icsezen

We've done ok.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, we've done ok.


Rob Icsezen

Well and the story exists in many other industries. I mean cars now have to have seat belts, have to have airbags, have to have all kinds of stuff. There's a ton of regulations around cars and our cars are pretty safe these days, especially as compared to what they used to be. And that industry has done perfectly fine!


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yes. And they made the same arguments! (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-cant-do-approach-of-the-american-auto-industry_b_58d8fb3de4b0f633072b3979)


Rob Icsezen

They did! Thankfully, they lost over time. Yeah. But But yeah, that the exact same arguments are always made. But but it just, you know, I've been a business lawyer in my career, and I've kind of seen it from the inside, business will always try to, to navigate the rules. But if the rules are hardened, the rules are in place, the market will find a way a nap. So they'll adapt, and they'll work within the rules, and it will become whatever the best it can within those rules. And so it behooves us as a community to create very strong clear, bright line rules that must be followed. And when you have this junk in Texas, that were only 3% of the violators actually feel any pain and not that much pain, when they do feel it is you might as well not have rules at all.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, I think, it's just, it's just a really, it's challenging, particularly in this area of the country where you have oil and gas, that that is really, you know, driving the economy. And there was just an article today in the in the Houston Chronicle, that that really says, you know, even though we've tried to diversify economically, that really oil and gas is still the main driver of this economy (https://www.chron.com/business/energy/article/Despite-claims-of-economic-diveristy-it-s-13834125.php). And so when you have, on the one hand, the oil and gas driving the economy, and then on the other hand, you're trying to protect public health interests within that environment, you know, you're up against, you're up against leadership of areas that have this in their DNA, right? And the economy was built on this.


Rob Icsezen

Well, and cynically, it's, those leaders are the ones who finance political campaigns. I mean, quite cynically, you know, Greg Abbott's in the pocket of big oil. Like, that's, that's... so is Dan Patrick. I mean, these guys who are - and they're all guys - are, who are in control of things, who are holding the levers of power, are doing it with their puppet masters in the corporate offices in downtown, you know, or in the energy corridor actually.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, so I think, I mean, I think it really just speaks to, you know, just going back to the issue of local leadership, you know, the county can invest additional resources in Harris County pollution control services, they just approved increasing the number of environmental prosecutors (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Harris-County-OKs-new-environmental-prosecutors-13808633.php). And so we can really start to take a more proactive approach to these facilities, particularly, you know, prioritizing the facilities that have significant violations.


Rob Icsezen

That's, and that's, I like this turn here that you just introduced, which is, you know, Okay, we can we can yell and scream about the problem all day, but now let's talk about some solutions. And they're happening at the local level, people need to understand that it's moving, it's going to move slowly, we've got to work through this existing structure. But let's let's talk about some of those issues that you just highlighted.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah. So I know that right now, the county is funding a gap analysis. (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Recent-chemical-fires-exposed-gaps-in-Harris-13799329.php) And so what they're looking at is really what what infrastructure do they really need to be able to handle the scale of, of issues or facilities that we have in the region. And so once that gap analysis is completed, they'll have a much better understanding of the types of resources that they need to invest or the level and the extent to which they need to invest in in those agencies to make it a more robust agency. I think ITC and KMCO revealed just how under resourced those agencies have been historically. And so I think that the good news out of all of this is that we do have leadership that's in place now who is trying to reconcile that gap between, you know, the number of facilities that we have in our region, versus our regulatory agency capacity to to address it?


Rob Icsezen

Yeah. And so what can people do right now to kind of put pressure on that? I mean, is it really the county? Are there things that the city might be doing? Or is it really mostly at the county level?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Well, right now the the county is really taking the lead on these issues. We would very much like to see Mayor Turner and, you know, if he if he's mayor again, or whoever is mayor of Houston, really take a leadership role on these issues. And and, you know, leverage, bring bring together all of these different municipalities. Harris County has 34 municipalities. And a lot of the facilities actually aren't in in Houston city limits. But a lot of the traffic, the truck traffic has to has to come through the city. So Houstonians, you know, Houstonians who live in Houston are impacted by facilities that are, that are not within the city limits. And so it's beneficial to all of us, it would be a benefit to all of us to get all of these municipalities to sit down and really think about what is the pla, right. A proactive plan, not a reactive plan. Well, you need both, but we really need a proactive approach to this. And and, you know, the more that facilities feel pressure on them that, you know, they're going to be investigated, people are keeping an eye on them more closely. I mean, there's technology nowadays, cameras nowadays that can detect different types of pollutants. And so they can, you know, make investments in those types of resources to really kind of clamp down on on and prioritize those facilities that have a history of violations. For example, in Baytown, the the Exxon Mobil there has violated, recently, well within the past couple years had a civil suit, lost a civil suit, and, for violating the Clean Air Act over 16,000 times over an eight year period.


Rob Icsezen

16,000 times?!?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

16,000 times.


Rob Icsezen

In eight years.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yes. So. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-refinery-pollution-exxon-penalty/judge-says-exxon-owes-19-95-million-for-texas-refinery-pollution-idUSKBN17T08H) And this is the same Exxon who is going to be expand- doing a multi billion dollar expansion. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chemicals-exxon-baytown-expansion/exxon-investing-2-billion-in-baytown-texas-chemical-plant-expansion-idUSKCN1S81CT) And there are other facilities around the region who have, you know, equally bad histories of violations who, and they're expanding. So those facilities should not be allowed to expand operations when they're not even adhering to environmental laws with their existing operations.


Rob Icsezen

I'm curious, I don't know if you know this but, in the realm of environmental justice, the law is constantly broken, constantly. I'm wondering if any area of the law is like, any other area of the law is like that. Because you hear, and the opposition outside of the environmental context, as we mentioned earlier, they're always talking about law and order, and you, you must have zero tolerance, and you must, you know, enforce the rule of law. And and these these progressive liberals are lawless by by wanting again, in the immigration context, to to come up with solutions... Is there any other part of the law that is as little enforced as environmental law? I don't know.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

I don't know the answer to that. But I think it just speaks to the hypocrisy of this whole, you know, debate, if you want to call it a debate, is that, you know, the narrative changes, depending on what the political agenda is.


Rob Icsezen

Yeah.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

So, you know, the State of Texas doesn't want the federal government interfering in its business. However, the State of Texas has also been very intentional and aggressive about trying to restrict local authority and to erode jurisdictions' rights to do anything, particularly when it comes to the environment. So again, it's it's a, it's a hypocritical narrative.


Rob Icsezen

So that, that issue, though, with with the state asserting states rights, that, local rule, unless the locality is within the state, and then we need, essentially state rule. But that has particular importance in the environmental context is what you're saying, yeah?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

It absolutely does. And so right now, it creates a very strange relationship between- particularly in Houston because we don't have zoning. Because once a once a facility gets an air permit approved at the state which is really just procedural...


Rob Icsezen

Meaning they just file the paperwork?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

They just file the paperwork, it gets reviewed, you know, and then they get their permit. Once they have that, because of, because we have no zoning in Houston, they can they can set up anywhere. And, and basically anywhere unless a community has deed restrictions. And then even if that deed restriction is violated, then you know, the burden is now on the community to fight that.


Rob Icsezen

So the deed restriction is usually enforced by like a homeowner's association or something or a property owners association, which never has money. And they never, like, yeah, they're never like - I know this through by own property owners association - I mean, like, the rules are very much suggestions unless someone really gets a fire under their ass and wants to, you know, hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

That's absolutely right. And you know, people are busy, they have very busy lives, they have multiple jobs, and and, you know, are tending to many other challenges in their lives, to have this kind of piled on top of that is a little bit ridiculous.


Rob Icsezen

And it's exacerbated by power disparities. That's really what that is. I mean, you've got industry with all the best, most expensive lawyers in the world behind them. And then you've got these very small, either municipalities or property owners associations, or whatever it might be, and they're defenseless, basically, against this.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Exactly, exactly.


Rob Icsezen

Well, here, here's a question I'm curious about. You mentioned earlier, I think absolutely rightly so, that it's not just industry that's the issue, it's, you know, we drive our cars to work every day, we the average Houstonian probably drives an hour or two, I don't know exactly what - I'm sure there's a stat out there (https://www.educateddriver.org/heres-how-much-time-youll-waste-commuting-in-your-lifetime-by-city/) - a lot every day, and emits a lot of a lot of emissions during that time. And that's a huge contributor, perhaps the biggest contributor, to some of our bigger environmental issues like climate change, like global warming. And so the solution - and here's the question, see if you agree with this - all this stuff about ITC and their, the culture of breaking the rules and getting a slap on the wrist and the 16,000 violate-, no, was it 8,000 or 16?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

16,000.


Rob Icsezen

16,000 over eight years at Exxon Mobil, violations of law. It seems to me that a cultural shift is in order, from car culture, to the respective environmental laws within a company, because who, who's at a company anyway, but people. And and so the pressures on those companies to do what's right for the community. And that, to me is kind of a cultural idea, it's a value to be expressed in kind of, I don't know, a way that people every, everybody can kind of understand. That we're all in this together, we got one Earth. Let's let's understand that and preserve it together.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah. Yeah, you're absolutely right. Transportation, mobile sources, on and off road mobile sources are the majority, make up the majority of the emissions in Harris County. So they account for about 60% of the emissions. Yes, I completely agree. A cultural shift, paradigm shift, you know, whatever you want to call it, is in order. But it starts with- people, you know, policy frames everything, right. It just frames our daily lives in ways that we can't imagine. And so we have to start by changing the way in which we approach policy. For instance, for transportation policy, you know, we have an arbitrary cap on how much of our transportation dollars can go to to infrastructure that's not roads. So...


Rob Icsezen

An arbitrary cap, yeah, wow.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, it's just an arbitrary cap and that needs to change. We really need more funding to go to alternative infrastructure and and to increase public transit and so on, in order to start to make that cultural shift.


Rob Icsezen

And that is, that's a great point. Because when you have a cap on the money that can go to non, essentially car infrastructure, car based infrastructure, what that is, is an expression of the value of car culture.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yes.


Rob Icsezen

Is that we are accepting as a people that cars are an inextricable part of our humanity in modern society.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah.


Rob Icsezen

And so our policy should reflect that. And so we can't spend more than X number of dollars on anything that's not car related.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

That's right.


Rob Icsezen

And and the way to attack that then is to say, Well, no, we got to, cars are not the future. I mean, they're really important, sure, transportation is really important, but we've got to, we've got to change that.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yeah, we do. And I, you know, I don't know how many people know that that a major transformational expansion is being planned for I-45 (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/transportation/article/Massive-I-45-project-will-remake-Houston-freeway-13999092.php). It's been in, being planned for for years now. It's currently under NEPA review, National Environmental Policy Act. TXDoT, Texas Department of Transportation has issued it's draft environmental impact statement (http://www.ih45northandmore.com/final_eis.aspx) and our organization is is part of a coalition called Make I-45 Better Coalition (https://www.facebook.com/makeI45better/). There are over 20 organizations who are who are a part of this coalition, because the concerns range from you know, air quality impacts to access to green space, to flooding. And then north... so are you familiar with this expansion?


Rob Icsezen

A bit, but yeah, please, act like I'm not!


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

It's like a 22 mile expansion from 610 going north.


Rob Icsezen

Okay.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

So from downtown, going up north, towards Greenspoint.


Rob Icsezen

Yup.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

But I think, you know, one of the things is that it will add so much additional capacity in terms of how, you know, how many cars, the volume of cars that is going through every day. But we've also learned that when you expand highways, that what happens is that over time, even though you might, you might reduce congestion in the short term, that in the long term, it's basically, you know, If you build it, they will drive. So so I think that, you know, the paradigm shift that that really needs to occur is, is that we can't continue to just construct highways and and make them wider. I think the I-45 expansion is, is going to be like, over 20 lanes, in some in some areas of expansion. And I think it's just, it's a very outdated approach to, to doing things. Now that being said, you know, different, it's broken into three different segments. Segment three, is the only segment that's funded, the whole project is estimated to cost between 8 and 10 billion dollars. But is that how we want to invest, 10 billion dollars?


Rob Icsezen

And so what's the alternative? Is it, is it busing? Is it trains? Is it, I mean, there's a whole number of like public transportation options. Is it more dense development?


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

It's all of them. It's all of the above. I mean, in order to, you have to expand public transit. I'm a I'm a good example and a bad example, because I live in the suburbs.


Rob Icsezen

Yeah.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

But When I first moved to the suburbs, I, there was no park and ride, there was no nothing. So for me to get down to this area, I would have to drive my car. There is now park and ride.


Rob Icsezen

This area being inside the loop, yeah.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Yes. Yeah, so now there's a park and ride. And so I can take the bus, I can go to the park and ride, drop my car off, take the bus in and then get on the light rail, to get to my job, which I try to do as much as I can...


Rob Icsezen

Yeah.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

...recently. But that being said, I wouldn't even be able to make that decision if the infrastructure wasn't there. And so you have to, you know, again, put put people's behaviors and choices that they make, you know, within, within a context of, you know, what infrastructure is available, what choices do they have available to them. And until we start shifting those choices, that people have, this, you're going to get the same behavior, which is, you know, single occupant, computer.


Rob Icsezen

And so I think that that means you need bold leadership at every level, but start at the local level, start at City Council, start at Commissioners Court, and that bold leadership needs bold activism, to support that bold leadership, because we won't get leaders who advocate for this kind of stuff if they don't hear from the people about it. So thank you so much for your work, really, and thank you for this conversation. It's really, I think, then been illuminating.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Thank you for having me.


Rob Icsezen

Yeah, absolutely. Appreciate it.


Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Thanks.


Rob Icsezen

Next week, we're going to cover a topic that you asked us to cover! Not too long ago, one of our great H-Town Progressives, Wayne Ashley, called us with this request:


Caller: Wayne Ashley

One issue that I don't know if you're planning to cover it, but one issue that I think would be very good, is the issue of transit and of public transit. So if, if you haven't covered that yet, you should definitely consider it. And I'm just a really big fan of the show. So thank you for taking the time and doing the work that we need to have done for the City of Houston and our community.

Rob Icsezen

So next week, we're going to talk about Houston's problem of transportation equity with Oni Blair, Executive Director of LINK Houston (https://linkhouston.org/), hope you'll join us!

So if this discussion made you think, motivated you, or hell even made you angry, hit that subscribe button at www.htownprogressive.com or wherever you get your podcasts, and don't forget to tell all your friends about us!


***end music begins to fade in*** Also, check out our website at www.htownprogressive.com where, among other cool things, you'll find transcripts and photos for all new podcast episodes shortly after publication with back episodes coming slowly but surely, and also on request.


And also, we'd love to hear from you, just like Wayne! If you have a comment, a topic idea, or a guest suggestion, email me at rob@htownprogressive.com or, give us a call and leave us a message with your comments at 281-915-9561 again, that's 281-915-9561 and we'll put your message on the show.


Thanks for listening! I'm Rob Icsezen, and THIS is H-Town Progressive!!!

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