Becoming an Environmentalist on the Neches River

Thomas McGarity

April 17, 2015

Growing up in Port Neches, Texas, long before anyone ever heard of Earth Day, it was not hard to be an environmentalist. 

When my father announced that the family would be moving to Port Neches, he tried to soften the blow to his 13-year-old son by stressing the fact that we would be living across the street from the city park and that the Neches River ran along one end of the park.  For the remainder of the summer, I could go fishing any time I wanted.

The day we arrived at our new home, I walked the two blocks to the river to scout out future fishing holes.  It was much wider than I had imagined, but what really shocked me was the huge ocean-going oil tanker that was slowly making its way upstream to the refineries and the turning basin in the Beaumont area.  In those days, 5-10 tankers a day moved up the river to load up or to turn around after filling up at one of the refineries in Port Neches or Groves (just downstream from Port Neches).  I was also struck by the slick oil sheen that glistened on the surface of the water near the shore.

When my fishing pole was unpacked, I hurried down to the river with my favorite bass lures, assuring my mother that I would be back soon with the evening’s dinner.  I returned home several hours later with the disappointing news that the river had not produced even a single nibble.

The next day I ventured to the local sporting goods store to ask what kinds of lures worked best for the local fish population in the river.  The elderly fellow behind the counter chuckled that “there ain’t been any fish in that river for 20 years, except for some big ‘ol gar fish that ain’t worth eating.”  The river used to be full of sea trout and redfish, he reported, but those delectable species had avoided the river since the petrochemical plants arrived during the 1940s to supply fuel, chemicals and synthetic rubber for the war effort.

I later learned that the river was right at sea level and was brackish because it was affected by the tidal flows.  Gulf shrimp still inhabited the river, but they were oily and   inedible. At the downstream boundary of the park was the outfall for the city’s minimally treated sewage, the contents of which moved upstream during high tides.  On my bike rides to the rainbow bridge at the confluence of the river with Sabine Lake, a large marine bay and estuary, I crossed over small man-made canals in which greenish liquids flowed from the chemical and rubber plants through a War-era housing project called Little Abbyville (which in the 1960s housed almost 100 percent of the city’s African American population) into the river.  In the evenings, the fog hanging over those canals was so acidic that it would make your eyes and lungs burn.  The river received these wastes and carried them down to the lake where the sea trout and redfish still congregated.

I  discovered that the Neches River did feature some great bass fishing several miles upstream of Beaumont at the reservoir created by “Dam B” (now called the B.A. Steinhagen lake). I enjoyed canoeing down the river from Dam B to the salt water barrier north of Beaumont through a unique and amazingly biologically diverse confluence of five ecosystems (southeastern swamps, Appalachians, eastern forests, central plains, and southwestern desert) in what is now (thanks in large part to the efforts of Justice William O. Douglas and Senator Ralph Yarborough) the Big Thicket National Preserve.

But south of Beaumont, the Neches River was truly a dead river, useful only for transporting the world’s largest tankers to and from the petrochemical plants that killed it.

When the first Earth Day took place in April 1970, I attended a celebration that was organized by self-described “eco-freaks” at Rice University.  It was mostly a salute to the health virtues of organic foods and a condemnation of corporate America’s pillaging of the environment.  I was dubious about the former proposition, but quite convinced of the latter.  During that semester, I took the first interdisciplinary course that the university offered in environmental policy, where the lead professor was Dr. Arthur Busch.  Soon thereafter, President Nixon appointed Professor Busch to be the first head of EPA’s regional office in Dallas.

After Rice, I attended the University of Texas School of Law, where I took no classes in environmental law, because the only class offered during the time I was there was taught by a visiting professor during a summer semester, which  I couldn’t attend  because I had to work during the summers to make ends meet.

Indeed, the law school did not have a full-time environmental law professor until I returned in 1980 to teach after spending two years in EPA’s Office of General Counsel and teaching for three years at the University of Kansas.  I am pleased to say that the University of Texas School of Law now has a robust environmental law program that includes a vigorous clinic, an energy center that focuses on resolving energy andenvironmental conflicts, and a faculty that includes CPR member scholars Wendy Wagner and David Adelman.

I am even more pleased to report that not long after the first round of technology-based standards (best practicable technology for industrial sources and secondary treatment for publicly owned treatment works) went into effect in the early 1980s, the sea trout and redfish began to migrate back up the Neches River, and I am told that that these days one may occasionally spot the silver flash of a tarpon.

The Environmental Protection Agency took a lot of grief from the regulated industries and their friends in Congress and from conservative economists for its technology-based standards.  It continues to take heat for not allowing cost-benefit analysis to dissuade it from making polluters do the best they can to reduce their discharges (as is illustrated by the current Supreme Court litigation over the Utility MACT standards).

Only the most committed free market ideologues contest the enormous distance that this country has come since the first Earth Day.  But the mind-numbing onslaught of reports on climate disruption remind us that we still have a long way to go before we reach the sustainable world that the celebrants of the first Earth Day envisioned. 

It turns out that the astonishingly irresponsible practices that killed the Neches River for thirty years and turned me into an environmentalist were the “low hanging fruit.”  On Earth Day 2015, we face challenges that will require us to do more than tell polluters to do the best they can to reduce emissions.  We need to figure out very quickly how we can modify the way we live to ensure a sustainable future, and we need to figure out how to help rapidly industrializing nations clean up their industries to protect their dying rivers.





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