How one woman became the Erin Brockovich of San Leon
Lisa Halili never thought of herself as an environmental activist.
All that changed in May 2015 when Halili, vice president of Prestige Oysters, a distributor and processor of Gulf oysters in San Leon, received an official-looking notice from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In short, the four-page document stated Clean Harbors San Leon Inc., a waste recycling and storage company, was petitioning to amend its permit to dump up to 105,000 gallons a day of treated industrial wastewater from oil and petroleum into a tributary flowing into Dickinson Bayou.
Halili read the letter two times, then again. By the fourth time, she was angry, she said.
“I can’t believe it,” Halili said. “Does this company really think that they can ask to dump arsenic, lead, mercury and other poisons right by where we live and work, and that no one will care?”
The designated dumpsite isn’t far from the beds where Halili and her family harvest oysters. It’s also near a busy public boat dock and rookery islands, which are being restored as a nesting ground for seabirds.
“I believe they chose to locate in a rural community like ours because they knew people here don’t have the time or the money to stop them,” she said.
If so, they hadn’t counted on Halili.
“In school, I was always the kid holding up my hand and asking questions that no one else would ask,” she said.
Now, Halili talks to everyone — from the streets of San Leon to the State Capitol — who will listen.
‘We have concerns’
In the past year, Halili has called and written to dozens of organizations and public officials to express her concern, and she has acquired an
impressive list of supporters, including the San Leon Municipal Utility District.
“We have concerns about the dumping of toxic chemicals into a recreational area with high aquatic life,” said Chad Wilbanks, a public affairs specialist who was asked by the district to serve as its spokesman.
“The burden is on Clean Harbors to prove — through field studies, not modeling studies — that their dumping of toxic pollutants where people play, fish and swim is not a threat. They have failed to do that.”
‘Wastewater will be treated’
Clean Harbors is the largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America. From 400 service locations, including the one in San Leon that opened in 1984, it provides waste transportation and disposal, laboratory chemical packing, emergency response and other industrial services, according to its website. Its revenues for the third quarter of 2016 were $729.5 million compared with $893.4 million in the same period a year ago.
Phillip Retallick, a senior vice president for Clean Harbors, did not respond to requests for an interview. But in previous news reports, he has said the wastewater will be treated and would not impair the bayou’s existing water quality.
And, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Clean Harbors’ discharge of treated wastewater won’t pose a threat to the bayou’s water quality, aquatic life or biological condition.
‘A lot like Mayberry’
San Leon is home to about 1,000 families. It’s a modest community, not incorporated, and most people work in fishing or related industries.
“It is a lot like Mayberry; it’s breezy and peaceful and after 9:30 p.m., you can hear a pin drop,” Halili said.
Seagulls fill the sky and squirrels run around in the day. There are no sidewalks or gated communities, she said.
“I love it here,” Halili said. “It’s like a pair of old, comfortable Levi’s that fit just right.”
Halili lives on the edge of the bay with Johnny, her husband of 20 years. When they met, he was a deckhand, who had emigrated from Albania, and she was a waitress, born and raised in East Texas.
A family business
Together, they built their business, Prestige Oysters, which is on Avenue C. A giant pile of oyster shells in the parking lot marks the entry to the company’s headquarters.
The couple started the business in 2001 with hands-on labor. Now, it supplies local restaurants, fresh fish outlets and food supplier Sysco Corp., she said.
The family enterprise holds leases to mine some of the wild oyster reefs in Galveston Bay, including those of the well-known Hillman family who they bought out in 2016. Lisa Halili manages the administrative side of Prestige. The couple’s son, Raz, also works as an oysterman for the family business.
At her desk on the second floor of a flat-roofed warehouse, she showcases a three-ringed notebook stuffed with letters to environmental groups, state agencies and government officials.
Behind the desk in the homey office is a bulletin board packed with notes, orders and cards and a piece of crayon art of smiling stick figures by a grandchild. Stationed at her feet is Mia, the much-loved, brindle-colored rescue cat.
‘We’ve always hung in there’
Halili would rather spend her time away from work digging in her garden or going out on a boat, but she feels a strong drive to advocate for her business and for the people of San Leon, she said.
“We’ve come through floods, droughts, hurricanes, battles over reef rights, but we’ve always hung in there,” she said.
Further degradation of the water quality doesn’t seem to be the right way to get back on track, she said.
“Does anybody remember the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’?” she said. “Our part of San Leon is 100 percent on well water. It’s possible that the chromium, arsenic and mercury could end up in our drinking water.”
An amended permit would help one powerful company improve its profits but would cost the fishing industry and pose a risk to human health, she said.
Oysters are more than food, she said. They help to clean up the bay.
“Did you know that each adult oyster is able to filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing dirt and nitrogen and algae?” she said. “But there are some things that even an oyster can’t clean.”
Galveston Bay has a history of industrial pollution reaching back to the 1920s.
The estuary was once the most productive in the nation, and while it still accounts for 40 percent of the state’s annual fishing harvest, it’s not as robust as it once was.
The bay still supplies adequate catches of shrimp, fish and oysters, even though the reefs are greatly diminished for a score of reasons.
“Industrial discharges have been occurring since the beginning of the petroleum/petrochemical industries,” Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said. “Environmental laws implemented in the late 1960s have helped curtail dumping of waste in the bay. Dominant issues are the legacy pollutants like PCBs and dioxins that are now outlawed but take decades to degrade.”
About 8 million pounds of toxic chemicals are still legally discharged into the Galveston Bay-San Jacinto watershed each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Toxic Inventory.
The Houston-Galveston Bay Council already tracks levels of dioxin, a carcinogen, to make sure the levels of poison are not too high in speckled trout and blue crabs to be edible. Certain areas are off-limits for fishing because toxin levels are too high.
“Right now, there are a lot of people who are good stewards of the bay and its resources that are working to clean up the estuaries,” Brad Boney, executive director of the Texas Outdoor Coastal Council, said.
There’s big money in hazardous waste disposal because it’s a byproduct of necessary industries, Boney said. He believes there are appropriate and safe ways to dispose of the wastes but they are more costly than simply dumping into the bay, he said.
“Someone is trying to find the least expensive way, not the least damaging way, to dispose of industrial toxins,” Boney said.
Boney has asked the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to conduct a base level study of the marine life in this area to assess the threat.
‘Cleaner than we found it’
The Houston Audubon Society and the Sierra Club also have written letters in support of the marine study to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“It’s our duty to leave the bay cleaner than we found it,” Boney said.
Because of Halili’s formal protest, a hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Feb. 1-2 at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, 2020 North Loop in Houston.
It’s the next step in determining whether or not Clean Harbors’ tentative approval to dump additional wastes will be finalized.