By 5:20 p.m., the Point Isabel ISD Board meeting room was already packed with local residents armed with signs, stickers, buttons, and t-shirts bearing anti-LNG messages. Just before the meeting began, supporters of the Liquefied Natural Gas terminals gathered in the room, as well, holding signs of their own, which read “Adelante!”
The crowds gathered after a social media blitz by members of both sides had encouraged strong turnout in advance of Tuesday’s regular school board meeting. On the agenda, under the section for Executive Session were two items relating to the projects, specifically, that of Rio Grande LNG, which is one of three LNG companies hoping to construct export terminals along Port of Brownsville Ship Channel. Rio Grande LNG’s proposal is the largest of the three projects.
Representatives for Rio Grande LNG were scheduled to meet with the board in closed session to, as the agenda described, hold a “discussion concerning commercial or financial information received from a business prospect relevant to economic development negotiations.”
Too, the board would discuss with the Economic Development Act with their legal counsel.
It was these two items that were of particular concern to opponents of the LNG projects. The Texas Economic Development Act, also known as Chapter 313under the state legal code, allows taxing entities a means of offering tax abatements to entice business enterprises to locate their facilities within a taxing entity’s boundaries. The act was created as a way for Texas communities to offer incentives in Texas versus elsewhere.
In the fall of 2015, the Board heard and ultimately rejected a Chapter 313 tax abatement proposal from another LNG company, Annova LNG – a deal that would have netted the District some $25 million over the course of the agreement.
The appearance of the two items on Tuesdays’ agenda prompted concerns from the community that the District was mulling another tax abatement proposal.
Not so, said the District’s attorney Kevin O’Hanlon. Tuesday’s talks were merely for informational purposes only. That was echoed by Superintendent Dr. Lisa Garcia and Rio Grande LNG spokeswoman Wanda Reyes-Rice.
Regardless of the purpose for talks, the board remained in executive session for approximately three hours, calling in Rio Grande LNG CFO Ben Atkins and a colleague partway through the process.
Prior to retiring to executive session, the Board heard public comments. With so many people in attendance who had signed up to offer a comment, Board President Cecilia Castillo reminded the audience that public comments were limited to five minutes per speaker. Furthermore, the Board implemented a part of their public comment policy to the speakers to one person for every five who wished to comment on either side of the discussion.
After some negotiations among themselves, the LNG opponents nominated business owner Jose Cantu and pediatrician Dr. Marsha Griffin to speak on behalf of their behalf, while Reyes-Rice spoke in support of Rio Grande LNG.
Dr. Griffin spoke on behalf of the Rio Grande Valley Coalition for Healthy Children, a group made up of several health care providers who serve the Cameron County area. She spoke of concerns that particular emissions from the proposed LNG facilities could have negative effects of fetuses, infants, and young children.
Ina statement the Coalition submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) earlier this year, they wrote, “There is no doubt that it will create a negative impact on the health and welfare of the families and children whose health we strive to maintain.”
“This is a safe project,” Wanda Reyes-Rice said after the board entered executive session. “We asked to be considered, just to talk initial dialogue about Rio Grande LNG.” She said.
We want to let the board know how safe this project is so they can feel comfortable in making decisions about things financially that affect the district,” she said.
Reyes-Rice deferred questions regarding dollar amounts for any proposed tax abatements to Atkins, but did say the company has also had discussions at the county level.
Atkins declined to comment on the record during the meeting.
Approximately three hours after entering closed session, the board emerged to continue with the rest of the meeting agenda.
By Dina Arevalo