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June 6th, 2005:

An exception for TXI?

I’ve written about the cement plants in Midlothian before (see here and here for recent entries). Today I got the following press release:

(DALLAS) — While the Dallas-Ft. Worth area struggles to find a way to reduce smog, the state environmental agency cut a backroom deal with TXI Operations, L.P., a Midlothian cement plant, to shut down its pollution control technology. The result will significantly increase emissions of toxic and smog forming pollutants. Outraged parents and environmental groups demand the state agency protect people over profits. A hearing to determine which is more important will be held June 7, 2005, City Council Chambers, 401 South Rogers Street, Waxahachie, Texas 75165. Parents and environmental groups will hold a press conference at 9 AM before the hearing.

“TXI thinks it is above the law,” said Wendi Hammond, Blue Skies Alliance. “Even President George Bush’s EPA has said TXI’s request cannot be issued, but our state environmental agency is again caving to industry pressure while sacrificing the health of our children. Once again, it will be up to parents and environmental groups to ensure our environmental laws are enforced and our children protected.”

“TXI’s greed has gotten out of hand. Although TXI has enjoyed record profits while successfully operating the pollution controls, TXI claims the technology costs too much to operate because of increased natural gas prices,” said Rebecca Bornhorst, Downwinders At Risk. “Everybody is dealing with fuel price increases, including other industries. It’s a fact of life. But TXI thinks rules that apply to everyone else shouldn’t apply to them.”

TXI filed its application before Ellis County was reclassified as nonattainment for violating the Clean Air Act. Cost is no longer an excuse under the new classification. The shut down would result in significant increase of toxic emissions year round, including an almost 12% increase of smog forming emissions during the ozone season.

More information on the hearing and a press conference beforehand can be found at the Blue Skies Alliance and at the Midlothian Family Network. There’s also a blog dedicated to TXI issues, but it unfortunately isn’t updated all that often. Anyway, if you’re in the area, check it out.

I’ll see if there’s any press coverage on this tomorrow – right now, a Google news search on “TXI” is pretty barren. Well, not completely. Look who’s coming to Ellis County:

Erin Brockovich, an environmental crusader made famous by the movie that bears her name, is coming to Ellis County.

Brockovich and a team of lawyers are researching the county’s industrial pollution to determine whether it is affecting people’s health.

If so, they say, they will sue the operators of cement kilns and other industries in Midlothian.

The group plans to schedule a public meeting next month in Midlothian to discuss its research and gauge interest in a suit, said Jim Ross, an Arlington lawyer who is working with Brockovich.

Brockovich said she is coming “to educate and make the community aware of the facts.”

“We don’t want to create a community scare. But if I can come in and create greater awareness of the issues, that’s a giant part of my job.”

[…]

State health statistics show that rates of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease per 100,000 residents in Ellis County exceeded the state rates in 2002 — the latest year for which statistics are available from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But so did the rates of those illnesses in other counties in North Texas, according to the statistics.

Kaufman County has a higher overall cancer rate than Ellis; five other area counties have higher rates of respiratory disease, with Denton County recording the highest.

Only the lung cancer rate in Ellis County exceeded the rates in the other metroplex counties in 2002.

The overall birth defect rate in Ellis County exceeded the state rate per 10,000 live births in 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available. But Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties all exceeded Ellis County’s rate.

However, several studies in the past decade have suggested that toxic pollution affects the health of Ellis County residents, say Ross, the lawyer working with Brockovich, and others.

One is a 1995 study led by Marvin Legator, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Legator’s study found three times more respiratory illnesses in Midlothian — home to most of the county’s industries — than in Waxahachie a few miles away.

It also found that the rate of cancer deaths in Ellis County was consistently higher than the rate in neighboring Tarrant County.

A year later, researchers at the University of Michigan ripped a state health-risk assessment that determined TXI’s cement-kiln emissions posed little health risk.

The study, commissioned by the American Lung Association and the regional environmental group Downwinders at Risk, said the state’s scientific approach was severely flawed and its conclusions unfounded.

That same year, Peter Langlois, a senior epidemiologist with the Texas Department of Health, published a study that found an unusually high number of babies in Ellis County born with Down syndrome.

That story is over a week old, so I assume she’s already there. Obviously, this is something to keep an eye on. Stay tuned.

Attorney General says no toll roads secrets

This is a victory for transparency.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office agrees with the Chronicle that citizens have a right to know how a private development group plans to build and finance a toll road from Dallas to San Antonio.

On March 11, the Texas Department of Transportation and the consortium Cintra-Zachry signed a comprehensive development agreement for TTC-35, the first leg of the Trans-Texas Corridor. Eventually, the route could extend from Oklahoma to Mexico and include rail, utilities and other facilities.

The pact was signed with a good bit of fanfare, and — except for two key parts — it was made public. (See it at www.keeptexasmoving.org.) But TxDOT withheld the financial and development plans, saying they contained proprietary information.

Officials said releasing these details could harm Cintra-Zachry competitively and discourage companies who might seek to develop other legs of the corridor, such as TTC/I-69, proposed to run from Texarkana to Mexico past Houston.

The attorney general’s opinion says TxDOT failed to show how revealing the plans would cause harm. It also says that because the agreement has been signed, the deal being negotiated is no longer protected by law from disclosure.

TxDOT and Cintra-Zachry may sue to overturn the ruling. Both are reviewing the ruling but have not decided what action to take, spokespersons said.

Good on the Chron for pursuing this, and good on AG Greg Abbott for making the right call. This is exactly the sort of thing that Corridor critics have been worried about. It’s a lot easier to tell when fully public projects exceed cost estimates or otherwise don’t meet their projections. We need the same sort of openness from the private firms who will be doing this kind of construction.

You can find the full AG’s opinion at CorridorWatch.

Lea Fastow gets out of jail

Lea Fastow has Left the pokey, but she still has five weeks in a halfway house to go.

Hand-in-hand with her soon-to-be-imprisoned husband, Lea Fastow walked out of a downtown Houston prison before dawn today, then took a short ride to the downtown halfway house where she’ll serve out the last five weeks of her one-year sentence for lying on her taxes about income from an Enron venture.

The 43-year-old wife of former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow looked healthy in a white polo shirt and jeans, with a pink sweater folded over her arm, as she emerged from the Federal Dentention Center moments before 4 a.m., just as sprinklers started up.

She stopped briefly on the sidewalk at 1200 Texas Avenue to speak to a reporter and photographers before being whisked away in a private car to the halfway house where she’ll stay until July 10.

“It’s been a tough year, but it’s supposed to be a tough year,” said Fastow, a stay-at-home mom before going to prison. “I am going home to my family soon. That’s exactly what I’m looking forward to.”

[…]

Although the federal halfway house she’s settling into allows for varying levels of restrictions, Lea Fastow is likely to be confined to the facility for the remainder of her sentence, possibly allowed to visit an outside doctor.

At the Liedel Sanction Center, known as a “federal community corrections center,” the idea is to let prisoners near release stay in a “structured, supervised environment” that has counseling, job placement, and other services to help the inmates rebuild their community ties and readjust to freedom.

Somewhat more hospitable than a prison and offering more privacy, the Commerce Street halfway house is less than a mile from the federal detention center in a semi-industrial part of downtown. A guard was at the door Monday morning.

I guess that’s one chapter of this saga that’s about to end. She got a harsher sentence than she originally bargained for, but in the end she’ll be back home before Andy Fastow heads off to the big house, and that was what they both ultimately wanted.

Gathering the statistics

I present the following as an FYI for those who are into this sort of thing (you know who you are). Greg posted a couple of days back that precinct-level data was now available statewide for all elections from 1996 through 2004 via FTP. You can use anonymous FTP, but for some reason, you actually have to enter “none” as the password. I always thought anonymous FTP meant a blank password, but apparently not in this case.

Anyway. The data is in lovely CSV format (woo hoo!), though it’s too big to bring up in Excel – I’m importing it all into Access for most of what I want to do, with some Perl scripting in reserve for anything that won’t succumb to my query-writing skills. Look for some wonky number crunching in the (hopefully) near future.

The Sugar Land Kiddie Roundup

There’s enough grist in this story about an overzealous police raid on a parentally-unsupervised high school party to power about a half-dozen mills. What really dropped my jaw is this:

Static blares and bounces around the room of Gary Franks’s first-floor law office. Franks, who represents several of the teens busted at last month’s house party, stares at a black-screened monitor and listens intently.

Through a public information request, Franks obtained copies of the video and audio tapes from the night of the police raid. They are mostly useless. But he suffers through them, picking up snippets of conversation amid vast expanses of white noise.

He forwards ahead to a scene in which an officer can be heard ordering the teenagers to go home.

“I don’t want anybody driving if they’ve been drinking,” the cop says.

Franks slaps the palm of his hand on his desk. “If!” he exclaims. “If they’ve been drinking!”

Franks wants to know why the teens were ticketed when the officers didn’t even know if they were drinking alcohol. And why, Franks asks, were teens such as Tarantino busted for possessing alcohol and then handed back their car keys and told to drive home?

Sugar Land Police Chief Lisa Womack has publicly defended her officers several times. She says that the large quantities of alcohol found in the house, and the minors’ proximity to it, is sufficient evidence to issue the MIP citations.

“It’s not okay for a minor to be at a party when alcohol is present, even if they’re not drinking,” Womack says. “Essentially, if there’s enough to go around, it doesn’t matter whether or not they had alcohol on their breath.”

The defense attorneys dispute this reading of the law, contending that a mere presence of alcohol is not enough. They will build their cases around the meaning of “possession,” which is defined in the Texas penal code as having “actual care, custody, control, or management.”

“If the police chief doesn’t know the law any better than that, then the officers under her must be poorly trained,” says Nina Schaefer, an attorney representing one of the students.

If it’s really “not okay for a minor to be at a party when alcohol is present, even if they’re not drinking”, then it seems to me that the police forces in Sugar Land and elsewhere need to step up their enforcement efforts. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of backyard barbecues that took place across Texas this past Memorial Day weekend featured both beer and minor children. Should they all have been busted? Okay, maybe there’s an exception for when the minor’s parents are also in attendance, but surely there were plenty of cases where a kid was present without a parent in tow. Where does Chief Womack care to draw the line?

I mean, if you really want to get technical, then the Womackian interpretation of minor-in-possession laws would put every professional sporting event in Texas in jeopardy. I attended Yankee games with just my friends before I turned 18. I’m sure teenagers today go to Astro and Ranger and other games by themselves. If it’s really “not okay for a minor to be at a party when alcohol is present, even if they’re not drinking”, then should Minute Maid Park ban anyone under the age of 21 who doesn’t bring a parent or guardian along, or should they just stop selling beer?

I feel pretty confident that the defense will prevail in these cases. Until that happens, though, I think I’d want to check with the local police before cracking open a brewski in Sugar Land. I wouldn’t want to put any passing teenagers in danger of getting an MIP citation while I’m taking the pause that refreshes.

What kind of primary do you think we’re going to have?

The Sunday Chron had this op-ed, which was written as a response to an earlier piece by former Gov. Bill Clements decrying the possibility of a bloody GOP gubernatorial primary. The central point of yesterday’s piece is this:

Not just democracies but parties thrive on competition. It creates interest and forces candidates to define and defend their positions.

First of all, let me say that I agree with this premise. If nothing else, a primary gets a party some regular media attention, and it allows accepted conventional wisdom to be challenged. There were quite a few tooth-and-nail Republican Senatorial primaries around the country last year, and the winners who emerged seem to have done all right electorally.

That said, I wonder what kind of primary this author is expecting there to be if and when Kay Bailey Hutchison makes her entry into the race official. I don’t really see a whole lot of difference between Rick Perry and KBH on the issues: Tax cuts good, school vouchers good, Robin Hood bad, abortion bad, gay marriage bad. Perry’s more hard-edged than KBH on some of these things, but let’s be honest – if KBH is our next Governor, we won’t see any major philosophical shifts in the Capitol.

What this primary is going to be about is two things: What Rick Perry has and has not done as Governor, and who Kay Bailey Hutchison is. The case KBH will make for herself is clear: Rick Perry has a lousy record of achievement. He promised you property tax relief and a replacement for Robin Hood, and he’s delivered neither. Worse, he’s allowed these important issues to founder while he himself stands by and offers nothing in the way of leadership. In other words, she won’t be claiming that she’ll do different things, she’ll be claiming that she’ll do things differently, and thus will accomplish what Rick Perry had set out to do.

Perry’s strategy is equally clearcut: Make KBH the bad guy. His greatest strength is with the religious conservative base, so he can tout things like the parental consent bill and the anti-gay marriage HJR6 while making KBH out to be Hillary Clinton’s bestest friend. Unlike KBH, Perry actually will attempt to demonstrate philosophical differences between the two of them, but it will be strictly at the margins. Any response by KBH to this sort of attack will be basically of the “Am not!” variety. Maybe there will be some defining and defending of real positions in there, but I think it’ll be the kind of non-substantial slagfest that reduces interest, at least among the non-hardcore.

If you really want to see a GOP gubernatorial primary with a robust debate about differences in approach, then I think you ought to be rooting for Carole Keeton Strayhorn to jump in. CKS has been a constant critic of Governor Perry’s agenda since at least 2003. She’s been a firm supporter of expanded gambling while Perry has flipflopped on the issue. She’s pushed for a big increase in cigarette taxes, fought efforts to use one-time budget remedies such as the rainy day fund, and has called for funding CHIP at higher levels than we’ve done in the past two sessions. Whether you agree or disagree with any of this, it’s issue-based and draws a clear distinction between CKS’ goals and methods and Perry’s.

So that’s how I see it, and I believe that’s why Bill Clements is nervous and Democrats are hopeful. Maybe there will be the kind of debate about ideas that our op-ed writer is hoping for, but given how both Perry and Hutchison’s campaign manager have done things in the past, I wouldn’t count on it.

One year of Olivia

One year ago today, Olivia Rose Kuffner made her appearance in our lives. Today, on her first birthday, she’s given us a year’s worth of joy and happiness. She’s walking now, though she still crawls when she wants to get there quickly. She has a total fascination with all things paper, all things red (especially Elmo dolls), and the TiVo remote. She eats pretty much everything we put in front of her, with avocados and Cheerios being her favorites. Now that she’s finally starting to cut teeth, we’ll be able to expand her menu and see if her omnivorous tendencies continue. Like her mother, she prefers to wake up on her own time, and once she’s set on a course of action it’s hard to persuade her to do something else. Like her father, she has a terminal case of bedhead every morning, and has an all-absorbing fascination with the TiVo remote. She loves taking baths and seems to enjoy her swimming lessons as well.

I can’t believe it’s been a year already. The cliches about time flying are really true when it comes to babies. It’s been a helluva ride, and it’s just getting started. Happy birthday, baby girl.

(That’s Olivia with her Grandpa Tim. We celebrated her birthday yesterday at their house.)