Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 11th, 2014:

Friday random ten: G whiz

Back to the alphabet…

1. Blues Music – G. Love & Special Sauce
2. Behind The Lines – Genesis
3. Cloud 9 – George Harrison
4. Bad To The Bone – George Thorogood & The Destroyers
5. Rose Room – Gerry Mulligan
6. Little Brown Jug – Glenn Miller
7. Crazy – Gnarls Barkley
8. Unforgiven – The Go-Go’s
9. One More Saturday Night – Grateful Dead
10. Drunken Sailor – Great Big Sea

Some quality tuneage in this group. “Crazy” will reappear in a few weeks for a Saturday video break – I’ve got four different songs called “Crazy”, all by different artists. I think that’s the largest “same name, different song” group I’ve got.

One Bin For All RFPs

Yesterday was a big day for the One Bin for All proposal.

Thursday [was] the deadline for private companies to submit bids to the city to build and run the facility. The bid guidelines call for a 75 percent diversion rate — that is, only 25 percent of solid waste should end up in landfills. The rest would be recycled, composted or converted into energy sources.

Currently, the city recycles 6 percent of its waste and diverts 19 percent overall, mostly lawn waste. Those numbers are well below state and national averages.

[…]

[Sustainability Director Laura] Spanjian pointed to a brand-new facility in Montgomery, Alabama, as proof that a one-bin system can work. Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus Energy, which runs the Montgomery facility, said it has achieved 60 percent diversion since opening in April.

“I would’ve never done this project three years ago,” he said.“The technology wasn’t there.” Recent advances in optical technology and air density classification, Mowitz said, have “gone through the roof,” making mixed waste processing more practical.

“This is really the first facility in the country that’s doing what we’re doing.”

Mowitz, who said he expects to start turning a profit over the next year, added that the diversion rate should go up once the facility adds an anaerobic digestion system, in which microorganisms break down organic waste that might otherwise end up in landfills. The Houston plan also calls for anaerobic digestion. Critics argue that the technique may not work for unsorted municipal solid waste streams, which lack the uniformity that the microorganisms prefer.

“The problem is the critters are very finicky,” said Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “If you don’t give them the organic materials they want, it’s hard to run a successful process.”

Paper and steel industry groups have opposed One Bin for All. In a letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who supprts the plan, Gregory L. Crawford, executive director of the Steel Recycling Institute, which represents steel manufacturers, warned that the program “would produce unacceptable levels of contamination” in steel cans.

Mowitz disputed that argument, saying the Montgomery facility has had no problem selling recyclables “at a premium.”

The RFPs were issued in April. I sent a query to the Mayor’s office yesterday afternoon asking how many proposals were submitted, from whom, and if information about them were posted somewhere. I have not yet received a response, but when I do I will write about it.

As we know, the One Bin proposal is controversial, with several environmental organizations, banding together under the Zero Waste Houston banner, leading the opposition. Here’s their latest response to One Bin For All.

“No facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston—and most have been outright disasters.” Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “City officials have set a 75% recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30%. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the City tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

The new report examines dozens of “one bin”-style waste facilities (known as “dirty material recovery facilities,” or dirty MRFs) that have failed in other cities or are only used as a last resort for the garbage stream. Their research contradicts claims made by proponents at the City who say the technology is now capable of recycling the vast majority of residential trash.

The report also cites massive air pollution problems with trash gasification or pyrolysis, which are incineration technologies the City of Houston is also considering under its proposal. Not a single trash gasification incinerator has operated successfully in the U.S., but overseas they have caused health-threatening pollution violations such as dioxin emissions.

“Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash.” Dr. Robert Bullard, dean at Texas Southern University and “Father of Environmental Justice” said. “Wherever the City attempts to build the ‘one bin’ incinerator, that neighborhood is going to fight it because no one wants all the City’s trash coming into one community, and nobody wants more air pollution.”

Opponents point out that such an incinerator would likely be built at an existing waste facility, all of which are in working-income communities that are already saddled with disproportionate pollution problems. And it wouldn’t be the first time: The report also shows that Houston has a well-documented history of siting incinerators and landfills in communities of color. In 1979, The City contracted with an experimental “mini-incinerator” technology that the industry promised would be “pollution-free.” Those mini-incinerators were shut down when such claims proved to be false.

“The City needs to quit trying to make bad ideas work and stick with the good ideas that other cities are implementing, such as real recycling and curbside composting.” Ms. Scruggs said. “We’re all very pleased with the expansions of the big, green bins, and we know Houston residents can and will recycle where they live, work and play, if given the opportunity. That’s the foundation of moving toward a more sustainable city.”

The Zero Waste report is here. It’s long and detailed, and largely boils down to the arguments that “mixed materials recovery facilities” are more about incineration than recycling, while separating organics from recyclables is much more effective at actually reducing waste. Melanie Scruggs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote a guest post here recently discussing how Houston could improve its recycling rate with the big green bins that are now being used. Zero Waste also produced two letters, from coalitions of paper recyclers and steel recyclers that advocate for keeping organics away from these items. Finally, there’s a report by Dr. Bullard about the likely effect on minority neighborhoods, since they tend to be where waste facilities get located.

The city’s argument is that modern technology renders most of the objections moot. Zero Waste marshals a lot of evidence against that, and I’ll leave it to you to read their report and judge for yourself. Perhaps we’ll get a better feel for the city’s rebuttal when we see the proposals that they received.

UPDATE: Got a press release this afternoon saying the city got five proposals, and “will have a recommendation by the end of the year”. I will have more on this next week.

Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

[…]

Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

(more…)

We don’t need no (sex) education

Here’s the state of Texas leading the nation in yet another unflattering category.

In Texas and across the country, the rate of teenage births has declined significantly since its peak in 1991. Birth rates among teenagers in Texas dropped 43 percent between 1991 and 2012. In states like California and Connecticut, the drop was even larger, and nationwide, the rate declined 52 percent in that period.

But despite the improvements in the Lone Star State, it is faring worse than most. Texas has the nation’s fifth-highest birth rate among teenagers, behind Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and New Mexico. And Texas, where schools are not required to teach sex education, has the highest rate of repeat births among teenagers ages 15 to 19. Teenage birth cost Texas taxpayers $1.1 billion in health care, foster care and lost tax revenue in 2010, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Teenage mothers often drop out of school, specialists said, and their children are also likely to become teenage parents.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office said a drop in the birth rate among teenagers in the last decade corresponded with the state’s abstinence education program.

“Teen pregnancy is a multifaceted issue with many contributing factors,” a spokesman for Perry, Travis Considine, said. Among those factors, advocates said, are race, ethnicity and economic status.

Dr. Janet Realini, president of Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit that works to prevent teenage and unplanned pregnancy, said that Texas’ often ineffective sex education helped explain the state’s comparatively high teenage birth rate. Other factors, she said, include the limited access to health care and insurance for the poor as well as the high rates of school dropouts and poverty.

“It’s this mentality that we’re Texas, we do it our way, we ignore science and kind of go with our gut,” said David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University in San Marcos. “That Wild West mentality about public policy is not helpful.”

One state with similar demographics to Texas is faring much better: California, which cut its teenage birth rate by 64 percent from 1991 to 2012. Melissa Peskin, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, said Texas could lower its teenage birth rate by following California’s example in areas like sex education and access to contraception.

Others are not convinced. Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, which promotes family values and abstinence-focused sex education, said California’s abortion rate is higher than Texas’.

“In Texas, since when did we think it was a good idea to adopt any policy from California?” Saenz said.

“I don’t think the proper measure is how do we compare to other states,” he added. “It’s undeniable that not only in our state but across the country, teen birth rates are at historic lows.”

The real problem, he said, is the glamorization of sexual activity.

Boy, you couldn’t come up with a better illustration of what Professor Wiley is talking about if you tried. Jonathan Saenz is the perfect distillation of the idiotic theocracy that our state is beholden to. If you need to be reminded what 2014 is all about, think about him.

Anyway. As you might imagine, the recent budget cuts that slashed family planning funds and forced the closure of dozens of clinics didn’t help. It was so bad even some Republicans are now dimly aware that there’s a connection between unprotected sex and pregnancy. As usual, we’re in the position of hoping we can maybe get back to where we were a few years ago, which is better than where we are now but still way behind where we should be given the state’s robust population growth. Which means we’ll fall even farther behind California, and Colorado, too. Happy now, Jonathan?

On a side note, according to the Trib this story is one entry in a 10-part series on the flip side of state leaders’ aggressive pursuit of the “Texas Miracle”. Other entries will be found here, and see also their Hurting For Work series for more. Kudos on the reporting here, because Lord knows there’s a ton of stories like these out there needing to be told.

Next phases of redistricting lawsuit scheduled

Part One takes place next week.

The trial over 2011 House district boundaries begins July 14 in U.S. District Court, where a hearing Tuesday shed light on how the case could unfold.

The proceeding are expected to last at least six days — Monday through Saturday — with testimony from about 50 witnesses.

The court will make extensive use of technology to display versions of district maps and communications that went into drawing them.

[…]

Some of the plaintiffs’ requests for relief already were granted in Houston and El Paso, and plaintiffs said they’re seeking to preserve those changes and push for more minority “opportunity districts” in areas including Midland-Odessa and Lubbock.

As the trial draws near, judges were asked to rule on several requests to allow testimony.

On Monday, the judges granted the state’s request to exclude testimony from Austin civil rights attorney James Harrington, who MALC sought to present as an expert.

Left pending were rulings on whether to allow testimony from two other potential plaintiffs’ witnesses, including St. Mary’s University political scientist Henry Flores. State attorneys on Tuesday said their testimony should not be allowed because it wouldn’t be relevant or helpful.

Also to be decided before trial is whether attorney-client privilege applies to potential witnesses including Denise Davis, former chief of staff and legal adviser to House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

That’s the State House map we’re talking about. Part Two is for the 2011 US House map, and it will be argued in August.

A federal three-judge panel in San Antonio said Thursday it will commence the second phase of a trial challenging Texas’ redistricting maps on Aug. 11.

The first phase, which will look at claims made against political boundaries drawn in 2011 for the Texas House, will kick off July 14 and is expected to last about six days.

Redistricting maps drawn the same year for the U.S. House will be argued starting Aug. 11 and will “continue day to day until finished,” according to a court entry Thursday.

At some point in the yet-to-be determined future, there will be a phase for the 2013 Texas House and US House maps. (Recall that all claims related to the Texas Senate map have been settled, with the exception of the legal fees.) This is the Section 2 part of the fight – remember, we used interim maps for 2012, and will use them again this November. The point of this litigation is to settle one way or another the claims about discrimination in the 2011 and 2013 maps. Possible outcomes include:

1. All of the 2011 and 2013 maps are declared illegal and new maps that are presumably more favorable to Democrats get drawn, most likely for 2016 and then to be used for the remaining elections until the 2021 redistricting cycle.

2. The 2011 maps are thrown out but the 2013 versions, which the state intended to address the previously raised judicial concerns about the 2011 maps, are deemed acceptable and put into place. Note that you could have this result for one of the maps and result #1 for the other.

3. The 2011 maps are declared to be legal and are implemented as is. Again, you could have one map be this way and the other fall into either of the first two buckets.

Any of these outcomes could be affected by further challenges to the Voting Rights Act – if SCOTUS strikes down Section 2, needless to say that all bets are off – or by some miraculous and unlikely Congressional action to update the VRA. I’m no Michael Li, so I could be all wet on any or all of this, but that’s my layman’s understanding. Those of you that know better, please tell me where I’ve gone wrong.