Back to mobile

Forrest for the Trees

A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

In the aftermath of the West fertilizer plant disaster, media outlets—The Dallas Morning News in particular—and some of our better public servants have done yeoman’s work exploring the failures that led to the tragedy. We now know that the oversight and regulation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer plants is complicated and lax at the same time. We know, as the Morning News put it, that “it could happen again” at one of Texas’ hundred or so fertilizer plants. And we know what needs fixing. (For example, it’s remarkably stupid that Texas bans small counties from adopting fire codes. Whatever happened to local control?)

Yet the state has done little to address the problems. The Texas Legislature met for almost four months following the West disaster and didn’t pass a single reform to address the holes in the system.

That’s not to say that some aren’t trying. God bless the state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, for at least doing what he can to prevent another West. Connealy’s team has aggressively inspected all 104 ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. He’s holding town hall meetings in the 68 counties with a fertilizer plant and plans to conduct follow-up inspections this spring. But a can-do attitude goes only so far. The inspections are voluntary, their scope is limited and Connealy has no enforcement authority. All he can do is plead and prod—something he readily acknowledges.

“I guess if they didn’t correct [a problem identified in the inspection] by the time we come back, then that tells us we need to encourage them more strongly,” Connealy says. “I can’t make them do it.”

Still, I was curious what Connealy was turning up in his inspections. Through the state open records process, I requested a handful of the most recent inspection reports. Within a couple of weeks, the fire marshal’s office sent me a set of heavily redacted documents. Missing was any information on how the fertilizer is stored, site security, descriptions of the buildings and any hazardous findings. The agency even blacked out the names of local fire departments and the precise locations of fertilizer plants, though that information could be gleaned from other unredacted details. With all the secrecy, the reports were worthless to me and to any citizens trying to figure out what might be happening in their backyards.

After an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office, I obtained more information from the reports. However, the AG had ordered the fire marshal to redact the names and addresses of the facilities. Only by looking at the two versions together was I able to get a full picture of what the inspectors found—and where.

I examined three reports, which is admittedly a small sample, but they still made apparent that some fertilizer plants are vulnerable in the same way West’s was. None of the three facilities—Standley Feed & Seed locations in Madisonville and Iola, and Anderson Fertilizer in Carthage—had sprinkler systems to suppress fires. Only one of them even had a portable fire extinguisher. Two of the facilities had electrical problems, including exposed and damaged wires. All three are housed in combustible wooden structures, just like in West, and a top concern for Connealy.

The Anderson facility, the inspection report notes, has dry vegetation around it, which could help a fire “rapidly spread into the building.”

Standley Feed in Iola is located 500 yards from two “public assembly buildings” and three-tenths of a mile from a school. The one in Madisonville is planted on the town square, across the street from the county courthouse. The report states that Standley no longer plans to carry ammonium nitrate, and Connealy says his inspectors will follow up to confirm.

But absent new laws and regulations, it’s not clear how Connealy or anyone else is going to minimize hazards. Bobby Anderson, the owner of Anderson Fertilizer, says he fixed the electrical problems identified by the state fire marshal but has no plans to replace his wooden storage bins, install fire suppression systems or make any other expensive and, in his mind, unnecessary changes. “Let me tell you, a fire extinguisher is not going to do any good when a nitrate bin blows up,” he said. “I’ve got children, wife, parents, grandbaby right there within 200 or 300 yards. We live there on the farm, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody.”

Anderson says he’s not going to let fears about West or new regulations push him out of a business he’s been in for 29 years. “Shit, I ain’t getting out,” he told me. “Until they quit making the same damn stuff I’m gonna keep using it because it’s the best source of nitrogen there is.”

 

Support the Texas Observer
Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, speak with reporters outside San Antonio's federal courthouse after oral arguments in their suit to overturn Texas' same-sex marriage ban. Their attorney Neel Lane is behind them.

Two weeks after hearing oral arguments in an attempt to overturn Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia offered an early sign that he agrees the ban is unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, Garcia granted a preliminary injunction against further enforcement of Texas’ same-sex marriage ban, saying the two couples—two men from Plano and two Austin women—were likely to prevail at a trial. That would have allowed the two men to marry here, and let the two women to have their Massachusetts marriage recognized in Texas—except that Garcia also stayed his injunction pending a decision in the ultra-conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today’s ruling doesn’t change much in practical terms—as the lawyers noted in court, because the suit isn’t a class action, the injunction would only have applied to the four plaintiffs anywaybut it’s being heralded as another small step in a nationwide march toward same-sex marriage that’s become more of a sprint in the last few months.

Garcia’s order, and the stay, recognized this lawsuit’s place as just one in a complex and fast-changing world of court rulings on same-sex marriage around the country, all leading to a likely resolution with the U.S. Supreme Court. But it also armed opponents of Texas’ 2005 ban with some powerful language. (You can read the whole thing below.)

Texas’ ban, Garcia wrote, “causes needless stigmatization and humiliation for children being raised by the loving same-sex couples being targeted.” That’s a direct response to the state’s main argument that Texas has an interest in kids growing up in healthy, loving families, which it argued couldn’t include those with same-sex parents. Anyway, as Garcia observes, “procreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage.”

Garcia said the state never backed up its claim that letting gay and lesbian couples marry somehow harms heterosexual marriage. Texas’ ban, he writes, is unconstitutional because it violates the couples’ rights to equal protection, later adding, “this court does not find justification for the disparate treatment of homosexuals.”

“Today’s Court decision,” he writes, “is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.”

Responses to the ruling from politicians and activists came fast. The national group Freedom to Marry recognized that Garcia’s decision put Texas in league with Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, where judges have all recently tossed same-sex marriage bans. “With 47 marriage cases in 25 states now moving forward, and the possibility that a freedom to marry case will again reach the Supreme Court as soon as 2015, we must continue the conversations and progress—Texan to Texan, American to American—that show that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry,” said the group’s founder Evan Wolfson.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick seemed momentarily swayed by Garcia’s reasoning this afternoon, tweeting, “MARRIAGE= ONE MAN & ONE MAN,” before copping to his own “oops” moment.

Like many Texas Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry largely stuck to a state’s rights argument.

“Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution,” he said in a statement, “and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens. The 10th Amendment guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions.”

Notably, Perry did not spend a lot of time moralizing about how banning same-sex marriage is for the “eternal benefit of our children,” as he did in 2005 when he signed legislation that put the ban in front of voters. Instead, marriage equality is now consigned to the same status as other “10th Amendment” issues—gun rights, environmental regulation and healthcare. And perhaps that’s a tacit reflection of how much things have changed since 2005, when Texas voters approved amending the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. The vote wasn’t even close: 76 percent to 24 percent. Of Texas’ 254 counties, the only one with a majority voting “no” was Travis County. Good old Republic of Austin.

Still, the special constitutional election hardly represented the permanent, conclusive “will of our citizens.” Turnout was only 17 percent and almost certainly skewed older, white and conservative relative to the state’s population. (Leaving aside, of course, the wisdom of putting rights to a vote.)

And in sociopolitical terms 2005 is a long, long time ago.

In 2005, only 29 Democrats in the Texas House voted against the proposed same-sex marriage ban—and many of those said they were only doing so for technical reasons. Here’s what former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, who was Democratic caucus chair at the time, and state Rep. Pete Gallego (now a congressman) had to say at the time:

“I fully agree that the institution of marriage should be limited to one man and one woman. I supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which is current Texas law. If that were the issue before us today, I would vote the same way again.”

Just in the past few years, there has been a seismic shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage. Texas has not been immune to this trend. Roughly 70 percent of Texans now support either same-sex marriage or civil unions (39 percent and 30 percent, respectively) and pro-marriage equality is the plurality view among Texans. While that’s still not a majority expressing support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, the trend is pushing inexorably in that direction, as the courts have clearly recognized.

Even if the Supreme Court leaves this decision up to states, would Rick Perry be willing to put same-sex marriage to a vote again today? Should we test the will of the people again? How about in five years? Or 10?

Ted Nugent
facebook.com/tednugent

We thought maybe we’d write this week about Cornyn challenger Dwayne Stovall’s TV ad attacking someone he’s not running against as a “box turtle.” (Hey, I thought Phil Gramm had rights to that name!) We thought maybe we’d call attention to the Democrat running for Harris County DA on a stop-prosecuting-domestic-violence-so-much platform.

We thought we’d write this week about David Dewhurst welcoming the spawn of Andrew Breitbart to Texas with a letter praising Breitbart Texas for “applying the time-tested techniques of investigative reporting.” (Nothing screams “investigative reporting” like putting anarchist-turned-FBI-informant-turned-tea-partier Brandon Darby in charge of your publication and running articles like “7 Amazing Reagan Quotes that Capture America’s Current Condition.”) But, really, this week belongs to one man.

Ted Nugent wasn’t born in Texas but he got here just as soon as he was tired of chasing underage girls, shitting his pants to avoid the draft (allegedly!) and establishing his intellectual bona fides with such classic rocks hits as “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.”

With those accomplishments on his resume, naturally he became a sought-after public figure.

Although he promised in 2011 to “either be dead or in jail” if Obama was re-elected, instead Uncle Ted has put his heart and soul patch into politicking for Texas Republicans and drawing clicks for media outlets. (Here he is on “Texas Monthly Talks”; here he is trying to justify the Trayvon Martin killing to the Texas Tribune.)

He’s called Hillary Clinton a “two-bit whore” and Barack Obama a “chimpanzee,” “a piece of shit” and “a subhuman mongrel” (a term employed by Nazis and Klansmen). He’s been known to use the n-word and has basically been saying things like this for decades.
If he’s not a racist and a misogynist, then no one is… So what does it say about the politicians he pals around with?

He’s the treasurer for former state Rep. Sid Miller’s bid for agriculture commissioner. (By the way, aren’t Ted and Sid just the picture of the GOP’s outreach to women and minorities?)
Sid Miller and Ted Nugent
He and Rick Perry go hunting together and the Nuge played at Perry’s inauguration in 2007.

Congressman Steve Stockman (still sounds weird putting those three words together) can’t get enough of the guy.

And then there’s Greg Abbott, who invited Nugent to appear with him at campaign events in Wichita Falls and Denton this week. The Nuge didn’t say anything WTF-worthy on the campaign trail—though he did call Greg Abbott his “blood brother”—but his labeling of Obama as a “Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel” had even Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (sort of) condemning the remarks and distancing themselves from Uncle Ted. Good rule of thumb: If those guys are uncomfortable with your rhetoric, you might have gone too far. And late update: Even Ted Nugent is uncomfortable with Ted Nugent’s remarks.

But what about Greg Abbott? Why did he invite Ted Nugent to join him onstage after the Wendy Davis campaign and the media pondered whether that was such a good idea? What did he think of Nugent’s ugly comments? Other than running away from a CNN reporter, he’s really not said much. Per the AP:

“I can’t comment on them, because I don’t know what he said.”

In a courtroom, pleading the Fifth might work. In politics, not so much.

BarnettShaleDrilling-9323

Three national media groups—the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel—published the results this week of an eight-month investigation into air pollution problems in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. Much of what they found won’t be shocking to Texans. We call it bidness as usual: regulators and legislators captive to industry; citizens either comfortable with the downsides of massive oil and gas production or too afraid to protest; and an alarming lack of attention paid to those suffering from fracking-related toxic emissions. After spending so much time here, the reporters probably didn’t need a Texas Tech political scientist to tell them that “the health issues faced by people who live in drilling areas… simply don’t carry enough weight to counterbalance the financial benefits derived from oil and gas development.”

I spoke with David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News and he said his big takeaway for the rest of the country is in a word: “beware.”

“There are so many unanswered questions,” he said. “We took on the issue of emissions, of air pollution. And it’s cautionary because there’s so very little known about either the short-term or the long-term consequences of these emissions. … Somebody needs to start developing a baseline now of human health and then studying what’s happening with these emissions.”

In an accompanying piece, the reporters recount the many ways that government, industry and even ordinary citizens made reporting the story difficult. Railroad Commissioner David Porter agreeing to an on-camera interview with The Weather Channel then bailing at the last second. Operators refusing to offer on-the-ground tours of facilities or even refusing to answer questions.

My favorite example, though, is the description of dealing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, an agency that has all the public and media relations finesse of a Soviet politburo.

The agency responsible for regulating air emissions—the TCEQ—refused to make any of its commissioners, officials or investigators available for interviews. Instead, we had to submit questions via emails that were routed through agency spokespeople. It’s unclear if the spokespeople passed our questions along to the agency’s experts.

[…]

*When a reporter called TCEQ field inspectors at their homes—a commonly used reporting technique—TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow left the reporter a message saying, “Under no circumstances are you to call our people and harass them at home.” Morrow also blocked the reporter from approaching the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, at a public meeting in Austin.

David Hasemayer, of InsideClimate News, told me he found the approach unusual.

“They would not talk to us, even their media people would not talk to us,” he said. “They were wholly unresponsive to talking to us and engaging in a give-and-take type of conversation.”

Indeed the whole story is riddled with “declined to comment” breadcrumbs that lead, for me at least, to the conclusion that our out-of-state friends were probably a bit dumbfounded at how little the industry, and its servants in government, care about engaging with pressing public health questions.

Hyde, now the TCEQ’s executive director, through an agency spokeswoman declined to comment.

[...]

Asked how the agency dealt with the polluters, Clawson did not respond.

[...]

Granado did not respond when asked why the plant had so many emission events last year.

[...]

Covert did not respond to interview requests.

The reporters wrote that the Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches from near Laredo on the border northeast for 400 miles into the eastern fringe of East Texas, “has yet to become part of the national conversation on hydraulic fracturing—fracking—in contrast to, say, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale or North Dakota’s Bakken.”

Wells permitted and completed in the Eagle Ford Shale, Feb. 2014
Texas Railroad Commission
Wells permitted and completed in the Eagle Ford Shale, Feb. 2014

Indeed, many Texans, I’d wager, know little about the Brush Country counties—DeWitt, Karnes and Webb among them—that form the epicenter of the shale. They’re sort of neither here nor there. I grew up in DeWitt County. People from the Valley don’t consider it South Texas. It’s too far from the coast to be part of that world. And it’s remote enough from a big city—San Antonio is closest—to be pulled into an urban orbit. This forgotten slice of Texas, until recently at least, was sparsely populated, lightly developed and insular. The Barnett Shale, underlying in part the affluent, relatively dense suburbs of Fort Worth, has received much more attention, even as drilling and production in the Eagle Ford Shale has soared to staggering levels.

The whole piece is worth reading but some parts stood out for me:

  • While it’s widely known that the Eagle Ford Shale isn’t comprehensively monitored for toxic emissions from fracking activity, the story reveals that TCEQ knows just how inadequate its monitoring system is. The reporting team obtained a memo from January 2011 that’s quite candid: “The executive director has extensive records of underestimated or previously undetected emissions from oil and gas sites. These are not isolated instances but have occurred statewide and indicate a pattern.” The agency runs just five permanent air monitors in the vast region—and those are geared for quantifying emissions that could impact San Antonio’s air quality—and has no plans to add more.
  • The Railroad Commission and TCEQ rarely issue penalties. Of the 217 fines levied by the Railroad Commission in 2012, the average was less than $9,000.
  • The Texas Legislature has increased the maximum penalty that TCEQ can levy from $10,000 per violation to $25,000, the agency hasn’t exactly seized its new authority. Of the 117 fines issued between January 2012 and October 2013 related to oil and gas production, operators paid less than $25,000 in more than three quarters of the cases.
  • A significant number of the complaints from folks living in the Eagle Ford Shale are probably related to hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, a dangerous oilfield gas that’s particularly prevalent in some sour spots of the shale.
  • The Texas Legislature, led by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), hamstrung a modest TCEQ program that would’ve imposed more stringent pollution control rules on oil and gas operators. The legislators effectively made it difficult, though not impossible, for TCEQ to apply its own rules to the Eagle Ford Shale in the same way the agency had in the Barnett Shale.

Welcome to Texas, y’all.

Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas
Barnett Shale drilling rig

A newly-published study of fracking-related water use in North Texas’ Barnett Shale provides new insights into what has been a murky topic. Authored by researchers at the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology and published in Environmental Science and Technology, the paper describes the Barnett Shale as an “ideal case” to try to get a better understanding of how much water is being used in fracking, the source of the water, how much is actually recycled and how much of the wastewater ends up in injection wells—pressing questions in drought-stricken Texas. “This is the first paper, I think, to take a comprehensive look at water use in one play,” said lead author, JP Nicot.

While researchers, journalists and regulators have slowly developed better estimates of how much water fracking consumes, especially at a regional or state level, less attention has been paid to where the water comes from and whether the industry is following through on promises to recycle and reuse water that returns to the surface after a frack job. What jumps out at me in this study is how little the industry has accomplished in using less water since the Barnett Shale took off in the middle of the last decade—even in the face of crippling drought.

Nicot found that the vast majority of water, about 92 percent, used to frack Barnett Shale wells in 2011 was “consumed”—never to return to the aquifer or reservoir again. Only around 5 percent of all the water has been reused or recycled “for the past few years.” The remainder, about 3 percent, came from brackish water sources. The figures suggest that the industry is making very little progress in conserving water, despite a push from regulators and lawmakers to encourage the practice.

At one time, Nicot said, companies were doing more to recycle.

“They started doing it even at a monetary loss,” he said. “Then they realized well it doesn’t seem like we are going anywhere with that recycling thing so let’s cut our losses and let’s not recycle anymore.”

“I know a lot of recycling companies,” he added. “They are kind of disappointed. A lot of people thought it would be the next big thing, the El Dorado. … The overall feel is that it’s not working as well as it could have.”

But so far, the industry does not seem too concerned about the drought. “Periodic droughts, characteristic of Texas climate, do not seem to control [hydraulic fracturing] water use in the Barnett play, which is more sensitive to the price of gas and economic activity,” Nicot wrote.

Indeed, the correlation between gas production and water use in fracking is nearly perfect. The more gas produced, the more water used, with little to no increase in efficiency.

Cumulative gas production and water use track each other.
JP Nicot
Cumulative gas production and water use track each other.

 

Other interesting findings from the study:

  • We know very little about the source of water used in Barnett Shale fracking. Nicot reports that data is “sparse” because “the industry is fragmented” and “water contracts are signed and expire in a very dynamic business environment.” Groundwater regulation in Texas is notoriously scattershot, spread over more than a 100 locally-run groundwater conservation districts, many of which don’t collect information on fracking-related water use. There is nothing in state law requiring that the industry report the source of its water.
  • Nonetheless, Nicot is able to estimate that the Barnett Shale play relies roughly half on groundwater and half on surface water.
  • Most of the groundwater comes from the Trinity Aquifer, one of the most depleted in the state.
  • The potential for recycling in the Barnett Shale is much greater than in the Eagle Ford Shale or other shale plays. In many Barnett Shale wells, more water comes back to the surface than is injected in the fracking process. Such abundant “produced water” can be recycled or reused.

For now it appears to be business as usual, despite the hype about recycling and reuse.

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick

Even as the religious right has slipped into a state of unplanned obsolescence on gay rights, marijuana legalization and other culture-war issues, it’s doing better than ever on the abortion front. Yes, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. And anti-abortion activists—increasingly dominated by absolutists—are unlikely to rest until the U.S. Supreme Court guts Roe. Meanwhile, at the state level, the movement is notching a string of impressive victories in legislatures across the country. In all, 24 states enacted 52 anti-abortion measures in 2013, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute—a figure that’s likely to grow as new measures force clinics to close.

Of course, most Observer readers are familiar with the explosive fight this summer over sweeping anti-abortion legislation at the Texas Legislature. It was a thing to behold: a stirring of the pot the likes of which hasn’t been seen in left-leaning Texas politics for a long time. The Wendy Davis filibuster. The unruly mob. The orange shirts versus the blue shirts. Cecile Richards. David Dewhurst. If you were there, you saw a remarkable event. But the pro-choice side lost. House Bill 2, Texas’ anti-abortion law, is now in effect, though the legal challenge to the law will likely land at the Supreme Court. Since then, as many as one-third of all abortion clinics in Texas have closed and abortions after 20 weeks have been banned.

During the abortion debate in Austin, proponents of HB 2 were all singing from the same hymnal. The legislation was all about “the health and safety of the mother,” they repeated to the point of tedium.

Occasionally, legislators backing the bill would veer off the attorney-engineered talking points regarding ambulatory surgical center standards and the finer points of administering abortion-inducing drugs. In those moments, the facade of this being a “policy debate” would crumble, and we’d see it for what it was: a struggle over fundamentally different value systems.

For example, as the House kicked off a floor debate, bill author and Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg propped a pair of baby shoes on the dais.

But this debate was about more than just abortion. The legislation was based on far-right religious dogma. You could see the connections if you were looking for them. At a rally outside the Capitol in early July, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, preached that HB 2 was a battle “between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.”

Lawmakers, for the most part, kept the God talk under wraps, perhaps mindful that the courts might have a problem with Jeremiah 1:5 as the basis for messing with a constitutional right.

But it’s been trickling out ever since. State Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s forever finding new ways to drive nails into his soft palms, was the first. On the night HB 2 cleared the Texas Senate, he gave a speech in which he asked (and answered) the question, “How would God vote tonight if he were here?”

Then, in January, the evangelical World magazine detailed the depths of the religious fervor around HB 2. “I was on the side of life and the other side was death,” Laubenberg, the bill’s author, told World. “It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.” Her colleague Rep. Jonathan Stickland—last seen mugging in his Capitol office for The New York Times, a firearm strapped to his girth—took it a step further. “There were times when I thought, ‘There are probably demons in this room.’”

If you believe your bill is God’s will; if you literally demonize your opponents; if you think God keeps a voting scorecard … where does this leave our politics? The left has its fools and demagogues, to be sure, but secular politics does not make its enemies into Beelzebub.

Theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr argued that one of the reasons for separation of church and state is that if a religion is good, then the state ought not to interfere with it, and if a religion is bad, then it ought not to interfere with the state. And he defined a “bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.”

Stickland, Laubenberg and Patrick are not the high priests of the Texas GOP. But their agenda, dangerously entangled in fundamentalism, is now the gospel of the state. God save us.

Waste Control Specialists site
Waste Control Specialists
WCS site

Even as a low-level radioactive waste dump grows in West Texas, lawmakers are pondering the possibility of making Texas the home to at least some of the nation’s immense stockpile of “high-level” radioactive waste. Speaker of the House Joe Straus charged the House Committee on Environmental Regulation with studying “the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas” and to make recommendations on how to permit a disposal or “interim storage facility.” Currently, the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have nowhere to send their spent fuel rods, after Nevada’s controversial Yucca Mountain site was scuttled.

Environmentalists reacted to Straus’ directive with palpable anger.

“It’s idiotic to even consider disposing of high-level radioactive waste in Texas,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “Other states have rejected having high-level radioactive waste dumped on them. Texas shouldn’t even be talking about the possibility. It’s all risk and very little reward for Texans.”

It was not immediately clear if Straus has Waste Control Specialists’ dump site near Andrews, Texas, in mind or a different project. Notably, an Austin-based company is pursuing a plan to store high-level waste near Big Spring. Owned by Dallas GOP billionaire Harold Simmons, who died last year, Waste Control has long angled to become the nation’s one-stop site for radioactive and hazardous waste. Lubricated with Simmons’ political donations and high-powered lobbyists, the state of Texas has generally allowed Waste Control to keep expanding the dump, despite concerns that it lies perilously close to water tables.

But the company has been mum about plans, if any, for high-level waste. An email to company spokesman Chuck McDonald was not immediately returned.

However, an email obtained by the Observer shows that Waste Control has its eyes on new streams of radioactive waste currently banned by the state.

In October, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staffer wrote to her superior, Bobby Janecka, that “WCS is presenting that they are going to request to dispose of greater than class c [radioactive waste]. … They are also saying they expect us to approve [depleted uranium] may 2014.”

(Notably, Janecka was chief of staff to state Rep. Tryon Lewis, the Republican who represents Andrews and has authored legislation that benefits Waste Control.)

Generally, low-level radioactive wastes are classified as Class A, B or C, with “C” being the most radioactive and long-lived. “Greater than Class C” waste is another grouping, encompassing the most dangerous of so-called low-level radioactive waste.

Depleted uranium is being generated in large quantities at a uranium enrichment plant next door to the Waste Control dump in Eunice, New Mexico. Both depleted uranium and Greater than Class C fall into a regulatory gray area between “low-level” and “high-level” radioactive waste. It appears that the interim charge is probably referring to spent nuclear fuel rods—the stuff once slated for Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The interim study charge could also apply to another proposed radioactive waste facility, one that’s been flying under the radar for some time. Austin-based AFCI Texas has been in talks with local, state and federal officials about building an “interim” storage facility near Big Spring for spent nuclear fuel. AFCI is co-owned by Bill Jones, a Rick Perry ally who serves on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department board.

Reached by phone today, AFCI co-owner Monty Humble, said he was surprised by the interim charge.

“It’s ironic you’re asking because I’m trying to figure out where the heck it came from too,” Humble said. “I’ll be truthful and say we’re intensely interested in the question but I have no idea where that charge came from.”

Humble said the interim charge is “broader” than what they’ve been proposing. AFCI said it’s only looking at storing high-level radioactive waste, not burying or disposing of it, though he wouldn’t rule that out either.

Glenn Hegar
Glenn Hegar

While Rep. Steve “Where (and What) in the World is He?” Stockman was on his magical mystery tour, we had lots of folks working overtime to fill the WTF deficit. This was truly a week for the WTF books. Let’s get to it.

The first televised lieutenant governor’s debate alone brought us a veritable avalanche of red meat, as the four men gathered at the far right end of the political spectrum. Keep Marlise Muñoz on life support! Teach creationism in schools! Ban all abortions!

As usual, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) found a way to best his opponents in the vainglorious rhetoric department. Asked about teaching creationism in public schools, he insulted the intelligence of the kiddos:

“Our children must really be confused. We want them to go to school on Sunday and we teach them about Jesus Christ and then they go to school on Monday—they can’t pray, they can’t learn about creationism. They must really be confused.”

“When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.”

And after endorsing campus carry and open carry, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson finally found a limit to his Second Amendment enthusiasm:

“The one venue that I believe maybe handguns shouldn’t be there—although it kinda enhances the quality of the service—is a bar.”

The Lady was certainly shooting from the hip again this week. On her entertaining Facebook page, State Board of Education candidate Lady Theresa Thombs opined on evolution.

“To believe in evolution is a larger fairy tale. Darwin admitted his science was a mistake. If evolution were true, why is it with the vast amount of knowledge we have acquired through science, we have not evolved into a different species?”

Also: If dolphins are so smart, then how come they’re stuck in the ocean?

And it would be an odd week if a Texas congressman didn’t say or do something crazy. And what better time to thumb a tweet than during the State of the Union.  U.S. Congressman Randy Weber is keepin’ it real in Ron Paul’s old district. Just an hour before the State of the Union, Weber warmed his Twitter followers up with some hardcore Obama-bashing, punning that would make O. Henry turn in his grave (“a line” … “A-Lying”) and some unintentionally hilarious misspellings.

Finally, state Sen. Glenn Hegar is running for comptroller—the statewide office that deals with budgets, taxes and revenue projections. But credit to Hegar for finding a way to tape himself firing a fully-automatic weapon because… Well, the name of the video is “Freedom.”

Four candidates for lt. gov.
Four candidates for lt. gov.

One of the afflictions of the politics beat is that conflict is coveted and covered, even when the story is about consensus. Reporters naturally gravitate toward (and try to create) disagreements among candidates and parties. “Fight! Fight! Fight” is the mantra. That’s not a bad instinct, but what happens when all the candidates agree on something—and that something is extreme?

We have a lieutenant governor’s race on the GOP side in which the four candidates agree on certain things that not so long ago were confined to the political fringe. They are even now not mainstream beliefs (defined roughly as beliefs held by a majority or large plurality of the public) but have become rapidly de rigueur in Republican primaries. To wit:

At a televised debate this week, all four candidates (David Dewhurst, Dan Patrick, Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples) agreed that abortions should be banned even in cases of rape or incest. It was not clear if any of them would make exceptions even for the life of the mother.

Journalist Peggy Fikac asked each of them, “Do you believe that a woman should be able to choose abortion in cases of rape and incest?” and then later followed up to make sure she had a clear answer.

TODD STAPLES: “I believe that abortion should never be used as a form of birth control.”

“In extreme cases where a mother’s life is in danger then you can have a conversation about that circumstance. But as a matter of law we need to promote life.”

DAVID DEWHURST: “I believe strongly that the life of the mother has to be protected. That’s why if there’s a question about the life of the mother, I’m supportive.”

(He later made clear that he opposes exceptions for rape and incest.)

JERRY PATTERSON: “My answer is that either it is life or it’s not. To say that we have an unborn child that is the result of a rape and somehow that’s less life-y, life-like or inferior to the life that was through a natural, non-catastrophic event like that doesn’t make any sense… I do not support exceptions for rape or incest.”

DAN PATRICK: “The only exception—the only exception—would be if the life of the mother is truly endangered for that doctor and that family to make that decision of the mother and the baby. … In those rare circumstances where the life of the mother is on the line, most mothers say let my baby live.”

In other words, the likely next lieutenant governor of Texas has staked out the most extreme position possible on abortion. And notably, it’s not one shared by very many people, including Republicans. As Jim Henson and Joshua Blank with the Texas Tribune noted yesterday, “only 16 percent of Republicans (compared to 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted.”

In that Texas Tribune/UT poll, 37 percent of Texas Republicans thought abortion should either be “generally legal” or “always legal”—a group twice the size that of the absolutist position. And 41 percent took the position that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape, incest or when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. Any way you slice the data, the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor are a minority of a minority of a minority.

To prove their bona fides, all four men also took the position that Marlise Muñoz—the brain-dead pregnant Fort Worth woman who was kept on life support against her family’s wishes—should’ve been kept alive as an incubator for her 14-week-old fetus.

And their extreme positions weren’t limited to abortion. All four men have said that creationism, which has been thoroughly discredited in the courts and certainly in the sciences, should be taught in school. Their only point of disagreement was how it should be taught.

TODD STAPLES: “I believe that creationism can be taught in our public schools in social studies if it violates what the courts have said as a science because it is something that most Texans believe in.”

DAVID DEWHURST: “I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design and evolution. And then let the students… decide for themselves which one of the three they believe in.”

Dewhurst apparently makes a distinction between creationism and intelligent design, though the courts have seen through that ruse, agreeing that intelligent design is little more than creationism by another name.

Dan Patrick went even further, inveighing against the separation of church and state and leaving out altogether the usual canards about teaching creationism alongside evolution.

PATRICK: “Our children must really be confused. We want them to go to school on Sunday and we teach them about Jesus Christ and then they go to school on Monday—they can’t pray they can’t learn about creationism. They must really be confused.”

“When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.”

Jerry Patterson was the least retrograde, holding open the possibility that creationism should perhaps be taught in a comparative religion class. But he balanced that out by staking out the most far-right position possible on guns. Asked if there should be any restrictions of any kind, Patterson said, “The one venue that I believe maybe handguns shouldn’t be there—although it kinda enhances the quality of the service—is a bar.”

To alter Barry Goldwater’s words, “Extremism in the defense of winning is no vice.”

After the warmest year on record for Texas, 2012, and the third-warmest year, 2011, last year provided a brief respite from the heat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas saw near-normal temperatures in 2013. The average temperature for the year was 65.1 Fahrenheit, or 0.1 F warmer than normal.

So has global warming stopped? Not at all. Year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are expected due to natural variability in the climate system, especially at a regional level, said Andrew Dressler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M.

“One year (or even a decade) doesn’t tell you much,” he wrote in an email. “Look at the last 30 years and it’s pretty clear what’s happening.”

The period from 2009 to 2013 was the warmest five-year stretch ever on record for Texas, according to Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Five-year rolling average of temperatures, Texas, 1895-2013
Victor Murphy, National Weather Service
Five-year rolling average of temperatures, Texas, 1895-2013

And of course it’s called *global* warming, not what happened at my house last week, as Ted Cruz and Barry Smitherman seem to believe.

Although the U.S. endured some bitterly cold weather in December, globally it was actually the third-warmest December on record.

december 2013 global temps

And 2013 was hardly a cool year overall for the United States and the planet.

In the continental U.S., the average temperature of 52.4 F was 0.3 F above the 20th century average and was tied with 1980 as the 37th warmest year, out of a 119-year record.

Globally, 2013 tied with 2003 as the 4th warmest year, according to NOAA. (Seventh according to NASA, which takes a slightly different approach.) It was the 37th consecutive year with temperatures above the 20th century average.

1 3 4 5 6 7 45