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Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Energy companies have been injecting diesel underground during fracking operations—without permits to do so—in a dozen states including Texas, according to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. The report, released Wednesday, found that between February 2010 and July 2014, nearly 13,000 gallons of diesel were injected underground in Texas alone. During that period, the study found that 33 companies injected diesel into 351 wells across the U.S.—but because the study relies on self-reported data in the chemical disclosure registry FracFocus, the actual total could be much higher.

The Environmental Protection Agency once had the power to regulate fracking fluids injected into the ground. But in 2005 Congress stripped the agency of nearly all of that authority, in what came to be known as the Halliburton Loophole—only diesel injection remained under EPA’s permitting authority. Diesel contains various known carcinogens, including benzene, that easily seep into groundwater, where they can threaten drinking supplies.

“[The EPA] may not be able to make the majority of wells safer, but they can do it with diesel and they should,” says the report’s author, former EPA enforcement attorney Mary Greene. “It’s not clear to me why they’re not.”

The report casts doubt on repeated assurances from industry players that diesel hasn’t been used in fracking in many years, at a time when the media and academics are challenging other industry talking points. For example, oil and gas companies have insisted that their operations don’t threaten water supplies. But last month, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said that oil and gas activity had, in fact, damaged water supplies in the state at least 209 times since the end of 2007. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most fracking activity in the country.

In January the Associated Press investigated oil and gas-related contamination complaints in four states including Texas. It found confirmed cases of water contamination in three states, including Pennsylvania, but none in Texas. At the time, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye told the AP the agency hadn’t confirmed any cases of drilling-related contamination in the past decade. The regulatory agency reiterated that point yesterday in response to the new report. Greene, the report’s author, says her review only looked at diesel use, not the possibility of water contamination.

Of the 351 wells mentioned in the report, only 27 are in Texas, but the highest volume of diesel was injected here. The Environmental Integrity Project confirmed that at least 12,808 gallons of diesel were injected in Texas, mostly in counties sitting atop the Eagle Ford Shale.

Because companies control what they submit to FracFocus, and can claim any fracking fluid is a “trade secret” exempt from disclosure, Greene believes the use of diesel is much more common. Her review also found that many operators, after initially reporting diesel use to FracFocus, removed it from their disclosure list after the EPA reaffirmed its ban on diesel; companies can alter their disclosures at any time without noting the change.

Hours after the report was released, the industry news outlet Energy in Depth posted an article calling the research flawed and claiming, among other things, that energy companies removed diesel from their disclosures because of errors in their original submissions. The article mentions one company that said it had listed diesel due to a typo. The article also notes the number of wells cited in the report is a small fraction of the gas wells in the country.

“It only takes a small amount of benzene and some of these other chemicals that are in diesel to contaminate a whole lot of groundwater,” Greene says in response. “And it only takes a very small amount of these chemicals to cause significant health damage in people including increased risk of cancer. You take that coupled with the fact that the wells I uncovered in this report are not the entire universe of wells fracked with diesel out there … this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott gave the media a great gift this summer when he opened his mouth—and then quickly attempted to shut it—about his ruling on how much information companies that handle hazardous chemicals have to share with the public.

On May 22, Abbott ruled that the general public has no right to Tier II chemical inventories, which could be “likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon.” In July, responding to a growing outcry about the ruling, which seemed to contradict federal “right to know” laws, Abbott backpedaled, sort of, telling reporters that any Texan “can go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, ‘Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility,’ and you are entitled to get that information within 10 days.”

How would folks know where those facilities might be? “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott said.

The problem with suggesting that folks “drive around” poking their noses into the dealings of chemical companies and fertilizer manufacturers is that, well, folks are probably going to do it. Especially if they get to bring a camera crew along. Abbott inadvertently issued the open invitation of every TV news producer’s dreams: confrontation with corporate baddies, film at 11.  

Indeed, Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA has been on the story since reporters there broke the news of Abbott’s ruling in June, having asked the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) about Tier II chemicals housed at a storage facility in Athens that caught fire in late May. DSHS responded that it could make those inventories available only to first responders and emergency officials, per Abbott’s May 22 ruling.

Just our trusty AG doing his part to fight the terrorisms.

The Dallas Morning News followed up in July, suggesting an alternative to the AG’s bomb-thwarting reasoning: Perhaps the ruling had more to do with a $25,000 contribution to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign from the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division—a first-time contribution delivered five months after the West fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 more in April 2013.

We don’t know for sure whether terrorists could use information about Tier II chemicals to make explosives. What we do know for certain is that Texas facilities where Tier II chemicals are stored—and where they are under-regulated, which more or less means “in Texas”—pose a significant and demonstrated threat to public safety.

Without chemical inventories in hand, the public—and the media, acting as the public’s advocate—have no means by which to hold corporate entities and government agencies accountable for harm done. And history shows that harm will inevitably be done.

But in this case, knowledge alone isn’t necessarily power. Without a robust regulatory system, Texans can do little more than try to steer their families, schools, nursing homes, businesses and hospitals clear of these potential powder kegs—if they have the means to do so. For folks who cannot afford to move out of the line of fire or who lack the political or financial capital to lobby decision-makers for change—say, by making $25,000 donations to candidates—there may be little to do besides pray that the local fertilizer plant keeps a lid on it, as it were.

The media must and should be empowered to act as watchdog on behalf of those whose concerns would otherwise go ignored by the powers that be, and perhaps more important, by the powers that fund the powers that be. You could say Abbott’s ruling has backfired, leading more Texans than ever to get interested in the goings-on at their local chemical storehouse. 

But while WFAA’s reporting on the availability of Tier II chemical information has certainly been dogged, and makes compelling TV for those of us who are able to work through the second-hand embarrassment that comes from watching grown adults wilt in front of television reporters, it’s not particularly useful for those members of the public who need results more than ratings.

The best practical reporting on the Abbott/chemical kerfuffle has come from the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau reporter, Lauren McGaughy, who dryly detailed, in just a few hundred words, the outright rigmarole that Texans must now go through to obtain Tier II reports directly from chemical facilities—after, that is, they’ve driven around and found them. 

Road trip, anyone?  

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Rick Perry at Swift Camp
Gov. Perry surveys the GOP terrain.

As part of his continuing get-tough-on-the-border campaign, Gov. Rick Perry addressed several dozen National Guard soldiers today in a sweltering hangar at the Camp Swift training facility near Bastrop. While he provided little in the way of information on his deployment of troops to the Rio Grande Valley, he did provide some striking visuals for his presidential bid.

The press had been invited to attend presumably to learn more about Perry’s deployment of the National Guard to the border. But as we all stood fanning ourselves in a metal hangar in mid-August, the only new piece of information we gleaned was that 2,200 guardsmen have volunteered for the deployment and will be sent in rotation—1,000 soldiers at a time. There was no talk about rules of engagement, or what exactly the troops will be doing, or how long they will be on the border. When asked when they might be deployed, Perry said he didn’t want to tip the cartels off.

We did learn about the federal government’s inability to secure the border and how the good people of Iowa and South Carolina, not just Texas, are scarred by illegal immigration. Incidentally Iowa and South Carolina are key presidential primary states that Perry has been barnstorming in the past few weeks, always a few steps behind the competition Sen. Ted Cruz.

Lately, Perry’s been enjoying a political boost from the “border crisis” and it’s no secret he’s considering a 2016 presidential bid. Since he announced last month that he’d send 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border, the governor has received standing ovations from some GOP voters. Never mind that the influx of Central American children and families, which constitute the recent “border crisis,” are mostly presenting themselves to immigration officials and asking for asylum.

It was clear Wednesday that Perry—with such a bump in the polls—couldn’t pass up another photo op with the National Guard. And even better, have it in a controlled setting on a military facility in Bastrop far from the border where he might face protesters who don’t want their communities turned into a war zone.

What Perry wanted the press to know today is that he’s protecting the nation from the “tentacles” of “narco terrorists.” The cost to Texas taxpayers isn’t an issue, he said, “because Texans support a secure border.” In a not-so-curious stroke of timing, Perry also released a web ad last week, paid for by his new RickPAC. The ad is all about border security and features numerous talking heads from Fox News, making Perry look like the last line of defense from the horde of brown invaders from south of the border.

After the press conference, the media were herded on to buses and taken to a firing range to watch Gov. Perry look through the viewfinder of what appeared to be a large box draped in camouflage. We were told by a National Guard public information officer that the contraption provides “specialized training for enhanced optics.” It was the only glimpse we were allowed into what the soldiers will be doing on the border. Regardless, the “border crisis” has provided plenty of “enhanced optics” for Perry’s presidential ambitions.

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Jane Nelson Takes the Gavel

At Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, few policy details—but a preview of a potentially rocky road next session.
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) at Wednesday's press conference discuss SB 7 and 8.
Beth Cortez-Neveal
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

These days, we like our politicians to act and talk like us, and the Texas Senate is no exception. Long gone is the time that booze-soaked good ol’ boys hammered out legislation under the watchful eyes of Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. In recent years, the chamber’s relied to a large degree on independent dealmakers, figures like Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan, to take on the heavy legislative lifting. But that job has been getting tougher—Williams, the chair of the all-important Senate Finance Committee last session, had a hell of a time getting an important transportation funding package though the Lege, and he needed a special session to do it.

But Williams and Duncan will be gone next session, and the Senate appears to be otherwise lean on statespeople. There’s a decidedly populist mood in the air, which is a polite way of saying that there’s a few more cranks. New recruits like Don Huffines and Bob Hall, who beat dealmaker incumbents in the Republican primary, cast themselves not as small-r republicans but as champions for the voters—or rather, the minute number of people who voted in the GOP primary. And those are not people who are amenable to compromise.

Still, a budget must, by law, be drafted, and someone must take on the unenviable task of dragging it through the gauntlet. Enter state Sen. Jane Nelson, (R-Flower Mound), the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed her, but she’ll likely keep the post if Patrick takes over. She’ll be one of the Legislature’s most powerful people next session, and Tuesday afternoon provided her the opportunity for a coming-out party of sorts—the first meeting of her committee. She began it with a quick selfie.

Nelson’s rise to power—like the rise of Patrick and others—is more than a little remarkable given her origins. A socially conservative member of the State Board of Education at the beginning of the ’90s, she won a Senate seat in 1993. Her biggest legislative brawl that year was a fight over retaining the state’s ban on sodomy. It had already been ruled unconstitutional in Texas courts, and state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) argued passionately for stripping it out of the state’s criminal code. Nelson fought it tooth and nail. She introduced an amendment to keep the ban on gay sex. “I’m not interested in having a politically correct penal code,” she said. She lost the fight over the amendment 16-12, but her side ultimately won that year. (The sodomy ban is still on the books in 2014.)

For the next decade, her name doesn’t pop up much in coverage of the Legislature. She supported a ban on human cloning, and wanted the state to divest from companies that produce violent or explicit music. But time served is king in the Senate, and she ultimately took on the mantle of senior stateswoman. As the long-serving chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, she’s been the Senate’s ringleader for health system overhauls, although she thinks the women’s healthcare system is doing just fine. Next session, her hands will be on everybody’s purse strings.

If you watched the hearing yesterday for clues about the Lege’s priorities next session, you wouldn’t have come away with much. Representatives from the comptroller’s office and the Legislative Budget Board came to give testimony about Texas’ fiscal circumstances. Dan Patrick, who could be running the Senate come January, frequently conferred with his deputy, state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), but otherwise mostly kept mum. More than half of next year’s Senate class was in attendance, including Huffines and Hall, who sat in the audience to watch.

Next session’s budget battles are unlikely to look like those of the last few sessions. For one thing, the state will have a lot of money to play with next year. The economy is humming relatively smoothly. Oil revenues are skyrocketing. Which leads to a big question: Will the Legislature invest the surplus into roads, schools and services, or will it use the money to lower taxes or alter the way the state finances itself?

Here’s another question: How well are next year’s senators, with more freshmen and more ideological firebrands, prepared to do the dirty work of hammering out a budget? Here’s a slide the Legislative Budget Board prepared for senators on the shape of the budget process—information that will no doubt come in handy for the Senate’s new outsider-politicians:

It all makes sense now.
Legislative Budget Board
It all makes sense now.

To supplement the slideshow, the budget board prepared a thick compendium of information on the state budgeting and finance. Nelson, in her down-home, charming manner, loved it. She recommended it heartily to her fellow legislators. She took it on vacation with her, and read the whole thing. And it’s great bedtime reading, she added, because it puts you right to sleep. The 2015 session will probably not be so soporific.

Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.
Patrick Michels
Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.

The New York Times‘ sports section on Sunday featured a long look at Prime Prep Academy, the Deion Sanders-backed basketball powerhouse, reality TV backdrop, academic nightmare and administrative soap opera that also happens to be a publicly funded charter school licensed by the great state of Texas.

Licensed for now, anyway—the state’s working on that.

The Times‘ Michael Powell offers a blow-by-blow account of Prime Prep’s troubled first two years, much of which will be familiar to folks in Dallas, where the media has rightly made great sport of the school’s foibles. (WFAA reporter and human tackling dummy Brett Shipp is probably staking out the football field from an unmarked van right now.)

But see all the trouble strung together into a single narrative—after trying to fire Sanders, the school director walks out to find her rear windshield smashed; parents sell pizza to students in the cafeteria while phantom school lunches (billed to the USDA) never get served—and you wonder why any parent, so empowered by school choice, would ever choose Prime Prep.

In fact, Powell says, enrollment is up.

The reason is Deion—the man who sweet-talked state officials, lured parents and coaches, promised athletes exposure to top recruiters, and then bridled at the suggestion that his was more properly a supporting role.

It’s a little embarrassing that this school ever opened. Powell writes:

Prime Prep was conceived in celebrity, its charter proposal offering a near satirical turn on edu-speak. The proposal mentioned “our training methods” and a “Leadership Studies Curriculum” without explaining the nature of that special sauce. Students, the proposal noted, would “model traits” such as “responsibility” and “courage.” Students would “become self-actualized.”

Yes, well.

A similar hunch—though you’d never read it in the Times, one might best call it the bullshit alarm—is what prompted the first of a couple pieces I wrote about Prime Prep’s early days. It turned out some of the language in its application was probably plagiarized—it was identical to passages on websites for a suburban Dallas private school and a charter school in Idaho. For evidence of the school’s strong financial prospects, the application promised $186,000 in grants already secured from Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network, among others. I called around, and it turned out that had been news to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network.

The secondary headline on the Times‘ story said that Sanders’ school has “come under scrutiny.” But “under scrutiny” is where this school has been for nearly three years. Leslie Minora, then with the Dallas Observer, uncovered a bizarre real estate deal behind Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus, and accusations that they’d poached another school’s basketball coach and star players threatened to keep Prime Prep out of competition. Through all the trouble and bad press, Sanders always found a way forward. Writes Powell:

We’re accustomed to living in the shadow of the rotten tree that is major college sports. It’s almost refreshing that so many college administrators and coaches have dropped the pretense that recruits are more than underpaid young men and women in shorts, jerseys or shoulder pads.

[...]

Prime Prep offers baroque twists on this American sports tale. It features celebrity culture run amok and shoddy oversight of a charter school.

Over the weekend, Al Jazeera‘s “America Tonight” also took a long look at Prime Prep’s history, and suggested at least a more charitable purpose behind the school: Sanders’ “vision to marry tuition-free academics for underprivileged youths with big-time high school athletics.” But students and parents they interviewed, speaking anonymously, felt cheated by that promise, even if they did get to meet Snoop Dogg and Johnny Manziel:

“There were nights I cried myself to sleep,” [one student] said. “I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do — it sucked.”

If you’re going to explain the problems with Texas’ old system for approving new charter schools—with a majority vote from the elected State Board of Education—Prime Prep would be Exhibit A. (Beaumont Republican David Bradley called Sanders’ team “first class,” and their pitch “flawless.”) As of last fall, we have a new system: charters are vetted by the state’s professional regulators, then the state board can veto any of their picks. It’s not free from the prospect of political influence, but it’s harder for a terrible applicant to sneak through.

Years later, Prime Prep is once again an instructive example as the state tests its powers to shut charters down.

Last month, state regulators announced plans to revoke Prime Prep’s charter, most of all because the school lost its eligibility for the federal school lunch program. (Which is what happens when you take $45,000 in federal money for meals you can’t prove you served.)

For now, Prime Prep is in the midst of a lengthy appeals process, during which the school can stay open and keep taking state money. And while the state has investigated the school for much more, the letter announcing its charter revocation only mentions the trouble with the meal program. Sanders has said he’ll pay the school’s lunch bill to get Prime Prep back in the feds’ good graces; its new superintendent, former Dallas ISD trustee Ron Price, says the school is doing just fine under its new management. Call the Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus today, and the word is that classes will resume as scheduled on August 25.

It’s tempting to read Sunday’s Times story as Prime Prep’s obituary. Maybe that’s what it’ll be. But Sanders’ school has faced long odds for survival before, and come away with an upset every time.

 

Correction on August 25: The Times writer’s name, Michael Powell, has been corrected throughout the story.

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert talking. Gonna be a good week.

Dear ones, we have a problem. WTF Friday is in a rut. Every week, we set out to bring you the best in absurdity from this state we all love and/or are stuck with, and every week, we fall back on the usual suspects: Rick Perry; Ted Cruz; the border crisis. When short on material, one has but to ask, “Did Louie Gohmert open his mouth this week?” If yes, you’re in business.

That said, there are things you can’t ignore. So let’s mix it up. Sure, we all know Texas is full of problems to be solved and people who deserve better, but there’s more to Texas than that. Did you know that Texas allows the keeping of raccoons as pets? It does. Colorado doesn’t. California doesn’t. Even Alabama doesn’t. But Texas does. That’s worth something.

Keep that in mind as you ponder this week’s WTF.

1) Perry Part One. On Sunday, still-Gov. Rick Perry told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the deployment of the 1,000 National Guard troops to the border isn’t to fight migrant children but because “countries that have substantial terrorist ties, whether it’s Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria—we have historic record highs of individuals being apprehended from those countries.”

[covers the mic] (Do we even have to fact-check that? I mean, does that even deserve a response? … President? Again? Okay, fine.)

PolitiFact rated that claim “Pants on Fire.”

2) Here’s a raccoon doing somersaults.

3) Perry Part Two. The squinting statesman also said some awesome stuff in a National Journal story this week. From the “Not At All Defensive—Why Do You Ask?” Files, author Michelle Cottle notes Perry spent “a generous 15 minutes or more walking me through his ophthalmological history” in response to her question about his famous new frames. When she met him in South Carolina, he’d forgotten them in Austin. “Shortly after our conversation, an aide was dispatched to a North Charleston shopping mall to procure an identical replacement from a one-hour optical shop,” Cottle writes.

Then he smells a woman’s boot. A woman he meets in South Carolina says she’s wearing some uncomfortably stiff new cowboy boots made from a gator she shot and “next thing you know, one of Pam’s boots is off her foot and in the governor’s hands,” Cottle writes. “Perry flexes the sole, then sticks his face down inside the shiny black footwear and inhales deeply. ‘I just love the smell of new leather!’ he announces happily. He pauses, looks over at me, and asks, ‘This is going to wind up in your piece, isn’t it? “He likes to sniff women’s shoes!”’”

Yes. Yes it is.

4) Here’s a raccoon watching TV.

3) Ted Cruz. After having derailed the American political process with pizza, the junior senator had a quiet week. The most notable Cruz quote came from the Ghost of Cruzes Past, who three years ago primed a crowd for Gov. Perry at the RedState.com convention by saying, “My prediction is Rick Perry will win the nomination and in November 2012 he will defeat Barack Obama.”

Oops.

Cruz and Perry are speaking again at the RedState.com gathering in Fort Worth, but as frenemies and potential 2016 rivals. Perry kicked things off this morning and Cruz closes them down tonight. I hope they wear the same red tie. So awkward!

5) Here’s a raccoon fixing a car.

6) Actual-U.S.-Congressman Louie Gohmert appeared on “The Sean Hannity Show” on Thursday and told not-kidding guest host Col. Oliver North that a Border Patrol agent told him, “[Y]ou know what the drug cartels call the homeland security in America? UPS. We’re their logistics. They get people to the border and then Homeland Security is their logistics to get their package to wherever they wanted it to go.” I have no idea what that means, but my favorite thing about it is that Breitbart.com wrote it up as “Rep. Louie Gohmert reported” [italics mine.] Because that’s what reporting is. Come on, people. Reporting is serious work undertaken by serious people who seek the truth behind all the spin and deceit and play a crucial role in a functioning democracy.

7) Here’s some baby raccoons following a little girl around.

8) Texas also continued its dysfunctional relationship with sex and gender this week. Tea party state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) claimed on Facebook that he’d just drafted a bill to bar the state of Texas from providing gender reassignment surgery to inmates. Which it doesn’t. In fact, as Lone Star Q reports, the state successfully went to federal appeals court in 2007 to keep from having to provide even hormone therapy to transgender inmates. But you can’t be too safe, I guess. Priorities.

Good for you, hon.

And 63 state legislators signed an amicus brief supporting Texas’ defense of its gay marriage ban that said allowing gay marriage “could lead to the recognition of bigamy, incest, pedophilia, and group marriage.”

It’s not that these arguments haven’t been made before, in public and by people who apparently dress and feed themselves. It’s just that an amicus brief is so public and official, part of the historical record, that you’d think they’d at least drop the “pedophilia” thing in deference to decency and common sense. But no.

Don’t despair, though, dear ones. Many gay rights advocates say a win for Texas in that case would be something of a blessing, fast-tracking the issue for the Supreme Court.

And at any rate, Perry and Cruz and Gohmert and those 63 state legislators may get the spotlight, but they aren’t the only Texans that matter. There are tens of thousands of hard-working Texans making this state incrementally better every single day. One of them is Brenda Rioja, who edits the church newspaper at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. Sacred Heart has aided more than 5,400 migrants since June and they’re not done yet, no matter what lawmakers on the state or national stage do or don’t do. “We always say, leave politics at the door,” Rioja told the National Geographic. “It’s about helping those who are right there in front of you. Imagine if we did that all around the world, how different it would be.”

Yeah.

9) Happy Friday, dear Observers. Here’s a raccoon skipping away.

Shane Dewayne Hadnot
Jasper County Sheriff's Office
Shane Dewayne Hadnot, in a booking photo from an earlier arrest.

Late last year, a Jasper physical therapist named Alfred Wright disappeared along a remote stretch of East Texas highway in between his scheduled house calls. From the start, Wright’s family was suspicious of local authorities who seemed certain his mysterious disappearance was drug-related; in an area that’s become notorious for racially fueled violence, Wright’s family and others in Jasper’s black community suspected there was more to the story.

In March, the Observer featured the story of Wright’s disappearance and the debate, which stretched from the Sabine County courthouse steps to American Idol fan blogs, over the racial implications of how Wright’s case was handled. We reported that authorities had focused their investigation on one 28-year-old Jasper man who could have sold Wright the lethal dose of cocaine later found in his body. Still, complex theories about Wright’s death—that he’d been tortured and mutilated before his death, or forced to ingest the drugs that killed him—spread and grew more intricate in part because authorities wouldn’t say anything so long as the investigation was still open.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office broke that silence at a press conference in Beaumont this morning, announcing that it had indicted that 28-year-old Jasper man, Shane Dewayne Hadnot, for two charges of drug distribution resulting in death, each of which carry a 20-year minimum prison term.

The indictment, which was just unsealed, dates to June 25, and attributes the strange circumstances of Wright’s death to a state of “excited delirium” from the cocaine, methamphetamine and Xanax later found in his system. The document is the most detailed look yet at the official investigation into Wright’s death, while one of Wright’s family members says it only suggests a further official cover-up.

According to the indictment, Hadnot admitted to both Wright’s wife Lauren and to Texas Ranger Danny Young that he’d sold cocaine to Wright on the day he went missing. According to the indictment, Hadnot “admitted that he sold half-grams of cocaine to Wright on a daily basis.” The indictment also quotes daily text messages from Wright to Hadnot beginning on October 8, 2013, to arrange the deals, coded messages like “grammy award” or—on November 7, the day Wright disappeared, “1 gino and a 20 and 3 handles.”

Wright, according to the indictment, was erratic with patients on the afternoon of his disappearance. One of Wright’s patients recalls him showing up late and complaining he was sick; another witness says they spoke to Wright in his or her driveway and “found him extremely disoriented and unable to communicate clearly” before telling Wright to leave.

Once Wright’s body was discovered in late November, the forensic evidence became another point of contention in the case. The Texas Department of Public Safety released an official autopsy that attributed Wright’s death to a drug overdose, but Lee Ann Grossberg, an independent examiner hired by Wright’s family, announced at a press conference that after examining Wright’s body, she had “a high index of suspicion this was a homicide.” That quote helped fuel suspicion that Wright hadn’t simply overdosed, despite Grossberg’s insistence that her investigation wasn’t finsihed. According to the indictment, when Grossberg released her report in May (this time without a press conference), she agreed with the state examiner that Wright’s death was an accidental overdose.

At 3 a.m. Friday morning, Wright’s sister Annilia Wright-Mosley sent an email about the Justice Department’s forthcoming announcement. “I must say I am very numb right now,” she began. “This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to [Alfred's] demise. I am so very disappointing [sic] in our justice system” which, she writes, “recruit[ed] an innocent black man to take the fall.” She says she and her family will be protesting at the federal building in Houston at 3 p.m. this afternoon.

You can read the full indictment here.

The text of Wright-Mosley’s email follows:

Greetings,

I must say I am very numb right now with the news of what my parents just informed me of that the DOJ (Malcolm Bales out of Beaumont, TX) called and said to them. This is what was stated:

On tomorrow August 8, 2014 They will be inditing a young black man by the name of Shane Hadnot (who suppose to be a drug dealer in Jasper, TX) for the death of my little brother Alfred Wright. They said he is getting charged because he sold the drugs to my brother which caused him to overdose and die. This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to his demise. I am so very disappointing in our justice system.

My brother tongue was cut out, eyes gouged out, throat slit, ear cut off, he had missing teeth, missing finger nails, signs of violence and torture (which was confirmed by the second patholigist, Dr. LeeAnn Grossberg in the beginning of the investigation. But after the DOJ got involved she later retracted her claims and became distant to our family which was very suspicious). Later in the investigation my father was finally able to reach her and she informed him that the DOJ had sent reports to her and this is what she based her findings on basically on what the DOJ said. So my mother stated to Malcolm Bales that you mean to tell me that my son slit his own throat, cut his ear off, knock teeth out of his mouth, cut his tongue out, and his response was, It was animal activity.”

This is really sad news to our family, community and to the state of Texas. In 2014 the justice system is yet covers up a HATE CRIME and MODERN DAY LYNCHINHG and recruiting an innocent black man to take the fall (who they cannot prove a connection to Shane being at the scene of the crime). I wanted you all to have this information before they come forward to release the lies and cover up of this case on tomorrow

The Wright Family is asking for your continued prayers and support! We thank you for everything youv’e done to keep the voice of justice alive for Alfred Wright.

What Is Alt Lit?

No Glykon
courtesy Trey Greer
Austin-based Internet writer No Glykon.

My first exposure to ‘“Alt Lit” was about a year ago. I was idly scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I stopped at a post, offering nothing but a link labeled make something beautiful before you are dead. Curious, I clicked the link and was delivered to a YouTube video of a gap-toothed young man running through a wet field, exuberantly extolling the beauties of life, pastiching (or parodying?) YouTube vlogs and slinging pop-culture references to Justin Bieber and Dog the Bounty Hunter. With the camera held precariously in one hand and trained tightly on himself—often at an uncomfortably intimate distance—he shouts, “Back in my grandfather’s day, they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO. We have to harness this GIFT!” YOLO, of course, is acronymized shorthand for You Only Live Once. The narrator’s name is Steve Roggenbuck, and the proclamations and exhortations that fill out the remainder of the 3:05 video are similarly affirming and equally absurd.

I felt strangely uplifted. Was this poetry? Over the next year I began to see glimpses of a similar style of expression in my social media feeds. They were barely distinguishable from the white noise of Web 2.0, but just slightly more meditated and self-consciously poetic.

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Image by Moon Temple, published at internetpoetry.tumblr.com/

I’d see a “share” of a surrealist image-poem in Impact font from a Facebook group called, “Pretending to ride a dog but not hurting it just pretending.” Someone would retweet, “hi i’m one of billions of creatures ingesting and excreting matter to perpetuate my existence on a sphere floating in space, how are you?” This Internet aesthetic seemed weird, but consistently bold. Further clicking revealed webbed connections between disparate sources. I felt as though I was seeing just the surface expressions of a sizable online community.

I’d discovered Alt Lit, but defining it proved more difficult. So I sat down with Austin-based Alt Lit author No Glykon (real name: Trey Greer) to find out more about the scene.

Waylon Cunningham: How would you explain Alt Lit to a 40-year-old from Cincinnati?

No Glykon: In probably the most simple terms, it’s Internet writing. It’s using the tools of the Internet and the figures of speech of the Internet to write. You know, like typing in all caps, typing in no caps, using misspelling and those types of figures of speech in your poetry and prose.

WC: There seems to be more to it than a merely casual copy-editing style, though.

NG: I often think that punk is analogous to Alt Lit. Poetry really never had its punk. There’s no one that ever really said, “It’s okay to write shit.” But for punk, it’s “learn three chords and you have a song.” I think Alt Lit is like that. It’s crude, it’s DIY. A bunch of people who were publishing poetry on the Internet just became friends. A lot of them are timid about even using the word Alt Lit to describe themselves, myself included. I don’t even know how big it is. Sometimes I’ll see an article in The Guardian or New York Times about some character in the scene, and I’ll be like, “Hmm, that’s weird. That guy.” In my perspective, it’s just people I’ve become friends with. And you know, I think it’s just not necessarily something solid that you can add a very strict definition to. And there’s not really somebody in the community who is putting definitions on things. There’s no [Andre] Breton who’s writing manifestos on Alt Lit. Or if there are, I don’t know who they are.

WC: What about Tao Lin?

NG: He definitely got a lot of people interested in using the language of the Internet. He just got published by Vintage, too, actually. But I think he’s sort of dissociated himself with a lot of those people. And he did that before a lot of people even described their work as Alt Lit. But it would be silly to deny Tao Lin being part of the community.

WC: Would you consider Alt Lit accessible to most people? Some have accused the scene of being opaque and ambiguously ironic.

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Image by Vincent Phillip, published at internetpoetry.tumblr.com/

NG: I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of these authors are shooting for honesty in a really confessional way. It’s accessible in that you don’t have to know anything about poetry to know what people are doing. It’s not accessible if you don’t know what the hashtag shit on Twitter or Tumblr is. If you have the mindset where you’re thinking that interfacing via social media is not a real way of interacting with people, if you’re that type of Luddite, then you’re gonna struggle to understand what is even being said. But I think that if you’re open and excited about the Internet, and it blows your mind all the time, then you’ll probably understand. I don’t think that the message or the themes that are being used are inaccessible. I think that the writing is actually very accessible.

WC: Your own writings do seem a little strange, though, don’t you think?

NG: I think my stuff in general is little vignettes. Not necessarily playing into a coherent story. But I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is indicative of the greater Alt Lit culture.

WC: What would you say is indicative of greater Alt Lit culture?

NG: I would say there are two main channels. The first type are people that are riffing off [Charles] Bukowski’s confessional-style writing. They tend to emphasize the more grotesque aspects of being a person. Lots of talking about being a piece of shit. Lots of self-loathing. The other type are people that are trying to be almost motivational speakers. Just trying to get people pumped about life. Like Steve Roggenbuck.

WC: Would you say that Texas has a large Alt Lit presence?

NG: Much more than most states, it does. I think the main saturation is in Chicago. But Alt Lit Gossip is probably the epicenter of the scene. That’s where the term is used the most. The curator of that group, Chris Dankland, lives in Houston.

WC: Has Texas had any effect on your writing?

NG: I think it’s difficult not to write from your own experiences. I live in Austin, and when I write I definitely incorporate what I hear people say and stories about my friends, stuff like that. But I think that one of the core things about Alt Lit is that it exists primarily on the Internet. It’s an Internet culture. And that’s really important to the community at large.

WC: So this is a movement not really tied to geography?

NG: Right. For example, there are plenty of people whose only means of putting writing in the world is via email. Like Peter BD, his whole thing is he sends an email to you where he writes a story about you with a bunch of weird made-up shit. And there are plenty of people who primarily write through Facebook and Tumblr.

WC: Do you think the independent publishing nature of Alt Lit gives it any advantage?

NG: It just depends on what your end goal is. If your goal is to communicate with other people, then you totally have an advantage because you can get your material out there faster and develop communications faster. If your goal is to become the poet laureate of the United States, then you’re fucked.

No Glykon recently published the sixth issue of his online Alt Lit zine, Reality Hands.

Blake Farenthold speaks at a town hall in Bastrop, Texas. August 6, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Blake Farenthold speaks at a town hall in Bastrop on Aug. 6, 2014.

August is the time for Congress to take a well-deserved vacation, which, in the unhappy world of congresspeople, means returning to their districts to be yelled at by constituents. Last year’s round of town halls were particularly bad in this regard. The House had been flirting with immigration reform, and the tea party was furious. At one town hall in Salado, Congressman John Carter, who’d been tasked by the House leadership with trying to draw up a bipartisan bill, was yelled into virtual submission by the Central Texas Tea Party.

You might expect, given recent events on the border, and the continuing malaise in Congress over immigration reform, that this year’s town halls would be just as heated. But on Wednesday night, at a town hall meeting in Bastrop held by Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi), there wasn’t much fire. Still, the meeting proved to be a strong reminder of why Congress finds itself stuck in neutral on the subject, without much chance of improvement anytime soon.

There were plenty of off-the-wall constituents, like the woman who accused Central American kids of taking advantage of an anti-human trafficking law by falsely claiming they’d been abused. (Of course, the opposite is the case—there’s plenty of evidence the government isn’t properly shielding kids who’ve shown evidence of being trafficked.) One fellow, talking about the possibility of impeachment proceedings for Obama, employed language evocative of a lynching—letting the “noose” of scandals tighten around the president’s neck. One wanted to know why we weren’t building higher walls.

An older man in a Hawaiian shirt wanted to know about the IRS and Lois Lerner. Didn’t the administration’s recent scandals point toward high crimes and misdemeanors? It had gotten to the point where even he, a free man in Bastrop, was afraid of speaking out against Obama. He offered this in the middle of his town’s city hall, to a congressman who agreed with them, then added, of liberals: “You gotta remember, half the population has an IQ of less than a hundred.”

When Carter got in trouble last year, he did so because he tried to set his constituents straight on a lot of the issues they were most angered by. That might have been the noble thing to do, but it may not have been the best idea. Farenthold doesn’t bother to engage with a lot of the talking points constituents leave at his feet—he deftly sidesteps them and talks about something more comfortable. It’s a smart thing to do, even if it may leave some of the voters with the impression that he agrees with them when he hasn’t.

“We’ve got to not be angry Republicans,” he told the crowd. Afterward, Farenthold continued to strike a moderate tone to the two reporters present. Last year, “advocates of both sides in the immigration debate were really turning up the fire, and we came out of August last year further apart than we began.”

On the prospects of immigration reform: It’s “pretty obvious that’s not going to happen in the House.” He called for the Senate to take up the bill the House recently passed, which would undo DACA—Obama’s temporary relief for young undocumented people, aka Dreamers—as well as a host of other measures. Farenthold said that politics involved negotiation, and that Harry Reid was to blame for not taking up the House bill. But the House legislation, which would expose more people to deportations, is lights-years away from the president’s proposal. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a compromise between the two.

For years, immigration reform has had a chicken-and-egg problem. Some say that the border has to be secured before anything else happens. But comprehensive immigration reform, with a guest worker program and legal status for those here illegally, would ease conditions on the border. And besides, it’s not clear that the border can ever really be “secured” to anyone’s satisfaction.

I ask Farenthold: Is demanding that border security come first a poison pill? “I think it’s exactly the opposite. What I pointed out in the town hall is that Americans feel betrayed because Reagan told them that we’d secure the border back when he did the first amnesty. He didn’t, and now we’re in the exact same boat we were in when the Reagan policy took effect.”

He adds: “Let’s get back to integrity with the American people and secure the border. And I guarantee you, the tempers will come down. This whole comprehensive immigration thing just drives me crazy.”

Farenthold says he supports guest worker programs, and wants Congress to break immigration reform into smaller bills. There are lots of things that both sides agree on. At the same time, he admitted, if Congress breaks reform up into small packages based on those areas of common consensus, “then there’s not the coalition to do something about the 11 million people not lawfully present in the United States.”

What does securing the border mean from a policy perspective? Is there a metric? Would, for example, more apprehensions along the border mean the border is getting more secure, or less secure? “The trick is coming up with a specific measurable result,” he says. Here, he seems to get closer to the truth. It’s mostly about perception.

“I’m talking in general terms about the American people believing the border is secure. I don’t know what it’s going to take to convince the American people the border is secure, but I certainly know a child and her grandmother being able to get across is not it.”

But if perception is at the root of the impasse, many Republicans aren’t helping. By taking trips on Rio Grande gunboats and emphasizing disease and crime risks, Republican politicians like Rick Perry are exacerbating the perception of insecurity.

People are coming here illegally because they can’t come here legally. They might be coming to work, or they might be coming to join family members already living here. A failure to tackle immigration reform increases the number of people forced to attempt an illegal crossing, and incentivizes human trafficking. Which, in turn, is proof to the American voters Farenthold is talking about that the border isn’t secure, and reinforces the unwillingness to tackle immigration reform. Status quo ante, ad infinitum.