Back to mobile

The Whole Star

Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."
The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, image 00097, courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."

 
The far ends of our colorful political spectrum rarely cause me much worry. I trust the armed militias reportedly roaming the U.S.-Mexico border and the convoy of flag-waving protesters from Murrieta, California that traveled to the Rio Grande Valley will keep their rightful place on the fringe of our political conversation. It’s the center that I watch closely. That’s the contentious territory where ideas and notions from dark chapters in Texas history often reappear, redefining our sense of normalcy and decency.

The migration of extreme notions into the mainstream was recently laid bare in a Newsweek cover story that described ranchers who are “hunting humans” as simply “dealing first-hand with the problems caused by the influx of undocumented immigrants.” The piece, “Hunting Humans: The Americans Taking Immigration Into Their Own Hands” was reported from Brooks County some 70 miles north of the border in South Texas, and quotes three ranchers—Michael and Linda Vickers and another who went only by “B.J.” Not apparently comfortable enough to use her full name, B.J. refers to migrants as if they were prey.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says B.J. with a grin, driving through ranch trails. Her Heckler & Koch P2000 pistol rests in the cup holder next to her right knee. She starts by looking for footprints—they are most noticeable on the sand tracks she has set up next to the trails that she smooths by dragging tires. When she sees a fresh set, she speeds through the trails, finds the migrants, chases after them until they tire out, corners them and then yells, “Pa’bajo!”—Spanish for down.

Seven years ago The Texas Observer reported, “like some other ranchers, [Michael] Vickers has installed a faucet near a windmill and painted it blue to make it easier for trespassers to find and drink from easily.”

That humanitarian provision, later described in the Newsweek article, is nonetheless part of an attitude that equates people with animals: “In any case, says Vickers, the windmills provide a water source which is safe for cattle, and therefore for migrants.”

Last year, U.S. News and World Report described Vickers’ group as “simply back-up for U.S. Border Patrol. The goal of the volunteers is not to engage with the ‘criminal trespassers,’ as they call them, but alert border patrol of their findings.” One year later, the ranchers are described as hunting migrants while laying out traps and chasing them down. Maybe these ranchers viewed the migrants not simply as trespassers but as prey all along and now they feel free to express such opinions. It’s difficult to know. But reporters who had interviewed the Vickers before told me they were alarmed at what they described as a sharp shift in rhetoric.

The press becomes complicit in ushering extreme ideas into the center when “hunting humans” is treated as acceptable behavior and counterbalanced with images of ranchers installing life-saving water barrels for migrants. It is a false balance.

Nearly 90 percent of the population in Brooks County is Latino, with five percent foreign born. Many ranches predate the U.S.-Mexico War. And when I read those quotes I’m reminded of the image of a group of Texas Rangers mounted on horseback, the ends of their rope tied around the ankles of three ‘Mexican bandits’ laying face down on the ground. Prized game. The image, captured near Brooks County a little over a century ago, was sold as a postcard and distributed widely.

Back then, the justification for hunting Mexicans was banditry and rebellion but, as history has shown, then as now, the concept of border security was woven from the dark thread of race. The Vickers were once associated with the Minutemen, the militia group described by former President George W. Bush as “vigilantes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Minutemen and the Vickers’ ‘border volunteer’ outfit as a nativist extremist group.

From the media to the political arena the racially tinged side of “security” and normalized violence has found its way into the center. On July 5, just over two weeks before the Newsweek story was published, Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a Facebook page created for GOP convention delegates included statements such as:“Americans are not breeding while ‘the bronze master races is’… We will die out and they will win.” Kennedy told me some readers complained that he had overstated the importance of Facebook comments. But the page belonged to a faction of the Texas Republican Party that had been instrumental in shaping the state GOP platform. “What I’m concerned about is a Republican Party that has become infiltrated by John Birchers and white nationalists,” he said.

Brooks County Deputy Chief "Benny" Martinez
Jen Reel
Brooks County Deputy Chief “Benny” Martinez

Gov. Rick Perry cruises the Rio Grande with Sean Hannity, posing together on gunboats. The Dallas Morning News reported U.S. Rep Sam Johnson (R-TX) provoked laughter at a groundbreaking event for defense contractor Raytheon Co. when he said: “I don’t know how people cross that river. Maybe Raytheon can figure out a new silent gun.” He then cocked his finger like a pistol. Johnson later apologized.

Lost in the headline-grabbing displays of “border security” is a discussion of whether the border  enforcers are in fact breaking the law. I reached Brooks County Deputy Chief Urbino “Benny” Martinez by telephone and read him a Newsweek tweet about the story: For a few ranchers, setting traps for migrants, chasing after them and being intimidating is a hobby.

“That shouldn’t happen, I’ll make that very clear to you right now. That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” he said, distressed. Martinez added that he intended to investigate what is happening on the ranches. “This is not a show, this is not a reality show, this is for real.”

Martinez’s reaction should offer some relief for it shows that, at least for some leaders, border security radicalism has yet to overwhelm our good sense and humanity.

Support the Texas Observer
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

Back in April, amid a growing legal battle over the responsibility of Texas hospitals to keep bad doctors from operating, Attorney General Greg Abbott took a bold stand. He sided with Baylor Health Care System in federal lawsuits filed by three plaintiffs who are former patients of the notorious Dallas spine surgeon Christopher Duntsch. The plaintiffs are arguing that Duntsch was a known drug addict and a dangerously incompetent surgeon, and Baylor should have never let him operate. (The shocking story of how Duntsch got away with maiming and killing his patients is detailed in this Observer story from last year.) Their lawsuits challenge a 2003 Texas law that grants hospitals near-total legal immunity for the mistakes of doctors they allow to operate.

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the threelawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

This is not the first time that Abbott’s political donations have been linked to his official capacities as attorney general:

Abbott authorized scores of state bond issues in which he has received more than $200,000 from the political committees of law firms serving as bond counsel.

Earlier this year, Abbott ruled that the public cannot have access to state information about the location of potentially dangerous chemicals like those that caused the 2013 explosion in West that killed 15 people. The ruling came after Abbott received $75,000 from the Koch Industries political committee and executives, including the head of the company’s fertilizer division.

Abbott has collected more than $75,000 in the governor’s race from the Farmers Insurance political committee amid criticism that a proposed settlement in a long-running lawsuit against Farmers doesn’t adequately compensate homeowners for being overcharged.

So did Drayton McLane buy Abbott’s intervention in the Baylor case with $350,000 of his own money?

Abbott and McLane say there’s no connection between the donations and the intervention of the state in the Baylor case. McLane told the Dallas Morning News that he has no financial stake in Baylor Scott & White; that his chairman position is unpaid, and that he didn’t even know about the Duntsch case before giving Abbott money.

McLane further explains: “When you look at my cumulative donations over the years, I have supported other Texas candidates, whom I believe in, similarly to how I have chosen to support General Abbott.”

But it is a lot of cash. McLane gave Rick Perry less in his entire gubernatorial career than he gave Abbott just in the last year.

Abbott may have other reasons for so aggressively siding with Baylor and Duntsch. Tort reform, the conservative movement to make it much more difficult for people to win big judgments in civil courts, has been a centerpiece of Abbott’s political career. With the 2003 omnibus tort reform bill–as well as a number of favorable Texas Supreme Court decisions that limited hospital liability to an absurd degree—the movement won big.

And now, in the suits against Christopher Duntsch and Baylor, we have several particularly egregious, media-ready cases that are directly threatening one of the outposts of the tort reform bill: hospital immunity. If this part falls, there’s no telling what falls next—that is one lesson of the staggeringly quick collapse of the civil court system in the tort reform era. So, it is a little hard to believe that the prospect of tort reform fraying around the edges motivates Greg Abbott less than $350,000 in campaign money.

Support the Texas Observer

Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.

Update 7:45am: Denton voters will decide the fate of fracking in their city come November after the City Council voted against the fracking ban this morning shortly before 3 a.m.

The Council seemed partial to the ban supporters during the hearing, which lasted eight hours, but in the end no one seconded Councilman Kevin Roden’s motion to pass the ban. The members voted 5-2 for a motion to deny passing the ban, so the initiative will now be on the November ballot. Activists had predicted their City Council would not adopt the citizen-led initiative, but the news was still disappointing and folks took to Twitter to say that industry won once again in Texas. We’ll be watching this come November, so stay tuned.

Update 12:42am: Word is there are more than 100 speakers signed up at this point, and we’ve heard from about 80 of them so far. They’re mostly Denton residents who are in favor of changing the city’s drilling ordinance to outlaw fracking; industry representatives appear to be gone for the night.

The testimony is starting to get a little repetitive and Council members are asking less questions. One man with Frack Free Denton called out several Council members, who he says promised to vote for the fracking ban if it went to Council during their respective campaigns. Councilman Greg Johnson clarified that he had promised to support the ban if that’s what Denton residents voted for, but none of the others commented. Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night.

Update 10:04pm: The night began with a string of folks opposed to passing the fracking ban in Denton, and about one-third of the speakers who were registered at the beginning of the hearing have now spoken. We’ve heard from two elected officials and a slew of industry reps, as well as some Denton residents. The City Council has surprised ban supporters by grilling industry representatives on inflated numbers regarding the economic benefits of fracking in Denton, as well as dismissing claims of easy solutions.

The Council is frustrated by the lack of inspection of natural gas wells and insufficient enforcement of regulations that are supposed to ensure companies practice “safe” fracking. At one point, Council Member Jim Engelbrecht asked an industry representative to “do a little ass-kicking” to help regulate fracking and another council member suggested Engelbrecht needed some chocolate. (He later announced he had secured the chocolate.)

Various council members have at different times throughout the night acknowledged the city’s shortcomings in creating an adequate gas drilling ordinance and protecting residents. Denton Mayor Chris Watts—who has been far more sympathetic to ban supporters than Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in a similar City Council public hearing in Dallas in December—expressed the Council’s frustration that it had “come to this.”

 

Original: The Denton City Council will consider a proposed ban on fracking tonight, after a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote. The council will likely kick the decision to voters in November, but that isn’t deterring participation in the public hearing tonight. City officials expect record crowds and have hired additional police officers as security. If the citizen-led initiative eventually passes, Denton will be the first Texas city to impose an outright ban on fracking, though Dallas and Flower Mound have imposed strict setback requirements that have effectively ended fracking in their jurisdictions.

The decision is being closely watched because of its precedent-setting potential. If a city in drilling-friendly Texas—which accounts for one-third of the country’s total natural gas production—can ban fracking, then a city in any other state can do the same. That strikes fear into the hearts of oil and gas producers and heartens environmental activists. Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale and currently has 275 active gas wells within city limits (and an additional 212 wells in its extraterritorial jurisdiction).

In anticipation of tonight’s vote, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman sent the Denton City Council a letter denouncing the ban. In the four-page letter, Smitherman suggests that Russia may be behind the effort, pointing to reports of Russia “secretly working with environmental groups in Europe.” In an editorial in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association blamed East and West Coast activists “seeking to slow responsible hydrocarbon development through fear” for the petition.

North Texas drilling-reform activist Sharon Wilson, who helped organize the petition drive, joked that she hasn’t received her check from Russia yet. She said the suggestions of outside influence are insulting to Texans.

“We’re being influenced by our direct experience of living next to fracking,” Wilson said. “The problem that is terrifying industry is that Texans know fracking better than anybody, so if we can’t live with it, nobody is going to be able to live with it.”

If Denton outlaws fracking, it’s possible that at least some of the 19 companies active in the city will sue. After Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city for more than $30 million. The case is ongoing, but opponents point to a protracted legal battle as one of many potentially negative consequences Denton could face if it adopts the ban.

According to a study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce released Monday, Denton will lose more than $250 million in economic activity as well as more than 2,000 jobs and $5.1 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years if the city outlaws fracking. The report was conducted by Waco-based Perryman Group, a firm frequently hired by business interests to make their case.

The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. As of 5:30, at least 79 people had registered to speak. The city expects that upwards of 500 people will attend, so the vote will likely take place well past midnight. We’ll be following via livestream, so stay tuned for updates.

Follow @pmozkeda for updates tonight. 

Support the Texas Observer