Political Intelligence

Chasing Immigrants, Not Polluters


Chasing Immigrants, Not Polluters CALLING ALL VIGILANTES It’s a dangerous world out there, and the nation seems besieged by potential terrorist threats: Thousands of shipping containers aren’t being inspected; transit systems are vulnerable; the war in Iraq is breeding more extremists than any superpower can handle. Not to fear, though, because U.S. Representative John Culberson (R-Houston) has just the solution to keep us safe: roving gangs of armed civilians. In late July, Culberson introduced House Resolution 3622 that would authorize armed volunteer militias to defend America’s borders against terrorists, who are now apparently coming across from Mexico disguised as Hispanics. Culberson’s Deputy Chief of Staff Tony Essalih claimed in an interview with the Observer that al-Qaeda members are crossing the U.S.-Mexican border with drug smugglers and Salvadoran gangs in increasing numbers. To combat this, the militia would be trained by local law enforcement and serve under the governor’s command. Volunteers, presumably irate landowners and police academy dropouts, would prevent illegal crossing using “whatever means or force is authorized under state law,” according to the bill, to take individuals into custody and have them delivered to federal authorities for deportation. The militia would be called the “Border Protection Corps,” which sounds like some sort of New Deal program, as re-imagined by Charles Bronson. While the volunteer militias would be armed, they would allow only those with no criminal background or mental illness to join. Don’t you feel better already? Culberson’s office is working with the Department of Homeland Security to determine exactly what the cost breakdown would be. Funding for the armed mobs would come from $6.2 billion in the department’s first responder fund reserved for emergency workers, which has gone unused for two years. Volunteers presumably would have to supply their own torches and pitchforks, though. Some aren’t so yee-haw about the idea. “We anticipate it won’t get any attention, because it’s crazy,” said Brent Wilkes, executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “From what we can tell, it’s an open invitation for armed racist amateurs to come patrol the border and detain people using any force necessary. The proponents are the same fanatics that have always wanted to keep people out. But now they are using terrorism as an excuse.” Despite the naysayers, Culberson’s office had a bright outlook on the bill’s future. “We’ve been shopping it,” Essalih said. “Sure, we’ll listen to criticisms of the bill, but we don’t plan on changing it …. All it takes is catching one terrorist to make everything worth it.” There’s no justice like angry mob justice. NIPPING AT NEPA It’s hard to overstate the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, known in policy circles as NEPA. It’s the equivalent to the Bill of Rights for environmental law. NEPA requires, in broad terms, that any federally funded or permitted project—everything from highway construction to natural gas drilling—must undergo an environmental review and public comment. Environmentalists credit NEPA with preventing or modifying countless environmentally harmful projects. Industry takes a dimmer view. The mining, logging, and construction industries have long argued that NEPA delays projects through overly burdensome bureaucracy. The U.S. House Resources Committee has spawned a taskforce to study NEPA with the goal of improving and “streamlining” the law. Since both the committee and its taskforce are stacked with conservative Republicans, environmentalists are understandably suspicious. And the taskforce’s series of less-than-public hearings have only further angered the environmental community. For its third hearing (out of six), the taskforce traveled on July 23 to Nacogdoches, a perfectly out-of-the-way town. So out of the way, in fact, that only two Congressmen from the 20-member taskforce showed up. Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who represents the area and lives nearby, and Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash.) heard testimony from eight Texans and one Alabaman, although the hearing was supposed to include representation for Louisiana and Mississippi. This invitation-only witness list wasn’t released until four days before the hearing. Those not invited to testify were relegated to supplying their public input on the taskforce’s web site, under a link entitled “Tell us your story.” The witness list made clear whose point of view the taskforce wanted to hear. The nine invited witnesses included representatives from the American Loggers Council, Texas Forest Products, Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, Texas Farm Bureau, and TXI Geologic and Mine Services. Just two of the nine witnesses were environmentalists, and none were private citizens or landowners. One of the industry reps invited to testify was Debbie Johnston, a spokeswoman for Abitibi-Consolidated’s Lufkin newsprint mill. Johnston testified that the mill closed in 2003 because of escalating energy prices, combined with a poor newsprint market. With sleight-of-hand logic, Johnston proceeded to accuse NEPA and its regulations of impeding drilling projects, which caused increased energy prices and caused the plant’s closure. “Our mill was particularly dependent on natural gas,” Johnston said in an interview with the Observer. “[NEPA] impacts the availability of natural gas [making it] difficult to drill and expand supply.” Could a 35-year-old law be responsible for a recent surge in energy prices and the closure of a paper plant in Lufkin? In reality, drilling permits are being handed out faster than steroids in Major League Baseball. Approvals of drilling permits have been at an all-time high since about 2001, according to officials at the Texas Railroad Commission and a separate report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Environmentalists say there are many factors involved in natural gas pricing, such as inclement weather, natural disasters, national and state economies, and oil prices. When the hearings are complete, the panel will make recommendations on how to alter NEPA. Given the tenor to date, it’s not hard to figure which side that report will take. UPSET OVER UPSETS Too often, industrial facilities spew tons of hazardous pollutants into Texas skies and simply label it an unpreventable “upset.” They can do this with impunity because the companies know that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is unlikely to levy a large fine against them. These are the basic findings in a new report, “Industrial Upset Pollution: Who Pays the Price?” by Public Citizen and a coalition of national and community-based environmental organizations. The report takes a close look at 20 “upset events” in the Port Arthur and Corpus Christi areas (upsets are emissions that occur outside of permitted air pollution). The study also examined the possible impact of these upsets on public health and the local economy—one of the first attempts to look at the effects of major air pollution in Texas. Using TCEQ and the EPA’s databases of emissions events, Public Citizen’s analysis seeks to demonstrate that many refineries often get away with blowing more smoke in their upsets than they do each year in their permitted pollution. For example, the report notes that during upsets the BASF FINA facility in Port Arthur emitted “3,700 percent of the hazardous air pollutants released during routine [permitted] operations in 2003.” While TCEQ will perform an investigation into major upsets such as the one at BASF FINA, the report notes that less than 1 percent of these releases resulted in penalties in 2004. Even when the company must pay a fine, the average amount is only 19 percent of the economic benefit gained from polluting, according to a study last year by the state auditor’s office. In other words, it pays to pollute. This is what the economists call a perverse incentive. Residents living close to smokestacks, usually poor people of color, have long complained of unannounced outbursts of pollution from their noxious neighbors, but have been unable to prove a link between these sudden and concentrated emissions and short- and long-term health problems such as asthma, bronchitis, elevated rates of leukemia, neurological disorders, and heart and lung disease. “This is the first report to ever draw the connection between upsets, decreased school enrollment, and an increase in the number of kids admitted to hospitals,” said Hilton Kelley, executive director of the Port Arthur-based environmental justice group Community In-Power and Development Association. Public Citizen looked at attendance rates for schools in a two-mile radius of the Valero East facility in Corpus Christi following several upsets in 2004. While noting that the “figures do not prove direct causation,” the report does indicate a possible correlation between upsets and drops in school attendance. Stephen Ligon, a manager in TCEQ’s Air and Enforcement Section, didn’t dispute the report’s basic findings but said some of the numbers may be off because of the way upsets are reported to the agency and because TCEQ is still investigating some incidents. Ligon said the agency is working on tightening the rules on upsets. He said the agency is wrapping up a series of public hearings on new proposals that will forbid upsets during routine maintenance. But Tashiica Miles of Community In-Power and Development said that the TCEQ’s proposals fall short. “What’s it going to take for TCEQ to change their rules to comply with federal law and start looking at school attendance, cancer rates, and hospital visits?” DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT Just when a national wildlife refuge is almost a reality for Caddo Lake (see “The Only Honest Lake in Texas,” July 8, 2005), Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has stepped in to muddy the waters. As reported in the Marshall Daily Messenger, Senator Kay has moved to strip away between 1,000 and 2,000 acres from the 12,000-acre refuge for an industrial park “for economic development.”

The move is in direct conflict with the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Army, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Caddo Lake Institute. It is also likely a response to intense lobbying by retired General Vernon Lewis, who has been on a jihad against the people of Uncertain, the Greater Caddo Lake Association, and especially Don Henley and Dwight Shellman of the Caddo Lake Institute ever since he was rebuffed in his efforts to became the titular spokesman for the lake. The so-called economic development is being promoted by Marshall attorney Sam Moseley and Marshall businessman Tommy Whaley, despite plenty of available space at Marshall’s own industrial park near Interstate 20. Moseley contends industrial development can co-exist with the refuge. The Greater Caddo Lake Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, and other lake residents say otherwise. In fact, an industrial park’s presence within the refuge will effectively “undermine the ecotourism investments that have been accelerating since the [wildlife refuge] became a reality,” wrote GCLA President Robby Speight, Jr. in a letter to the Senator. And ecotourism around the lake isn’t chump change. Even without the refuge, Caddo Lake’s ecotourism is the single most important factor in Harrison and Marion counties’ $60 million tourism industry, according to Speight. He also pointed out to Senator Hutchison that the industrial park promoters are “a very small group of individuals with a long history of opposing efforts to protect and conserve Caddo Lake and its wetlands.” Should the Senator continue to side with Marshall interests against the locals, she will not only screw the pooch as far as tourism on the lake goes, but will have awarded by default the bigger prize of water rights to parties who look at Caddo as just another reservoir to exploit, rather than the special place that it is. Caddo supporters wonder whether the Good Senator would site a concrete batch plant near her Turtle Creek residence in Dallas in the name of economic development? Don’t bet the manse on it. SAY IT AIN’T SO Joe After four years, Congress finally passed an energy bill in late July. In it are $9 billion in taxpayer subsidies for the oil, nuclear, and coal industries, and pork a-plenty for lawmakers. Conspicuously absent is a plan for weaning America off foreign oil and onto sustainable, renewable energy sources. Key to this transition, say environmentalists and alternative energy proponents, is a federal renewable electricity standard, which would require 10 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy sources by 2020. Although the Senate has approved such a measure three out of the past four years, including 2005, the House has punted every time thanks, in part, to the work of Texas Republican Joe Barton (R-Ennis). Barton chairs the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and his close ties to various polluters has earned him the nickname “Smokey Joe.” He has received $1.84 million in political contributions from energy companies since 1997, more than any other House member, according to the Washington Post. “It’s amazing what an enormous negative role Joe Barton has played in killing renewable energy,” said Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. “He led the opposition and in typical fashion he lined up the votes.” In late July, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) crunched the numbers on the potential economic benefit to Texas from a federal renewable electricity standard using a modified Department of Energy model. The group found that the standards would produce 19,400 new high-skilled jobs, $4.7 billion in consumer savings from reduced electricity and natural gas bills, and billions of dollars in capital investment and income for ranchers and rural landowners. Sounds like a pretty good deal for Texas, right? Barton, however, at a news conference on July 27, called opponents of his energy bill “anti-American” and from “the extreme left, which … wants us to go back to rubbing two sticks together to create a fire.” On the same day, to his credit, he did send a staffer, Ron Wright, to meet with representatives of the UCS and the SEED Coalition. Hadden said that Wright “referred to the fact that other states didn’t have the same potential as Texas and that it m
y not be fair to them [to pass renewable standards].” Wright confirmed that is one reason Barton opposes renewable energy standards. The energy bill is “a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach,” Wright told the Observer. “Should we do more wind and solar?” he asked. “Absolutely. Can we solve our energy problems with wind and solar? No. There’s only so much government can do in a global situation.” Kate Abend, energy field coordinator for UCS, says she believes the House will eventually warm up to renewables. But Barton is a major obstacle. The chairman recently launched an investigation of a climatology report that echoes what is now scientific consensus for everyone but him: Fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet. “Even if we build a base of support in the House, Barton can prevent action on [renewable standards],” Abend said. “We haven’t been too pleased with his treatment of science lately.”