Political Intelligence

Radioactive Politics

Hard Rain

Uranium Energy Corp., which has been drilling exploratory holes in Goliad County since May 2006, applied for a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last month to begin mining uranium in the area. The commission has deemed the company’s application “administratively complete,” paving the way for the next stage of the process, which includes the opportunity for public comment.

What form that public comment will take is still very much in the works-the Uranium Research and Advisory Council, a group appointed by the county commissioner’s court to investigate the issue-has scheduled a press conference for September 26 to lay out its case against the permit. But Art Dohmann, chairman of the group and president of the Goliad County Groundwater District, said he anticipates “a lot of independent action as far as public comment is concerned.”

Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, whom the county has retained to help with legal aspects of the issue, has already sent a letter requesting a contested-case hearing on the application, Dohmann said.

As president of the groundwater district, Dohmann has participated in many of the 250 or so well tests conducted so far by the organization. He said the tests have come back showing mostly potable, “very good quality water.” His concern, and that of other county residents, is: What happens once mining begins?

Adding to their concerns, the Texas Railroad Commission cited Uranium Energy in March for failing to adequately cover some 74 exploratory holes. Dohmann, however, said his group isn’t reflexively opposed.

“Our judgment is that in situ uranium mining cannot be done safely in Goliad,” Dohmann said, based on the conditions of the aquifer on which the county sits.

According to a letter mailed out on TCEQ letterhead to landowners who asked to be kept informed, Uranium Energy has applied for a “Class III Underground Injection Control Permit” to conduct in situ recovery of uranium. In situ mining employs a minimally invasive process. It is the most common technique for extracting uranium, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Harry Anthony, CEO of Uranium Energy, rejected the claim that exploration has negatively influenced wells in the area. In an August 5 opinion piece in the Victoria Advocate, he wrote that dissenters “wrongly painted today’s uranium mining methods, technology, and its effects on the community.”

One of those claiming contamination is Luann Duderstadt, who lives about a quarter-mile from an exploration area. Numerous tests of her well have come up negative for uranium or other radioactive material, but she said a thick, reddish mud has been clogging her filters and that she believes her future in Goliad County depends on her fighting Uranium Energy’s permit. “If they get their mining permit, we’re going to have to move,” she said.

cartoon of Gonzales' escape strategy

Straw Men

The Texas Republican Party held its first-ever presidential straw poll on September 1 at the Fort Worth Convention Center. There probably won’t be a second.

The straw poll had all the liveliness of a public accountants’ convention. The GOP’s normally effervescent grassroots activists seemed beaten down. Few actual candidates bothered to show. All the pundit-anointed leading GOP contenders bowed out well ahead of time. The brightest stars in the meager field of long shots to participate were Texas Congressman Ron Paul, from Clute, and San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter.

Hunter blew away the diminished field, receiving 41 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher-former senator and “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson-wasn’t even officially in the race yet, though he took the plunge a few days afterward. He received 20 percent. Paul, who had the most visible support, finished third with 16.7 percent.

Then there was Ray McKinney, a Georgia Republican who on a whim decided to run for president during his vacation time. The Texas GOP invited McKinney as a warm body to fill out the field. During his speech, he thanked delegates for “not taking this opportunity to go to the bathroom.” He received 2.2 percent. That placed him ahead of three members of Congress: Arizona Sen. John McCain, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.

The results likely will soon be forgotten-except perhaps in the McKinney household. Straw polls are nonbinding. They’re traditionally most useful as campaign PR. The Texas poll was open to delegates who had attended at least one Republican state or national convention since 2000. Only 1,300 folks turned up, though, far below the number organizers had hoped would come.

It even failed as a pep rally. The entire morning program, before any voting took place, consisted of fire-up-the-troops speeches from the Texas GOP’s top officials. But for the first time in long while, party leaders weren’t received warmly. The grassroots of the party aren’t happy.

“There is so much apathy,” said delegate Ned Watkins, a Senate district chair from Houston. “[Republicans] are angry with the governor, and they’re angry with the president.” Gov. Rick Perry’s appearance on a giant video screen was met with scattered boos and hisses.

Most delegates, when asked, said they want officials to curb immigration and cut government-two issues on which Republican officeholders have not appeased the base lately. Party leaders seem to sense the unrest. “I know it’s very easy to become dispirited when officials don’t live up to expectations,” Texas GOP Chair Tina Benkiser told delegates in her opening speech. “But we cannot lose heart.”

While the GOP activists still have time to rediscover their energy in the 15 months before Election Day, at the moment they appear to feel used and abused. While Texas Sen. John Cornyn plodded through his speech like he was reading the morning crop report, one delegate leaned to another and whispered, “I wish they would just let us vote and go home.”

No Victims Here

Elizabeth Edwards, author of Saving Graces and wife of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, welcomed an overwhelmingly female audience at Austin’s Book People on Sept. 10: “It’s raining outside. You’re stuck.”

The folding chairs on the store’s second floor had filled almost an hour before Edwards’ scheduled arrival, and the rest of the supporters stood waiting to hear her talk and get their books signed. Rain or no rain, no one was leaving.

Armed with a box of tissues (for an allergy she said she actually brought to Austin rather than acquired here), Diet Coke, and bottled water on a stand next to her, Edwards described her book as the story of all the friends and strangers who had reached out to support her-through the death of her son in a car accident, her battle with breast cancer, and her husband’s campaigns. “This book was a great adventure in connecting with people, connecting with my history,” she said.

She read a passage that inspired a few tears, one that made everyone laugh, and one from the final chapter of her book, written after a more recent diagnosis that her cancer was treatable but not curable. Edwards and her husband decided to continue with the campaign despite the recurrence, she said, because everything she thought was important before the diagnosis was still just as important. “I’m not going to give [the cancer] an extra day,” she said. “Not one extra minute.” On a national stage, she said, she could press the issue of cancer awareness, treatment, and research in a bigger way.

As requested by an audience member, she listed what her priorities would be as First Lady: breast cancer awareness, after-school programs, and help for military families. Another spectator asked why, when people say they are praying for her, she always tells them to pray for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens instead. At 87 years old, Edwards said, “he seems to be the vote standing between us and a lot of ills.”

As fans in groups of 20 lined up to get their books signed, members of the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin and the grassroots group Susan G. Komen for the Cure handed out brochures and pink ribbons.

Legal Frontiersmen

The University of Texas at Austin School of Law has set up a legal clinic on national security and human rights law to represent people who have been imprisoned or charged as terrorists, or whom the U.S. government has decided are affiliated with terrorism. Like the school’s well-established death penalty clinic, the new resource will serve those who can’t get legal help anywhere else.

Clients will include detainees at the government’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility. The clinic will also look into other dark corners of the administration’s “war on terror,” including rendition (when the government grabs suspects and ships them off to a third country, where they may or may not be tortured) and limits on access to intelligence necessary for an adequate defense.

Professors Derek Jinks and Kristine Huskey will supervise students who work at the clinic. Jinks has a background in international law and worked as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former nation of Yugoslavia. Huskey represented Guantanamo detainees in the pioneering case Rasul v. Bush, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees had the right to challenge their detentions in federal court.

Clinic participants have already worked on briefs in the consolidated cases styled Al Odah v. U.S. and Boumediene v. Bush. Both deal with whether there can be judicial review of the Bush administration’s actions against those it terms “enemy combatants.” Administration officials assert that centuries of legal precedents, which provide for judicial review of government detentions, are passé because of the threat of terrorism.

“What is necessary is that there is some kind of process,” Huskey says. She says she hopes the clinic will help establish that process.

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