Political Intelligence

Dump and Dumber

Of the estimated 400 people who packed Andrews High School on September 8 for a public meeting, only a few-all out-of-towners-raised even a peep of protest over a massive radioactive waste dump slated for Andrews County, a lonely corner of the West Texas oil patch.The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality convened the meeting to gather public input on a proposal by Waste Control Specialists to bury up to 28 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste in a landfill 30 miles west of Andrews. The September hearing follows the agency’s release of a draft license and environmental analysis. The documents simultaneously move the project one step closer to opening and raise questions about the environmental impact of what would be the nation’s largest commercial radioactive waste dump. (If that seems paradoxical, well, welcome to TCEQ’s regulatory process.) Waste Control is a unit of Valhi Inc., which is controlled by Harold Simmons, the Dallas billionaire and major contributor to Republican candidates and causes.

At the Andrews hearing, every local political leader from city council members to state Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, supported the proposal.

Among the few dissidents was Rose Gardner, a flower shop owner from Eunice, New Mexico, the town closest to the dump. Gardner says she has an explanation for the lack of protest.

“People around here are so used to living and breathing this oil filth that they’re willing to take anything,” Gardner says.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has led the charge against the dump, but the environmental organization’s single Andrews County member failed to show.

“What I continually asked at the public meeting is … what if you find there is a problem?” Cyrus Reed, the group’s conservation director, says he asked TCEQ. “Are you not going to allow them to construct, or are you going to say whoops, we made a mistake-we shouldn’t have given them a license.”

illustration by Mike Krone

Waste Control has spent at least 15 years convincing people in Andrews and Eunice that its hazardous and radioactive waste operation will aid the community, using radio and television spots and contributions to local charities and politicians. “They’re reaping the benefits of that outreach,” Reed says.

Not everyone knows what Waste Control is bringing to town. A public opinion survey conducted by TCEQ found that 31 percent of Andrews County residents knew that the company works with radioactive waste; 19 percent think the company “picks up garbage and disposes of it.”

Those findings are buried in TCEQ’s own 380-page environmental analysis, a document that hardly anyone in Andrews has read. Perhaps they should. In its details, the report makes clear that the radioactive waste dump could poison the environment more than Waste Control contends.

Among the report’s findings: Two groundwater tables appear to be in the “immediate vicinity” of the dump, one of which could be as close as 14 feet. Monitoring wells previously thought dry now contain several feet of water after rainfall. And after changing just one input value in a computer model used to predict groundwater flow, the distance contaminated water could flow in the next 50,000 years rises from 200 feet (in Waste Control’s estimation) to more than 30,000 feet (in TCEQ’s).

“It’s lacking the data that you need to decide whether this is a good site or not,” said Patricia Bobeck, a former TCEQ geologist who reviewed the analysis. “This is the radioactive equivalent to the Wall Street debacle we’re in. The radioactive industry in Texas is not being regulated.”

The Sierra Club asserts, in written comments submitted to the TCEQ, that issuing the license “is clearly in violation of the law.”

TCEQ would not make a representative available for comment and did not respond to two written questions by press time.

-Forrest Wilder

Reviving Galveston

Sometimes innovation is born from disaster. In 2007, South Texas suffered a series of devastating fires that charred more than 60,000 acres. Local authorities created a wildfire task force to help the area’s governments restore utility services.

The task force was so successful that Pilar Rodriguez, assistant city manager for McAllen, decided that a similar task force should be created for hurricanes.Two days after Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, the Rio Grande Valley public works task force rolled into town. The first of its kind in Texas, the task force of 103 city administrators, public works engineers, electricians, and assorted specialists from the Valley got to work rebuilding Galveston’s infrastructure.

Their goal is to help restore central services such as water, sewer, and electricity so that Galveston’s city government can get back to serving its population. The task force takes its orders from the Governor’s Emergency Management Division.

Tony Peña, the Hidalgo County emergency management coordinator, is part of the task force. He talked to the Observer on his cell phone as he drove through the streets of Galveston. “There isn’t one home here that hasn’t been destroyed or damaged by the hurricane,” he said. “It’s just complete devastation. It’s unreal.”At night, Peña and other task force members camp beneath the stars. Working daily from dawn to dusk, the task force has already restored potable water to the county jail, which wasn’t evacuated ahead of the storm, and repaired the city’s wastewater system.

Peña is proud of what the task force has accomplished in one week. “If the city government failed in Galveston today, we’d have the people and the expertise to step in and keep the city running,” he said.

-Melissa del Bosque

War Stories

When more than 50 armed soldiers barged into Emilio Soto Gutierrez’s home in Ascension, Chihuahua, in early May, the 45-year-old journalist thought he would be killed. He believed it was retaliation for his stories about soldiers from anti-drug trafficking operations who were harassing local residents.

Gutierrez survived that encounter. But he later heard through a trusted source that a military official was planning to kill him for reporting on alleged military crimes. So Gutierrez fled the country in June with his 15-year-old son. He now languishes in an El Paso detention facility, hoping to secure political asylum in the United States. His son was released from a juvenile detention facility in August and is living with relatives in the United States.

According to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors international press freedom, Gutierrez is one of the lucky ones. The escalating violence between narco-traffickers and the Mexican government has increasingly made Mexican journalists targets for death threats and murders.

“Last year the war between drug traffickers and the government extended to almost every state in Mexico,” said Carlos Lauria, a CPJ senior program coordinator for Latin America. “The level of fear among journalists is increasing, and self censorship is rampant.”

In 2007, six Mexican journalists were killed. So far in 2008, two journalists have lost their lives. CPJ calls Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press. In 2008, death threats against journalists rose dramatically, Lauria said. Since few of the death threats or murders are ever prosecuted, Lauria predicted that more journalists like Gutierrez will be seeking political asylum in the United States as the violence continues to worsen.

The situation has become so dangerous in Mexico that one of the country’s best-known newspaper publishers recently announced he is moving his family to the United States. Alejandro Junco, the owner of Reforma in Mexico City and El Norte in Monterrey, said in early September that he and his family no longer felt safe in Monterrey, Mexico. They plan to move to Austin this fall.

“Not long ago Monterrey was considered one of the safest cities in Mexico,” Lauria said. “It’s a very bad sign for Mexico when people say they don’t feel safe there anymore.”

-Melissa del Bosque

Political IntelligenceBuilding Exercises

Facing calls to dissolve their troubled agency, commissioners of the Texas Residential Construction Commission were defiant at a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in late September.

TRCC Commissioner Lewis Brown said his agency is the voice of the consumer. “If you take away their voice, then shame on you,” he admonished the panel of legislators who will decide the agency’s fate sometime in December.

In August, the sunset staff, which periodically evaluates state agencies, recommended that the TRCC be scrapped because it did “more harm than good” for Texas consumers. Advocacy groups have repeatedly criticized the agency-created in 2003 ostensibly to protect homeowners-for being dominated by the building industry and for doing little to protect consumers.

In their testimony before state lawmakers on the Sunset Commission, TRCC commissioners did their best to sidestep blame. Who’s at fault? The homeowners, apparently. The consensus of the commissioners was that Texas consumers needed to be more educated about the home building process. They argued for the survival of the agency and said that a reform bill (House Bill 1038) that made changes to the agency needed time to take effect. The legislation was sponsored in 2007 by Rep. Allan Ritter, the Nederland Democrat who also authored the original legislation to create TRCC.

TRCC Commissioner John Krugh, who serves as general counsel and vice president for Bob Perry Homes and who helped craft the legislation that created TRCC, said he felt the agency was “fair and unbiased” toward consumers.

He said there were a number of misconceptions about the agency, such as the idea that TRCC blocks or delays court access. (Dispute resolution can take up to two years with TRCC before homeowners can pursue their cases in court.)

Rep. Dan Flynn of Canton, a Republican member of the Sunset Commission that will help decide if the agency survives, wondered why, if TRCC was fair and unbiased, was there such a disconnect between consumers and the agency?

Krugh remained silent on the issue. Duane Wadill, executive director of TRCC chimed in. He said consumers were upset because they already felt abused and cheated by the builder. Once they start working with TRCC, consumers felt the process took too long, so they started to believe the agency was on the builder’s side. He also blamed the news media for portraying the agency on the side of home builders.

It’s telling, of course, that the home building industry is desperate to save the TRCC. Given the industry’s political pull, you have to like its chances. The state’s biggest political donor, home builder Bob Perry, donated $141,000 to the 2006 campaigns of legislators sitting on the Sunset Commission, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. The biggest contribution-$45,000-went to Republican Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy, vice chair of the Sunset Commission. Republican Sen. Bob Deuell of Mesquite received $40,000 from Perry.

-Melissa del Bosque

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