Political Intelligence

Clean' Coal, Dirty Truth

There was a time when new coal-fired power plants in Texas were known by industrial-sounding names-Big Brown or TNP One-that didn’t try to obscure the smoggy emissions. That’s so old school. In this age of corporate branding, power generation companies are slapping green names on dirty plants, and daring citizens and regulators to prove them wrong.

Case in point: South of Bay City, a short distance from where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, investors are proposing to construct the White Stallion Energy Center, which sounds like an upscale showground for dressage horses. Not so. White Stallion is a 1,200-megawatt power plant that would burn coal and petroleum coke-a petroleum byproduct similar to coal. Proponents are billing the plant as the first “clean coal” project in Texas. On its Web site, the group of investors behind the project, known as White Stallion Energy Center LLC, brags that the facility will use “the most environmentally advanced, cleanest, commercially proven, emission lowering technology available.”

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

“That’s a joke,” said Neil Carman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. By Carman’s calculation, the White Stallion facility is only marginally cleaner than the coal plants abandoned by TXU last year in the face of citizen outcry. And it’s much dirtier-73 times dirtier, Carman says-than another clean coal plant proposed by Hunton Energy for nearby Brazoria County. Unlike White Stallion, the Hunton facility relies on an advanced process called “integrated gasification combined cycle,” or IGCC. The coal industry has touted IGCC technology as its saving grace, though few IGCC plants have been built.

“Even for IGCC it’s a super-clean facility,” Carman said of Hunton. “The people behind it want to set a very high bar.”

The bar is far lower for White Stallion, which would emit some 20,000 tons of pollution each year, including almost 5,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and more than 4,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. That’s according to the company’s permit application. (White Stallion did not return a phone call and e-mail to its Houston office.) In contrast, Hunton plans to release a little less than 100 tons annually, an extremely low emission rate.

Hunton will also capture nearly all carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Stallion would let some 10 million tons escape each year.

Nonetheless, local officials seem to be sold on the White Stallion project. Owen Bludau, the executive director of the Matagorda County Economic Development Corp., said he was impressed with a similar coal plant in Kentucky during a tour organized by White Stallion. “There was nothing visibly coming out of the stacks even though all of their units were operating,” Bludau said. Asked if the plant in his back yard would be the cleanest in the state, as the company claims, Bludau said, “That’s what they tell us.”

-Forrest Wilder


Glen Edward Chapman went to Death Row for a double murder he didn’t commit, thanks to circumstantial evidence, an alcoholic defense attorney and a lying police investigator.

Juan Menendez went to the row despite a complete lack of physical evidence, and despite the fact that another man, who happened to be a police informant, had already confessed to the crime.

Curtis McCarty went to the row three times, thanks to a police chemist who changed her notes to falsely show that hairs from the crime scene matched his; when the defense asked for a retest, the hairs had mysteriously disappeared.

These men and 21 others, said Witness for Innocence executive director Kurt Rosenberg at an October 31 hearing at the Capitol, have spent a “combined total of 150 years waking up day after day in a cell the size of most bathrooms, waiting to be killed by their government despite the fact that they were innocent.”

Witness for Innocence is the only organization made up of exonerated ex-Death Row prisoners. Many were convicted through egregious violations of evidentiary procedure, by police who lied or suppressed evidence. Many stayed on Death Row despite new evidence or confessions that should have exonerated them.

Witness for Innocence came to the Capitol to urge the Texas Legislature to put a moratorium on executions and to establish an innocence commission to look into endemic flaws in Texas’ criminal justice system. Reasonable people, Rosenberg said, may disagree about the morality of executing a guilty man, but “the question is, would any reasonable person send an innocent person to Death Row? I don’t think anyone who works in this building would suggest such a thing.”

Texas has executed 419 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Texas has accounted for 40 percent of all executions nationwide since then. Rosenberg said the numbers, astronomical though they may be, don’t give the full story. Statistics hide the fact of a “government that makes mistakes and sends innocent people to Death Row, frequently and consistently, without any reliable safeguards.”

-Saul Elbein

Kurt Rosenberg surrounded by exonerated prisonersHouston, There Were Problems. DEMOCRATS COME UP SHORT IN HARRIS COUNTY

Democrats had big plans for the Houston area this election. They dreamed of sweeping Harris County much as they had done in Dallas two years ago. They organized and fund-raised like never before-instituting a countywide coordinated campaign funded by millions of dollars (see “Turning Houston Blue,” TO, October 17, 2008). They talked of a takeover in Texas’ largest county that would be a foundation for Democrats to win future statewide races for governor and the U.S. Senate.

It didn’t happen.

Voters didn’t turn out in Harris County in the numbers that Democrats had hoped for. As a result, while Democrats captured a handful of key races in the Houston metro area, they came nowhere close to their much-talked-about sweep.

Democrats performed well in spots. Barack Obama narrowly carried Harris County-the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so in 44 years. The party captured a handful of closely watched state House races, including Kristi Thibaut’s unseating of incumbent Republican Jim Murphy in western Harris County. Adrian Garcia became Harris County Sheriff, ousting the embattled GOP incumbent whose department has been the subject of a federal investigation following 140 inmate deaths at the county jail since 2001. Democrats also gained a major foothold at the county courthouse, winning 29 out of 33 judicial races. Every judge in the county had been Republican.

But the GOP leadership of Harris County remained mostly intact. County Judge Ed Emmett cruised to re-election. So did Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, whom Democrats were especially eager to beat because the office handles voter registration. They accuse Bettencourt of overzealously scrubbing the voter rolls to hold down Democratic turnout. (Bettencourt says he follows the law.)

The GOP also kept the Harris County district attorney’s office. Republican Pat Lykos eked out a win by just half a percentage point over Brad Bradford. It was a particularly bitter loss for Democrats, not only because of the narrow margin but also because Bradford was bidding to become the state’s second-ever African-American district attorney in a county with a history of racial bias in its criminal justice system.

Lower-than-expected turnout-especially on Election Day-scuttled Democratic hopes for a sweep. The Harris County Democratic Party hoped that 1.3 million voters would cast ballots. And during the early voting period, when more than 726,000 people voted, Democrats seemed well on their way to hitting their turnout targets. Most Democratic candidates led their races in the early voter totals.

But the plan fell apart on Election Day. Not even 450,000 voters turned out on November 4, roughly 200,000 fewer than expected. The GOP dominated among those voters. It was the scenario feared by some Democratic activists, who had worried that the Harris County coordinated campaign wasn’t devoting enough resources to get-out-the-vote efforts. They had few paid organizers focused on ushering voters to the polls.

Harris County is majority Democratic-at least on paper-if only they all voted, says Fred Lewis, who worked on Democratic campaign efforts in Houston. Democrats don’t need to persuade people with advertising. They have enough potential voters. The problem has been low turnout. And it still is.

-Dave Mann


On a good day, Jacob’s Well, an artesian spring near the Hill Country village of Wimberley, pulses thousands of gallons of pristine water out of the ground and into Cypress Creek and the Blanco River. October 20 was not a good day. For only the second time in recorded history, the well ceased to flow. Since then the spring has oscillated between a trickle and nothing. The culprits: a bad drought and relentless pumping of groundwater in booming western Hays County. Conservationists believe the no-flow event spells trouble.

“Jacob’s Well really is the barometer for the Trinity Aquifer,” said David Baker, executive director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association. “As Jacob’s Well goes, so goes the aquifer.”

Even during the “drought of record” in the 1950s, more prolonged and severe than the present one, Jacob’s Well continued to flow. The first time the spring sputtered out was in 2000. In the interim, thousands of homes have been permitted without regard to sustainability, said Baker. Even the groundwater conservation district, created in 1999 to manage the aquifer, has no authority under state law to regulate new residential water wells. As a result, wells have run dry and streams have been reduced to puddles.

Though disturbing, the cessation of Jacob’s Well-like when the Rio Grande fizzled out before reaching the Gulf in 2001-could serve as a wake-up call. “We live on the edge of the desert,” said Baker. “A lot of people who move from Houston and other parts of the country aren’t aware of that.”

The watershed association is calling for a voluntary 30 percent reduction in water consumption and a moratorium on the permitting of any new wells or subdivisions in the aquifer’s recharge zone. A moratorium is unlikely, but Jacob’s Well enthusiasts are holding out hope that the Texas Legislature will grant real regulatory power to the groundwater district.

-Forrest Wilder

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Published at 12:00 am CST