Political Intelligence

Perry's Pillar of Salt


It must be an election year. Gov. Rick Perry is firing off proposals and initiatives like a V-8 engine without a timing belt. One of Perry’s latest promises is a new desalination plant to make water from the Gulf of Mexico drinkable. “Through it may be many years, if not decades, before ocean water is a prime source of water for Texans to use, we must begin the groundwork today,” declared the well-coifed governor.

According to proposed plans by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Author-ity (GBRA), the desalination project is slated for completion in 2040. Any plan would have to surmount numerous regulatory hurdles, but the main reason for the delay is the price, according to GBRA General Manager Bill West, who welcomes the governor’s emphasis on the new technology. “The issue of the state subsidizing the desal operation has a whole lot of merit,” says West. “But the practical limitations have to be recognized.”

In particular, as West knows, there is a major environmental issue to surmount: What to do with all the salt that’s removed? If, as the GBRA plans, the desalination plant will be at the mouth of the Guadalupe River, the brine must be carried far away from San Antonio Bay and its estuaries. If not, fisheries that are already dying from lack of fresh water will cease to produce. Along with killing a multi-million dollar seafood industry, the extra salt will wipe out the endangered whooping cranes that feed in the bay part of the year. Properly disposing of the salt increases the price of desalination considerably, and takes some of the shine off the project. Add to the environmental costs the price of power to fuel the desal operations, and suddenly the water is not so cheap.

In Tampa, Florida a new $110 million desalination plant is due to go online next year. Florida environmentalists are eyeing the facility nervously, fearful for Tampa Bay and the new development more abundant water will now allow. “It is seen as a panacea for future water needs–not to get us out of drought conditions–but to fuel new growth,” argues Frank Jackalone of the Florida Sierra Club.

Perry’s rival Tony Sanchez quite rightly criticized the governor’s desalination proposal and instead called for a focus on increased conservation first. But that’s much too reasonable: Conservation won’t create future problems. It also doesn’t lend itself to splashy press conferences and bold promises.


It’s a new dawn in America, and suddenly regulatory agencies are finding out what happens when they don’t do their j-o-b. Surprise! Some corporations take advantage. Earlier in these pages (Political Intelligence, March 15, 2002) we reported how Enron played a shell game with polluted pipeline sites in Texas. At the time, the Railroad Commission had discovered nine contaminated sites that could be traced back to the bankrupt company. When they went to Enron to ask them to please clean up their mess, they found those smart folks in Houston had spun off their polluted sites to shell corporations that insulated them from liability.

Well, like the number of Enron-related partnerships, the number of Enron-related pollution sites in Texas continues to grow. The total is now at 27. The sites span 15 counties and will cost more than $15 million to clean up.

At least one Railroad Commis-sioner is curious about just how many polluted pipeline sites exist in Texas. The commission doesn’t know off hand. “I am asking the staff to do an inventory of all of these kinds of sites related to all the pipe line companies that do business with Texas,” says Commissioner Charles Matthews, who believes compiling such a list could take a long time.

Matthews is also asking for what seem to be some fairly basic reforms. Currently the commission doesn’t know exactly who owns what. He wants the commission to be informed when a pipeline asset is transferred from one company to another. Then at least they will have a record of when a corporation spins off its liabilities into a shell company. Matthews would also like to impose a timeline for how quickly sites must be cleaned. He notes that one polluted Enron site dates to 1991. “Certainly eleven years should be enough time for anybody–I don’t care who they are–to clean their sites up,” he contends.

It’s amazing how all it takes is the collapse of a multi-billion dollar company to get the regulatory wheels rolling. “I think our staff’s traditional approach has been that people who own pipelines are very large companies with substantial assets, and so we will be okay,” says Matthews. “Then you have a company like Enron–one of the largest corporations in the country–go belly-up and you find that maybe you are not okay.”

Unfortunately some have yet to awaken to new realities. Matthews says his reforms have encountered resistance. Chairman Michael Wil-liams pulled them from the May agenda without explanation.

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Published at 12:00 am CST