Sick and tired of being annually doused with nearly 40,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxic and noxious pollutants, citizens of a Beaumont community have filed a federal civil rights complaint against Mobil (now Exxon/Mobil) for the operation of its nearby refinery (the largest state refinery grandfathered by the T.N.R.C.C. for toxic emissions) and for polluting the air of the community, which is 95 percent African American and 54 percent low income.
In April, People Against Contaminated Environments (a community organization) and the Lone Star Sierra Club filed a formal civil rights complaint against the T.N.R.C.C. – asking the U.S. E.P.A. to intervene and force the state agency to abide by environmental and civil rights laws.
The complaint also accuses the T.N.R.C.C. of allowing the refinery to grow – granting permits to increase emissions – without community input about the air people breathe and related health problems: headaches, nausea, respiratory and vision problems, and serious illness. Despite numerous citizen complaints, the agency has taken no enforcement actions against the Exxon/Mobil refinery since 1993. The Exxon/Mobil complex is consistently listed as one of the Top 10 worst polluting refineries and chemical plants in the U.S., and its emissions are 385 percent above the Texas refinery average.
Beaumont citizens are hardly alone: Texas is Number One nationally in environmental civil rights complaints, under which minority communities charge discriminatory siting of polluting industries. PACE spokesman Reverend Ray Malveaux said the Beaumont situation is all too common in Texas: “It’s the poor, the minority, the disenfranchised, the children, the elderly; they have no idea how to overcome their situation.” For more information, see the “Toxic Texas Tour” at the website of Texas Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility: www.txpeer.org.
In the wake of the June 22 execution of Gary Graham (Shaka Sankofa), the media pundits largely confined themselves to wondering whether Governor Bush’s handling of the high-profile case had hurt his chances of election to the presidency. The consensus seemed to be that it had not: Bush, according to the handicappers, learned the lesson of the Karla Faye Tucker case (after which he was caught, in Talk magazine, mocking her pleas for mercy) and soberly sent Graham to his maker. The fact that Al Gore also endorses capital punishment undercuts its effect as an electoral issue.
In an Austin press conference held by Amnesty International, death penalty activists dismissed the charge that they are engaging in “presidential politics.” “We’ve been working on the Graham case for more than ten years,” said abolitionist Rick Halperin. Bud Welch, father of an Oklahoma City bombing victim, noted that “the Democrats don’t have much to brag about concerning the death penalty.”
But the media pundits, in general, seem uninterested in whether the widely publicized legal irregularities in the Graham case might undermine public support for continuing executions.
One important exception was a June 23 editorial in The New York Times, which spared neither the death penalty nor the major party candidates: “The way [execution] is meted out in this country is so grossly arbitrary, so racially unfair and so full of legal mistakes that there is no way to ensure that innocent people will be spared.
“Yet despite convincing new evidence of the system’s fallibility, neither Gov. George W. Bush nor Vice President Al Gore has defended his support of the death penalty in ways that confront the intellectual, legal and moral issues raised by state-sponsored killing.”
The Times noted that Governor Bush, in defiance of both the cumulative evidence in Texas and common sense, continues to maintain that “not one” innocent person has been executed during his administration. Vice President Gore, meanwhile, admits that there will always be “some small number of errors,” without acknowledging what that means: “Any wrongful execution,” in the words of the Times editors, “is constitutionally repugnant and erosive of the core values of justice in the United States.”
The Times concludes, in what should (but won’t) be a working principle for journalists covering the campaign: “Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush present themselves as leaders driven by moral principles. But by any moral standard, there can be no margin for error when the state takes human life.”
GOOD GUNS AND BAD.
State Republicans were looking silly last month after a group of armed men showed up outside their convention to protest the pending execution of Gary Graham. Members of the New Black Panther Party, the Black United Front, and the New Black Muslim Movement brandished shotguns, rifles, and automatic weapons (all legal in Texas, so long as the holder is not a felon and doesn’t aim the gun at anyone) to emphasize their protest “by any means necessary.” Local conservative politicians and right-wing talk shows were outraged that Houston police didn’t arrest these gun-toters on the spot.
Unfortunately, the delegates in the convention hall had just approved a platform plank rejecting “the establishment of any mechanism to process, license, record, register or monitor the ownership of guns.”
Commented the Chronicle’s Julie Mason: “Some Republicans abhor gun control until armed black men show up at their state convention.…” Mason added, “Various parties fanning these flames contend their real issue is the shoving [of a delegate], or that the protestors were raising an issue unrelated to the convention, or that the delegates tended to be elderly – anything but the fact that the protestors were armed and black.”
TRIALS ON TRIAL.
East Texas Republican Todd Staples was doing some poor-mouthing at the mid-June Republican state convention in Houston, where he predicted he will be outspent by trial lawyers trying to buy the seat. Staples – who has served in the House since 1995 and is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Drew Nixon – is not the first Republican to describe his campaign as a crusade against trial lawyers. Long before President George Bush complained about “trial lawyers in tasseled loafers,” Republicans had been running against the nation’s plaintiffs’ attorneys, claiming the lawsuits they win against corporate clients are bad for business. Staples warned that “the tobacco lawyers” have promised to “carry the burden” of financing Democrat David Fisher’s campaign, and that with the trials’ backing Fisher will outspend him.
Early filings at the Texas Ethics Commission have Fisher well ahead of Staples, with Fisher reporting $181,379 raised to Staples’$29,603. (None of the five trial lawyers who won $17.3 billion for the state in the tobacco lawsuit has yet to make Fisher’s donor list.) Fisher also leads Staples in large contributions, several from lawyers such as John Foster of Arlington and Joe Tonahill of Jasper at $10K each. (Tonahill is the former law partner of David Fisher’s grandfather, Joe Fisher, the senior federal judge who died in Beaumont on June 19.) Fisher also got $5K from Mark Stiles, a former state rep from Beaumont who voted for many of the tort reform measures that have made access to the court much more difficult for injured parties, workers, and consumers suing corporate defendants. Staples’ biggest donor was the Texas Realtors PAC, which provided him $6,000.
Yet early contribution filings can be deceiving. If past legislative races are any indication, Republicans will write their checks late, then make huge media buys. “They’ll wait ’til the last minute to collect their contributions, then spend millions on radio and mail,” a veteran Austin lobbyist said. If no other Senate seats change hands, the outcome of the race to replace sex pistol felon Drew Nixon (convicted for carrying an unlicensed weapon while soliciting a prostitute in Austin in 1997) will determine which party controls the Senate when the state’s legislative district lines are redrawn. And if Governor George W. Bush is elected president, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry will become governor and the Senate will select a new lieutenant governor. So the S.D. 3 race will be a money magnet; observers are predicting $4 to $8 million total spending in the most costly legislative race in the state’s history. It’s no surprise that trial lawyers will be backing David Fisher. But Todd Staples won’t go begging.
BEAUTY OR BEAST?
The Odessa-American reports that the Keep Odessa Beautiful Campaign honored the Huntsman Corporation as its “Star of the Month” for June, in honor of the landscaping of its corporate office on South Industrial Avenue. Director Rosie López said the Campaign is to “re-instill community pride and recognize business for keeping Odessa beautiful.” Huntsman plant manager George Rybiak said, “We take a lot of pride in our plant and in our position with the Odessa community.”
Forgive Rybiak’s neighbors for being skeptical. Last winter Huntsman smogged nearby neighborhoods with so much smoke from its chemical flares that citizens submitted more than 3,000 health complaints to the T.N.R.C.C. (The complaints remain under review.) Commented one local wag about Huntsman’s “beautification” award, which includes a sign and a plaque: “You almost expect to see someone leap from the brush beside the sign to yell, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!'”