The West Texas waste wars are heating up again. During the last session, Envirocare, a Utah-based firm, made a pitch to become the contractor for Texas’ long-delayed waste site. Envirocare and its lobbying team (including ex-Speaker Billy Clayton) got the cold shoulder from the Lege, and Envirocare C.E.O. Khosrow Semnani thinks he knows why. In mid-April Semnani filed suit against his main competitor in Texas, Waste Control Specialists, operators of a huge dump in Andrews County and leading contenders to be the first to bury radioactive waste in Texas. Semnani claims former W.C.S. president Ken Bingham (the company is now controlled by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and former Congressman Kent Hance) hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on him to sully his reputation in Texas.
Bingham got some pretty good dirt for his money. According to court documents obtained by the Associated Press, W.C.S. representatives told Texas legislators and other interested parties: (1) that Envirocare was engaged in illegal arms trading, diverting radioactive waste to weapons brokers, financing Middle East terrorists, and threatening to kill anyone who opposed Envirocare; (2) that Semnani used sexual relationships with female regulators to obtain inside regulatory information and favorable treatment; (3) that Semnani has illegal relationships with environmental regulators that are being covered up by the highest levels of state government; (4) that the company accepts waste that it is not legally permitted to take, including high-level wastes from Kuwait; (5) that Semnani used money from a state environmental fund to buy real estate in Hawaii; and (6) that Semnani is a bigamist.
And he’s got a funny name, too. But all mudslinging aside, Semnani does have more than a few black marks on his record. In 1997, Utah authorities uncovered an unusual relationship between Semnani and a Utah state regulator who oversaw Envirocare of Utah’s operations, in which large amounts of cash and gold coins changed hands for several years. Semnani claimed the regulator, Larry Anderson, was extorting the cash, so it wasn’t really a bribe. Anderson must have extorted some tax help, too, because Semnani eventually pled guilty to helping the regulator file a phony tax return. His Utah dump also has a pretty atrocious compliance record. Residents of Ward County might need a representative at the defamation trial. Envirocare has targeted the West Texas county for a new dump site.
Drug hysteria hit Wichita Falls last month. On April 19, Midwestern State University police led a room-by-room drug search of the three main campus dorms, accompanied by police from surrounding towns and counties in cooperation with the North Texas Drug Task Force. According to reports in the Wichita Falls Times-Record News, the search used drug-sniffing dogs to select rooms for searching. If a student (or an absent student’s roommate) rejected a search request, police said they would obtain warrants to search anyway. When the search was completed, the officers had found – nothing. “We’re doing an assessment as to whether there’s a drug problem at M.S.U.,” said university police chief Mike Hagy. “We used the dogs as a tool to do the assessment.” Hagy told the student newspaper that the dog’s alert provides the probable cause for the search.
The next day, Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, pointed out that students do not surrender their rights as citizens just because they live on campus, and that any drugs found in the search would probably not be admitted as evidence in court. Hagy was unrepentant. “Lots of universities and colleges across the country did what we did,” Hagy said, and pointed out that M.S.U. President Louis Rodriguez was fully aware of the planned search. University spokeswoman Janus Buss told Political Intelligence that President Rodriguez personally approved the search in response to rumors of drugs in the dorms. Buss described the search as “perfectly legal” and a common college practice, although she could not name any other colleges which had conducted such searches. She said that while there are no current plans to repeat the search, the administration “does not rule out” another raid.
Local response was not so positive. The student paper editorialized against the search: “Someone please tell the police chief and M.S.U. administration … that this is the United States of America.” “Just because you rent from the university,” Wichitan editor Alisha Ferguson told Political Intelligence, “you don’t expect to give up your rights.” TRN city editor and columnist Steve Clements said he was “disappointed” in the M.S.U. approval of the raid, writing that the search “didn’t accomplish anything – except to bring a little Nazi-era Germany home to Wichita Falls. Consider it a history lesson, I guess.
“I know, I know. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.
“That’s what British soldiers said while they ransacked the homes of early patriots, who later wrote a Constitution that specifically forbade unreasonable searches and seizures. We fought a revolution over that….”
At press time May 3, the T.N.R.C.C. was poised to grant emission permits to a new American Acryl plant planned for the Bayport/Clear Lake area. The plant, a joint venture of Elf Atochem and Nippon Shokubai, is widely opposed in the community, and was recently the subject of an Austin press conference by Clean Air Clear Lake, organized by residents of the nearby Lakepointe Forest subdivision. Describing themselves as Republican women opposed to the environmental record of Governor Bush, the group called for a moratorium on new state air pollution permits in the Houston area, which is already subject to E.P.A. oversight for non-compliance with national clean air standards. State officials said that such a moratorium is impossible, and T.N.R.C.C. executive director Jeff Saitas said, “The question has to be, How can we clean the air, keep it clean, and still grow?”
Local opposition has grown because of the pollution record of Elf Atochem (among other problems, fined more than $100 million for environmental violations in Bryan) and because American Acryl has insisted on confidentiality concerning much of its operations, including at least thirty-seven chemicals it intends to use at the plant. Citizens are particularly concerned about the possibility of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC), which is often associated with the production of acrylic acid and was the poison that killed thousands at Bhopal, India, in 1984. But plant and state officials insist that MIC will not be emitted by the new plant, and say that although the plant will increase ozone emissions in the region, the company has purchased “pollution credits” from other companies to compensate.
Local opponents were required to sign confidentiality agreements to review American Acryl documents, and told the Houston Chronicle, “What we read would curl your hair.” Tamara Maschino of Seabrook said, “Clear Lake should be a jewel like San Francisco. We’re treating it like a toxic dump.”
ALCOHOL, FIREARMS AND TOBACCO.
It was almost a Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco fundraiser in Washington, when Governor Bush raised a record-breaking $21 million in one night. The Governor no longer drinks, but there was alcohol served at the D.C. event, co-sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris – and the National Rifle Association. The N.R.A. was represented by its President, Wayne LaPierre, who helps define the extreme right of the right-wing gun lobby. It was LaPierre who recently said that President Clinton tolerates some gun violence in order to increase public pressure for gun-control laws. The tobacco industry, for its part, came up with $210,000 in soft money for the Bush campaign. Two days later Bush’s A.G. in Texas, John Cornyn, filed suit against the trial lawyers who represented the state in a civil suit against big tobacco when Dan Morales was attorney general.
Austin reporter Robert Bryce predicted that the structured payments former Attorney General Dan Morales won in the state’s law suit against the tobacco industry would result in an unsavory alliance between State Government and Big Tobacco (“John Cornyn’s Tobacco Obsession,” November 26). It appears that Bryce’s prediction is coming to pass. The Senate Interim Subcommittee on Tobacco Settlement Proceeds recently pondered such questions as the decline in tobacco stock prices, decreased domestic consumption of tobacco cutting into tax revenue, and committee members’ concerns that the smokers’ class-action lawsuit filed in Florida could force tobacco companies into bankruptcy. As an unsecured creditor, Texas may not receive payments for quite a while, warned Andy Taylor of Attorney General John Cornyn’s office.
THE EDUCATION GOVERNOR.
The national press is beginning to examine Governor Bush’s “Texas Miracle” in education, and reporters are finding that the Governor is not quite ready for canonization. “It’s difficult to evaluate all the Texas officials’ claims about soaring test scores,” John Mintz wrote in the Washington Post. “But it is clear that some of their key assertions aren’t backed up by other tests issued on a national scale. While Texas says it has dramatically shrunk the gap between minority and white students’ scores, a test used across the country called the N.A.E.P. showed they haven’t closed that ‘achievement gap.’ In fact, it suggests the gulf between the state’s white and black fourth-graders widened over time.” The Post cited the work of Linda McNeil of Rice and Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas, who found that a largely Hispanic high school in Houston “with virtually no library, spent $18,000 – almost its entire instructional budget – for commercial test preparation materials that replaced teachers’ lessons.” What is happening, the researchers found, is that middle-class children in white, middle-class schools read literature, learn to write, and study mathematics aimed at problem-solving and conceptual understanding. Poor and minority children drill to prepare for standardized tests.