Left Field


Neil J. Carman may well be the walking embodiment of the environmental movement in Texas. Make that the running embodiment — scarcely a week goes by when Carman isn’t zooming off to a community meeting in one part of the state or another, helping yet another neighborhood analyze a nearby pollution threat, or advising another newly-formed group of community activists how to organize against the local corporate polluters-that-be. Many a state and federal bureaucrat has been the recipient of one of Carman’s blisteringly articulate, exactingly detailed letters, in which he itemizes the failures of the official’s agency to protect the public health and trust. And more than one state newspaperman has experienced the very mixed emotions evoked when a new voice on the telephone begins, “Neil Carman said I should call you.”

As the Clean Air Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, based in Austin, Carman specializes in defending Texas air from industrial poisons — but almost everyone who has an interest in environmental activism finds in Carman a friend and ally. Community activists generally speak of him with a mixture of gratefulness and awe, summed up neatly for the Observer last year by one East Texas woman. “He knows so much, and he’s teaching me,” she said. “He’s just a fighting angel.”

Angel or avenging demon, in person Carman is kinetic, affable, quick to laugh, and full of news of current or upcoming environmental battles: cement kiln wars in Midlothian, factory-farm battles in East Texas, chemical smoke alarms in Odessa. At fifty-three, he has the démodé glasses and graying hair of a middle-aged professor, but often seems more like a perpetual graduate student — especially since his contagious energy and spectacularly curly mop belong to someone at least thirty years younger.

Trained as a botanist and chemist (1973 Ph.D., U.T.-Austin), Carman taught biology before he turned to environmental activism — after research work on the Great Lakes convinced him of the terrible dangers of industrial pollution. “I realized that if we can poison the Great Lakes, we can poison all the waters of the world.” For a dozen years, he enforced industrial air pollution regulations in Odessa for the Texas Air Control Board. He was so effective that in 1989, one polluting corporation pressured the agency to remove him from its enforcement case in an attempt to coverup the violations.

Carman blew the whistle, and the scandal forced an agency reorganization. Eventually convinced that the agency functioned more often as a pollution

facilitator than as a regulator, he decided to move on. With a chuckle, he said administrators were accustomed to officials resigning to work for industry, but considered environmentalists the enemy. “So when I told them I was going to work for the Sierra Club, it was as though a spy for the U.S. government was defecting to the K.G.B.”

That was in 1992. So what has Neil Carman done for us lately? Left Field worked up a highly selective list of battles-in-progress: grandfathered industrial air pollution (everywhere); napalm shipment and incineration (Port Arthur); Houston Air Quality project; source reduction pollution (Channelview); ozone non-attainment zones (five Texas regions); oil refinery action network (Texas-Louisiana); national hydrogen sulfide standards and PCB/dioxin rule-making (E.P.A./Washington); medical waste incineration (Houston); copper smelter pollution (Denton).

And what about that unruly mop of hair, which Carman claims he once disciplined into a quite respectable wave? “I stopped combing it in 1979. I just decided I didn’t have the time.”

Rwanda to Laredo

Americans confused by the latest news from central Africa, especially the ongoing war in the new Republic of the Congo, would do well to read We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch. The book is a detailed and moving account of the recent history of the small central African country, focusing upon the 1994 genocidal massacre of the Tutsi ethnic minority. Approximately one million Tutsi were killed in state-sponsored massacres, organized under the banner of a racist majority nationalism which called itself “Hutu Power.”

The book also has a surprising Texas connection. The title is taken from a letter written in April of 1994 by a group of Tutsi Seventh-Day Adventist ministers, who had taken refuge at a large Adventist mission in western Rwanda with about two thousand members of their congregations. They appealed to the Adventist president, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, to help them. Ntakirutimana and his son, Gerard, refused all assistance to the refugees — and indeed are accused by the survivors of organizing the ensuing massacre. One of the few Tutsi survivors recalled Ntakirutimana’s reply to their pleas for help: “Your problem has already found a solution. You must die.”

Gourevitch was able to quote the ministers’ letter precisely because he was given a copy by Ntakirutimana himself — when he tracked the man down in Laredo. Ntakirutimana was living at the home of another son (a Laredo doctor), having fled there a few months after the massacre. He denied having anything to do with the murders. “It is all one hundred percent pure lies,” he told Gourevitch.

Indicted by a United Nations tribunal in Tanzania, Ntakirutimana was arrested by the F.B.I. in late 1994, but he’d been freed under a federal court order when Gourevitch interviewed him in 1996. He has since been re-arrested and remains in the Webb County jail pending the appeal of his extradition.

Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker, told the Observer that the immediate situation in Rwanda is apparently improved, because the remaining gangs of Hutu génocidaires have been driven away from the Rwandan border by an alliance of Congo rebels and a Ugandan/Rwandan joint force. The new war in the Congo is a direct outgrowth of the Rwandan genocide, which continues to cast a shadow over the whole region.

Gourevitch is only cautiously optimistic about Rwanda’s short-term future. “I think it will be a place of continuing trouble, as it tries to find its way towards sanity or not, in the aftermath of this indescribable wound.… It will take a while for them to see their way to a society that isn’t fundamentally defined by having been through this trauma.”

The Bush Beat

Last month our Governor took time out from his busy inaugural schedule to go golfing with his father and Argentine President Carlos Menem at Austin’s Barton Creek Country Club, in what the local paper celebrated as “his latest foray into foreign policy.” It was just a little foray, for George the younger (in the throes of the flu) only joined in for three holes.

Meanwhile, we’re still wondering how many holes he played in a 1989 gas pipeline deal in Argentina. According to a member of the Argentine Congress, in 1988, while George H. W. Bush was vice president and campaigning for the presidency, his son leaned on the Argentine government in an attempt to win a huge pipeline contract for Enron — the Houston-based energy company whose CEO Kenneth Lay has taken equity positions in the political campaigns of both Bushes.

Reporter David Corn faxed George W. Bush a list of some eighteen questions about the Enron deal in 1994, just as Bush was concluding his first race for governor. He dismissed each of Corn’s questions with no explanation. Bush did say he never called Rodolfo Terragno, the Argentine Congressman who raised the Bush-Enron issue in debate on the floor of his country’s Congress. Terragno had served as the minister of public works in the reform government of President Raúl Alfonsín, and he maintains that Bush called and introduced himself as the son of the Vice President. “He tried to exert some influence to get that project for Enron,” Terragno told the Observer in November of 1994. “He assumed that the fact he was the son of the [future] President would exert influence…. I felt pressured. It was not proper for him to make that kind of call.”

Enron didn’t get the concession — until the Bushs’ golfing partner, Carlos Menem, defeated Raúl Alfonsín. “Enron was luckier with the new president,” Corn reported in the Observer. “The pipeline was approved by the administration of President Carlos Saúl Menem, the leader of the Peronist Party and a friend of President Bush.”

Menem not only approved the project. In his book Robo para la corona (I Steal for the Crown), Horacio Verbitsky, one of Buenos Aires’ most respected investigative journalists, reports that Enron got more than a contract. President Menem made the Houston-based energy company eligible for his industrial promotion program: Enron was declared exempt from Argentina’s value-added tax (IVA) and would pay no duties on capital goods while the pipeline project was in the works.

The day after Menem was inaugurated, another Bush son, Neil, played a highly publicized game of tennis with the new President in Buenos Aires.

Talking Trash

Just before the mid-January snows blanketed the Northeast, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that the rest of the United States bears an obligation to store the refuse produced by his constituents. Why? Well, obviously, because we non-New Yorkers profit (in a figurative sense) from New York’s role as the cultural center of the country.

Upon hearing this nugget of wisdom, residents of Sierra Blanca, where New York sends its shit, reportedly began planning an outing to the Guggenheim. And while they’re right there at the center of the universe, they might also swing by the Ministry of Compulsive Cleaning (i.e. the mayor’s office) to learn how to sap a city’s vitality by ushering spic-n-span corporatism into its cultural districts. (A question for His Cleanliness: once Disney eats Manhattan, can we send back the sludge?)

Giuliani, who’s been mentioned as a potential running mate for Governor Bush, had best stuff his words down one of those new disposals they’re introducing in Gotham – not the first cultural benefit New York has reaped from the provinces. As George W. can tell him, waste importing is not a big political seller here in the heartland. F

Interview: The Next Generation

Another Republican fraternity brother has been inducted into the Order of the Big Brown Swivel Chair: last session the good people of Angleton elected young Dennis Bonnen to the House; joining him there this session is 27-year-old Rick Green — who according to the Austin American-Statesman “could be the prototype for a new generation of Texas lawmakers.” A lawyer, entrepreneur, and Christian conservative, Green initially lost his race in Dripping Springs by twenty votes, then won by thirty-six after a recount. The Observer spoke with the Representative in his new Capitol Extension office, which he’s decorated with a photo of Reagan and Thatcher, a photo of his two-year-old son in camouflage clothing, and a motivational nature poster with the motto “Conviction: Be Certain Your Feet Are In The Right Place Before You Decide To Stand Firm.” Green himself is small but broad-shouldered, televisably handsome, genial, and fluent in the language of his party. Excerpts of our conversation follow:

On starting his first business:

When I graduated from Angelo State my dad gave me a trip to Puerto Vallarta… a couple of fraternity brothers and I went down there, and I met the Texas A&M Aggie Wranglers…. I thought I could dance before I saw them, but when I saw them I said man, I’d pay to learn how to do that. I just thought right then and there, hey if we could get these guys on videotape, teaching what they’re doing, people’ll pay $19.95.

That was a blast, we had a great time, and it gave me a great experience of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.

On producing a documentary film:

I have a real desire to make sure that we’re historically accurate, so that we learn from the mistakes of the past and from the successes of the past, so when you have someone like Ronald Reagan that I believe had the most powerful economic policy that we’ve seen this century, and yet Reaganomics has been so mischaracterized in the last few years, that I decided to make a documentary [“The Legacy of President Ronald Reagan”] that would show the actual effects of Reagan’s economic policies in the eighties, and how his tax cuts literally created the biggest economic boom in our history. So anyway I created that video specifically to defend the policies of Ronald Reagan and show the record, because I thought it was important to have historical documentaries that would defend Reagan as a hero. I’d like to do one about Sam Walton actually, I’ve got that burning in the back of my mind….

The other thing it taught me in doing that video was that in America you can get to anybody. There is not an upper class in our society. When I did that video I was able to interview Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Tony Robbins, [sales guru] Zig Ziglar…. It just kind of showed me that if you have some initiative and you have the right angle… there is not an upper class, and there’s not anything that different about the leaders of our country from what people would call Average Joe. We’re all the same, it’s just a matter of taking the initiative and going out there and being willing to do it. Which says to me that we should say to all Americans hey, this dream’s for anybody.

On his heroes:

My dad, Reagan, and Walton…. Zig [Ziglar] is also very much a mentor. Actually I’d probably list him even before Walton: Dad, Reagan, and Zig.

On what it means to be a Texan:

For me, I look at it as, here we are going into a new millennium. Our culture’s really at a turning point as to whether or not we’re going to hold on to our way of life, and our independent traditional values ….

Texans are proud to be Texans because it means they believe in individualism, they believe in having a way of life that’s worth protecting, we believe in that work ethic and personal responsibility and that we don’t like the idea of blaming society for everybody’s problems, we believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions, we believe that the free market is the best place to make decisions, we believe that free enterprise is a great idea and that capitalism and democracy is the way to go, not great social planners in Washington. We believe in faith in a higher source, that the Creator is the one that endowed us with our rights, and the family should be the core unit of the culture, so you take all those beliefs and you basically look at that as our foundation.

Sockless Beekeepers, Beware

Our country’s southern border is not the only one fraught with peril for the unwary traveler. The following questions are excerpted from the United States customs and immigration forms that German tourists are asked to fill out when flying over for a visit.

A. Do you suffer from any infectious diseases? Are you physically or mentally handicapped? Do you use drugs or are you a drug addict? _ Yes _ No

B. Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a misdemeanor, a felony or a drug-related offense? Have you ever been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses that carried a prison term of more than five years? Do you deal in controlled substances? Is the object of your entry into the United States the desire to participate in criminal or immoral acts? _ Yes _ No

C. Were you ever involved in spying, sabotage or terrorist activities? Were you involved in the genocide between 1933 and 1945 or involved in the persecutions of the National Socialist Regime or its allies? _ Yes _ No

And the Pinochet questio

G. Have you ever claimed immunity from prosecution? _ Yes _ No

From the customs regulations:

*Bees may only be brought into the country if they are designated for the “Bee Culture Laboratory, Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, Maryland.”

*Radioactive materials may be brought into the country if their outer containers emit only negligible amounts of alpha, beta or neutron radiation.

*Products manufactured in non-U.S. prisons cannot be brought into the country.

*Contraceptives or any written information about contraception or abortion cannot be brought into the United States.

A recent stand-by passenger on a U.S. airline was also informed of the airplane’s dress code. All passengers are required to wear “appropriate undergarments” and to bear in mind the following:

Unacceptable attire includes any item that is patched or torn, clothing with offensive terminology/ graphics or lettering larger than pocket/ sleeve style logo, provocative/ revealing clothing, short shirts (any part of midriff bare), jeans, T-shirts, denim clothing of any kind or color, sweat-pants, jogging or warm-up outfits, casual shorts, spaghetti strap dresses, sweatshirts, tank tops, oversized shirts, tightly fitted leggings or other stretch fabric garments, hot pants, hiking boots, flip flops, bare feet, tennis shoes, athletic shoes, hair in curlers, ball caps and bandannas….

All shirts must be tucked into the pants. Socks must be worn at all times.