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The Queque - August 25, 2010


Nuclear family

First there was a call for a federal investigation into Waste Control Specialists’ growing nuclear-waste dump in West Texas. The August 11 press release issued by the reliably anti-nuclear Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and SEED Coalition urged the EPA (or possibly the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to take over the job of regulating Texas’ nuke-trash storage and disposal from an inept Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Texas Public Citizen Director Tom “Smitty” Smith pointed out that the TCEQ Commissioners overruled their staff’s recommendation that the dump’s license be denied before TCEQ then-Executive Director Glenn Shankle resigned to go work as a lobbyist for the dump.

“How can we rely on a decision made by someone who goes to work for the regulated company six months later?” Smith asked. “Could his decision have anything to do with the fact that he may have been angling for a job with WCS?”

Texas State Rep Lon Burnam warned that state taxpayers could get stuck with the ultimate cleanup costs from the operation, which may sit atop the Ogallala, the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer.

The grito was a success. SEED Director Karen Hadden said the coalition’s release ran in papers as far away as India, which likely contributed to the tone of WCS’s PR response the following day. Hadden had only recently settled with the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to appoint a treasurer for the No Bonds for Billionaires PAC, an Austin-based outfit used to oppose WCS’ effort to secure a bond for the dump from Andrews County voters. The Ethics Commission listed 15 “findings of fact” supporting the allegation, and Hadden settled for $1,000. Not only did WCS celebrate Hadden’s “outing” as a key anti-nuclear conspirator behind the No Bonds for Billionaires website, they took the opportunity to do some smearing of their own. Hadden, the WCS release states, is an “extremist” supporting a variety of “liberal causes.” Of those suspect allegiances, the only one listed was Peace Action for Texas, through which Hadden has “actively protested against U.S. troops in Iraq.”

Hadden chided the company for trying to turn a debate about public safety into something else. “Obviously they’re very worried,” she said. And there are reasons for concern on the nuclear-power front. In recent weeks, both WCS and the planned South Texas (nuclear) Project expansion have been cited by federal and state regulators. In Matagorda County, NRC investigators alleged in an August 13 letter that the STP operators had failed to accurately characterize the ability of the proposed Units 3 & 4 to withstand an attack by an aircraft. The Current reported last year about past federal studies that attempted to quantify the loss of life such an attack could mean `See “Risky Business,” September 30, 2009`. The federal Notice of Violation states the company “did not use realistic analyses” for elements of its Aircraft Impact Assessment and gave them 30 days to respond.

Meanwhile, WCS was cited by the TCEQ for storing some of the most radioactive waste allowable under its permit conditions for more than 365 days. The violation followed the discovery of inch-wide cracks in the asphalt pad on which the radioactive waste is stockpiled. Austin-based attorney Marisa Perales is handling a Sierra Club legal challenge to the TCEQ Commissioners’ denial of the group’s request for an evidentiary hearing on the license approval. She said the first part of the appeal has been pending for more than a year with 261st District Judge Lora Livingston. But there is no injunction that would prevent wastes from being disposed of in the meantime, Perales said.

Earlier this year, the commission that oversees the disposal of Texas and Vermont civilian-generated wastes — a curious bi-state arrangement which grew out of federal efforts in the 1990s to make states take responsibility for their radioactive waste streams — attempted to develop rules that would guide the disposal of wastes from outside the two states, potentially leading to a de-facto national dump for so-called low-level wastes. However, intense public and political pressure forced the commission to hit the pause button. And while state newspapers have recently taken to running stories about how much money Rick Perry’s appointed regents have funneled to his campaign coffers, few have chosen to dig into the TCEQ dump approval in spite of more than $600,000 kicked to Perry over the past decade by WCS owner and Dallas billionaire (and certified “Evil Genius”) Harold Simmons. So, can we expect the EPA to intervene? In a prepared release, a spokesperson for the regional EPA office wrote: “The Agency takes allegations of illegal and improper conduct in the licensing and supervising of the Waste Control Specialist’s storage and disposal facilities in Andrews County, Texas, seriously and will, after a thorough review of this request for an investigation, decide what next steps are appropriate.”

Sounds like a “definitely maybe” to us.

Up in smoke

It is with some sadness that QueQue watches the opportunity to create punny smoke-related headlines pass. As most every nicotine fiend and asthmatic in the city knows by now, this time next year cigarettes and cigars will be relegated to the patios and sidewalks of our public life — and a handful of private clubs and tobacco shops — earning SA a smoke-free stamp of approval from Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, which runs a sort of travel-advisory bureau that reportedly influences convention planners from San Diego to St. Paul.

The new smoking ordinance passed with the assent of Mary Alice Cisneros, Ivy Taylor, Philip Cortez, David Medina, Justin Rodriguez, Reed Williams, and Mayor Julián Castro.

District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, who was thought to be on the fence as late as 9 a.m. the day of the vote, joined District 3’s Jennifer Ramos, District 9’s Elisa Chan, and John Clamp of District 10 in opposing the measure.

As signaled by the pre-vote wrangling (and the QueQue’s August 11 voting matrix), the Mayor and proposal quarterback Justin Rodriguez won their seven-to-four majority with a few concessions: Smoking will be allowed in City-owned parks, except for in pavilions and on playgrounds, and it’s permitted on the River Walk, Main Plaza, and Alamo Plaza (not at the Zoo, though, where the indignities visited upon our two captive elephants won’t include secondhand cigarette carcinogens).

The 12-month delay before the new ban is implemented secured the vote of District 8 Councilman Reed Williams, who told the QueQue last week that workplace safety was the only justification for government’s intrusion in this area. Responding to the (disingenuous?) objection of the ordinance’s opponents that the measure is a failure because it makes exceptions for private clubs and retail tobacco establishments, former Tesoro VP Williams talked about efforts to regulate benzene and asbestos in the petroleum industry. “We never got 100 percent, but we made steps forward,” he said. “This is a step forward, and I will support it.”

John Clamp disagreed, delivering a passionate anecdote about a small-business owner who signed a $6,000/month five-year lease “based on a business model that’s no longer available.”

“It’s still America,” Clamp said, drawing applause from Save Our Jobs coalition members in the audience. “He’s got property rights. He did everything right.” Clamp also noted that according to Metro Health, almost 95 percent of the city’s restaurants are already smoke-free (although only 27 percent of bars are). “I think we’re really solving a problem that almost doesn’t really exist,” he said.

Jennifer Ramos and Elisa Chan complained that they didn’t see the ordinance until 9 a.m. Thursday morning — a complaint to which the QueQue is normally sympathetic `see Sculley contract fiasco, circa winter 2008`. But thanks to Taylor, the almost-final draft ordinance had been on the City’s website for more than a week, and phone calls to Council colleagues `or, ahem, reading the May 11 & 18 Que2` would have brought them up to speed on the likely compromises. In any event, Chan’s lack of preparation hindered her efforts to grill Metro Health’s Dr. Bryan Alsip, who calmly went toe-to-toe with the councilwoman. At one point, when she insisted the City was promising that not one business would go under as a result of the ban, Alsip replied, “That’s exactly what I’m not saying.”

“My point was, public policy is made on good data,” Dr. Alsip told the QueQue; you don’t make rules based on the exceptions.

To soften the blow, the City is expediting permits and waiving fees for businesses that add a patio before the ordinance goes into effect — an estimated $113,000 in total revenue — and also providing no-smoking signs free of charge thanks to a state grant. That 100-plus grand won’t dent the City budget, either, the City Manager told Council, because they never banked on it. Staff also maintained that the new ordinance wouldn’t increase inspection or enforcement costs, because those tasks would be assumed by existing personnel as part of their current routines. Metro Health will add smoking to its inspections checklists, Park Police and SAPD will respond to violations in parks and other outdoor areas, and just about any City employee with a patch on his or her shirt can respond to complaints. Fines, which can be levied against individuals and businesses, begin as high as $200 for a single violation, and climb to $2,000/day for three or more repeat offenses.

Without naming names, Philip Cortez and Mayor Castro took on outgoing LULAC President Rosa Rosales’s allegation that the new ordinance discriminates against minorities and blue-collar workers (also not helping her cause: the Hispanic Chamber, as well as the Greater Chamber, which is helmed by former Councilman Richard Perez, endorsed the ban). “There’s not a race card in every deck to be played,” Castro said.

Bagger chance

Yolanda Arellano of the San Antonio Restaurant Association told the QueQue Monday that local restaurateurs are unhappy that the City developed the smoking-ban ordinance quickly and without their input, because they’ve been good team players on some of the City’s other quality-of-life initiatives: promoting healthier diets and eliminating plastic bags, for instance. But if the latter item is any indication, bringing industry reps to the drafting table would’ve resulted not in a tougher smoking ordinance, but rather a 2012 PR campaign to promote chewing tobacco.

The Restaurant Association is one participant in the Solid Waste Management Department’s Single Use Plastic Bags Project committee, which is charged with finding creative “solutions” to those ubiquitous plastic bags, which are by and large a nonbiodegradable product of the petroleum industry. Environmentally minded readers might recall that the plastic-bag initiative first surfaced as talk of a ban in 2008, the year after San Francisco clamped down on them. But according to City PIO Tiffany Edmonds, a San Antonio ban is not under consideration at this time.

Could it be any coincidence that one of the committee “stakeholders” is Donna Dempsey, who represents Progressive Bag Affiliates? The open-secret goal of PBA and its backer, the American Chemistry Council, is to fight plastic-bag bans with recycling initiatives and PR campaigns; see for an example of their handiwork. Another notable player on San Antonio’s committee is Avangard Innovative, a Houston-based company that recycles plastics into … more plastics (Greenstar, which holds the City’s recycling contract, has also been present at some of the meetings).

Edmonds told the QueQue that “the retailers” alerted PBA — the talks have included what’s known as “the big five”: H-E-B, Wal-Mart, Target, JC Penney, and Walgreens — although she didn’t know which retailers. We don’t understand why that means PBA gets an invitation, especially since the public isn’t invited to the monthly meetings (details are available online, though …).

Accordingly, watch for a citywide campaign late this fall with the modest goal of increasing plastic-bag recycling by a minimum of 25 percent, and decreasing the use of throwaway plastic bags by 25 percent. Twenty-five percent of what, you might ask. The Texas Recycling Association and Keep San Antonio Beautiful are currently compiling baseline numbers for the first six months of 2010 from those major bag users; one rumor puts H-E-B at 150 million bags per month, but a query to H-E-B spokeswoman Dya Campos wasn’t returned by press time. That sounds astronomical; Whole Foods Markets, which eliminated plastic bags from all of its stores beginning on Earth Day 2008, estimates that it has kept 300 million of them out of landfills (and the terrifying Pacific trash gyre).

According to one City Hall insider, H-E-B is not bullish on the ban while there is no viable alternative to plastic bags (how, then, will Mexico City manage its new ban, one wonders); the plastics industry is quick to argue that paper bags require more energy to produce, and are therefore not much more earth-friendly than their product.

Down on the border, Brownsville demonstrated a different way to approach the problem, by holding a series of public meetings ahead of the ordinance it passed early this year. Brownsville Commissioner Edward Camarillo credits the meetings and the research and public education that accompanied them with building enough public support to help the newly amended ordinance resist the pushback it’s getting from the paper-bag industry. Their initiative grew out of a desire to address litter, Camarillo told the QueQue, and progressed naturally to a bag ban. While plastic-bag statistics were damning, Camarillo also recounted a student-led trash sweep that filled a 32-gallon trash bag with plastic bags plucked from a single mesquite tree.

San Antonio Councilman Justin Rodriguez, who raised the issue of plastic bags during his first term, says the proposed texting-while-driving ban proposed last spring by interim District 4 Councilwoman Leticia Cantu will come up before a bag ban — after the budget but probably before the new year.

Calls to Keep San Antonio Beautiful, which is reportedly responsible for raising the state funds to back the plastic-bag preservation recycling campaign, were not returned by press time. Follow the initiative’s progress (and get the closed-meetings schedule) at

Toxic payoff

Hundreds of San Antonio residents who sued the U.S. Air Force over toxic contamination impacting their homes will soon be sharing in $1,000 slices of federal settlement monies. Yet, the mystery of elevated cancers and other health complaints around the former Kelly Air Force Base remains — as do toxics in the community. A state fishing advisory has been expanded on the Lower Leon Creek, which winds past the base’s western boundary. And recent sampling found the infamous pesticide DDT in the water and sediment at levels expected to cause damage to aquatic life. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a researcher from Texas A&M’s Health Science Center will be sampling soils at 10 homes in the Kelly area this fall for DDT. Associate Professor Thomas McDonald says he is studying an array of issues across South Texas for his report Border Environmental Health and Toxicological Education Research Programs, and plans to complete the Kelly-area work begun by his former boss, K.C. Donnelly, who died of cancer of the esophagus last summer.

Robert Alvarado has long been a fixture at meetings about the toxic contaminants discovered to be spreading under area homes in the 1990s. Today he is waiting for a new kidney and thinking about funeral expenses. While he once thought he could see justice for affected residents in his lifetime, he now hopes that his death will bring clarity to the debate.

“Even if I’m gone, I still want to leave something behind. People can read why I felt `this` about my sickness,” he said. “I think it’s going to continue until somebody really gets sick and winds up in the middle of the creek dying from this contamination.”

The Air Force’s settlement, announced last week, is not for alleged health impacts affecting residents but for violating the homeowners’ property-rights with the underground plume. About 400 residents will be paid roughly $1,300, depending on their property value.

So long, and thanks for all the dish

Current Editor and QueQue steady Elaine Wolff penned her last staff-written Que items this week before heading out in search of the elusive perfect South Texas swimming hole. She retains blogging rights, and like any citizen is entitled to submit open-records requests, COSA staff, so put those Champagne bottles away (unless you’re inviting her over). In fact, she submitted one this week re: the plastic-bag issue above, just to stay in form. QueQue regular and CPS hound dog Greg Harman steps into the interim editor’s shoes today, and inherits the cherished QueQue emails. Tip him off at [email protected] or [email protected]. •

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