Science fair: SA teacher petitions the TCEQ
It seemed like just one more Change.org petition. Honestly, it was just one more Change.org petition — one of an estimated 50,000 that have been started on the site since it launched in 2007. QueQue happily signed it, Facebooked it, and filed it away with all those other gobs of click-share petitions. Then the Houston Chronicle wrote about it, and suddenly local middle-school science and math teacher Mobi Warren’s petition demanding the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality re-instate references to climate change and sea-level rise the agency had cut out of a report commissioned on the health of Galveston Bay had found its sea legs. “As a teacher, I reacted strongly to this political censorship of mainstream science,” Warren told Change.org. “Teachers and students deserve better from Texas’ top environmental officials. I work hard to keep politics and ideology out of science education, and I expect government officials to do the same.”
It wasn’t a fly-by-night report to begin with, but a distillation of a decade-long peer-reviewed study Rice University professor John Anderson performed with other scientists — one already published by the Geological Society of America. What did the TCEQ remove? References to the pace of sea-level rise (from historic .5 millimeters per year pace to an exponential increase in the 20th century to a current 3 millimeters per year swelling) and human activity reducing the amount of wetlands were both subjected to censorship by TCEQ management (after layers of bureaucracy, including the TCEQ publications department, had already signed off on it).
Could popular pressure force the TCEQ to reconsider the study they reportedly spiked after the authors refused to have their names associated with it? Apparently, the negotiations are ongoing. Report editor Jim Lester, vice president of the Houston Advanced Research Center, said he was contacted by the TCEQ Tuesday in the interest of setting up a meeting in Austin to work something out over the $60,000 contract. “They sent us a letter, claiming we were in non-compliance with the contract. We sent back a letter saying we believe we are in compliance,” Lester said. “We got a call back today saying they want us to come up to Austin to talk about how we can resolve this thing.”
Something in Warren’s petition has struck a chord. While only about one in every 50 petitions started on Change.org bust 5,000 signatures, according to Change.org Senior Organizer Jess Leber, Warren’s call had snagged more than 5,749 approving votes by noon Tuesday. (View at change.org/petitions/tell-texas-respect-scientists-publish-uncensored-environmental-report.)
The Houston Chronicle’s editorial board inveighed last month: “We salute Anderson and his colleagues for standing their ground, and we stand appalled and embarrassed by TCEQ’s disgraceful antics.” What says the TCEQ, increasingly known as one of the shames of our state? No comment.
Despite headlines, fracking not out of the woods yet
Researchers at UT Austin, nearing the end of their nine-month study on hydraulic fracturing, announced to a Fort Worth audience of oil and gas industry reps, regulators, and local officials last week that there is no link between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. Among the preliminary findings of the $300,000 study, funded by the school’s Energy Institute: documented groundwater contamination doesn’t appear to be linked to the fracking process itself — wherein massive quantities of water, chemicals, and sand are pumped into the ground at high pressure to bust oil and gas out of shale rock formations. Headline writers had a field day absolving the industry, only a little too soon. “From what we’ve seen so far, many of the problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than hydraulic fracturing, per se,” UT geology professor Chip Groat, who’s leading the study, wrote in a prepared statement.
The conclusion is not a new one. In May, Duke University researchers published results from well samples taken near frack-heavy areas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in the Northeast. No drilling chemicals were found, but water containing 17 times the normal amount of methane was. It’s a concentration the U.S. Department of the Interior finds dangerous, requiring “hazard mitigation” (remember those flaming faucets?).
For environmental activists, along with some weary landowners, a seminal issue remains the regulatory climate surrounding fracking – even if the process itself can be done safely, is it? A recent Greenwire review of enforcement data from the largest drilling states shows only a tiny fraction of oil and gas field violations ever result in fines. And, according to numbers the RRC gave the Current this summer, the RRC’s oil and gas workers have shrunk over the past 10 years even as exploration expands. A decade ago, the oil and gas employees topped over 700. Now, we have about 320. In total, only 16 field inspectors cover the whole of South Texas.
Greenwire reports that in Texas, 96 percent of the 80,000 violations by oil and gas drillers in 2009 resulted in no enforcement action. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Ames Jones (outgoing chairwoman of the Texas Railroad Commission and candidate for the Texas Senate) arguing against any federal regulation of fracking in Texas told Congress the RRC is the gold standard for oil and gas regulation. The comprehensive review this year by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission says that’s just not the case. The review asked for a fundamental restructuring of the agency (along with changing its name), calling current regulation far too lax.
A U.S. Department of Energy subcommittee released its own report a day after Grout’s announcement saying companies aren’t doing enough to cut pollution and contamination risks.
Criminalizing homelessness downtown advances
A bolstered “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is destined for a speedy approval at Council this Thursday, expanding a radius of no-fly zones around ATMs, bus stops, and busses from 25 to 50 feet, while also adding to the list restaurants, outdoor patio and dining areas, public parking garages and pay stations, parking meters and converted “donation station” meters collecting change for Haven for Hope. The City’s Public Safety Committee took up the item Tuesday after it stalled in Council earlier this month when downtown’s District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, a former civil rights attorney, attempted to change the panhandling language already written into city code which prohibits people from asking for cash or “another thing of value.” The language, he feared, was overly broad, possibly criminalizing behavior like asking for food, a cigarette, clothing, blankets, or maybe even a job. With noticeable ire from Police Chief Bill McManus and several other council members, the change was quickly dismissed, and the ordinance sent back to the Public Safety Committee, of which Bernal is not a member.
Tuesday’s short exchange seemed nothing more than procedural — especially given the head-spinning scheduling trick (before Tuesday’s committee meeting, the posted November 17 Council agenda featured the ordinance, referencing the committee meeting that had yet to even occur). Many of the same pro-ordinance voices — Marco Barros, CEO of the San Antonio Area Tourism Council and Olga Kucerak, a downtown resident who says she’s been hassled and threatened by downtown panhandlers — spoke up again Tuesday, asking officials to push through the policy as originally written. (QueQue kept scanning the room for Occupy San Antonio, to no avail.) Bernal promised to support whatever changes the committee made, which were none, on the caveat that the city review the policy in six months. And a contrite Bernal pledged this would be the last time Council had to put up with his concerns over the matter.
The stricter ordinance comes on the heels of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s report “Criminalizing Crisis”: an analysis of local policies in over 200 major U.S. cities that reveal a “startling trend toward criminalizing basic acts necessary for homeless persons’ survival, including eating and sleeping in public,” the group says. Since its 2009 report, the center noted a 7 percent increase in measures targeting begging or panhandling, a 7 percent increase in measures against sleeping outside, and a 10 percent increase in policies against loitering.
It’s bad enough that the banksters sent the world’s economy teetering in the first place, but now those most damaged by the system will find themselves doubly bruised by their neighbors in city government. •