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Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital.  Photo by Carol Geiger.

Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital today. Photo by Carol Geiger.

Today, just hours after the House Energy Resources Committee heard from scientists at Southern Methodist University that oil and gas extraction and injection wells for fracking wastewater are causing earthquakes in Texas, the Texas Senate passed a bill that will almost completely end local control over oil and gas industry activities.

House Bill 40 was conceived of in the backlash against Denton’s ban on fracking, but it goes way further than overruling bans.  City ordinances adopted to protect public health and safety in are just a pen stroke away from being invalid and Governor Abbott isn’t going to veto this bill.  The Texas Legislature has decided that the people of Laredo, Dallas, Houston, College Station Nacogdoches, Southlake, Harlingen, Sherman, Port Aransas, Fort Stockton and so many other cities across the State of Texas shouldn’t have the right to protect the communities they live in from the very real dangers that fracking and other oil and gas industry activities pose.  This is an unprecedented retreat from Texas’ long tradition of local control.

Why, you might ask, would our elected officials choose to so dramatically curtail the rights of Texas citizens and cities?  The answer is money.  According to a recent report by Texans for Public Justice, the energy and natural resources industries were the number 1 financial contributors to non-judicial Texas politicians in 2014.  31 Texas senators received $1.7 million – an average of $56,000 each.  144 Texas representatives received $3.8 million – an average of $25,000 each.

The oil and gas industries’ use of campaign contributions to curry favor with elected officials is nothing new and it crosses political lines.  That’s HB 40 ended up with 78 authors, co-authors and sponsors.  The people who are elected to protect the people of Texas can’t wait to show the oil and gas industry how great of an investment they made with their campaign contributions.

The Texas Legislature is tearing apart local control to protect oil and gas interests instead of public health and safety.  Only voters can change this pattern.

Killing me softly

Killing me softly

Senate Bill 709, which passed in the Texas Senate on April 16th and has now passed in the Texas House, would scale back the public’s right to participate through a contested-case, an administrative hearing process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Last night this bill was discussed and passed to third reading in the Texas House.   During the discussion of this bill, it was alleged that “Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a ‘serious disadvantage’ compared to its neighbors,” according to Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who carried the bill in the House.  However, the truth is that there are just not that many permit applications that are affected by the contested case hearing process. In 2014, there were 1,960 applications received by TCEQ. Of those applications, only 10 were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings – that’s only one half of one percent of applications received in that calendar year. The other 99.5% of permit applications to the TCEQ go uncontested and are processed and issued in time-frames similar to or even faster than our neighboring states with whom we compete most closely for business. This was based on an analysis of public records by Public Citizen and later confirmed by the agency to the Texas Tribune.

This analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.  When pressed for one facility Texas might have lost to Louisiana because of a misconception about our permitting process, on the floor of the Texas Senate, Senator Fraser gave the example of Shintech, Inc. (a Japanese subsidiary of Shin Etsu and the largest producer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the United States).  In 1998, Shintech backed out of its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent, LA (which is in the heart of what has become known as “Cancer Alley”, an environmental justice community of low-income, minority residents)  This community fought back and won because of legal opposition by the local residents.  Since that time, Louisiana put rules in place that makes it harder for citizens to obtain legal help to fight off industry – sound familiar?  So now Shintech will be able to expand their operations in Louisiana without much opposition and if they come back here . . . well, they may find the same “business-friendly” fast-track environment.

If this bill is enacted into law, the contested case process that has a track record of improving permits and protecting the environment from the biggest and longest lasting environmentally hazardous projects, would be substantially amended.
Continue Reading »

Statement of Tyson Slocum, Energy Program Director, Public Citizen

The recent spate of oil train disasters requires a rewrite of safety rules. While the rules unveiled today represent a step forward in some respects, the rules also do not go nearly far enough in two crucial areas. First, the rules allow the very same dangerous oil train cars that have been involved in the recent derailments and explosions to remain on the rails until 2020 in some cases. Second, the rules do nothing to lower the volatility of the crude oil being transported. That means the rule does little to minimize the magnitude of any explosion that occurs after an oil train derails and explodes. Requiring rail cars to become more puncture-resistant and have more effective braking systems is a necessary first step. But the directive does not fully safeguard communities from the threat of oil train infernos.

Legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) – the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act (S. 859) – represents the apex of what a regulatory response to the threat of oil train disasters should be. It should set aggressive but fair standards for new and existing cars and immediately ban the use of any car without increased puncture resistance, stronger flame retardants and enhanced braking systems. Cantwell’s legislation goes above and beyond today’s proposed rule by setting a federal oil volatility standard and by requiring that community officials be notified before oil trains travel through their neighborhoods.

America’s crude-by-rail crisis stems from the rapid expansion of oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, which lacks adequate pipeline capacity to move the 1.2 million barrels of oil produced there every day. As a result, 70 percent of the oil is shipped on railroads that are not designed to accommodate these treacherous loads. Bakken crude is extremely volatile, making it more prone to combustion upon a puncture-inducing derailment.

A small step like today’s DOT rule does not do enough to address the real oil train safety crisis.

The following was reposted from U.S. Dept. of Transportation

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today announced a final rule for the safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail. The final rule, developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in coordination with Canada, focuses on safety improvements that are designed to prevent accidents, mitigate consequences in the event of an accident, and support emergency response.

The rule:

  1. Unveils a new, enhanced tank car standard and an aggressive, risk-based retrofitting schedule for older tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol;
  2. Requires a new braking standard for certain trains that will offer a superior level of safety by potentially reducing the severity of an accident, and  the “pile-up effect”;
  3. Designates new operational protocols for trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids, such as routing requirements, speed restrictions, and information for local government agencies; and
  4. Provides new sampling and testing requirements to improve classification of energy products placed into transport.

You can view a summary of the rule here and the entire rule here.  For additional information on the steps the Department of Transportation has already taken to help strengthen the safe transport of crude oil by rail, please visit www.dot.gov/mission/safety/rail-chronology.

This probably does not go far enough to prevent a major tragedy as more and more trains crisscross our country carrying explosive crude oil, but it is a first step.

Public Notice at the site of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits - Photo from TexansTogether.org

Public Notice at the site of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits – Photo from TexansTogether.org

UPDATE:  This bill passed in the House 96 to 44 on Monday, April 27.  There is still a chance to stop it in the Senate.  Call your Texas senator and ask him or her to vote no on HB1794 when it comes up. 

On Monday, the Texas House of Representatives will consider another bill that attacks local control and would protect polluters. HB 1794 by, Representative Charlie Geren would place a cap on the amount that local governments can assess in civil penalties for violators of environmental regulations. The penalty would be capped at $4.3 million in total fines and a five year statute of limitations would be put in place on the filing of such law suits. While Geren describes his bill as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” these caps would really just erode the ability of local cities and counties to collect on damages from major polluters in cases in which the clean up far exceeds $4.3 million.

This is bad legislation because cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) does not have the resources or the guts to go after the biggest polluters, and those are the polluters that are going to get away with penalties that are far less than would be needed to actually clean up their mess.

San Jacinto River Waste Pits' Disposal in the 1960's - Photo from TexansTogether.org

San Jacinto River Waste Pits’ Disposal in the 1960’s – Photo from TexansTogether.org

For example, this legislation comes largely as a response to the high profile litigation between Harris County and three companies liable for the San Jacinto Waste Pits, an EPA superfund site and one of the biggest environmental disasters of the past decade. The pits were first dug in 1965 by a paper company for disposal of its waste from nearby mill. Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste with a highly toxic chemical called dioxin was dumped on the river’s west bank. A few years later the pits were abandoned.

Later, a natural environmental processes took place,-the river moved. What was once a waste dump next to the river became a waste dump in the river. In the following decades, communities were built on the banks of the San Jacinto river and the families that lived there were unaware of the toxins they were living right on top of. New companies moved in who ignored the waste pits, so they did not get discovered until 2005, decades after the dumping began.

Local authorities, environmentalists and citizens of nearby neighborhoods contend that the waste pits have caused incalculable harm to the ecosystem and are responsible for a cluster of cancers and other diseases in these communities. The estimated cost of complete remediation is somewhere between $100 million and $600 million, well above what Geren’s proposed cap. The estimated medical costs for the 17,000 people living on top of these waste pits is incalculable.

The San Jacinto Waste Pit civil court settlement that inspired HB 1794 was for $29 million from two companies.  Far from being excessive, this is an amount that won’t come close to covering the costs to the local community.

Houston Ship Channel - Photo by Bryan Parras

Houston Ship Channel – Photo by Bryan Parras

County or city led lawsuits seeking penalties are relatively rare. In most cases companies pay their fine and clean up their site, however not all of them do. In those cases where the company and the state environmental agency have failed to solve the problem, local governments are all that’s left. We do not need legislation that hamstrings the ability of local governments to penalize the biggest polluters and offenders of the law.  Communities that are home to these polluting industries will suffer.

Email your state representative now to voice your opposition to this bill.

prairie festIn Fort Worth  this weekend

Come by the Public Citizen booth at Prairie Fest

Click here for more information.

earthdaytexasCelebrate the Planet | All Day | Three-Day Festival.

April 24-25-26

10AM – 6PM  |  Fair Park  |  Free Admission

Come by the Public Citizen booth (#5404 in Centennial Hall) and say howdy

Click here for more information

How Solar Works

How Solar Panels Work

How Solar Panels Work

Check out this NBC News’ 30 seconds to know segment on how solar power works.  Pretty cool.

Renewable energy clears the Air, reduces electric bills, creates jobs, waterproofs our energy supply and kept the lights on during peak times during the drought years when our “baseline” generation was unable to keep up with the demand.

Now check out our earlier post about the move in the Texas legislature to abolish renewable energy programs in the state. The bill that would do that, SB 931, heads to the Texas House of Representatives next.  If you live in Texas, now is the time to call your Representative to voice your opposition to this anti-renewable energy bill.  If you don’t know who represents you, look it up.

 

TACUPDATE – HB 1690 passed 94 to 51 with 15 amendments adopted (3 of these were amendments to amendments) of the 24 offered on April 21.  It was still a bad bill in the end.

Despite Governor Abbott’s call for ethics reform, House Bill 1690 is actually an anti-ethics bill. Rather than restoring public confidence in government, it sets the stage for crony politics and political favoritism, and is another scandal in the making.

Like Senate Bill 10, HB 1690 creates a special legal system with special treatment reserved for Texas elected officials and state employees. This system is designed to stymie criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Prosecuting a corrupt official will require the approval of both the Texas Rangers and a local prosecuting attorney.  This will operate as a political filter and give a green light for cover ups and corruption.

In the vast majority of states, including Texas, public integrity cases—like all criminal cases—are handled by a local prosecutor in the county where the offense occurs. Only one state has the highly unusual and suspect “hometown venue with a hometown prosecutor” provision.

Under HB 1690, no matter where a crime is committed, a politician will be prosecuted by his or her hometown officials – essentially ‘home cookin.’ This raises the legitimate question of whether local prosecutors, judges or even juries could be truly independent when dealing with a prominent local political figure.

Under HB 1690, a politician will be prosecuted by his or her hometown officials— but the funding for these types of cases is inadequate. Half of a million dollars is not enough to prosecute these complex cases, which will require moving evidence and witnesses to the hometown county. Counties will bear the costs.

The current system works. The Travis County Public Integrity Unit has pursued public corruption cases in a non-partisan fashion. Of the 21 elected officials it has prosecuted since 1978, 15 were Democrats and 6 were Republicans. The simplest solution is to fund that entity. Failing that, Texas needs to find the toughest independent prosecutors in the state and put them to work cleaning up corruption at the Capitol.

As we see it, we have three options with this bill which goes before the House shortly for a vote:
Continue Reading »

Save EnergyEnergy efficiency upgrades are widely accepted to be the cheapest way to meet energy needs, yet many businesses don’t make such upgrades because of the up-front costs. That’s why the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2013 to make Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs for commercial properties possible in Texas.

PACE programs allow property owners to pay for energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation measures through low interest loans that are repaid through property tax bills. This mechanism spreads the cost of the upgrades out over time and reduces risk for the property owner because the loan is attached to the property, not the individual.

Until recently though, no PACE programs had been established in Texas. In March, Travis County became the first county in Texas to create a PACE program. The program will allow property owners to choose specific water conservation and energy saving improvements that fit each property’s individual needs.

Just how beneficial is the Texas PACE program? It helps in the local search of “finding the sweet spot in the public policy process where people, natural resources, and the economy are best served”, as Judge Eckhardt told Texas Government Insider. After all, the main goal of the Texas plan is to attain water protection, energy-efficiency developments, and renewable retrofits- all of which would be obtained through economical loans. Texas really is trying to do everything… big.

Keeping PACE in Texas made this first Texas PACE program possible by convening stakeholders to develop a toolkit for local governments to use when creating PACE programs. Not only should other counties follow Travis County, but they should also follow the other 30 states and District of Columbia that have employed PACE programs. With the help of passionate sponsors and volunteer stakeholders, any county can adapt the PACE program, just like Travis County did with its plethora of sponsors and 130 volunteers.

courtroom symbolUPDATE: SB 709 passed in the Senate on Thursday, April 16 and then passed in the House on Thursday, April 30.

Texas legislators have once again taken aim at the long-standing contested case hearing process that provides opportunity for public participation in ensuring an environmental permit is protective of public health and the environment.

Senate Bill 709 by Senator Fraser and its companion House Bill 1865 by Representative Morrison reduce public participation and rights in a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) contested case hearing for an environmental permit application.

The changes to the state’s permitting process proposed in SB 709 reduce the rights of Texans to participate effectively in the permitting process on the basis that the contested case process has become burdensome to the state’s ability to competitively attract businesses due to the uncertainty created by the threat of a lengthy permit process.

However, the truth is that there are just not that many permit applications that are affected by the contested case hearing process. In 2014, there were 1,960 applications received by TCEQ. Of those applications, only 10 were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings – that’s only one half of one percent of applications received in that calendar year. The other 99.5% of permit applications to the TCEQ go uncontested and are processed and issued in time-frames similar to or even faster than our neighboring states that we compete closest with for business.

If this bill is enacted into law, the contested case process that has a track record of improving permits and protecting the environment from the biggest and longest lasting environmentally hazardous projects, would be substantially amended.

First, the length of any hearing would be limited to 180 days without regard to specific needs of parties. This time frame does not allow sufficient time for meaningful discovery, or analysis of the facts removing any discretion by the Administrative Law Judge to grant an extension of time even when such a denial would deprive a party of due process.

These bills would also allow the TCEQ to deny a hearing request based on the merits of the application without allowing an opportunity for discovery, presentation of the evidence, or cross examination. The contested case hearing process was created to provide an affected party a chance to argue against the TCEQ decision in front of an impartial decision maker as part of a sound democratic system.

Further, the bill places the burden of proof on the wrong party by shifting it from the applicant to the protestant. In this legislation, the draft permit itself, is evidence that is presumed to be true that the permit meets all federal and state requirements declaring it protective of public health and the environment. However, this is often not the case of draft permits and if this bill passes the burden to find fault in a supposedly perfect draft permit shifts to the protestant. Protestants are often individuals or small organizations who often do not have the resources nor expertise to collect the necessary evidence to bring a strong a case against a large cooperation.

The bottom line is that the burden of proof should remain on the party seeking to change the status quo by filing permit. If an applicant wants to discharge waste into the air, water or land, it is their responsibility to show that they are using the best technology available, so that the activity can be done safely, rather than forcing an affected member of the public to prove otherwise.

Although most permits don’t go through the contested case hearing process, those that do are often the most significant permits that would allow the most pollution. In those cases, Texans should have the right to protect their health, land and livelihoods.

The contested case hearing process reflects longstanding Texas values of transparent and accountable government, private property rights, and local control. In a state where these values are held sacred it will be interesting to see how legislators handle these bills.

Email your state representative to voice your opposition to HB 1865 and SB 709.

Texas wind farmToday, the Texas Senate passed Senator Fraser’s anti-renewable energy Senate Bill 931.  If passed by the House, this bill will abolish two of Texas’ few renewable energy programs – the renewable portfolio standard and building of competitive renewable energy zone transmission lines.

Job growth, economic development, stable business climate – I thought those were conservative bread and butter.  The wind industry should have earned the good graces of Texas lawmakers.  Wind farms annually pay over $85 million in taxes to rural Texas counties, plus about $65 million in lease payments to landowners.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockAnd the solar industry is rapidly becoming a significant driver of Texas job growth as well.  As of November 2014, there were almost 7,000 solar jobs in Texas.  That’s a 68% increase from 2013, a job growth rate 24 times greater than in the Texas economy overall.

And yet, the Texas Senate has decided that Texas should have no renewable energy goal and that it should be more difficult for the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) to build transmission lines to prime areas for wind and solar energy development.

Abolishing the Texas renewable energy portfolio standard would cause a devaluing of the Texas Renewable Energy Credit (REC) market and would cause renewable energy developers to lose a revenue stream they counted on when making investments.  Existing projects used REC revenue when applying for financing.  Now developers will have to go back to their financers and let them know that the Texas market has changed, and not for the better.

Competitive renewable energy zones have been established and transmission lines built to bring electricity from west Texas to the parts of the state where electricity is needed.  But that project is not yet complete.  Some of the best areas for solar energy development still have no transmission lines.

So, just as the solar energy is really starting to boom, the Texas Senate has voted to put the brakes on the policies that would best be able to allow this industry, as well as the wind industry, to grow successfully.

SB 931 heads to the Texas House of Representatives next, now is the time to call your Representative to voice your opposition to this anti-renewable energy bill.  If you don’t know who represents you, look it up.

Georgetown Renewables and Time

The following was written by Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas and published in Time on March 27th.

A decision such as that made by Georgetown might not be possible for other Texas utilities if SB931 passes.  Read the Time article below to see why Georgetown made this move.

Georgetown is a city of 54,000 just north of Austin known for beautiful Victorian-era architecture around our historic courthouse square. Founded in 1848, we are home to Southwestern University, a small liberal arts college.

The City of Georgetown recently announced that our municipal electric utility will move to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2017. That probably caught some folks by surprise. A town in the middle of a state that recently sported oil derricks on its license plates may not be where you’d expect to see leaders move to clean solar and wind generation.

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability. Continue Reading »

There’s plenty to be disappointed about with the Texas Legislature.  The ill-conceived policy proposals that would harm the Texas economy, its residents, and the environment keep piling up.  Sweeping changes for the better are off the table.  However, there is still opportunity for incremental progress and for at for having conversations about important environmental, energy, ethics and consumer issues in Texas.

It might be a long time until we can get any policy home runs in Texas, but stringing together a bunch of singles is way better than forfeiting.  We’re working to find common ground with progressives and conservatives to make improvements where we can.

Protecting Texans from Air Pollution:

House Bill 14 by Representative Morrison and Senate Bill 1619 by Senator Watson would extend the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) programs, which reduce air pollution from diesel engines in trucks, construction equipment, buses, locomotives and harbor vessels. TERP is one of the best tools the state has to reduce smog and toxic diesel particulates. This bill would extend the programs, including a rebate program for electric and natural gas cars and provide some opportunities to reduce emissions from fracking.

House Bill 3810 by Representative Walle and Senate Bill 1787 by Senator Garcia would create a system to send emergency alerts via texts, tweets and reverse 911 calls to nearby residents when toxic chemicals are released from industrial facilities. Currently, many residents who live in industrial communities rely on sirens to let them know that it might be dangerous to go outside.

Senate Bill 1786 by Senator Garcia and House Bill 3809 by Representative Hernandez would allow Texas counties and cities to regulate the air pollution from storing and transporting petroleum coke, a by-product of petroleum refining. Toxic black soot that blows from rail cars and giant uncovered piles (as high as elevated highways) piles of petroleum code often coats people’s lungs, homes and cars.

Senate Bill 1501 by Senator Garcia and House Bill 3760 by Representative Peña would require scrap metal recycling facilities to use the best available pollution control technologies, such as fences and sprayers dust suppression, to reduce air pollution from fine metal particle that blow off the recycling facility. The respiratory diseases caused by breathing fine metal particles can be avoided.

Senate Bill 1894 by Senators Garcia and Hinojosa would require sea ports to take actions to reduce air and water pollution.

Improving Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, Demand Response and Climate Change Policies:

House Bill 3539 by Representative Dukes and Senate Bill 1626 by Senator Rodríguez would make it so that large residential developments can’t ban or restrict homeowners from installing solar at their properties. Currently, state law allows developers to ban or restrict solar installations while the development is being built out, which can take years. This bill would only allow solar bans or restrictions in developments with 50 or fewer lots.

House Bill 706 by Representative Farrar would make the tax exemption for solar and other renewable energy installations at homes and businesses permanent until the property is sold, rather than requiring property owners to file for exemption annually.

House Bill 2392 by Representative Anchia would direct the comptroller and the State Energy Conservation Office to establish a loan guarantee program for improvements that increase the energy efficiency of residences that are not newly constructed.

House Bill 2254 by Representative Sylvester Turner would bar electric companies from charging minimum usage fees in the competitive power market. Such fees penalize customers for using less electricity and therefore reduce the incentive for customers to be as efficient as possible with their electric use. Minimum usage fees also often cause bill increase for customers who can’t afford them.

House Bill 3363 by Representative Keffer would adjust the financial requirements for property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs that will make PACE programs for residential property feasible. PACE will help homeowners pay for renewable energy, energy efficiency and water efficiency improvements through low-cost loans that are tied to the property, not the individual, because they are repaid on participants’ property tax bills.

Senate Bill 1284 by Senator Watson and House Bill 3343 by Representative Sylvester Turner would establish customers’ rights to participate in demand response programs. Demand response programs provide payment to customers for reducing their electric use. Demand response is an affordable way to avoid using inefficient gas-fired power plants when electric demand is especially high. The bill would direct the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to encourage development of demand response programs and encourage customers to participate.

House Bill 3069 by Representative Eddie Rodriguez and Senate Bill 1954 by Senator Hinojosa would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to develop a state compliance plan to meet the requirements of the Clean Power Plan, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting State Agencies to Protect Texas Residents from Industries:

House Bill 2901 by Representative Rodriguez and Senate Bill 1865 by Senator Zaffirini would improve accountability to the public within the Railroad Commission (RRC) by creating a clear process for citizens to file complaints to the commission, including a website listing the information the RRC would need to begin an investigation.

The Texas Legislature is Considering Many Bills that would be take Texas policy Backward: 

Continue Reading »

TACPublic Citizen calls for strengthening SB 19 the Senate ethics bill during Monday, March 30 testimony in the Texas Senate Finance Committee.

As a member of the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign (TAC), Public Citizen’s Texas office called for strengthening the Texas state senate bill aimed at combating government corruption. The 12-member alliance also released a fact sheet (see attached) detailing scandals that have cost Texas taxpayers more than $1 billion in the past decade.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, TAC member and director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, described Senate Bill 19 as a good first step that is still too weak to resolve the corruption crisis gripping the Capitol. He called for adding amendments that would go further to close the revolving door for lobbyists, state employees and contractors; strengthen requirements for disclosure of public officials’ financial information; and toughen conflict of conflicts of interest laws.

“We agree with Gov. Abbott that corruption in Texas government amounts to a state of emergency,” said Smith, who testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee (see attached). “Day after day, headlines reveal abuses in contracting, pay to play politics that result in payoffs to big donors and former officials gaining riches by stepping through the revolving door.  Senate Bill 19 addresses important areas of reform, but it’s not nearly comprehensive enough. We need more teeth in the bill so that it forces transparency and ends pay-to-play politics as well as closes the revolving door.”

Smith drew attention to the fact sheet released by the alliance, which summarizes more than a dozen cases of misappropriation, contract scandals, pay-to-play politics and mismanagement. Together, the cases have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion in wasted funds.

“When we add up the damages, we calculate more than a billion dollars wasted or lost to corruption or mismanagement,” Smith said.  “The measure of any ethics reform should be that it puts an end to these kinds of corruption. The bill must be strong enough to ensure that public officials and their allies in private business can no longer dip into the pockets of Texas citizens.”

Opinions

Opinions

Parras: Trains carrying oil an accident waiting to happen:  Officials should back federal efforts to strengthen crude transport safety
By Juan Parras | Houston Chronicle | March 27, 2015 | bit.ly/1BWIv2U

Crews work to clean up a wreck after an 18-wheeler collided with a train at the HWY 290 frontage road and Tegle Road Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Cypress, TX. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Crews work to clean up a wreck after an 18-wheeler collided with a train at the HWY 290 frontage road and Tegle Road Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Cypress, TX. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

It’s no secret that Houston is an oil-train derailment waiting to happen and that people would be killed in the disaster, possibly dozens or even hundreds of them.

In the most recent of many derailments of trains carrying highly flammable Bakken oil, 21 cars went off the tracks near Galena, Ill. The disaster sent fireballs into the air and caused a blaze that lasted for days. No one was killed or wounded; it happened in a wooded area outside of town.

In Houston, we would never be so lucky.

Sixty-six to 200 Bakken oil train cars go through our city every week – about 3,500 to more than 10,000 every year, according to Texas Department of Public Safety. The rail lines that carry them run from northwest Houston right through downtown and then split into multiple tracks in the East End before reaching the Houston Ship Channel and refinery district.

Living in Houston is like sitting on top of an oil-train time-bomb, and all it takes is a drive along the freight-train tracks to see that.

Downtown, the tracks run by family courts, the county jail, the District Attorney’s Office, juvenile court, and the University of Houston-Downtown campus, not to mention the high-rise buildings that employ thousands of people. When an oil train derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed. How many would die if there were a derailment on a weekday in downtown Houston when the streets are crowded with students, families and workers?

Going east from downtown, the freight train tracks pass through Midtown, Eastwood, the Navigation/Jensen area and the Third Ward with its huge complex of Section 8 housing. The tracks pass condos off of Navigation and Canal, the soccer stadium, the baseball stadium and then move into the Second Ward, Magnolia and finally on to the Manchester community. In all of these areas, the tracks cross major streets multiple times. The tracks border people’s backyards, pass within 100 feet, even 50 feet of schools, churches, community centers and playgrounds. If the Galena derailment happened in the East End, the fiery fallout would rain down on people’s houses.

In 2013 and 2014, there were eight oil train derailments Continue Reading »