Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tx 97: With runoff over, race for District 97 begins anew

By AMAN BATHEJA - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Wed, Dec. 26, 2007
For political junkies, the Texas House District 97 race is a dream come true. There's been plenty of drama so far, and the race will still keep on going for months.

Democrat Dan Barrett beat Republican Mark Shelton in last week's runoff, stunning many who saw the southwest Tarrant County district as a Republican stronghold. Some of the same men who unsuccessfully vied for the seat in November are preparing to try again.

Barrett will have to be re-elected in 2008 to represent the district in the next regularly scheduled legislative session, which starts in January 2009.

Candidates have until Jan. 2 to file for the March 4 primary. Here's a look at how the race is shaping up so far:


Dan Barrett: Barrett, a lawyer, was elected to the District 97 seat in Dec. 18's runoff, winning 52 percent of the vote after leading the November special election with 32 percent of the vote. Throughout the campaign, he said his priority was removing Tom Craddick as speaker of the Texas House. He is not expected to face a challenger in the March Democratic primary.


Bob Leonard: Leonard, a lawyer, represented District 97 from 1977 to 1988, when he resigned to become a lobbyist for Texans for Equity in Workers Compensation. He received 19 percent of the vote in the November special election. Leonard led his five Republican opponents in early voting, but Election Day voting put Shelton into the runoff. An anonymous automated phone call, or robocall, that went out to voters Election Day morning and criticized Leonard may have been a factor. Leonard said he suspects that whoever orchestrated the call was a supporter of House Speaker Tom Craddick, to whom Leonard declined to pledge his support.

James Schull: The Benbrook City Councilman, a lawyer, received 2 percent of the vote in the November special election. Schull declared himself neutral on Craddick during the campaign.

Mark Shelton: The medical director of infectious diseases at Cook Children's Medical Center advanced to the runoff but lost to Barrett. He focused his campaign largely on being tough on illegal immigration and pledged his support to Craddick, who appeared with him at an Austin fundraiser. Shelton repeatedly denied involvement in the Election Day robocall.

Anybody else?

Craig Goldman, a Republican insurance agent who has worked for the political operations of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has said he may still enter the race.

Craddick is an issue

Craddick, R-Midland, is now a central issue in the campaign after Barrett's victory. In the wake of the vote, Leonard has changed his tune, asserting that every Republican candidate's decision on whether to pledge support to Craddick will be a deciding factor in the March primary. "I think there's a clear call for new leadership," Leonard said. "If the Republicans don't take back the Republican Party, the Democrats will take over."
Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Heated Hearing As FCC Approves New Ownership Rules

Radio Ink - Dec. 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- December 18, 2007: "We generously ask big media to sit on Santa's knee, tell us what it wants for Christmas, and then push through whatever of those wishes are politically and practically feasible," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps this morning at the FCC's public meeting as the commission prepared to vote on FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's proposal to partially relax the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban.

"No test to see if anyone's been naughty or nice," Copps continued, "just a big shiny present for the favored few who already own an FCC license and a lump of coal for the rest of us. Happy holidays."

Copps said Congress and the American public have "done just about everything .. but storm southwest DC" to protest Martin's proposal, adding, "We say we're guided by public comment, yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly opposed by the public."

The new rules passed Tuesday morning allow newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership in the top 20 markets under certain conditions, with waivers possible in smaller markets, though smaller-market cross-ownership would be presumed not to be in the public interest.

But the waiver provisions were revised overnight to reverse that presumption in smaller markets if a station is "failed" or "failing" under the FCC's definitions and the in-market buyer is the only "reasonably available candidate" or when the proposed transaction results in a new source of local news in a market -- specifically, at least seven hours of new local news on a station that didn't previously air local news.

Copps and fellow Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein aren't happy with the revision, with Copps saying he's not yet clear on the particulars because the changes were made so late but adding, "This much is clear: The new version keeps the old loopholes and includes two new ones."

Adelstein called the vote a "monumental mistake" and said, "That we're moving forward when the voices that matter are asking us to refrain defies the imagination. The FCC has never attempted such a brazen act of defiance against Congress. Like the Titanic, we're steaming ahead at full steam despite repeated warnings of danger. This effort may yet sink. We should have slowed down rather than putting everything at risk."

Copps earlier said the revised proposal circulated Monday night "granted all sorts of permanent new waivers," and Adelstein said there were 42 waivers "adopted in the dead of night on the eve of a vote." Thirty-six of the waivers involve already-grandfathered newspaper-broadcast combinations, he said, and Commissioner Robert McDowell in his opening statement noted that the rest are for companies operating under temporary waivers.

Like Copps, Adelstein is unhappy with the revised waiver conditions for markets below the top 20, calling them a "Chinese menu" of conditions that will ultimately undermine localism, competition, and diversity.

McDowell defended the process that Copps and Adelstein had said was too rushed, saying the FCC has proceeded "like a runaway glacier" -- as, meanwhile, "the private sector has been busy working around the obstacles created by the outdated regulations of yore."

About the permanent waivers, McDowell said, "We will not require divestiture of existing combinations that were grandfathered in conjunction with the 1975 rule, or that were granted permanent waivers of the rule," adding that the FCC "should not reverse course here as we modernize our rule."

Read more in Radio Ink

FCC Tweaks Cross-Ownership Rules

By Radio Ink - Dec. 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Despite pressure on Chairman Kevin Martin from Congress to delay the vote, the FCC this morning amended its newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules but made no changes to its local radio ownership and radio-television cross-ownership limits.

Under the new cross-ownership rule, the FCC will consider combinations of either a radio or TV station with a newspaper on a case by case basis, but will face a presumption that any combination will not be in the public interest. "This is a high hurdle," said FCC attorney Jamila-Bess Johnson, who presented the rule at the agency's monthly meeting this morning. "The applicants must prove that merger would create more, relevant voices."

In the nation's top 20 markets, any radio station can combine with a major newspaper, but only television stations outside of the top four according to Nielsen ratings data may merge with a newspaper. Also, any proposed newspaper/TV combo in the top 20 markets must demonstrate that eight independent voices will remain in the market post-merger.

All proposed mergers outside of the top 20 markets will face the case-by-case review. Among the criteria that will be considered include the level of media concentration in the market, and whether the combined entity will bring more local news to the market. The applicants must also demonstrate that the broadcast and newspaper entities will maintain their own staffs, and retain independent editorial standards.

Other criteria to be considered are the financial health of the individual entities. In the case of broadcast outlets, if a station has been dark for at least four months or is in bankruptcy, it will be considered a "failing" or "falied" business by the FCC. The FCC will also consider if the station has posted negative cash flow for the previous three years. A station's ratings data will also be considered.

If a merger applicant can demonstrate that a proposed combination will result in a new source of news, and will generate at least seven hours of new local news programming per week on a broadcast station, the presumption that the combination will not serve the public interest will be reversed.

While considerable time was spent on the details of the new cross-ownership rule, a scant few sentences were dedicated to discussion of the local radio ownership rule. These limits were remanded by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 for further justification by the FCC. In her prepared remarks, Johnson noted simply that the current limits are structured under caps created by Congress, and are being retained.

Commissioner Deborah Taylor-Tate in her remarks, however, stated that the remarks of citizens who spoke out about radio consolidation at the six public hearings on the rule review weighed in the decision, and noted that large radio groups like Clear Channel and CBS are voluntarily divesting some of its radio stations. "This is a sign of the market working," she said, adding that these divestitures may improve minority and small business ownership of broadcast outlets.

Improving ownership among those groups is a hot button issue for Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who are in the minority on the five-member commission. In prepared comments at today's meeting, both expressed dismay that more isn't being done with today's vote to encourage minority and small business ownership.

The commission also retained its existing radio/television cross-ownership limits. Under these caps, one owner can control up to two television and six radio stations in a market where twenty independent voices will exist post merger, and can control two television and four stations in a market where ten independent voices will exist post-merger.

A handful of representatives from anti-media consolidation group Code Pink charged towards the commission dais just as the five commissioners were preparing to vote, with claims that included, "This vote is a sham," "The public interest is not being served by this commission, and "On behalf of the public we want to stop this vote." The activists were escorted from the room by FCC security.
Read more in Radio Ink

Thursday, December 06, 2007

ACTION ALERT - Sunset Review of TxDOT scheduled Jan. 7, 2008

December 5, 2007
Dear Recipient:

The Sunset Advisory Commission would like your help in reviewing and improving the State’s transportation system. The Legislature, through the Texas Sunset Act, has charged our Commission with reviewing the mission and performance of the Texas Department of Transportation.

In general, the Sunset Commission periodically evaluates state agencies to determine if the agency is needed, if it is operating effectively, and if state funds are well spent. Based on the recommendations of the Sunset Commission, the Texas Legislature ultimately decides whether an agency continues to operate into the future. Additional information on the Sunset Commission can be found on our website.

As part of this agency’s review, we seek the input of organizations and individuals who have an interest in the agency. Please take some time to comment on the attached preliminary issues identified by the Sunset Commission staff as potential research areas. Also, let us know of other issues of interest to you or your organization. Feel free to share copies of this e-mail and the attachment with any others who may have an interest in the Texas Department of Transportation. To help ensure the free flow of information, anything submitted to Sunset staff during the review until the staff report is released is confidential, and will not be shared with anyone outside of Sunset staff.

To give the staff time to consider your information during our review of the Texas Department of Transportation, we request you send your response by Monday, January 7, 2008. Please mail, e-mail, or fax your comments to the address or fax number provided in the attached Preliminary Issue List. Also, if you need more information or have questions about our process, please contact Jennifer Jones at (512) 463-1300. We greatly appreciate your assistance and look forward to hearing your ideas.


Ken Levine
Deputy Director
Sunset Advisory Commission

Tribune Appeals Waiver Denial

By Radio INK - December 6, 2007
CHICAGO -Tribune Co. has filed an appeal of the FCC's denial of its request for indefinite waivers of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

The FCC last week cleared the way for Tribune to complete its $8.2 billion buyout by granting Tribune waivers for two years, or six months after the end of litigation connected to the denial of open-ended waivers (or FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's ownership-rules revision), whichever is longer.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who voted against the Tribune approval, predicted in his dissenting statement that the company would "run to the courthouse door" to trigger an automatic waiver of at least two years. "Presto!" he wrote "Tribune gets at least a two-year waiver plus the ability to go to court immediately and see if they can get the entire rule thrown out."

Tribune has grandfathered cross-ownership waivers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Hartford that wouldn't ordinarily have passed to its new owners, so it needed new waivers to complete its buyout deal. As part of the FCC's approval last week, Tribune got a permanent waiver of the cross-ownership ban in Chicago, where it owns its lone radio property, WGN-AM

Read more

Media and Energy

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - Dec. 6, 2007
Today Media Consolidation and Energy are hot topics in Washington. Congressman John Dingell's assessment that the FCC has been "short-circuiting procedural norms" and failing to communicate appropriately with members, other legislators and the public is circulating through Washington and across America.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin ignited a fire storm when he moved to allow consolidation of media in the same market. See HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE TO INVESTIGATE FCC and HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE TO QUESTION FCC ON MEDIA OWNERSHIP

On another front, privacy is a hot button for citizens. Advancements in technology now allow internet providors to track every website visited by their customers. See WATCHING WHAT YOU SEE ON THE WEB.

We continue with the same old leap frog pattern between technological advances, profit driven infringements, citizens outcry as privacy erodes, governmental regulations, lobbyist and citizen activists demands for advantages or remedies. It is prudent for citizens to keep tabs on these developments. What news we have access to through media in our hometowns and who watches what we read and write on the internet and how that information is used is up for grabs.

Watching What You See on the Web

New Gear Lets ISPs Track Users and Sell Targeted Ads;
More Players, Privacy Fears

By BOBBY WHITE - The Wall Street Journal - December 6, 2007
CenturyTel Inc., a Monroe, La., phone company that provides Internet access and long-distance calling services, is facing stiff competition from cellphone companies and cable operators. So to diversify, it's getting into the online-advertising business.

And not just any online advertising. The technology it's using could change the way the $16.9 billion Internet ad market works, bringing in a host of new players -- and giving consumers fresh concerns about their privacy.

CenturyTel's system allows it to observe and analyze the online activities of its Internet customers, keeping tabs on every Web site they visit. The equipment is made by a Silicon Valley start-up called NebuAd Inc. and installed right into the phone company's network. NebuAd takes the information it collects and offers advertisers the chance to place online ads targeted to individual consumers. NebuAd and CenturyTel get paid whenever a consumer clicks on an ad.

This technique -- called behavioral targeting -- is far more customized than the current method of selling ads online. Today, it's an imperfect process: companies such as Revenue Science Inc. and Tacoda Inc., which was recently bought by Time Warner Inc., contract with Web sites to monitor which consumers visit them, attaching "cookies," or small pieces of tracking data, to visitors' hard drives so they are recognized when they return. The targeting firms feed the data to Web site owners, who use it to charge premium rates for customized ads. But the information is limited, since the tracking companies can't monitor all of the sites an individual visits.

The newer form of behavioral targeting involves placing gear called "deep-packet inspection boxes" inside an Internet provider's network of pipes and wires. Instead of observing only a select number of Web sites, these boxes can track all of the sites a consumer visits, and deliver far more detailed information to potential advertisers.

Until now, the booming online ad market has been dominated by the likes of Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. and small techie advertising shops such as Right Media Inc. and AdECN Inc. But new companies are rushing in. Both wireless and wireline Internet-access providers such as CenturyTel, Rochester Telecom Systems Inc. and Embarq Communications Inc., among others, have entered the advertising gold rush. And they've tapped Internet equipment companies like NebuAd, FrontPorch Inc., and Phorm Inc. to provide the gear to help them along.

The technology does raise privacy issues. The Internet-service providers often know other information about consumers, such as their names, locations and age and income ranges, which can be very valuable to potential advertisers, especially when combined with Web browsing habits. "Some of these [Internet equipment] guys are traveling in dangerous territory," says Emily Riley, an advertising analyst with Jupiter Research. "Should one company have all of that data in one place? It's a little troubling."

The idea of matching online and offline information about individual consumers has raised privacy concerns in the past. Many of the major online ad companies have pledged to abide by voluntary standards put forth by the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, which call for members to notify consumers that they are being targeted and give them the chance to opt out.

NebuAd says that it isn't a member of the group and that the information provided by the ISPs is fairly standard data that they often make available to third parties. FrontPorch also says it believes it isn't going too far by receiving a small amount of offline user data.

Privacy advocates say transparency is key. "Consumers need to know exactly what is going on and they need to know it at all times," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. "Today they say they are using consumer information for ads, but it could be something completely different tomorrow. The ISPs and the companies they are working with need to share as much information as possible."

Some Internet providers are reworking their privacy policies to pre-empt concerns. Many give customers online fact sheets informing them of their new behavioral targeting service along, and ask if they want to participate. If they opt out, the consumers' Internet address is tagged and their Web activity isn't tracked.

If a consumer doesn't opt out of the service, the equipment companies say they take steps to shield a consumer's privacy. NebuAd, for instance, says it doesn't keep a consumer's personally identifiable information, but only builds a profile of a consumer's interests based on the sites a user frequents. The company also doesn't track traffic to sites related to sex, health or politics.

Internet access providers say they take the privacy concerns seriously. "Privacy is a huge issue that you must get right," says Dan Toomey, chief executive of Anacapa Holdings Ltd., a Dublin, Ireland-based company that provides wireless Internet access. "One mistake could spell big trouble." Anacapa, which began using FrontPorch's equipment in September, operates 2,400 wireless Internet networks at hotels and coffee shops in 18 countries in Europe. The company allows consumers to use their wireless Internet service for free in exchange for viewing ads.

The use of the new networking gear to observe online behavior -- while currently nascent -- is growing. Zachary Britton, FrontPorch's chief executive, says his company's advertising business generated $15 million in the first nine months of the year, up 187% from the year-earlier period. The company has signed up 202 new customers for its deep packet inspection boxes this year. Meanwhile, NebuAd is expecting revenue of $100 million in 2008 based on sales of its advertising equipment. NebuAd Chief Executive Bob Dykes says the company has signed up more than 30 new customers, mostly Internet access providers, since it started.

For CenturyTel, the new business has already turned into a healthy sideline. The company estimates it will see a 5% to 10% boost in average revenue per user for its high-speed Internet business, with extra revenue totaling around $2 million a quarter. "We need new revenue streams to survive," says Chris Mangum, vice president of strategic planning of CenturyTel, which notifies its consumers of the behavioral targeting in an online fact sheet and allows them to opt out.

Having been initially skeptical, Mr. Mangum says, "We're now comfortable with how we approach this," says Mr. Mangum. CenturyTel says it's too early to tell what percentage of customers have opted out.
Read more

House Subcommittee To Investigate FCC

By Radio INK - Dec. 6, 2007
WASHINGTON -- December 4, 2007: House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) told FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a letter Monday that he's concerned about "procedural breakdowns" at the FCC and that the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation will be conducting a probe into the agency.

"Given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner," Dingell wrote to Martin. Though he said it's not true in the case of every proceeding, Dingell said that "a trend appears to be emerging of short-circuiting procedural norms, suggesting a larger breakdown at the agency."

He continued, "For instance, the commission does not put the text of proposed rules out for notice and comment; there is little public notice of certain proposed commission actions; and commissioners are often not informed of the details of draft items until it is too late to provide the necessary scrutiny and analysis that is so important to reasoned decisionmaking."

Martin and the four other FCC commissioners are all on the witness list for a hearing on media ownership by Commerce's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, set for 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

House Subcommittee Questions FCC On Media Ownership

By Radio INK - Dec. 6, 2007
WASHINGTON -- December 5, 2007: The House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing Wednesday focusing on media ownership and other issues before the FCC, with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and all four Commissioners in attendance.

Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) in his opening statement reiterated the points he made in his letter to Martin earlier this week, saying he's seen "too much sniping among the Commissioners" and adding, "We've heard too many too many tales of short-circuited decisionmaking processes."

"The FCC appears to be broken," Dingell said. "The victim of this breakdown is a fair, open, and transparent regulatory process." He said it would be "intolerable" to let the situation continue and added, "This is why I've asked the Subcomittee on Oversight & Investigation of this committee to review how the agency is conducting its business."

As Martin began his prepared testimony, he stated that he is committed to "a robust marketplace of ideas" that is focused on "competition, diversity, and localism." He then ran down the FCC's efforts in the current media-ownership proceeding, citing the six public hearings, 10 commissioned studies, and extended public comment periods in the proceeding, then moved on to the rationale behind what he called his "relatively minor" proposal to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban in the top 20 markets.

Martin cited past and pending personnel cuts at major-market newspapers to support his point that the newspaper industry is struggling and said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the financial condition in which these companies find themselves." Allowing cross-ownership "may help forestall erosion" in the industry by allowing newsgathering and other costs to be shared.

On ownership diversity, Martin pointed to the FCC's recent revision of the low-power FM rules and said he has circulated an order that is designed to "promote diversity by increasing and expanding broadcast-ownership opportunities for small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses."

That order, he said, adopts most of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council's proposals and those of the FCC's own Diversity Committee.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps began his testimony by saying the FCC is "lurching dangerously off-course" and "giving short shift to pressing problems."

He said Martin's proposal is not a "moderate relaxation" of the newspaper-broadcast ban, but an opening for cross-ownership waivers in all markets. The conditions for a waiver, he said, "are as tough as a bowl of Jell-O," then got a laugh when said, "I have about as much confidence that a proposed combination will be turned down as I do that the next commission meeting will start on time."

Copps repeated his oft-stated desire for a new localism proceeding and called Martin's scheduled December 18 vote on his ownership proposal "an unseemly rush to judgment."

Adelstein began, "No issue on our agenda has more far-reaching consequences for the future of our democracy than this one," and cited the "bipartisan chorus of opposition to media consolidation." He echoed Copps' point that the waiver guidelines are too loose, though he said they amount to a "wet noodle" rather than Jell-O.

When the questioning began, Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA), asked whether the waiver requirements for markets below the top 20 is a "high hurdle, or just a speed bump." Martin said he intended the requirements to be a hurdle and said, "I absolutely would be willing to work with [the other Commissioners] on finding language to make them feel more comfortable that this is a high hurdle."

Later, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) asked if the waiver conditions constitute a loophole that would "allow someone to drive a truck through." Martin responded, "It's not true that it is a loophole you can drive a truck through." He said the FCC has always allowed waiver filings, though the presumption under the new rules would be that newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership waivers in smaller markets would be against the public interest.

The waiver conditions would also take financial distress into account, he said -- "as we traditionally have in waivers" -- as well as the properties' willingness to "start new news -- if they're willing to create a new local news voice."

Copps, however, said, "This is a loophole. These factors that we are going to consider are so generic, they're so porous -- maybe it's the new media-ownership sponge, I don't know what it is -- but they scare the heck out of me."

Adelstein said that even if a property promises just "10 minutes more of news a year" or "one half-hour special," that would qualify for a waiver, and added, "I can't imagine a more porous standard."

Martin responded, "We did not say that would qualify for a waiver. That's not what the order says. What we said is, you can apply for a waiver, and these are the criteria we would consider. We did not say that you would qualify for it."

But Adelstein insisted, "The waiver standard says 'more news.' That's the only standard -- 'more news.' So what is 'more news'? There's no definition if it's five minutes, 10 minutes, or 50 hours. So theoretically, under that standard, 10 minutes can qualify."

Subcommittee Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI), who in his opening statement expressed support for further deregulation of radio ownership, asked why Martin hasn't supported radio deregulation. "The numbers are in," Upton said, "and we know that the [radio] industry is doing far worse today than at any time in the past. Isn't this the same situation you're trying to address for newspapers?"

Martin responded, "The most significant difference in what was occurring in the radio market and the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban is that the radio market and the radio owners received some significant amount of ownership relief in 1996." In contrast, the newspaper-broadcast ban has been in place since 1975.

Reps. Hilda Solis (D-CA) and Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) both addressed ownership diversity, and Gonzalez asked Martin about the biggest obstacles to minority ownership and how the FCC plans to address the issue. "The two biggest obstacles are access to capital and access to new stations," Martin said. The FCC is addressing that, he said, by identifying where new stations are available; opening other broadcast avenues, such as LPFM; and waiving some rules for new entrants to the industry, including allowing expired construction permits to designated entities and changing the equity-plus-debt rule so other broadcasters can help finance new entrants. Martin also noted that the commission has unanimously supported the return of the minority tax certificate.

Solis raised the issue of private equity ownership in media and "transparency on who the owners really are" in those cases. "What steps will you take to make that known?" she asked. Martin said the same rules for ownership attribution apply to private equity owners as to any other, but Copps said, "Private equity is transforming the media-ownership environment."

Copps went on, "Instead of publicly held corporations, which you can at least track, and file 10(K) forms with the SEC, you have these private money funds which don't have to file. I can't find out who owns what." He said, "How can I do my job of protecting the public interest if I can't even find out who owns what?"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Judges hear arguments in DPS security tape case - Texas Observer wants to see if donor Leininger met with Legislators

DPS lawyer says release of tapes would set bad precedent, compromise security.
By Mark Lisheron - Austin AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - Thursday, October 25, 2007

An attorney for the Department of Public Safety told a Court of Appeals panel Wednesday that publicly releasing security camera tapes from public buildings was little different from giving someone the access codes to a building's security center.

DPS has for more than two years been arguing to keep certain security tapes secret, after a public information request by the Texas Observer, a small nonprofit investigative newspaper.

The case made its way to the 3rd Court of Appeals after the Texas attorney general's office and a state district judge ruled that the public's right to the tapes in this case outweighed security concerns.

DPS has spent more than $165,000 on private attorneys to fight the release of two tapes recorded by two Capitol security cameras on May 23, 2005, in the back hallway of the House of Representatives chamber.

The Observer asked for the tapes to see whether prominent campaign donor and school voucher advocate James Leininger met with legislators on a day when a voucher pilot program was to have been voted on.

The case has drawn the ire of the chairman of the state Senate's Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who has promised an investigation into why the department has not surrendered the tapes.

Carona has called the Public Safety department's action politically motivated and a waste of taxpayer money.

Raymond White, the attorney representing DPS, said Wednesday that his client has persisted despite the legal setbacks because of the precedent that would be set if the agency were forced to release the tapes.

"The release of this information would give people who would want to defeat the (security) system an incredible amount of information," White told a panel made up of justices Diane Henson, David Puryear and Alan Waldrop. "These videotapes are a guide to the core of how the security system works."

As he has from the start of the case, Jeremy Wright, attorney for the Texas Observer, told the appeals court judges that the tapes provide no such compromising security information. He asked the panel to consider the law, which offers a narrow interpretation of what kinds of information can be kept from public view for security reasons.

After the hearing, Wright said he was confident that the three judges understood that the Observer's public information request was narrow, specific and legal.

"I think they were very focused on the balance between open government and security, and I hope they will decide in our favor," he said.

Appeals court cases typically take weeks, and it can take months for judges to announce a ruling.
Read more in The Austin AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

NEW COMPLAINT FILED AGAINST JUSTICE HECHT - Soliciting Contributions for Damage Control Violates Judicial Canons

By Alex Winslow - Texas Watch - Aug. 14, 2007
NOTE: To see a copy of the complaint filed August 14, 2007 against Justice Nathan Hecht, as well as all supporting material.

AUSTIN – Texas Watch filed a new complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC) against Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht today, alleging an additional and separate violation of the canons of judicial ethics. This complaint alleges that Hecht’s solicitation of funds from attorneys and other parties with business before the Texas Supreme Court in order to take legal action to clear his record is a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Through an open records request, Texas Watch obtained a copy of a previous admonishment issued by the SCJC which serves as a precedent for the complaint filed today. In a 1987 ruling, the Commission admonished then-Justice William Kilgarlin for circumstances similar to those surrounding Hecht today.

Justice Kilgarlin was admonished for soliciting funds from parties practicing before the Court to pay for expenses arising out of a defamation suit meant to clear his name. Hecht’s situation is similar in that he solicited funds from attorneys, lobbyists, and litigants with business before the Court in order to cover legal costs related to his appeal of a 2006 admonishment issued by the SCJC. In a February 3, 2007 solicitation letter, Justice Hecht asked for the funds to “clear my record.”

Alex Winslow, Texas Watch’s Executive Director, wrote to SCJC Executive Director Seana Willing that “the Kilgarlin admonishment appears to be a precedent that can be directly applied to Justice Hecht’s actions.” In both cases, the justices were soliciting contributions from parties with business pending before the Court in an attempt to remove a blot on their reputations.

This new complaint comes after Texas Watch filed three separate complaints with the SCJC, the Texas Ethics Commission, and Travis County District Attorney last month. Those complaints center around a so-called “discount” Hecht received on his legal fees from Jackson Walker, the law firm which represented him to during his appeal of a 2006 SCJC admonishment. In letters to Texas Watch, all of the pertinent authorities have confirmed that they are investigating those complaints.

See Texas Watch

WHEN NO ONE IS ACCOUNTABLE, NO ONE IS SAFE - Loss of Accountability Threatens the Safety of Texas Families, Communities

By Alex Winslow - Texas Watch - October 18, 2007
Texas Watch Executive Director Alex Winslow speaks at a press conference about the importance of legal accountability for corporate CEOs like Lord John Browne, the head of BP at the time of the tragic explosion at Texas City that killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. Texas Watch Executive Director Alex Winslow delivered the following statement about the threats posed to Texas workers, families, and communities when corporate CEOs are allowed to avoid accountability for their actions:

"Today the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments in a matter that goes to the core of accountability. The question before the Court today is whether Lord John Browne – the CEO of British Petroleum at the time of the tragic explosion at Texas City that killed 15 Texas workers and injured hundreds more – will have to answer for the decisions he made that led to the explosion.

"But, this is about much more than one man having to answer a few questions. This is about CEO accountability and the threat posed to our communities when corporate CEOs are allowed to make decisions that affect Texas families without having to answer for those decisions.

"The decisions made by corporate CEOs in board rooms all around the world threaten the safety of communities right here in Texas. Children on their way to school, families who breathe our air and drink our water, and small business owners who serve the plant and its workers all face a greater danger when CEOs are allowed to avoid accountability for the decisions they make.

"In Texas, the value of personal responsibility is sacrosanct. Now, I know that Lord Browne isn’t from around these parts, but he should still have to answer for his actions. When I was growing up my mother – like parents everywhere – worked hard to instill in me that if I hurt someone – whether on purpose or on accident – that I was going to have to face the consequences. The same principal applies to Lord Browne and his band of corporate CEOs.

"When CEOs are allowed to avoid accountability, they will invariably cut corners. When they skimp on workplace safety, then there is a higher likelihood of a catastrophic event that spews pollution into our air, threatens the safety of children in nearby schools, and puts families at risk of harm.
"In Texas, no one should be above having to answer for their actions, no one should be allowed to escape accountability, and no one should be able to walk away from dangers they pose without consequence.

"BP consciously decided to put profits ahead of people and Lord Browne was the ultimate decision maker. Along with his cadre of 175 Corporate CEOs who signed on to support him, he is asking the Texas Supreme Court to protect him. Well, where were they when Texas workers and communities needed protecting?

"The corporate CEOs and their special interest lobbyists have ushered in a new era dominated by a corporate immunity movement. No longer are we talking about parity and balance in the legal system. We are talking about a broad expansion of immunity for wrongdoers.

"Today’s hearing typifies their desire to escape responsibility for their actions.

"Sadly the Texas Supreme Court has a long track record of aiding and abetting insurance companies, polluters, and other wrongdoers who are hell-bent on pushing a corporate immunity agenda.

"If the Texas Supreme Court continues to give CEOs like Lord Browne a pass on accountability, then they are sending a message that immunizing foreign corporate wrongdoers is more important than keeping Texas communities safe from environmental, industrial, and workplace disasters."

See Texas Watch

TEXAS SUPREME COURT DEMONSTRATES PRO-DEFENDANT BIAS - 10th Annual Review Confirms Long-Term Trend of Decisions Against Texas Families

By Alex Winslow - Texas Watch - March 29, 2007

AUSTIN – Court Watch, a project of the Texas Watch Foundation, released its tenth annual list of the most anti-consumer decisions handed down by the Texas Supreme Court during the Court’s 2005-2006 term. Called the “Terrible 10,” this list reflects the Court’s pro-defendant bias against Texas families, homeowners, seniors, and small businesses.

This is Court Watch’s tenth annual review of the Texas Supreme Court. Over that time, Court Watch has highlighted the Court’s pro-defendant bias by conducting a statistical examination of the Court, as well as discussing legal trends. Over the ten year history of the Court Watch project, the Court has ruled in favor of defendants an average of 70% of the time.

“For ten years, Court Watch has been monitoring the Texas Supreme Court’s decision-making. We have highlighted various trends and spotlighted specific cases. One thing remains consistent: the Texas Supreme Court is ardently pro-defendant and Texas families are paying the price,” said Alex Winslow, Executive Director of the Texas Watch Foundation.

Lawmakers are considering legislation to consolidate power in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court. Winslow urged lawmakers to maintain judicial accountability and impartiality.
“Local judges in communities all across our state should not have to fear that the pro-defendant Texas Supreme Court is going to intervene in a local matter,” said Winslow. “Local voters elect the judges that they think reflect their values. We should maintain our current system of judicial accountability.”
Included on this year’s Terrible 10 list are cases that allow employers to fire workers for reporting criminal activity to the police, shield nursing home operators from accountability when senior citizens are abused by other patients, force individuals into binding arbitration, allow predatory lenders to skirt the law, and dramatically alter the way that jurors are screened. The report also highlights several legal trends that emerged during the 2005-2006 term.

“The Texas Supreme Court touches every facet of our lives,” said Winslow. “It is disturbing that this Court continues to bend and contort their decisions to favor wrongdoers over individual Texans.”

See Texas Watch

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Railroad Commission criticized for changing report to absolve Atmos Energy in death of Wylie couple

WState official says report's shift away from coupling as factor is based on evidence, not influence
By ERIC TORBENSON - The Dallas Morning News - Oct. 21, 2007
Editor's note: WFAA-TV reporter Brett Shipp and producer Mark Smith are examining possible hazards posed by outdated natural gas couplings serving 100,000 North Texas homes. Sunday night, Channel 8 explores why regulators dropped a proposal to require replacement of the couplings. This article is based largely on WFAA's research.
Many Texans may not realize that the state's Railroad Commission is charged with regulating the safety of natural gas and oil pipelines.

Critics say the commission often acts as though it doesn't realize it, either.

Consumer advocates have questioned the commission's effectiveness and its ties to the industry it oversees in the wake of natural gas explosions that have killed at least nine North Texas residents and injured more in the last decade.

Now, documents produced as part of a lawsuit in an explosion last October that killed an elderly Wylie couple show that a top commission staffer changed an investigator's report, which had the effect of steering blame away from an underground pipe coupling that critics say should never have been used in Texas' notoriously shifting soil

The commission has considered ordering the couplings' replacement, but chose to study them first. They remain in use under 100,000 North Texas homes.

The day after Benny and Martha Cryer died in the early-morning explosion of their Wylie home on Oct. 16, 2006, Railroad Commission safety officer Mary McDaniel discussed a likely cause in an e-mail: "Soil compaction from the rains is our current suspicion" for pulling the service pipe out of the outmoded coupling and causing the leak, she wrote.

The investigator on the case, Alfred Garcia, mentioned a similar explanation in a draft report, along with the possibility of construction-related damage.

But five months after the Cryers' home blew up, the Railroad Commission's final report pointed away from problems with the coupling.

Ms. McDaniel has testified that she removed Mr. Garcia's opinions about shifting soil. Instead, the report came to no conclusion on a probable cause but said the investigation focused on whether the gas pipe had been damaged by a contractor digging behind the Cryers' home a year earlier.

The report cleared Dallas-based Atmos Energy, which took over natural gas service in North Texas from TXU in 2004. That result led Atmos to argue that it didn't need to do forensic testing on the coupling from the ruins of the Cryers' home.

In response to questions from The Dallas Morning News, Ms. McDaniel said the final report was based on the evidence and was subject to no outside influence.

Mr. Garcia also had recommended that the Railroad Commission immediately ask all Texas gas companies to develop an "expedited" plan to get the old couplings out of the ground. That would have forced utilities to spend potentially tens of millions of dollars to replace the equipment.

Ms. McDaniel removed that request from the final report. Later, the commission simply asked natural gas companies to do a survey of couplings.

Atmos has denied liability for the accident in a lawsuit filed by the Cryers' survivors.

Officials say the company is committed to safety in a system so big that at any one time, there are about 6,000 ongoing leaks, most of them minor.

"We welcome any discussion about safety and maintaining our natural gas system to the highest standards of safety," a company statement said. "Third-party damage – someone digging into natural gas lines – is a significant and costly cause of leaks."

Atmos also says the 2.2 million miles of underground gas pipeline is the country's safest energy delivery system.

Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams defended the work of Ms. McDaniel, a safety official and commission employee since 1983.

"It is one of the best safety divisions if not the best safety division in the country. It's been noted so by any number of federal entities," Mr. Williams said. "Mary is one of the leading pipeline safety people in the country and has been regarded as such."

Unlike other agencies

But critics say other states have been faster to take corrective action. They point to a case in Ramsey, Minn., where an office building blew up and killed three people in December 2004.

Minnesota natural gas regulators forced the gas company involved to immediately dig up and investigate all its older couplings, according to the state's report on that accident.

Unlike their counterparts in Minnesota, or at the Texas Public Utilities Commission, Texas railroad commissioners are elected by statewide vote. That means commissioners can take campaign money from the companies they regulate.

"The energy industry is investing, in some cases, a half-million dollars [in campaign contributions] in the careers of these commissioners," said Andrew Wheat of the Austin-based advocacy group Texans for Public Justice. "I don't know about you, but if someone invests a half-million dollars in my career, it's going to be hard to act independently from them."

According to Texas Ethics Commission records, since 2000, Atmos' political action committees have donated $20,000 to Commissioner Victor Carrillo and $19,802 to Mr. Williams. Commissioner Elizabeth Jones has received $2,000.

Couplings' hazards

Benny and Martha Cryer moved into their new wood-frame house at 310 S. Third St. in Wylie in 1954, raising two children there, according to the family's attorney.

Mr. Cryer had attended Wylie High School, was a military veteran and worked at Kraft Foods.

In 1979, Lone Star Gas installed a new natural gas supply system at the Cryers' home. The pipe from the main gas line in the alley was attached to the Cryers' meter with something called a "pre-bent riser," which linked the meter to the pipe with a compression coupling that has a rubber seal.

A year later, the coupling's manufacturer advised Lone Star Gas, later acquired by what is now TXU, that the couplings didn't meet federal standards because the connection wasn't as strong as the pipe itself.

In 1986, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety warned utilities that compression couplings can fail.

Don Deaver of Houston, who worked for 33 years as a leak investigator for Exxon, said the rubber seals in older compression couplings weaken over time and grip the pipe with less strength. That has been known throughout the industry since the 1980s, he said.

Gas utility employees have testified in the lawsuit that the compression couplings tend to leak after heavy rainfall. In some instances, soil shift would partially pull the gas service pipe from older compression couplings, former TXU employee Byron Dunlap said. TXU sold the gas system to Atmos in 2004.

In addition, some studies indicate that damp earth can leech the additive that smells like rotten eggs out of natural gas, allowing the gas to collect in a home unnoticed until an electric charge or pilot light ignites a blast.

In systems constructed today, underground gas pipes are fused to the meter with a non-corroding coupling.

But the older compression coupling is buried behind more than 100,000 homes in North Texas, most of them built with gas service before 1980.

Soil not named in report

Early last Oct. 16, pelting rain was soaking and expanding the North Texas soil that had baked and cracked during the long, hot summer.

Just after 3 a.m., the Cryers' house exploded. Mr. Cryer was blown from his bed and landed next to an adjacent house. He died at the scene. Mrs. Cryer, who had turned 77 that Friday, was found 30 feet away at the rear of the lot. She died later at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Afterward, Atmos found 24 other leaks in the neighborhood and replaced 21 pre-bent risers like the one at the Cryer home. A year earlier, the company had conducted a leak survey in Wylie and found no leaks in the neighborhood.

Assigned to investigate for the Texas Railroad Commission, Mr. Garcia noted in his preliminary report that nearly 4 inches of rain in 24 hours had swelled the earth behind the Cryer home. In discussing the most likely cause of the accident, he wrote that the shifting soil may have pulled an underground pipe out of its coupling, pooling deadly gas under the Cryer home.

Mr. Garcia drafted a letter to require all Texas natural gas providers to replace the underground couplings.

Presented with the same evidence, however, Atmos' own report blamed a third party for damaging the pipe. A year earlier, a contractor had installed a new water main in the alley behind the Cryers' home.

However, Atmos' safety official has testified that the gas leak appeared to be more recent. Commission staffers' e-mails also indicate that the water main was far enough away from the Cryers' gas pipe as to reduce the odds that contractor error was the cause.

Initially, Ms. McDaniel, Mr. Garcia's boss, seemed to agree with his thinking about heavy rains and soil shifting breaking the coupling.

But as the final report came together, she met with him and said his reasoning was flawed, according to her testimony in the Cryer lawsuit.

The probable-cause section of the final report said the investigation focused on third-party work and said a number of factors could have contributed to the pipe coming out of the underground coupling. Descriptions of the drought conditions before the rain – which could have explained why the soil might have shifted – were removed. So was the mention of "natural ground movement."

Before the final report came out, Ms. McDaniel and Mr. Garcia had talked about whether they should focus more on the coupling's weakness, rather than on what might have caused it to fail. In the end, they chose to omit mention of the coupling's frailty. They said they wanted to focus on that question separately, conducting a survey across the entire state, and with all gas companies.

The final report held Atmos blameless. Ms. McDaniel labeled the report as "favorable" to the utility and thanked the company for its cooperation.

She said in testimony that she was under intense pressure to release the report and agreed that her meeting with Mr. Williams, the commission chairman, before the release of the final report was unusual.

"I'm just a little stressed, this has been a major headache for me," Ms. McDaniel wrote to Mr. Garcia in an e-mail March 27.

Atmos reaction

In an interview and in response to written questions from The Dallas Morning News, Ms. McDaniel said her stress was related to her coming deposition by the Cryer family lawyers, not about any pressure she was feeling over the contents of the final report.

She stood by her decision to de-emphasize soil shifting in the report because Mr. Garcia had focused on temperature-related issues with the coupling. Texas' soil doesn't vary substantially in temperature, Ms. McDaniel said.

In his testimony, Mr. Garcia said that he agreed with Ms. McDaniel's changes and that together they ruled out natural soil shifting because the Cryers' coupling had been in place for so long without any problems. He also testified that there were signs of recent construction in the alley behind the house.

Mr. Garcia couldn't be reached for comment for this article.

At no time did any of the commissioners or Atmos influence the outcome of the final Wylie report, Ms. McDaniel said. She met with Mr. Williams before the report's release only to inform him of the conclusion they had reached, she said.

With the final report on the explosion pointing away from the older underground equipment and toward the work of other parties, Atmos declined the state's request to conduct forensic testing on the failed equipment at the Cryer home.

In a letter to the railroad commission, Atmos argued that since the state's report didn't point toward the old coupling as the problem – and neither did its own internal investigation – no testing was needed.

After the state insisted in a letter in September and the Cryer family lawyers asked for testing, Atmos did test the Cryer home's coupling in September.

Atmos declined to answer questions from The News about the Cryer suit because the litigation is pending.

Atmos lawyers note in the depositions that the company was never in violation of any state regulation concerning its system. Officials say that their underground system is safe and that they will do anything they can to assure customers of the integrity of the pipes and couplings under their homes.

However, in marketing materials, the company notes that it spent $110 for operations and maintenance for each of its customers in 2005, compared with a peer utility average of $229 a year. The company notes that its costs were substantially lower than those of other natural gas utilities and that it has far fewer employees per customer than its peer group.

Survey, not directive

Today, Atmos makes a policy of replacing the pre-bent risers whenever it shuts off the gas to do repair work at a customer's home.

But there is no directive from the Railroad Commission for a statewide replacement program.

Ms. McDaniel initially seemed amenable to Mr. Garcia's recommendation for such a program.

"We need to get together a list of incidents where this has happened so we can have Atmos change their procedures to prevent this," Ms. McDaniel wrote in a March 29 e-mail. April drafts of the directive ask utilities to phase out the older equipment.

But the "directive" morphed into the "survey" of utilities, which was sent June 8 to ask if they've had any trouble with the pre-bent risers and the compression couplings.

Ms. McDaniel has testified that she wanted to handle the issue across the state rather than with just with one company. She said in an interview that while the commission has taken action against individual utilities before, it didn't make sense in this case to single out Atmos for the use of older underground couplings, and that the survey would give the commission a better idea of what it was facing.

Mr. Garcia also testified that different soil types throughout the state made it an issue requiring further study.

As part of the survey, the commission issued an interim directive this month to force utilities to examine underground compression couplings and replace them if they find a leak.

The older compression couplings implicated in home explosions were installed on homes generally built before 1980. Atmos said it will send a crew to the home to evaluate the equipment and replace the older coupling if customers ask for it.

Atmos Energy asks that homeowners who are concerned about their gas system call 1-866-286-6700 or the customer support number at 1-800-460-3030. Customers can also e-mail

March 13, 1979: Lone Star Gas installs a natural gas system at the Wylie home of Benny and Martha Cryer using a compression coupling to link their meter with the service line.

July 2, 1980: The coupling's manufacturer advises Lone Star Gas that the couplings don't meet federal standards because the connection is not as strong as the pipe itself.

1986: After a natural gas accident involving a compression coupling in Pennsylvania, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety warns utilities that compression couplings can fail.

Oct. 10, 1998: Three people are injured in a house explosion in Arlington.

Jan. 14, 2000: Two people die in a Garland natural gas explosion that's blamed on a faulty underground pipe.

Dec. 13, 2000: One person is killed and another injured in a house explosion in North Richland Hills.

Nov. 13, 2001: Two people die in a gas explosion in Richardson.

December 2004: Three people are killed in a Ramsey, Minn., gas explosion blamed on the compression coupling. Minnesota requires the natural gas company to investigate all similar couplings.

Oct. 16, 2006: The Cryers are killed when a natural gas explosion destroys their house.

Oct. 17, 2006: An e-mail from Mary McDaniel, top safety officer for the Texas Railroad Commission, cites suspicions that heavy rains following extreme drought shifted the soil and pulled the pipe from the compression coupling.

Dec. 8, 2006: Investigator Alfred Garcia's preliminary report on the Cryer case notes soil shift as a possible factor. He proposes that utilities immediately plan to phase out the older equipment.

Jan. 25, 2007: A home explodes in Missouri City, Texas, injuring one. An initial report blames a loose compression coupling after heavy rain.

March: Ms. McDaniel meets with Commission Chairman Michael Williams, an occurrence she testifies later was "unusual." She talks with Mr. Garcia about changing the probable-cause section of the report but testifies later that the meeting with Mr. Williams didn't have anything to do with that.

March 29: The commission's final report reaches no conclusion about the cause of the explosion. Mr. Garcia's recommendation that utilities replace all compression couplings is not included.

April: A draft letter to utilities about compression couplings suggests they be removed.

May 29, 2007: A home in Cleburne explodes, killing two people. Investigators suspect a loose compression coupling allowed gas to seep into the home's attic.

June 8: Instead of ordering or even recommending the removal of all the couplings, the Railroad Commission asks utilities to collect data and report their experience with the couplings. The survey is expected to be completed by early next year.

Oct. 9: The Railroad Commission approves an interim directive that utilities replace older couplings if they are found to be leaking.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research and archives; legal documents
Read entire story, see videos and examine archives at DMN

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Explosions fuel gas pipeline fittings debate

By BRETT SHIPP - WFAA-TV News 8 Investigation - Oct. 18, 2007

A deadly natural gas explosion in Wylie last year is fueling a new debate about the safety of many North Texans.

At least 100,000 of the questionable couplings that failed in the Wylie case are still in the ground in North Texas.

News 8 discovered these are the same fittings that have been popping loose under the elastic North Texas soil, leaking natural gas into houses and causing deadly explosions for decades.

When leaking gas was blamed for the October 2006 explosion that killed Benny and Martha Cryer, neighbors like Coral Watkins said they were not surprised. Watkins said many of her neighbors had complained to the gas company for years.
"You used to could just walk out and it would hit you in the face," she said. "[I] complained to Atmos, and they would come out and say they couldn't smell anything."

As it turns out, Watkins and her neighbors were right. Days after the gas leak and explosion that killed the Cryers, Atmos crews made a shocking discovery. Gas lines were leaking all over the neighborhood.

Twenty-four were discovered, even though Atmos officials said they could find no leaks during tests run in the neighborhood one year before.

Atmos officials have declined to discuss on camera with News 8 the nature of the leaks citing ongoing litigation, but insist that the original pipeline equipment was installed properly.

The leak that killed Benny and Martha Cryer was traced to a gas line that had separated from its fitting. Installed in the '70s, what's known as a non-restraint, compression coupling had pulled loose of the pipe. Unlike most fittings that lock tight, the non-restraint, compression coupling's only mechanism to grip the pipe is a rubber seal.

According to Atmos construction worker Allan Burrow, who was recently deposed in a lawsuit against Atmos, the coupling has a history of slipping out.

"The washer on the inside had a tendency to dry up over a period of years and just start, just causing a leak," he said.

Atmos officials said they replace the couplings after they leak and will replace them when they discover one still in the ground.

But federal pipeline safety regulations already require action and states, "each segment of pipeline that becomes unsafe must be replaced or removed from service."

By not removing all of the old couplings out of the ground, Atmos is leaving tens of thousands of potentially deadly couplings still in the very elastic North Texas soil.

In 1980, the National Transportation Safety Board investigating a fatal house explosion in Keller determined, "soil stress loosened one end of the compression coupling."
In that same report the NTSB declared, "compression couplings were not designed to prevent pullout."

Pipeline engineer Don Deaver of Houston said compression couplings are known throughout the industry as dangerous and the manufacturers even warn of a potential pullout. "And this has been known for a long time," he said. "These warnings have been here for many, many years."

On December 8, 2006, Texas Railroad Commission investigators released their preliminary findings on the Cryers' house explosion. Among their findings was a "line that separated from a compression coupling... possibly due to shifting of soil" and "natural ground movement".

According to an inter-office email just days before the final report was released, Railroad Commission Safety Director Mary McDaniel and her investigator discussed the couplings' "susceptibility to pull out with stress."

But five days later, when the Wylie explosion final report became public, News 8 noticed a glaring omission. There was no mention of the flawed couplings and no criticism of Atmos and the 24 leaks in one neighborhood.

Instead, the report alluded to "possible damage" to the gas line during "third party" activity. In other words, another utility, not Atmos, might be to blame for the pullout.

In a notification letter to Atmos, the safety director "thanked Atmos for their assistance" with what she termed "a favorable report" and praised Atmos' "efforts to maintain their pipeline".

Deaver said he's shocked by the language in the final report.

"I don't understand the reason for even making that statement," he said. "It's almost suggesting that there's a lack of independence between the Texas Railroad Commission and the industry its regulating when it gets to be so chummy and makes those statements considering two people were dead."
News 8 also obtained an internal memo dated December 8, 2006 from Regional Safety Director Jody Kerl to her boss Mary McDaniel regarding the Wylie explosion.

Based on her concerns, Kerl recommends "an expedited program to phase out" the compression couplings attached to the gas meters. But just weeks ago, McDaniel told News 8 she rejected Kerl's recommendation.

Her reasoning was that McDaniel said there is nothing to back it up.

"There was one incident in Wylie that happened at that time," said McDaniel. "We didn't have any information that would suggest we had a problem with compression type couplings."

Meanwhile, on January 25t, 2007, one month after Kerl's recommendation to remove the couplings, a homeowner was injured when natural gas leaked into her house near Houston and exploded.

The preliminary cause according to state investigators was that settling soil had caused a compression coupling to fail.

Five months later, on May 29, two people were killed and three injured when natural gas leaked into a home in Cleburne. The preliminary cause, a compression coupling that failed.
Read entire article

Friday, October 19, 2007

Senate panel OKs wiretap bill, telecom immunity

By Randall Mikkelsen - Reuthers - Thu., Oct. 18, 2007
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to tighten rules on government eavesdropping on terrorism suspects, but a Democratic presidential candidate said on Thursday he would try to block it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 for the measure, which Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said strengthened national security and protected civil liberties.

"It ensures that the unchecked wiretapping policies of the administration are a thing of the past," Rockefeller told reporters.

The Senate committee's action came a day after a Democratic effort collapsed in the House of Representatives to pass an eavesdropping bill opposed by the White House.

Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, called the Senate bill "a delicate arrangement of compromises."

The bill would allow wiretapping without a court order of suspected foreign terrorists, including when they call Americans, committee leaders said.

It would grant lawsuit immunity, demanded by the White House, for telephone companies that participated in a secret warrantless eavesdropping program launched by U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

The House bill would have required court approval when eavesdropping on terrorism suspects who might call Americans, and omitted the phone company immunity.

To safeguard civil liberties, the Senate bill would require a secret court to approve methods for targeting suspects and eavesdropping, more congressional oversight, and the removal of identifying information from intercepted calls involving innocent Americans.

An amendment added during committee debate would require court approval to eavesdrop on the communications of an American overseas. The bill would expire after six years.

Rockefeller said he was optimistic the White House would support the bill, but Bond indicated an amendment -- evidently the one on overseas Americans -- may need more work.


Sen. Chris Dodd said he intended to put a procedural "hold" on the bill, which could effectively block it from a Senate vote. The Connecticut Democrat, who does not serve on the Intelligence Committee, said on his presidential campaign Web site he opposed the telecom immunity provision.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he voted against the committee's bill because of the immunity provision, despite winning passage of the amendment on Americans overseas.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, also voted against the bill, citing the immunity provision and the lack of a warrant requirement when a suspect's call involves Americans.

The immunity would not apply to any eavesdropping before September 11, 2001. Bond said that before then, "there was interception of radio communications on a broad basis," but later described that as an allegation.

An administration official said earlier that aides were still reviewing provisions of the deal reached before the Senate committee met and had some concerns, but called it "much better" than the House bill.

Read more

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

BREAKING: Breasts Found More Dangerous Than Gas Wells

By TxSHARON - BLUEDAZE - Oct. 16,2007
Despite all today's news about the dangers of gas wells, pipelines and injections wells, Fort Worth residents found breasts more dangerous than any of the above.
Read entire article on BLUEDAZE.

Goode: Bush wants North American Union to increase profits for corporations

By Terri Hall - T.U.R.F. - Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Link to article here.

Rep. Virgil Goode says below: "We are giving away the country so a few very rich people can get richer." Goode stressed that the Bush administration supports both a NAU regional government and a NAFTA Superhighway system.

Congress debate begins on North America Union
Resolution calls for end of NAFTA superhighway, abandonment of integration with Canada, Mexico

By Jerome R. Corsi - - September 25, 2007

House resolution urging President Bush "not to go forward with the North American Union or the NAFTA Superhighway system" is – according to its sponsor Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., in an exclusive WND interview – "also a message to both the executive branch and the legislative branch."
As WND previously reported, on Jan. 22 Goode introduced H.C.R. 40, titled "Expressing the sense of Congress that the United States should not engage in the construction of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Superhighway System or enter into a North American Union with Mexico and Canada."

The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

WND asked Goode if the president was risking electoral success for the Republican Party in 2008 with his insistence on pushing for North American integration via the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, or SPP.

"Yes," Goode answered. "You won't hear the leadership in the Republic Party admit it, but there are many in the House and Senate who know that illegal immigration has to be stopped and legal immigration has to be reduced. We are giving away the country so a few very rich people can get richer."

How did he react when President Bush referred to those who suggest the SPP could turn into the North American Union as "conspiracy theorists"?

"The president is really engaging in a play on words," Goode responded. "The secretary of transportation came before our subcommittee," he explained, "and I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about the NAFTA Superhighway. Of course, she answered, 'There's no NAFTA Superhighway.' But then Mary Peters proceeded to discuss the road system that would come up from Mexico and go through the United States up into Canada."

Goode is a member of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development of the House Committee on Appropriations.

"So, I think that saying we're 'conspiracy theorists' or something like that is really just a play on words with the intent to demonize the opposition," Goode concluded.

Goode stressed that the Bush administration supports both a NAU regional government and a NAFTA Superhighway system: "The Bush administration as well as Mexico and Canada have persons in the government in all three countries who want to a see a North American Union as well as a highway system that would bring goods into the west coast of Mexico and transport them up through Mexico into the United States and then in onto Canada," Goode confirmed.

The Virginia congressman said he believes the motivation behind the movement toward North American integration is the anticipated profits the large multinational corporations in each of the three countries expect to make from global trade, especially moving production to China.

"Some really large businesses that get a lot from China would like a NAFTA Superhighway system because it would reduce costs for them to transport containers from China and, as a result, increase their margins," he argued.

"I am vigorously opposed to the Mexican trucks coming into the country," Goode continued. "The way we have done it and, I think, the way we should do it in the future, is to have the goods come into the United States from Mexico within a 20-mile commercial space and unloaded from Mexican trucks into U.S. trucks. This procedure enhances the safety of the country, the security of the country, and provides much less chance for illegal immigration."

As WND reported, the Department of Transportation has begun a Mexican truck "demonstration project" under which 100 Mexican trucking companies are being allowed to run their long-haul rigs throughout the U.S.

Previously, Mexican trucks have been limited to a 20-mile commercial zone in the United States, with the requirement that goods bound for locations in the U.S. beyond the 20-mile commercial zone be off-loaded to U.S. trucks.

WND reported last month that Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., successfully offered an amendment to the Department of Transportation Fiscal Year 2008 appropriations bill to block DOT from spending any federal funds to implement the truck project.

Dorgan’s amendment passed 75-23, after Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., changed her vote to support Dorgan.

By a voice vote, the House passed an amendment offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., to the DOT appropriations bill comparable to Dorgan's, designed to block the agency from using federal funds to implement the truck project.

DeFazio chairs the House transportation subcommittee that oversees motor carriers.

"With the Trans-Texas Corridor, which I would say is part of the NAFTA Superhighway system, and with this NAFTA plot with the Mexican trucks just coming in and not loading off to U.S. trucks, they will just drive right over the Rio Grande and come on over into Texas," Goode argued. "A lot of these Mexican trucks will be bring containerized cargo from the west coast of Mexico where they will be unloaded in Mexican ports to avoid the fees and costs of unloading at U.S. ports."

"So, when you look at the total package," he continued, "we do have a NAFTA Superhighway system already in place. There are those in all three countries that believe we should have a North American Union and the Security and Prosperity Partnership, in my opinion takes us down that road. And I am vigorously opposed to the loss of our sovereignty."

Why, WND asked, do so many congressmen and senators insist on writing and telling their constituents that they don't know anything about the Security and Prosperity Partnership, or that SPP working groups are really just to increase our competitiveness?

"In the House, a strong majority voted to provide no money in the transportation funding bill," Goode responded. "I commend Congressman Duncan Hunter for submitting an amendment to the Department of Transportation funding bill [which] got over 360 votes that said no funds in the transportation appropriation measure, prohibiting Department of Transportation funds from being used to participate on working groups that promote the Security and Prosperity Partnership."

As WND reported, Hunter's amendment to the FY 2008 Department of Transportation funding bill prohibiting DOT from using federal funds to participate in SPP working groups creating NAFTA Superhighways passed 362 to 63, with strong bipartisan support. The House approved H.R. 3074 by 268-153, with the Hunter amendment included.

"So, I think a majority the House, if you had an up or down vote on the SPP, would vote down on the SPP," Goode concluded. "But some still say, and it's a play on words, that we don't have a Security and Prosperity Partnership that will lead to a North American Union. I don't think they can say anymore that we don't have a Security and Prosperity Partnership arrangement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, because that was done in Waco, Texas, on March 23, 2005, and the recent meeting at Montebello was to talk about it further."

WND asked Goode to comment on the North American Competitiveness Council, or NACC, a group of multinational corporations selected by the Chambers of Commerce in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. as the central adviser of SPP working groups.

At the SPP summit in Montebello, Quebec, the NACC met behind closed doors with the three leaders, cabinet secretaries who were present, and top SPP working group bureaucrats, while various public advocacy groups, environmental groups, labor unions – and the press – were excluded.

Should SPP working group meetings be open to the public?

"I wish they were," Goode responded. "If it is as the Bush administration says, 'We're not planning any North American Union,' then why wouldn’t those meetings be open, why wouldn’t you let the media in?" Goode asked.

"But some of the very big corporations want the goods from China to come in here unchecked," he continued. "It costs money for U.S. trucks to transport Chinese goods from West Coast ports like Los Angeles or Long Beach. But if you can have a Mexican truck and Mexican truck driver, that's going to be cheaper. And it's all about the margins. The margins relate directly to how much money the multi-national corporations are going to make."

Has the Senate debate on the Dorgan amendment brought the issues of the NAU and NAFTA Superhighways more to the attention of the Senate?

"I think so," Goode said. "That debate had a very positive effect. You had grassroots support calling the Senate on the Dorgan amendment.

"The Bush administration engages in the same play of words with all these issues," Goode added. "Take a look at the Kennedy-McCain comprehensive immigration reform, which the Bush administration has now tried to jam through the Senate not once, but twice.

"The Bush administration claims it's not [amnesty] when you let someone stay in the country and give them a path to citizenship," Goode pointed out. "Well, that's their definition, not my definition, and not the definition of the majority of the public. The majority of the public called in and buried the amnesty bill because of public pressure. Public pressure also got de-funded the pilot program on Mexican trucks in this country."

So should the U.S. pull out of the SPP?

"Yes," Goode answered, "but the best way to end SPP would be to have a chief executive that wouldn't do anything with it."

What does Goode think of the state legislatures that are passing anti-NAU, anti-NAFTA Superhighway and anti-SPP resolutions?

"If enough state legislatures pass resolutions like that, it surely should have an impact on the House and the Senate," Goode said.

"President Bush's position is that we need to carry out NAFTA and we need to have this free flow of goods with Mexico and Canada," Goode explained. "Well, Bush's approach involves a derogation of our sovereignty and it also undermines the security and the safety of the country.

"It will be much easier for a truck to get a container on the west coast of Mexico and haul in a biological or radiological or nuclear weapon than it would be if you are going to have to unload the trucks on the Texas-Mexico border and put the goods and material in a U.S. truck," he continued.

"The problem is that the NAU, NAFTA Superhighways and SPP all go back to money," Goode stressed. "The multinational companies want their goods from Mexico and China because they want the cheap labor."

What about the U.S.'s large and growing trade imbalance with China?

"I don't want to have to be an 'I told you so' person," Goode answered, "but I was a vigorous opponent of PNTR ("permanent normal trade relations") and before that of 'most favored nation' trade status with China. We need tariffs and quotas with China. Personally, if I know food is coming in from China, I won't buy it. The American people with the adoption of COOL, country of origin labeling, with the food clearly labeled, I think you will see the American public will shy away from Chinese products."

In 2000, Congress voted to extend to China PNTR. "Most favored nation" or MFN trade status, was given to China first in 1980 by the Carter administration. COOL rules are administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Goode concluded the interview by thanking WND for covering the SPP, NAU and NAFTA Superhighway issues: "I want to thank you for putting these issues out where people can read it," Goode said. "You have enlightened hundreds of thousands if not millions of American citizens who otherwise would have been greatly in the dark on the SPP."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Interim Heads Increasingly Run Federal Agencies

By PHILIP SHENON - The New York Times - October 15, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14 — For now, the most powerful law enforcement official in the federal government is a 47-year-old lawyer little known outside Washington.

Henrietta H. Fore, a State Department under secretary who also leads an aid agency.
Or inside Washington, for that matter.

He is acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, who is running the Justice Department until a new attorney general is confirmed by the Senate to replace Alberto R. Gonzales. Mr. Keisler had been in charge of the department’s civil division.

The No. 2 and No. 3 officials are also acting — Deputy Attorney General Craig S. Morford and Associate Attorney General Gregory G. Katsas. More than a quarter of the department’s 93 United States attorneys around the country are “acting.”

At the top of the Department of Homeland Security, there is an acting general counsel, acting under secretary for national protection and acting assistant secretary for strategic plans. At the Department of Health and Human Services, the $600 billion-a-year Medicare and Medicaid programs have had an acting administrator since last fall.

Scholars and other researchers who study the federal bureaucracy say the situation in those agencies is becoming increasingly common elsewhere in the Bush administration.

With only 15 months left in office, President Bush has left whole agencies of the executive branch to be run largely by acting or interim appointees — jobs that would normally be filled by people whose nominations would have been reviewed and confirmed by the Senate. In many cases, there is no obvious sign of movement at the White House to find permanent nominees, suggesting that many important jobs will not be filled by Senate-confirmed officials for the remainder of the Bush administration. That would effectively circumvent the Senate’s right to review and approve the appointments. It also means that the jobs are filled by people who do not have the clout to make decisions that comes with a permanent appointment endorsed by the Senate, scholars say.

While exact comparisons are difficult to come by, researchers say the vacancy rate for senior jobs in the executive branch is far higher at the end of the Bush administration than it was at the same point in the terms of Mr. Bush’s recent predecessors in the White House.

The White House insists that when vacancies have occurred in executive branch agencies, it has filled them with talented acting replacements, often with the same officials who have been nominated — but not yet confirmed — for those jobs by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“We have capable people in place to provide leadership,” said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman. “We encourage members of the Senate to confirm the nominees we’ve already sent to the Hill as soon as possible.”

Under a 1998 law known as the Vacancies Reform Act, acting government officials can remain in their posts for 210 days with the full legal authority they would otherwise have with Senate confirmation, with the calendar reset to 210 days once a nominee’s name has been forwarded to the Senate. As of Monday, there are 462 days left in Mr. Bush’s term.

The president also has authority under the Constitution to make so-called recess appointments to senior jobs when the Senate is out of session — authority that Mr. Bush has invoked far more often than his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton.

But recess appointments often subject the White House to criticism that it is trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. And since there is relatively little time left in the Bush administration, there may be less pressure, or need, to consider them.

“You’ve got more vacancies now than a hotel in hurricane season,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and one of the nation’s best-known specialists on the federal bureaucracy. “In my 25 years of studying these issues, I’ve never seen a vacancy rate like this.”

Michael J. Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the federal appointment process, said that he believed the large number of vacancies reflected a widespread fear by Republicans that the next president, whoever it is, will be a Democrat, and that there is no job security at the top ranks of the executive branch.

“Republicans don’t have as much incentive to give up lucrative jobs in the private sector right now,” Professor Gerhardt said.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, “In the long history of the country, I don’t think the Justice Department has been in such disarray.” He said the many vacancies at the department helped explain why there was turmoil. “You have top spots unconfirmed: unconfirmed attorney general, unconfirmed deputy, unconfirmed associate,” he said. “You took a look at the organizational chart, there are many others who are unconfirmed among the assistant attorneys general ranks.”

The vacancies include three members of the cabinet. There are currently three acting cabinet members, including Mr. Keisler. The Senate Judiciary Committee is weighing Mr. Bush’s nomination of Michael B. Mukasey, a retired federal judge, to replace Mr. Gonzales as attorney general, and has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Wednesday.

But the White House has so far failed to provide the Senate with the names of nominees for the other two cabinet jobs, and veterans affairs secretary, which are now being filled by officials placed there temporarily by Mr. Bush.

In the case of the Veterans Affairs Department, the White House has had months to find a nominee. The department’s last secretary, Jim Nicholson, announced in July that he would be stepping down.

The Office of Personnel Management, the government agency that oversees hiring and firing of federal employees, says it does not maintain records that would allow comparisons between the vacancy rates for senior government jobs under Mr. Bush and under his predecessors at this late point in their terms.

Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Dept.
Under federal disclosure laws, executive branch agencies are supposed to report vacancies among top jobs to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative agency that is part of Congress. But a spokesman there said its database was not necessarily up to date and also did not offer comparisons from one administration to the next.

Professor Light said it was not surprising for the number of vacancies in senior government posts to grow near the end of a president’s term, when political appointees seek work outside government and it becomes more difficult to recruit candidates for what may be short-term jobs.

But he said the situation in the final months of the Bush administration was dire. Since Mr. Bush may well be replaced by a Democrat who would almost certainly want a wholesale turnover of political appointments, the vacancies could continue well into 2009 at many cabinet departments and other agencies, Professor Light said.

He said the problems of having so many acting senior government officials were obvious: “One of the things we know is that they just aren’t as effective as Senate-confirmed appointees. They just don’t have the standing in their agencies. Acting people are very shy about making decisions.”The situation is more serious at some federal agencies than others. At some cabinet departments, including the Defense Department, virtually all senior officials have Senate confirmation.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the department had already identified nominees for all of its senior vacancies and was hopeful that they would be filled soon by Senate-confirmed officials.

Elsewhere in the government, the vacancies are numerous, with little expectation that they will be filled soon by candidates who have been approved in the Senate.

At the State Department, the job of under secretary for arms control and international security has been vacant for most of the past year. Mr. Bush announced the appointment of an acting under secretary late last month.

Henrietta H. Fore, the under secretary of state for management, has been doing double duty since spring, also serving as acting director of the United States Agency for International Development, the government’s foreign aid agency; the last occupant of the Usaid job resigned after he was identified as a customer of a Washington prostitution ring.

No cabinet agency has been hit harder by vacancies in senior posts than the Justice Department.

Its ranks have been depleted in recent months, which may be a reflection in part of the controversies that engulfed the department under Mr. Gonzales, especially the furor over the firing last year of several United States attorneys for what appear to have been political reasons.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the department, said, “We are confident in the individuals who are leading their respective offices in an acting capacity; these are veteran department lawyers with significant experience.”

The heads of the department’s civil rights, natural resources and tax divisions are all acting, as are the directors of the elite Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of Legal Policy.

The acting head of the counsel’s office, Steven G. Bradbury, who functions as the department’s lawyer, has found himself under scrutiny with the disclosure last week that he was the author of a pair of secret legal opinions that endorsed severe interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects in the custody of the C.I.A.

The acting attorney general, Mr. Keisler, has relatively little experience in criminal prosecutions.

He has worked in the department’s civil division since 2002 and, before that, had spent most of his career in private practice in Washington or as a law clerk. He may be best known in Washington legal circles as a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society.

Read more in the New York Times

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Dallas and Denton drinking water at risk by TxDOT's route choice for FM 2499

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - Oct. 7, 2007
(This diary is about TxDOT's selection of the most costly, most environmentally dangerous route for FM2499. FM 2499 runs through Denton County connecting with I35 (prospective route of Trans Texas Corridor. The route selected crosses emergent federal wetlands, three forks of Lake Lewisville which provides drinking water to Dallas and Denton Counties).
Crossposted on Texas Kaos.

Letter from Highland Village Parents Group to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert:

Letter to Mayor of Dallas
Dear Mr. Leppert:

I am writing this letter to bring to your attention a matter of some grave concern.

Just this week, I contacted the Dallas Water Department to inquire about the extent of their knowledge and participation in matters pertaining to a major Dallas drinking water source. I foolishly presumed that the Water Department would be fully informed of activities that might potentially pollute this source. It came to my attention in 2003 that despite the events of 9/11, and the nation's terrorist concerns, there was very little inter-agency communication on matters that could potentially threaten resources and facilities of our local Cities.

I live in Highland Village, which is situated at the southern and western boundary of Lake Lewisville. This community has had an ongoing battle with regard to the proposed alignment of Section 4 of FM 2499, a 4 - 6 lane thoroughfare that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) plans to run through our 96 percent owner-occupied residential community. Members of our community contacted the City of Dallas at that time, to ask them about their participation in the selection process for the alignment for this road, since Alignment 3, (there were originally 10) through Highland Village, was the only easement that would take this roadway over Lake Lewisville. We assumed the City would be involved since Dallas owns the water rights. They were not! With the huge outcry at the Public Hearings and considerable media coverage at that time, we presumed Dallas would get involved, especially as TxDot went ahead and selected Alternative 3 over other less controversial and less expensive routes for this road. They apparently did not!

This particular alignment, through our unique and massively "hilly" neighborhoods, through wetlands and over the western boundary of Lake Lewisville is very controversial! It is the most disruptive and THE MOST EXPENSIVE of all options which were available. The environmental threat from this road is huge - to human and wildlife (Lake Lewisville already has a high MTBE content according to EPA reports). Yet it somehow 'squeaked' inside the NEPA guidelines and was 'shoehorned' under the radar, to fit the need to move this project along. Leadership of Copper Canyon - the neighboring community which was the site for several of the other alternatives, fought this roadway from the very beginning. Leadership of Highland Village did not! That is what is amounted to. Despite the huge citizen opposition, despite being elevated above grade (up to 15 ft. in places), and less than 10 feet from some homes; despite the necessity to build bridges over emergent wetlands along the western boundary of Lake Lewisville - and potential threat to this drinking water source, the project received an assessment of "no significant impact" to the surrounding community, in late 2005. No formal Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was ever done. The conditions for the lesser study were also less than ideal. No ground assessment was ever done for the emergent wetlands evaluation portion, and all areas of promised mitigation to the community (for what they were worth) cannot be fulfilled because the City of Highland Village does not have authority over this State highway. And yet apparently, through all this, the City of Dallas stayed out of this process.

TxDot is preparing to put this construction project out to bids next month. Highland Village families continue to fight the project and have recently been talking to an environmental attorney, to seek advice on how we should move forward at this time. We had hoped to stop the process before now, or at a minimum force TxDot to complete a proper Environmental Impact Study (EIS). This especially in light of the recent USC Medical study published earlier this year in Lancet, implicating automobile pollution as a major source of loss of lung function in children, and more recently the reports about breast cancer from the same source. This agency appears to be determined to push forward with this project however, even with their recent acknowledgement of a $290 million deficit in state funds. We are therefore trying to get as many people involved as possible, in asking the right questions, so that they might reconsider the repercussions of their choices. I called the Dallas Water Department about 11 days ago to discuss this matter, and was instructed that Jodi Puckett, the Director, was out of the office. Earlier this week I received a call from Rick Galceron(sp?) in Ms. Pucket's stead. Mr. Galceron informed me that he was unaware of any participation or issues with regard to this or any other proposed highway crossing of Lake Lewisville. He told me he would make some calls to find out what he could, and then get back to me. I have heard no more to date, and therefore feel I should bring this matter to you Mr. Leppert, as the newly appointed Mayor of the City of Dallas. I felt you would wish to be informed of this and other matters of such importance. I realize I am a simple "lay-person" in this area, but I find the lack of apparent concern and cooperation in this matter to disturbing to the point of outrageous. We are after all talking about a potential threat to one of the City of Dallas' largest sources of potable water. A lack of inter-agency co-operation regarding a project of this scale, which has the potential of putting massive amounts of toxins into that source, is absurd. Mistakes are made and accidents happen. That no cooperation is believed necessary is shocking! Whatever happened to the requirements for stepped up security on such resources? Given the recent concerns not that long ago following the spill at Lake Tawakoni, one would have thought there would be more involvement and monitoring of these matters. I have to wonder whether the citizens of Dallas are aware of how little oversight is being given to their drinking water source. I would appreciate hearing from you at you earliest convenience in response to my concerns.


Susie Venable
Concerned Parent/Citizen/Homeowner/Taxpayer
of Highland Village, Texas

Susie Venable's letter points out that:
* TxDOT selected the most EXPENSIVE ROUTE

* It will cost two times more to build Section 4 of FM2499 on the selected route than it would on any of the other 7 alternate routes.

*This route is the only one that threatens the drinking water of Dallas and Denton counties.

* The EPA and TxDOT and US Army Corp of Engineers and NCTCOG have all failed to ensure the safety of human beings.

* The environmental assessment is inadequate. They did not assess the impact of the route on human health.

The real "topper", in my estimation, is that TxDOT claims that this route was chosen "because of local demand!" Gee! Over 3000 citizens from a SMALL TOWN showed up at hearings in 2003 to protest this route. The fire marshal closed the meeting and turned hundreds away. TxDOT held the overflow meeting at UNT to have enough space. Susie said when she signed up to speak she was told over 900 people had already signed in before her!

Yet a few elected officials recommended this route! Some of them have been voted out of office, yet this route moves forward and TxDOT is prepared to open bidding for it on Nov. 1st.

This is not how the process should work! This illustrates how broken and unresponsive the system is to citizens' input, wishes, best interest.

I don't know who owns undeveloped land along this path. There are probably some decision makers with conflicts of interest. However, because TxDOT refuses to cooperate with compliance with the Texas Local Government Disclosure laws, it is difficult to determine which local officials who recommended this project will benefit or have close associates who will benefit financially by the selection of this VERY EXPENSIVE boondoggle!

It is appalling that the Dallas City and County Commission is sleeping through this route selection.

They should be PRINCIPALS in this -- following it closely to ensure that proper EIS is performed to protect their valuable drinking water. However, despite citizens attempts to engage them they are still asleep at the wheel.
This route will go up for bid in November! It will cost twice as much for them to build it on route alternate 3 (of 8) than on any of the other seven routes!

Gee. Wonder why they have money woes in the Texas Department of Transportation. They choose routes which are the most environmentally dangerous and double the cost of other alternate routes. They waste money on TV ads trying to get us to "like" toll roads and welcome the Trans Texas Corridor. They spend money on lobbyist to lobby the Federal Government. Gosh. Isn't that illegal. Somewhere in the crevices of my brain it seems there is something tucked away which says that governmental agencies are not supposed to spend tax payer money lobbying Congress. It amazes me that Ric Williamson and Speaker Jim Wright could come from the same place. Jim fought for the Constitution and Williamson runs the Texas Department of Transportation like it is the henchman of Attia the Hun! His rape and burn toll road policy threatens the very fabric of American life. They've told people that there is no way to build roads except tolls so long that some smart people have begun to believe it. Wait! Stop! Think! Examine the facts! There are better ways to do this.

Roads are supposed to serve the needs of people. The people who live near them are the ones who probably should have the greatest interest in them because they should serve their needs more frequently than those who live far away. However, TxDOT pays attention to out of state and out of the country parties more than they listen to the people in the neighborhood of the road project. Many project proceed more as Corporate Workfare project than as projects to serve the true transportation needs of the people of Texas.

That may explain it. Since the goal is probably to benefit contractors more than to serve the transportation needs of the citizens, it would make more sense to select the most costly route. That way there is double the pork to divvie out on this one project. However, they are ruining the integrity of a very nice neighborhood, endangering the health of millions of people in two counties, and endangering the health of over 1000 children who live within 1500 feet of the road.

Oh well. Too sad. No one is answering their phone who is really concerned about the health of people. The EA (done from an airplane) didn't note any endangered species. Wonder if they could see children from the air? They noted that their study did not assess the impact of the road on the health of human beings! Gee! Isn't that great? A handful of elected officials get to request that a route be fast tracked environmentally and the voices of over 3000 citizens is ignored.

What really irkes me is the excuse TxDOT gives for the selection of this route is "citizen demand"! 3000 citizens speaking out against it at public hearings didn't register. They only listened to a handful of elected officials (some of whom have already been voted out of office.)

Folks, we have to wake up and take note of the local races. It is county commissioners and city council members who carry the weight when it comes to recommending or stopping road projects. Toll roads have to be approved by the County Commission. Yet we sleep through these races.

For way too long the Democratic party has said that it was "focusing only on specific upticket races." In many cities and counties in Texas most of the local slots are filled by Republicans who ran unopposed!

Hank Gilbert is right. We have to ask EVERY CANDIDATE what his or her position is on toll roads and eminent domain. We have to challenge every pro toller in our towns and counties. We have to replace those who think it is o.k. for Texans to have to pay for every mile we drive on state highways.

Besides, when a political party fails to elect people to local offices, they create a world where there are no experienced candidates to run for higher offices. It is very difficult to recruit a strong state wide slate if we fail to fill City Commissions and County Commissions and County Judge slots with qualified Democrats.

Every Dallas County Commissioner, ever Dallas City Council Person should be looking into the ramifications of this route selection on the health of citzens of Dallas.

Denton County should too, but they are the ones who asked for it to be fast tracked and for the draft EIS to be set aside in favor of the shorter, less extensive, more inadequate Environmental Assessment.

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