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Naked City

News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere

Fri., Sept. 5, 2008

Austin Welcomes Gustav Evacuees As during Hurricane Katrina, Austin became a refuge this week for Gulf Coast residents fleeing Hurricane Gustav. The Red Cross estimates around 450 evacuees came to the city. Most spent at least one night in one of Austin's two shelters at the Delco Center and LBJ High School, while some people with special medical needs were housed at the Austin Convention Center after being flown in by the Texas Air National Guard. It's still unclear how many evacuees in total headed to town. Sara Hartley, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Emergency Management, said, "I know anecdotally there's a lot of people with friends and family in town, but there's no way to estimate that number." New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has requested that evacuees do not return to the city until emergency repairs and inspections have been completed. Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30, and there are currently three tropical storms – Hanna, Ike, and Josephine – developing in the Atlantic. For information on making donations to hurricane victims, visit www.fema.gov/donations. – Richard Whittaker

Green Groups to Sue Dynegy Outside the Houston headquarters of Dynegy, the investor-owned utility with the most planned coal plants in the nation, two green groups announced plans last Thursday to sue the company to halt construction of a new Waco-area coal-burner, which they say is being built without required controls for hazardous air pollution, in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. "This lawless behavior is motivated wholly by financial considerations; it has real environmental and health consequences," wrote local attorney David Frederick. The suit, brought by local branches of the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, says Dynegy's Sandy Creek plant, currently under construction, will emit illegally high levels of mercury, dioxin, and 65 other pollutants that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, pose serious threats to public health. "Excellence in Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) performance is critical to our company's success," reads Dynegy's website, which goes on to say the company will conduct business "in a manner that protects people, the environment and our assets." Matthew Tejada of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention said: "We have the technology to do it better and cleaner. We can't keep going back to old technology because it's cheaper, easier, and it's what we've always done." – Daniel Mottola

Rehearing for Injury-Lawsuit Lawsuit The Texas Supreme Court has announced it will grant a rehearing in the Entergy Gulf States Inc. v. John Summers case. Refer to our previous coverage ("Justice and Worker Safety," Dec. 21, 2007, and "Texas Supreme Court Draws Widespread Criticism," Aug. 22) for a more detailed description of the case, but the basic issue was whether a premises owner who hires an independent contractor and provides workers' compensation insurance for the contractor's employees can be considered a "statutory employer" for workers' comp purposes – and therefore can only be required to pay workers' comp benefits to an employee injured on the job and receive shielding from lawsuits. Last August, the court said yes; the decision was immediately met with a barrage of criticism from legislators, labor leaders, and attorneys who say the Legislature never intended that a premises owner should also be considered a general contractor and that the court was using an overly literal interpretation of the wording of the law. If the ruling stands, it could create an unintentional loophole allowing companies to avoid injury lawsuits. The hearing takes place Oct. 16 at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. – Lee Nichols

New Affordable Renting Communities Affordable housing is no longer just a myth. OK, maybe it is, but at least there are three new rental spots – two in Austin and one in Pfluger­ville – that fit the affordability profile for 470 families and individuals whose incomes range from modest to low. The Housing Authority of Travis County recently opened a trio of moderately priced apartment communities – developments that materialized by dint of some creative financing at the local level in the face of budget cuts at the federal level. The projects include a development for seniors, City View at the Park on Woodward, which includes a movie theatre for residents. The four-story complex received a four-star energy rating from Austin Energy for its green building construction. In far South Austin, SouthPark Ranch Apartment Homes, near South First and Slaughter, caters to families with children. A third, Cambridge Villas in Pflugerville, is designed for the elder set and offers a range of support services, including a hair salon and doctor visits. The three projects are at 70% occupancy or higher, according to the Housing Authority. – Amy Smith


Naked City

Cap Metro, ACL: Together Again

Capital Metro has announced it will once again provide free shuttle service to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Sept. 26-28. This after the transit agency's recent announcement that, due to federal regs, it could no longer provide shuttle services that compete with the private sector. Turns out no private bus company could do the job to ACL's satisfaction, heh heh, so Cap Metro gets to run its shuttles after all. Details to follow at www.aclfestival.com and www.capmetro.org. – Katherine Gregor


UT Groups Want Streetcar on Campus

UT Dean Fritz Steiner
UT Dean Fritz Steiner

A new University of Texas student group, Rail 4 Real, is advocating for rail transit to serve students – and for the UT administration to change its position that a Capital Metro streetcar route could only be considered along San Jacinto through campus. The alliance of UT Student Government, the Campus Environmental Center, and the Urban Development Society is hosting a public forum at 6pm Wednesday, Sept. 10, at Goldsmith Hall, Room 3.120. UT Dean Fritz Steiner, state Rep. Mike Krusee, and Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken will speak. Says Rail 4 Real: "This group is dedicated to serve as an outlet for the thousands of students who are ready to ditch their cars for a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly campus and a better Austin as a whole. ... Our goal is to locate rail where the people are, somewhere between San Antonio and Speedway. Our great University is worthy of such a great endeavor, and to misplace rail at this time would be criminal." – K.G.


CAMPO Updates

Retired Cap Metro Chairman Lee Walker
Retired Cap Metro Chairman Lee Walker
Photo by John Anderson

A subcommittee to select the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization appointment to the Capital Metro board has recommended Travis Co. social-services program administrator Mike Manor to replace Lee Walker, who retired last spring. Eight voting members of the Transportation Policy Board are expected to approve the appointment at their Sept. 8 meeting. For more on Manor, see "Front-Runner Emerges for CAMPO Seat," Aug. 1. Also on the agenda: a public hearing on the many proposed amendments to projects funded in CAMPO's 2008-2011 Transportation Improve­ment Program. See www.campotexas.org for more – and while you're there, be sure to take the quick, nine-question "Transportation Needs Survey." – K.G.


Naked City
Photo by Sandy Carson

Longtime Democratic activist Kitty Clark has a healthy appetite for politics and the fish fry hosted each year by the Austin Central Labor Council at its Downtown headquarters. The event (this one was held Aug. 29) is a traditional drawing card for political candidates and friends of labor.


Enviros Frown on Biomass Plant

Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins
Photo by John Anderson

By the time City Council voted unanimously last Thurs­day to approve a 20-year, $2.3 billion deal to buy power from a Nacogdoches-area wood-waste-burning power plant, many local green leaders had either publicly rejected the plan, called for its delay, or distanced themselves from it. Veteran eco-watchdog Paul Robbins said many deemed the project "too expensive, too polluting, or too secretive in its details." Fellow enviro Tom "Smitty" Smith said, "When angry ratepayers begin to punish the ones that they think are responsible for this poorly thought-out proposal, I stress that environmentalists by and large were not to blame." Council had delayed a decision the previous week to seek outside legal advice. Council Member Laura Morrison said her initially reluctant support for the deal was bolstered by contract requirements that regular reports on the plant's operations be made available for public oversight. Said Council Member Brewster McCrack­en: "In 20 years, I am confident that with Austin Energy's leadership, we will have a robust and scalable, successful distributed-generation system with solar at its core. Until we get to that point, we need to pick the best option in the midterm ... and the best option, better than coal, better than nuclear and natural gas, is this biomass proposal." – D.M.


Bounce Those Checks!

Naked City
Illustration by Doug Potter

A three-judge panel (all Republicans) of the 3rd Court of Appeals considering the money-laundering charges against indicted Republican Tom DeLay ruled that the Texas campaign finance law Delay is accused of violating does not cover payment with checks, only cash. This will come as a great relief to Texans who find themselves short of cash but still have plenty of blank checks on hand. – D.P.

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