FOR THE BIRDS: We have received several phone calls about Midge Erskine, the "Bird Lady" who is struggling to retain her right to have a bird sanctuary on her property within Midland's city limits. Her story, as told by Robert Bryce in last week's Chronicle, has drawn a lot of local attention and calls offering financial assistance for her legal fees. You can contact her at her home, 3306 West Golf Course, Midland, TX 79703, 915/694-8001. She says she'd be grateful for the help. - L.C.B.
SILENT BUT DEADLY: Freeport-McMoRan officals have remained silent on the issue, but several news organizations, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), report that more than 20 deaths may have occured in connection with protests over Freeport's gold and copper mining operations in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, also known as West Papau on the island of New Guinea. As related in this paper two months ago following a report by the Australian Council For Overseas Aid (ACFOA), as many as 37 casualties and disappearances are reported to have taken place between June, 1994 and February, 1995 during clashes between the Indonesian army and the indigenous people of Irian Jaya. The victims were among a group of West Papuan natives who were protesting against the Indonesian government and Freeport's mining activities in a town near the mine site.
Since the ACFOA report was released in April, the Indonesian government has confirmed that casualties did occur "as authorities went about their normal task of ensuring order and stability" in the area, but called the ACFOA numbers "the work of an overactive imagination."
The ACFOA report also says that local eyewitness accounts implicate Freeport security personnel in the killings. Freeport officials have denied any involvement in the deaths and refuse to comment on the actions taken by the Indonesian government.
Freeport has been operating in the area since 1967 following several years of turmoil during which Irian Jaya, formerly a Dutch colony, was taken over by Indonesia. The expansion of Freeport's mining area has meant not just relocation of thousands of indigenous people, but the poisoning and destruction of their natural resources and sacred land, according to tribal leaders who spoke with the ACFOA. It has been opposed by a West Papauan separatist movement fighting for independence from Indonesia.
"Leaders representing the Amungme tribal group say the killings are part of a pattern of intimidation by the military against the native population, which is scattered in mountain valleys and lowland areas beneath the [Freeport] mine," said a BBC report on May 29.
The Indonesian goverment has approved the expansion of Freeport's mining area into the nearby Grasberg mountains by six million acres (almost double the size of the state of Connecticut), and has made plans to relocate 2,000 natives away from the planned mine. The Grasberg territory, combined with several other Freeport mining sites, will bring the company's total ore deposits to a billion tons, enough to prolong their mining capabilities in Irian Jaya for another 50 years. The ore is expected to bring in $50 billion for Freeport and its partners, which include the Indonesian government and the RTZ Corporation, the world's largest mining company.
Locally, protests by Earth First! and other UT student political groups over the naming of UT's new microbiology building after Freeport CEO James R. Moffett and his wife Louise are gaining momentum. Moffett gave $2 million towards the $26 million project. Freeport-McMoRan will also be honored with a wing in the building, having given an additional $1 million. The protesters cite numerous reasons why the university should not honor Moffett and Freeport: The allegations of human rights abuses in Indonesia, the lawsuits by Freeport against the City of Austin over the company's proposed development above Barton Springs, and Freeport's standing with the EPA as the country's number-one water polluter.
But when asked if the university would reconsider the name in light of the opposition apparent among the student body, UT vice president of administration Dr. Ed Sharp replied that "the decision has been made." - L.C.B.
CHANGING OF THE CHAIRS: Robert Gee barely had time to get his feet wet as an Ann Richards appointee to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) when he became chairman in 1991 of what was then a fairly raucous, Republican-dominated PUC. The Houston Democrat had only been on the job for one week when Paul Meek, the outgoing chair, stunned fellow Republican Marta Greytok by nominating Gee, instead of her, to the chairman's position.
During his tenure, Gee presided over the three-member panel with low-keyed assuredness. It was with this same poise that he relinquished his lead role this month to Patrick Wood, an appointee of Governor George W. Bush.
Gee will stay on as a commissioner until his term expires in 1997, which will make him the lone Governor Ann Richards' appointee along with two Bush picks. Bush still has a third seat to fill since Sarah Goodfriend, also a Richards' appointee, didn't secure the confirmation she needed from the Texas Senate this past spring and left the commission in May.
To be sure, the makeup of the PUC panel will be a lot different than it was when all three of Richards' choices were on board. Her picks were history-making "firsts": Gee was the first Asian-American, former commissioner Karl Rabago was the first Hispanic, and Goodfriend was the first out-of-the-closet lesbian. The three had solid regulatory backgrounds with a consumer bent, though some watchdogs believe Goodfriend and Gee could have done more for the little guys and gals of the world. Rabago won higher marks, but he resigned last year to go to work for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Not to be outdone in the "first" department, Bush appointed Wood, who at 32 is the youngest member to ever serve on the commission, to replace Rabago. The Harvard Law School grad cut his teeth representing utility clients before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the Baker and Botts law firm in Washington, D.C.
This bit of Wood history at first worried consumer activist Tim Curtis of Texas Citizen Action. "That was a concern we had when he was first named," Curtis says of Wood's appointment in February. "But after working with Pat during the legislative session, we've been able to see him pushing hard for competition and for energy conservation. He's very forward-thinking and I think he'll be able to lead the commission well."
Public Citizen Director Tom "Smitty" Smith also supports Wood, saying, "We have great hope that he will methodically move toward competition in the electric industry, and he will stand up to make sure the average consumer benefits from that deregulation." Wood is filling Rabago's unexpired term, which ends in August , but no one doubts his re-appointment. Now that Wood has moved up in rank, Curtis hopes the new chair will have some influence over Bush's selection to fill the third seat. "Who knows," Curtis says, "we just might have the best commission yet." - A.S.
SKIPPING TO EASTSIDE RENTAL ZONE: "Home ownership promotes neighborhood stability" was repeated like a mantra when Gene Watkins was director of the city's Neighborhood Housing & Conservation department (NHC), the entity that funnels federal, local, and private money into worthy housing for the low-income population. "Your new home is just a SCIP away" another slogan explained, referring to the Scattered Cooperative Infill Program that mixed renovation of old houses with construction of new ones to revive crumbling neighborhoods. Now that Watkins is into his second year in the private sector since resigning his post at NHC, however, his thinking has apparently undergone dramatic changes. Aided by Councilmember Eric Mitchell, Watkins recently won council approval for a project that will establish as many as 100 rental units in the Anderson Hill neighborhood, located between East 11th and 12th Street from I-35 to Navasota, where NHC had struggled for years to mount a viable SCIP plan. The council approved $800,000 in April and $400,000 in May toward Watkins' project out of federal funds; the rest of the funding will come from private sources using debt and equity.
Watkins and his partners in the deal, long-time Anderson Community Development Corporation (ACDC) activist Cloteal Haynes and a California development firm called Legends (not affiliated with the golf tournament), have structured it so that Haynes will manage the units and Legends will apply for federal low-income housing tax credits, which it can then sell off to investment syndicates. The three-bedroom houses on 50-by-100-feet lots will rent for around $500, and residents will be offered the option of having a portion of the rent money placed in escrow for future use as a down payment on the purchase of another house. Another house in another neighborhood, that is, because a condition of the tax credit scheme is that the properties must remain rental units for 15 years.
Activists from the Guadalupe neighborhood directly to the south were horrified to learn of the scheme, believing that dozens of rent houses will promote neighborhood instability. Haynes' background in Section 8 housing - infamous as one of the most disastrous Housing & Urban Development programs due to lack of oversight - also inspired pessimism. But because ACDC's participation technically satisfied the neighborhood input requirements, the council held no public hearings. The Guadalupe residents' protests at the Housing Subcommittee and at the May 11 city council meetings came to naught. At that meeting, Mitchell and Gus Garcia had a brief but memorable donnybrook over Watkins' development fee, which will be about 11% of the project's eventual cost of $7.7 million.
In the meantime, Watkins and company must clear several hurdles. The Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs must approve the tax credits, and the partners still need to secure about a third of the properties they need. But having adroitly manipulated the process thus far, Watkins is optimistic that everything will work out. He argues - as he did when promoting a similar scheme last year on behalf of Advanced Micro Devices - that quality controls will be in place to avoid the traditional fate of low-income rental developments. Instead of many years of gradual rebuilding under the most recent SCIP plan, Watkins claims that this scheme will quickly create a "critical mass" of good housing, and points to high-rental neighborhoods in other parts of the city that are considered attractive.
"We don't need to be apologetic about this," he says of the project, calling it one of the most difficult he's ever undertaken. "Doing nothing would be a death sentence for that neighborhood." - C.W.