Naked City

DUELING ADS: The feud between Freeport-McMoRan and The Nation magazine bled into the pages of the Austin American-Statesman last week. In a full-page ad in the local daily on September 18, the SOS Legal Defense Fund reprinted a July 31 Nation piece skewering Freeport and its gold mine operations in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The article, "Freeport-McMoRan at Home and Abroad," ran in its entirety in our local daily, detailing the company's alleged involvement in murders and human rights abuses of indigenous people on its mine site.

Four days later, on September 22, Freeport fired off a full-page ad of its own in the daily to discredit the Nation article and Eyal Press, the reporter who wrote it. Freeport's ad included a letter-to-the-editor published in The Nation's most recent issue from Freeport senior vice-president Thomas Egan. Egan's response listed several allegations by Eyal Press that Egan claimed were inaccurate.

Naturally, Freeport didn't print Press' point-by-point rebuttal of Egan's letter in their ad. For example, Egan contended that Press got it wrong when he wrote that Freeport security guards in Indonesia amuse themselves by firing randomly at passing tribesman. "The truth is the security workers do not have guns," contended Egan. In his rebuttal, however, Press backed up his reporting with an anecdote from a Western traveler who told him about being held in a cell for several hours by armed Freeport guards. Press added, "The April 5 Australian Council for Overseas Aid report, based entirely on local sources, goes further, charging that Freeport security used guns when they joined Indonesian soldiers and opened fire on a peaceful flag-raising ceremony this past Christmas."

Press conceded only one point to Egan: that the Statesman, not Freeport, flew former Statesman reporter Bill Collier to Indonesia. Press clarified: "Freeport flew him around upon arrival - `spectacular' rides Collier described in the puff pieces he wrote about Freeport just before taking his current job as a P.R. flack for the company." -A.D.

A TAXING AGENDA: Capital Metro board member Paul Drummond's one-man campaign to have the board reconsider the quarter-cent sales tax increase was almost quashed for good last week. After a legal tussle over whether Drummond needed support from a second board member to get an item on the agenda of Monday's meeting, Cap Met spokesman Howard Goldman had assured Drummond that the proposal would appear on the agenda. Yet it was missing from the copy of the agenda sent to board members last Wednesday. "I think everybody was pretty much in shock," says Drummond. "[Capital Metro Chairman of the Board] Harry Jones forbid it from being placed on the agenda."

Two days later, after KVET radio talk show host Eric Blumberg broadcast details of the agenda fight on the air, Jones relented. "If you have an issue like this, where someone is communicating on the radio, you have to bring it to a head and get rid of it," Jones explains. "I wish Drummond had gone at it a different way." Jones adds that Drummond had no legal standing to revisit the tax issue, because he originally voted against it. (Jones voted in favor.)

Drummond's efforts may not have amounted to much; on Monday, his motion died without a vote. But Drummond says it was important to try to reverse next month's tax increase. "All of our performance measures indicate that we are not doing a good job," he says. "Before talking about raising the tax rate we should get our operations in order."

In the end, though, the $133.3 million budget was approved 6-1, with Drummond as the lone dissenter. The tax increase brings to one full cent the amount of sales tax revenue that goes to the transit authority. The increase will mean an additional $19 million for Cap Met's budget.

By the way, although the board signed off on a deal to lease 30 buses next summer to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Capital Metro General Manager Michael Bolton announced at Monday's meeting that he would try to renegotiate the agreement. It seems that Cap Met will receive only $120 per vehicle for 20 days of use, while transportation officials in Dallas and Houston were able to secure similar deals for two to three times as much. - A.D.

OZONE ALERT: Texas cities are logging record ozone levels. Houston has 41 violations of federal ozone standards - double the number of high ozone days that occurred last year. Dallas-Ft. Worth, which had hoped to erase its name from the Environmental Protection Agency's "dirty air list," has instead exceeded federal air pollution limits 15 times already this year. According to federal rules, this should move D-FW from the "moderate" category for non-attainment of air quality up to the "severe" status currently applied to Houston. The federal ozone limit is 120ppb (parts per billion). If a city exceeds this limit three times in one year, they are in violation and may be considered a non-attainment city candidate. For Dallas and other Texas cities, this could mean a whole slate of new federal restrictions on pollution in the metroplex and expansion of the anti-pollution rules from the current three-county area to a 12-county region around D-FW.

Beaumont-Port Arthur, with 12 violations, could join Houston and Dallas-Ft.Worth in the severe non-attainment category. Longview, with three violations this summer, is a new member of the non-attainment club, making it one of the nation's smallest cities (population 75,000) in violation of federal air standards. This month Corpus Christi had two ozone violations, meaning that it will become non-attainment at the next violation. And though Austin has not exceeded the limit this year, it has already exceeded 100ppb 10 times, compared with three times for all of last year.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the state agency entrusted with preserving air quality, appears to be more concerned with convincing the EPA to hold off on enforcement of federal air standards in Texas. The TNRCC is arguing that the EPA should consider this an "exceptional year" because of unusually stagnant wind conditions that encourage ozone production. The EPA is postponing judgment on the TNRCC argument until the end of the ozone season, but is under increasing pressure from Governor George W. Bush and Republican congressional representatives from Dallas and Houston to delay enforcement of ozone standards in Texas. - N.E.

ERSKINE UPDATE: The federal lawsuit filed by Midge and Woody Erskine against the city of Midland finally reached the courthouse last week, and the Midland couple believe they presented a good case. "I feel like we have a super chance of winning," says Mrs. Erskine. The couple, who are avid birdwatchers and wildlife rehabilitators, are fighting the city's demand that they cut down all the habitat they have grown on their four-acre homestead over the past 25 years. They presented testimony from seven expert witnesses, including officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Audubon Society, and others, that their property has been a valuable resource for wildlife.

The non-jury trial lasted four days, with U.S. District Judge Royal Ferguson presiding. Attorneys will present closing arguments on October 2, and file briefs shortly thereafter. The judge is expected to make a decision in three to four months. - R.B. CHALK ONE UP FOR THE SALAMANDER: An independent report commissioned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) on the status of the Barton Springs Salamander found that the species is threatened from potential overdevelopment. The report, which was released Monday, was compiled by leading experts, most of whom live outside of Texas; its objective nature could bolster the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the salamander as an endangered species. The report represents the TPWD's first effort to establish an independent peer review process for endangered species issues. The team of five independent scientists who submitted the report included an amphibian ecologist from the University of Oklahoma and a geo-hydrologist from a private consulting firm in Orlando, Florida. Local experts provided data to the team members, who toured the watershed in which the salamanders live. The team was specifically asked not to make recommendations about the proposed listing, but to focus on biological, ecological, and hydrological conditions surrounding the salamanders. The TPWD is using the independent report to underline the need to reduce the potential for chemical spills and sedimentation in the watershed.

The report, which can be reviewed at the main desk of the TPWD at 4200 Smith School Road, includes 45 specific recommendations. A public meeting to allow interested parties to ask questions is scheduled for 1-4pm, Saturday, September 30 in the Lower Colorado River Authority board room at 3701 Lake Austin Blvd. - A.D.

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