Off the Desk
By posing as a concerned private citizen, agile radio journalist Jim Ellinger was among the first to break UT Chancellor William Cunningham's deafening silence on Freeport-McMoRan, for which Cunningham serves as a board member. After reading an article in last week's Chronicle urging readers to either fax or phone Cunningham to demand answers to a list of questions regarding alleged environmental and human rights violations at Freeport's Indonesian mine, Ellinger placed a call to Cunningham's home. When Cunningham returned the call, Ellinger, who hosts a radio news show called Austin Airwaves, on KOOP, 91.7 FM, taped the conversation without the chancellor's knowledge. Cunningham never asked if he was speaking to a reporter, and Ellinger never identified himself as such. "This is possibly KOOP's most controversial story to date," says Ellinger, who aired the tape on his show last Friday. Excerpts from the12-minute conversation in which Cunningham defends Freeport will be printed in the Chronicle next Thursday... Well, it's semi-official. Chronicle columnist Daryl Slusher took the first step in launching a campaign for city council by filing a campaign treasurer on Wednesday, December 13. Slusher says that the filing will give him a chance to organize and raise funds before he announces his bid for the Place One seat -- from which incumbent Max Nofziger is resigning -- in January. Slusher, who narrowly lost the mayor's race last year, will no longer work for the Chronicle... Political and TV junkies can get their fixes with Austin's newest political television show: Texas Politics. The program focuses on political people and issues that concern UT students, faculty, and area residents. It's produced by student-operated KVR-9 in Austin, and can be seen on Mondays at 7pm on channel 9 and on Saturdays at 4pm on CableVision Access Channel 10... What should Texas drivers expect with higher speed limits? The jury's still out, but a study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University found that death and injury rates rose 25% after rural speed limits were raised to 65mph in 1987. Drivers may have learned to adjust: A 1993 study showed that serious accidents eventually returned to the levels they were at prior to the increase...
Last week, Freeport-McMoRan engaged in a public relations full-court press to deflect recent allegations linking the company to the torture and murders of Indonesian civilians by the military. On Tuesday and Friday, the company placed full-page ads in The New York Times declaring that "false charges and unfounded accusations have been leveled against Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold's mining operation in Indonesia." -- this, in addition to a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman on December 1.
Freeport also sent letters last week threatening legal action to environmentalists who have spoken against the company and reporters who have written stories unfavorable to Freeport. Chronicle columnist-turned-politician Daryl Slusher and Chronicle contributing editor Robert Bryce got the letter, as did Lori Udall, Washington director of the International Rivers Network and Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Legal Defense fund. Bryce's and Slusher's letters, written by Thomas Egan, senior vice-president of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., read as follows:
"We continue to read with dismay and disappointment your continued unfounded attacks, and malicious and malevolent distortions of the truth alleging [Freeport] involvement in the unfortunate and deplorable human rights violations in Irian Jaya.
"As it seems you either are uninformed or choose to ignore the Bishop of Jayapura, H.F.M. Munninghoff's, recent public statement publicized both in articles and paid advertisements in the Austin American-Statesman making clear that his report is not about Freeport and does not contain accusations about Freeport, we enclose a copy of the Bishop's signed statement of November 22, 1995 and a videotape of the bishop reading that statement.
"Again, with this letter we have provided you with documentary material demonstrating that prior charges you have made or publicized against Freeport about alleged human rights violations were inaccurate and false. Without waiving any rights we may have with regard to any false and damaging charges that have already been made against Freeport to date, we want to state clearly that if false and damaging accusations about Freeport continue to be made, there is every possibility that we will have no alternative but to seek legal recourse against those parties responsible for the future dissemination of false charges, accusations, and misrepresentations directed against Freeport."
On the video included with the letter, the silver-haired Bishop Munninghoff, wearing a batik shirt and sitting in front of a potted plant, read from a prepared statement, saying that his report, released last August, did not implicate Freeport in the murders of 16 people killed by the Indonesian army from October 1994 to June 1995. The bishop also specifically took issue with a story written by Austin American-Statesman reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz. The article, which appeared November 19, states that Munninghoff's report confirmed that "government troops killed civilians and committed other human-rights violations as part of efforts to safeguard a gold, copper and silver mine operated by Freeport."
Munninghoff says that Haurwitz got it wrong: "I did not add the words -- `...as part of efforts to safeguard (Freeport's mine)'." Yet contrary to Munninghoff's assurances in the video that Freeport had nothing to do with the human rights abuses, the Statesman article quotes the bishop in a telephone interview confirming that Freeport has been involved, albeit "indirectly." Haurwitz quotes Munninghoff as saying: "The army has to safeguard the Freeport facilities. By safeguarding that, they violate human rights." Haurwitz referred all questions to his editor at the Statesman, Jerry White, who says that no one at the daily received the Egan letter and the bishop's video. The Statesman stands by Haurwitz' story.
Is all the recent videotaping and legal threats a case of righteous indignation, or is there a more clinical purpose? According to a financial analysis made by Smith Barney, Inc., and re-leased on November 20, "If not dealt with forthrightly, a challenge to the company's record of being a good corporate citizen could adversely impact shareholder value in the long run." -- A.D.
Call Before Dropping In
The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) has ceased conducting routine surprise inspections of industries that it regulates for emissions of atmospheric pollutants. In a September 11 memo, TNRCC Director of Field Operations John Young told inspectors to provide industries with a one- to two-week notice before inspections.
"I find this very alarming," says Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Texas Sierra Club. "For 23 years, the air control board has lauded itself on having a position of not doing announced inspections. If industries know that an inspector is coming, it could make a difference in whether they are in compliance or violation."
However, Leo Butler, who works in the TNRCC's Field Operations for Air Quality, says that the agency will still perform surprise inspections when it suspects air quality violations or when the public complains about increased industrial emissions. Unannounced inspections of big Gulf Coast chemical plants and oil refineries are impractical, says Butler, because much of the inspection involves checking paperwork from automatic monitoring systems, and it takes plant supervisors a long time to get the papers organized in preparation for the inspection. Some smaller industries might more easily get away with violations under a policy of announced inspections, admits Butler, but he is confident that they would not be able to avoid detection indefinitely.
Carman, who worked for the state air control board for 12 years as an inspector, says that automatic monitoring by the big Gulf Coast plants does not include some important pollutants. "Proportional to what they are emitting, the monitoring is small potatoes," he says. He adds that plants are much more likely to report their own violations to the TNRCC as soon as they occur if they know that an inspector may arrive unannounced.
Meanwhile, on November 24, the Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington-based environmentalist group, reported that 10 of the nation's 22 most inefficient oil refineries are in Texas. The report said that for every barrel of oil refined in Texas, about 16 pounds of toxic chemicals are released to the atmosphere or transferred off-site. By contrast, the figure for best-rated Nevada was .04 pounds of toxic re-leases per barrel of oil. The fact that some state governments don't require industries to report pollutant emissions could turn their states into "pollution havens," the report warned.
Carman describes Texas' emission rules for industry as "riddled with loopholes." He says that half of the state's largest industries have grandfather clauses that excuse them from some emissions rules, and adds that even those industries that must operate under emissions rules "can violate them with impunity... There are no limits to how many upsets a company can have, to how long that they can be in upset, or to how much they can emit."
The change in the TNRCC policy on surprise inspections came within weeks after Governor George W. Bush completed the replacement of the three commissioners that run the agency. On August 1, Bush appointed attorney Barry McBee to the final commissioner post as Chairman of the TNRCC. McBee is a former aide to Texas Ag Commissioner Rick Perry. -- N.E.
Landing-Field of Dreams
As Girard Kinney sees it, the redevelopment of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport site is Austin's "last great chance" to plan and build a sensible, sustainable community. Kinney heads a 16-member task force charged with mapping out a procedural plan for reviving the land the airport will leave behind when it moves southeast to new quarters in 1998. Having 711 acres to play with can leave a lot to the imagination, but Kinney doesn't want all that imagination to run amok. "We're an extremely lucky city to have this opportunity," he says. "I just don't want us to blow it."
Kinney offers up two calamitous scenarios: The land could simply waste away for a number of years, or it could turn into a haphazard mess of developments. "I don't think the city should just let the land go to the highest bidders so they can do what they want with it," he says. "We've got to learn how to build in an urban environment in a way that is sustainable -- something that generates tax revenue but also provides a real sense of community."
There already are a lot of ideas being bandied about for the site -- everything from theme parks to residential and retail communities, educational facilities, cultural offerings, even a new city hall or a second convention center. Techno-whiz entrepreneur Richard Garriott, of Origin Games, reportedly wants to build a $60 million, 50,000 square-foot interactive theme park, an idea that Kinney, a theatre architect, finds appealing. "Theatre is something that I love, so when this fellow -- whom I don't know -- starts talking about this sort of thing, I think it's real exciting." Kinney hastens to add that the amount of land Garriott would require for the park is only a fraction of the total airport site which, in visual terms, is nine times the size of Highland Mall. "I personally don't think it would be incompatible, especially with Austin's bent toward recreation and leisure and high-tech."
Kinney is hopeful that the long-range goals of redevelopment won't go the way of most other master plans in Austin -- that is, up on the shelf. To avoid yet another long road to nowhere, Kinney suggests including short-term building blocks into the plan in order to reach long-term goals. "We need to build the bridges to get us where we want to go," he says. The task force will meet every other Monday through March 4, when it will turn over its draft report to Austin City Council, which has charged the group with three responsibilities: Establish a set of goals for the redevelopment process; offer suggestions for public input in the process; and make some redevelopment recommendations. The next meeting is at 6pm, Monday, December 18 in Conference Rooms A&B of the airport's administrative offices, above the baggage claim area. Free parking vouchers will be available. -- A.S.