Spanked All Over

Top Ten Environmental Stories of 1995

by Robert Bryce

Austin got whacked at the Lege. Hurricanes waged war in the Atlantic Ocean. And politicians continued playing football with the Barton Springs Salamander. Yes, it was quite a year for environmental stories, and most of those stories were bad news. Here, then, are my nominees for the Top Ten local and state/national environmental stories of 1995.

Top Ten Local Stories

1. The UT-Freeport mess. Human rights abuses and environmental problems at Freeport-McMoRan's Grasberg mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia have made the naming of the new molecular biology building on the Forty Acres a major source of controversy. Freeport claims it had nothing to do with the human rights problems at the mine, and statements by Indonesian bishop H.F.M. Munninghoff support their claim. But that hasn't made the naming of the building after Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett any more palatable to students and faculty on campus.

2. OPIC cancels Freeport's insurance. Citing pollution problems at the company's huge gold, silver, and copper mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an arm of the federal government, cancelled
$100 million in insurance coverage it held on the project. Freeport announced it will fight the cancellation and has hired former CIA director James Woolsey to represent them.

3. Texas Natural Heritage Program scuttled. While Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials claimed the program was just being reorganized, the Texas Natural Heritage program, which evaluates endangered species on public and private land around the state, was quietly dismantled at the behest of property rights advocates.

4. Bradley takes a Wiz on Austin. Austin's $90 million man, Gary Bradley, convinced the Texas Legislature that he needed an independent fiefdom at Circle C, free of any of Austin's regulations. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos filibustered against the measure, calling the proposed deal "the land of Oz." Didn't matter. The Senate approved the deal anyway. Bradley, the Wizard of the lobby, proved that legislation doesn't get any more special than this.

5. City gets spanked and sent to bed with no dinner. Austin spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to protect the city's interests at the Legislature, and got crushed anyway. Measures allowing the deannexation of large tracts, weakened water quality laws, and a host of other measures stripped the city of many of its powers. Home rule? What's that? If the Austin-bashing continues during the next session, the Lege will probably pass a bill requiring Austin's mayor to say "Mother, may I..." before leaving the dais.

6. The Barton Springs Salamander controversy continues. Politics isn't supposed to affect science. Tell that to the scientists who have researched the Barton Springs Salamander, which should have been listed as an endangered species more than a year ago. In November, the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund won a small victory when a federal judge ruled that U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had put it off long enough and had to decide whether to list the amphibian. But the decision was promptly stayed and now Babbitt has several more weeks to decide the salamander's fate.

7. The state and the salamander. In a sequel to Dumb and Dumber, the geniuses at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) wrote a report saying there was no "direct, quantifiable relationship between water quality conditions in Barton Creek and those of the [Barton] Springs." The TNRCC also opined that no additional measures were needed to protect the Barton Springs Salamander. This was the same agency that just a few years ago said the Edwards Aquifer was the aquifer most prone to pollution in the entire state. Go figure.

8. TPWD's Golf Course in Bastrop. "Endangered species? We don't need no stinking endangered species!" Okay, maybe Texas Parks & Wildlife Director Andrew Sansom didn't say those exact words, but when the bulldozers started rolling through the habitat of the endangered Houston Toad in Bastrop State Park, Sansom made clear that his sentiments do not lie with rare animals, but with birdies, eagles, and bogies.

9. Scooter goes to press. The hardest-working man in the publishing business finally got the first volume of his magnum opus, The Useful Wild Plants of Texas and the Southwestern United States, into print. Scooter Cheatham, a rangy red-headed working machine, began working on the project when Richard Nixon was in short pants. Now, he has the first volume in print. Felicidades.

10. Water battles. The boom is going full blast and cities around Austin are running out of water, which of course makes the Colorado River an attractive target for everyone within 100 miles. San Antonio has talked about getting water from the Colorado and Guadalupe Rivers. Meanwhile, Leander and cities to the north of Austin are desperately trying to find the water they need to fuel their growth. This problem will only get worse as more people move into the area. My prediction: cisterns will come back in style. Top Ten State and National Stories 1. Global warming. In September, a group of 2,500 of the world's leading scientists agreed that, yes, the globe is getting warmer and we'd better do something about it soon. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that warming will cause "widespread economic, social, and environmental dislocation over the next century." A dire prediction. Now what?

2. Natural disasters. Hurricanes went from A to Z and then started over again. The Worldwatch Institute has predicted that global warming could bankrupt the insurance industry through an ongoing cycle of natural disasters. This year made it seem like a real possibility.

3. The Erskines vs. Midland. In a hotbed of Republicanism, Midge and Woody Erskine are fighting for their property rights. Most land disputes are about people wanting to develop their land. The Erskines, who own a 4.4-acre tract in north central Midland, are fighting for the right to keep their land in its natural state. Last month, they lost a federal lawsuit against the city. They are appealing the decision.

4. The property rights rebellion. During the session, it was called SB 14; now it's the law and it dramatically weakens the ability of state and local governments to enforce codes and pass laws. The property rights advocates, led by Austin's own state GOP Rep. Susan Combs, also were able to add a provision to the bill that weakens Austin's ability to pass stringent water quality rules in the Barton Springs Zone.

5. The Boll Weevil. It used to be a moniker for conservative southern Democrats. But now that Texas has launched a massive effort to eradicate the tiny cotton pest, the boll weevil has become a symbol of hubris. The first attempt to get rid of the weevil in the Rio Grande Valley and the San Angelo area, through massive applications of the pesticide malathion, resulted in twin disasters, with a total loss to the state of some $300 million. Nevertheless, Texas Ag Commissioner Rick Perry still supports the program, which will expand to another half million acres next year. Be glad you aren't a cotton farmer.

6. Carbon Dos. It's not a sexy border story like drug running or train bandits, but the pollution continues to belch out of two coal-fired power plants near Piedras Negras, Coahuila, and it has caused visibility at Big Bend National Park to be reduced by almost half. Workers in the park are complaining of respiratory problems and park visitation has dropped dramatically. Fixing the problem will cost several hundred million dollars and neither the U.S. nor Mexico has the money or the nerve to make this an important issue.

7. The BECC finally gets started, almost stops. The Congressional budget wars almost killed all the funding for the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, which finally got its act together. The BECC will start funding several water quality improvement projects over the next year or so.

8. Electric deregulation. This year, the Texas Legislature opened the door for complete deregulation of the Texas electric market. Electric generators can now sell power to each other on the wholesale market. Next, we may be able to select our power company just like we choose long distance carriers. Theoretically, this will mean that the most efficient generators will dominate the market. It could also mean that energy conservation programs will go out the window as suppliers focus on selling energy and only selling energy.

9. Wind power finally comes to Texas. The LCRA and the City of Austin began getting power from a 35-megawatt wind power plant in Culberson County a few months ago. The wind turbines at the site, manufactured by Kenetech, will likely be the first of several hundred such wind generators in Texas as Kenetech will soon begin assembling the turbines at a plant in Waco.

10. The Tailpipe Revolution. In January, the Legislature suspended auto emissions testing programs in the state, much to the dismay of Tejas Testing, which later sued the state for
$170 million for breach of contract. Last month, Gov. Bush announced a new plan to make emissions testing easier for people in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, and El Paso. Austin doesn't have to follow federal clean air mandates yet, but air quality in the city is deteriorating and it is likely that over the next few years, Austin, too, will be forced to deal with federal air quality laws.

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