Off the Desk:
If you don't relish the idea of "organic" food derived from genetic engineering and toxic sludge, now's the time to throw your weight behind "traditional organic standards" at a rally next Thursday, Feb. 12, 8-10am at 2100 Northland Dr. That's also the site of a day-long USDA hearing where you can speak on the proposed National Organic Standards which, by most accounts, are a lot different than the provisions in the good, old Organic Food Production Act of 1990. We're told that the proposed regs would permit genetic engineering, "factory farming," toxic sludge such as manure, and rendered animal feed - that is, using animal protein, bone meal etc., in livestock feed. More info is available at 378-3648, 266-9218, or 288-9439... - A.S.
Barton Springs Microchips
Motorola is looking to expand its facilities on property within the Circle C Ranch development. The chipmaker plans to build a 940,000 square-foot facility at the southeast corner of FM 1826 and Hwy 45. The Circle C site - apparently owned by New Orleans-based FM Properties, an affiliate of mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. - lies within the Barton Springs Contributing Zone and is restricted to 25% impervious cover under the Save Our Springs Ordinance. It's also inside the Williamson Creek watershed. Motorola spokesperson Laurie Lemmon would not comment on the proposed land sale. "We are expanding," said Lemmon. "No contracts have been signed. Until we have a legally binding contract, nothing is set."
The Motorola deal has been rumored around city hall for more than a week. It's being pushed by lobbyist Jerry Harris, who has circulated a letter among councilmembers advising them that project will need zoning, subdivision plans, a site development permit, building permits, and water and wastewater permits. Favorable zoning for the plant could face a tough road. The Motorola facility in Oak Hill was one of the first major industrial facilities to locate inside the Barton Springs watershed, and there appears to be a feeling on the council that the company should locate its new facility outside of the watershed. More on this later. - R.B.
Banking on Mueller
Any strings attached by the federal government to the redevelopment of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, or any resulting revenue, have been clipped thanks to a far-reaching agreement between the City of Austin, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the commercial airline groups that serve the city. The city now stands to make millions in general revenue when the Mueller property assumes its next money-making incarnation. Because the feds originally helped purchase some land at Mueller, the city was previously required not only to repay that money after closing the airport, but also to seek FAA approval on its redevelopment plans. Even more significant, proceeds from the redevelopment were to be dedicated to the city's Aviation Department, instead of to its General Fund.
Meanwhile, back at Bergstrom, the council was negotiating the transition of Bergstrom from a publicly owned Air Force base to a publicly owned municipal airport. In 1942, Austin's citizens purchased the land for Bergstrom Air Force Base, with the stipulation that it be returned to them after the base closed. When Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher arrived on the council, the city had credited the Bergstrom property to the Aviation Fund. The pair set out to persuade their colleagues, and the FAA, that the property should return to Austin citizens via the General Fund. After some creative real estate negotiating, everybody reportedly left the table happy.
The deal essentially involved a land swap, whereby Bergstrom was declared to be the property of the city's General Fund, and then offered in exchange for Mueller, which had belonged to the Aviation Fund. Presto - the new airport is delivered to the Aviation Department at no cost, and the city is free to do with Mueller what it will. (One catch: The agreement says that in assuming sole responsibility for Mueller, the city also takes over environmental clean-up duties.) The Aviation Fund will still get a little cash from the redevelopment of Mueller - the amount that was previously owed to the Feds, which is well under 10% of the land's total value. One Bergstrom booster lamented losing Mueller money that could have meant substantial improvements to the new airport. But Griffith aide John Gilvar said the city has more urgent needs than dressing up the new airport. "Would you rather fund the police department," he asked, "or have a nicer ticket counter at American Airlines?"
Another proposal would have diverted some of the Mueller money to the Aviation Fund in order to buy the Austin Executive Airport in North Austin. The Airport Advisory Board recommended the purchase to accommodate the small, private planes whose landing fees will more than double at Bergstrom. But the council rejected the proposal; Slusher, perhaps channeling the elder George Bush, said only that the purchase "would not be prudent." - J.S.
Urban League's B-Day
While the nation's economy is the strongest it's been in a generation, illegal discrimination and inadequate job training keep many minorities from reaping the benefits of this prosperity, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman told a crowd of more than 800 celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Austin Area Urban League Tuesday night. While unemployment has dipped to its lowest rate in 25 years, the percentage of jobless African-American men has remained consistent over the past two decades - hovering at about 30%. "The picture of prosperity is not whole, because not everyone is in it," said Herman.
The labor secretary stressed the importance of helping people make the transition from welfare to the workforce, to prevent the loss "of an entire generation who never know what it's like to work." In particular, she said, those workers need adequate child care, transportation, and training. She praised the Austin Area Urban League for its efforts in providing classroom instruction and computer training.
Predictably, Herman did not discuss the current Justice Department investigation into allegations that she accepted cash for using her influence to help business ventures during her tenure as head of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Those who packed the Renaissance for the banquet also honored former Dallas Cowboy Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson and John Warfield, founder of community-based radio station KAZI 88.7 FM, for their contributions to the community. - L.T.
What very well may be the longest-running, biggest-budget road show ever to come to Austin arrives next week, when executive director Rick Jacobi brings his Texas Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority to the capital for a two-week engagement. Austin will play host to what may be one of the final performances of Jacobi's nuclear circus, as the state believes it is now close to completing its 15-year, $60 million quest to put a national nuclear waste dump in West Texas. Over the years, Jacobi's troupe has put on something of a case study in how not to build a nuclear waste dump. In 1991, following a decade of fruitlessly searching for a suitable site and an amenable host community, the Texas Legislature drew a box around a piece of Hudspeth County and said, "Build the damn thing here." As luck would have it (can you say "pin the tail on the donkey?"), the Authority chose Sierra Blanca, a low-income, predominantly Mexican-American community (about 75 miles southeast of El Paso) that the Authority had previously rejected as a potential site. And well they should have - the site ultimately chosen sits just 16 miles from the Rio Grande, in an active earthquake zone, and above an aquifer.
A lopsided battle has ensued, pitting an army of attorneys representing the state and various nuclear power plant operators in Texas, Maine, and Vermont (the dump's proposed customers) against a diverse coalition composed of Sierra Blancans, statewide environmentalists, and both Mexican and Texas government officials. After 18 months of preliminary stuff, the final hearings - such as they are - are now underway. "Talk about a sham," says Erin Rogers of the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund (SBLDF). "We could only afford one expert witness and they already disqualified him." Meanwhile a bill in the U.S. Congress allowing waste from New England to be exported to Texas - and providing funding for the dump - is now before the Senate. But all is not lost. SBLDF plans to appeal. Meanwhile, SBLDF will stage a circus parade of its own, beginning at 11am Monday at Third and Congress, and continuing to the Stephen F. Austin state office building, the site of the hearings. The parade will feature giant puppets, jugglers, local singers Danny Dollinger and Bill Oliver, plus speakers from Sierra Blanca and the Austin City Council, which has officially opposed the dump. - N.B.
After years of talking, the Texas Dept. of Transportation has jumped behind the construction of SH130 in a big way. At a Monday morning press conference, David Laney, the chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, announced that the road, which used to be known as MoKan, "is a project that will be built." And, he added, "it will be built as a toll road." To jumpstart the project, Laney announced, TxDOT will create a special office charged with construction of the 90-mile project, which will extend from Seguin to Georgetown.
The new office will not have any other responsibilities for road building, aside from the 130 project, which theoretically means the project will move ahead more quickly. With a price tag of about $1 billion, the road will not be cheap. And many issues have not been resolved. For instance, even with the bonding authority granted to the Texas Turnpike Authority, Laney said, all the funding for the road has not been found. And until the money is in hand, no date can be set for construction to begin. In addition, it's unclear if TxDOT will make the new route mandatory for heavy trucks and vehicles carrying hazardous materials.
Nevertheless, TxDOT is clearly bullish on the project. Turnpike Authority chairman Pete Winstead proclaimed, "It goes without saying that we need Texas 130 to relieve the congestion and safety problems on I-35." - R.B.