Off the Desk:
The local chapters of the NAACP, ACLU, LULAC, and others will hold a community forum on excessive force complaints against the Austin Police Dept., at 5:30 pm today, Thursday, Aug. 6, at Carver Library, 1161 Angelina. Call NAACP, 476-6230 for info...
Readers may recall the "Hall of Shame" Web site that went up during last year's City Council elections; now H of S creator Scott Henson has turned his cyberspace forces on the A.P.D., where Henson is a familiar figure with his steady stream of Open Records requests. Look for Shame at http://www.onr.com/user/blackdog...
Point-and-click voter registration is now available with NetVote `98, courtesy of the Secretary of State's office, MCI, AARP, and Rock the Vote folks. Sign up at http://www.netvote98.mci.com by Oct. 5 to vote in the November elections. For more info on who's running, see http://www.sos/state.tx.us... - A.S.
A "Survival Skills" course for women in transition from welfare to work turned out six graduates last week. The Central East Austin Community Organization, which sponsored the two-week workshop, marked the occasion with a ceremony for the grads, now equipped with some basic survival tools - assertiveness, money management, health and nutrition, among other things... - E.K.
The law of unintended consequences, Part 2, continued to unfold last week at a hearing on proposed rule changes at Barton Springs Pool. The adjectives were varied: "Outrageous," "ludicrous," and "ridiculous" were among the descriptors used by citizens who spoke. The new rules, which include a proposal to prohibit snorkeling below the surface, and a ban on underwater cameras, have been put forward by the city of Austin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a habitat conservation plan to protect the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. The city needs to have a conservation plan in place to allow it to continue cleaning the pool.
Over 90% of the 60 or so people attending the hearing were critical of the proposed rules. "This plan is overly restrictive," said Al St. Louis, the honorary mayor of Barton Springs. He said the federal agency has not been able to show why it has closed the beach and fissures areas of the pool. (Under the proposed rules, the fissures area, which lies just upstream of the diving board on the south side of the pool, will be closed permanently to swimmers. The beach area on the north side of the pool will be permanently lowered to a minimum depth of six feet.)
In its draft conservation plan, the feds and the city said the areas were closed because "a swimmer may accidentally step on a salamander" in the two areas. "You have to show me where the harm is," said St. Louis, who pointed out that the pool is regularly ravaged by floods that could easily undo many of the protections that are being proposed. "It's outrageous," St. Louis said. "Outrageous is all I can say." His comments were echoed by Craig Smith, a longtime environmental activist recently elected to the board of the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. "Is there any evidence that anyone has ever smooshed a salamander?" Smith asked.
The best quote of the hearing came from Anne Markham, who described herself as a grandmother and a Christian. Markham said she had recently taken her grandchildren to the pool but was dismayed by the conditions in the shallow end, which she said was way too "slippy" and was dangerous to children and adults alike. "We are getting way out of hand," said Markham. "To me, children are a lot more important than some transparent varmint."
Markham was one of the few speakers who was outright opposed to further protections for the salamander. Most of the speakers sounded like they wanted to see the salamander protected, but were not convinced that the city and feds were taking the correct approach. Robin Rather, who chairs the Save Our Springs Alliance, called the pending rules "way too drastic." She was one of many speakers who said that far too much attention is being given to the activities at the pool, while the ongoing development in the Barton Springs watershed is being ignored. "Please focus on the primary threat to the salamander: development in the watershed," Rather said.
Written comments will be accepted until August 14 at: USFWS Field Supervisor, Ecological Field Services Office, 10711 Burnet Road, Ste 200, Austin 78758. - R.B.
What a Waste
The long-running campaign to stop the proposed nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca was dealt a staggering blow last week when the U.S. House of Reps gave its green light on the $50 million deal. The House voted 305-117 in favor of the Texas/Maine/Vermont Nuclear Waste Compact, whereby each state will pay Texas $25 million to store its nuclear waste. The fate of the small West Texas town 18 miles from the Mexican border now rests in the hands of the Senate, which is expected to vote after its August break. Sen. Paul D. Wellstone,
D-Minn, has vowed to fight the legislation. Meanwhile, Connecticut has said it will offer Texas $100 million to join the compact if it is passed by Congress.
Erin Rogers, of the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, said the group will look for more support throughout the state before the Senate vote. She said the defense fund will hold a protest rally in Austin today, Thursday, August 6, on the First Street bridge in protest of the dump. At the same time, protesters from El Paso and Juaréz will begin a four-day, 76-mile journey by foot to Sierra Blanca.
Opponents of the dump, like Rogers, say they are disappointed with Gov. George W. Bush for not following through on his past support of a U.S. Congress-approved amendment, which hit the chopping block once it moved to the Senate. "Gov. Bush is 100% in favor of doing whatever he can for the nuclear industry," said Rogers.
Dump opponents also say that building the nuclear waste site at Sierra Blanca could prove catastrophic since the proposed area is carved into an active earthquake zone and has the potential to contaminate the town water supply. Further, opponents are charging the feds with environmental racism because the majority of Sierra Blanca's residents are poor minorities. Sierra Blanca is already the home of the world's largest sewage sludge dump. While a Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission environment and safety analysis found no potential danger in building the dump in 1996, the commission last month changed its stance. TNRCC hearing examiners recommended against licensing the waste dump based on safety issues. The final word, however, rests with the Bush-appointed TNRCC commissioners.
Jim Baldauf, with Texans United, a statewide environmental group that represents poor communities, pointed to an ad taken out last month in the Austin American-Statesman as proof that big money interests are in support of the deal. The ad, taken out by the Community Development Corp., presented in the form of a petition, features about 80 signatures of prominent town citizens, such as bank presidents and the like, who urged Texans to support the bill for the sake of the Sierra Blanca economy. Baldauf questioned the validity of some of the signatures, and observed that the Community Development Corp. is funded by nuclear subsidies.
"But the real shame and corruption came with how they picked the place to dump. This is like a bad Steven Segal movie," Baldauf said. "Hell, you can't even do a satire on this because it's so bad." - B.M.
Trash = Lots O' Cash
City staffers are recommending that Waste Management Inc. be given the lion's share of a garbage disposal contract with the city that could be worth $100 million over the 30-year life of the deal. According to figures released Monday at the Solid Waste Advisory Commission hearing, WMI, the world's biggest trash company, bid $11.85 per ton of garbage. Texas Disposal Systems, a locally owned company which operates a landfill near Creedmoor, bid $14 per ton.
Under the terms of the contract, 90% of the 136,000 tons of trash generated by city residents and city offices every year will be buried at WMI's landfill on Giles Road. But not everyone is pleased with the prospect of the WMI deal. The Walnut Place Neighborhood Association has been highly critical of the city's proposal. The neighborhood has expressed concern about truck traffic to the Giles Road landfill, and about the hazardous waste dump that exists at the site. TDS has also protested the award of the contract to WMI, claiming that WMI may be offering a lower price, but TDS is offering a better site that is more environmentally sound. In a letter to SWAC Chair J.D. Porter, TDS president Bob Gregory said his company is "selling intermediate and long-term environmental protection to the City."
SWAC members are also raising questions about the deal. "In this case, I don't think the low bid is the sole reason for awarding a contract of this size and length," said Gail Vittori, a member of the SWAC. "I don't think there are reasons to move ahead when there are so many unresolved issues." The City Council is scheduled to take up the WMI contract at its Thursday meeting, but it appears that the item may be delayed due to questions being raised by SWAC members and the neighborhood.
In a related matter, on August 20, the council is expected to take up a proposal that the SWAC has been working on for several years: recycling at multi-family residences. Austin's apartment dwellers have never had a convenient way to get rid of their recyclable materials. Under the proposal now being considered, residents in apartments and townhouses could soon have on-site recycling facilities. - R.B.