Wednesday, August 29, 2007

BLOGSWARM He Fiddled While It Drowned, Or Everything Old Is New Again

(Note: prior Katrina posts, including this one, are here.)

"George Bush doesn't care about black people." Kanye West, September, 2005

Kanye's a bit off the mark.

Herr El Presidente Busch has always hated and not cared a good goddamn damn about, the poor, the black, hispanics, and most importantly, their children, as his recent promise to veto any S-CHIP health care legislation for America's poor children that crosses his desk bears out

Long, long, before Katrina happened under his watch as President, he established a long running track record of this kind of as Texas Governor.

Katrina was just part of his 'more of the same' track record, that we're sure to see more of before he leaves office.

It's a pattern that they're going to run out of their Death to America playbook, again and again.

And let's call it what it is, it's not "government malfeasance", that's nonsense.

This, and the events in Texas described below paint a picture of this death by drowning of a jewel of an American city, New Orleans, being nothing less than slow-burn genocide.

It's not like people weren't warned, and sorry there's no short way to do this, this excerpt came out as part of a much longer piece written by Gail Sheehy that ran the month before the 2000 Election.

Try not to throw up while you read it.

With his promise to restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, Bush is not running on issues; he is running on character. The character of a political leader, though, must be expressed through his policies on the great concerns of the time. A leading concern today is the environment. Supreme Court justices will retire, new laws will be passed, but once the environment has been degraded, the effects are generally irreversible.

Bush is an oilman, and so is Dick Cheney, who, until he was tapped as Bush's running mate, was C.E.O. of Halliburton, the world's largest oil-field services company. Over the past five years Cheney received salary and bonuses totaling $12.5 million, stock options worth nearly $39 million and, last month, a retirement package worth an estimated $20 million. Don Evans, who would likely be Bush's chief of staff, is the C.E.O. of Tom Brown Inc., the $750 million Denver-based oil and gas company.

The obvious question arises: How would these men balance the interests of the oil and petrochemical industries, which are among their heaviest contributors, with the interests of Americans for a clean and healthy environment?

Odessa, Texas, is the backyard of Midland—in every way. It is where the dirty services of the local oil and petrochemical industries are performed. The industry executives live in Midland. The working people live in Odessa.

It is where the Bush family first set up housekeeping in 1948, a couple of miles from a petrochemical plant built in 1956 that is now the sixth-worst polluter in the state of Texas. But the Bush family has long been gone, and a few years ago even the Texas agency responsible for environmental control of air and water moved out of Odessa and over to Midland, leaving no forwarding number.

That was after the plant was bought up in 1997 by Huntsman, the largest privately owned petrochemical company in the country, which expanded the plant's capacity for making plastic pellets.
First, the school windows start to rattle. Then the whole building shakes. Swooosh-thwoock! It sounds like giant fireworks going off. The kids look out the windows, excited. From the tower of the plant a half-mile from the school a torch of flame shoots toward the sky. Kids who run outside feel the ground rolling. "Is it an earthquake?" "Will it blow up?" Smoke twists up from the tip of the flame. After a while the smoke turns black and lies down over the community and day turns into night. Company representatives tell frightened residents they are just burning "sweet" gas. But to residents it smells like raw diesel fuel or rotten eggs, depending on the day. "Whenever there is a rattle or an 'earthquake,' I call the representative from Huntsman and ask, 'What's going on?'" says Laura Norton, the principal of Hays Elementary School. The public-relations executive for the Odessa plant, Carolyn Tripp, goes over to the school and calms everyone down. "She calls them 'flares,'" says Norton. "She said they had to shut down parts of the plant to release … I believe she said steam, and because they're shooting it fast, it was creating a lot of pressure."

A flare is the burn-off of chemicals which are fired from a plant into the atmosphere, releasing anything from plant waste to dangerous carcinogens, but it isn't only natural or "sweet gas." Flares use steam, but what they are burning is often a toxic chemical soup that is so commonplace in Texas cities and poor counties that, under Governor Bush, the state has moved up to No. 1 in ozone precursor emissions. (Air toxics become transformed and create ozone pollution.)

Amazingly, Houston managed to outdo Los Angeles in 1999 as the city with the highest levels of ozone smog in the nation. Houston is only one of a half-dozen of the state's largest metropolitan areas to be warned by the Environmental Protection Agency that their eight-hour smog levels threaten human health. Governor Bush's latest response was to write to the E.P.A., only last June, asking that the Texas counties in violation be designated "unclassifiable" and exempted from federal penalties. The E.P.A. has asked the governor to reconsider.

In December 1998, Odessa residents living downwind of the newly expanded Huntsman plastics plant were engulfed by black, toxic smoke—so thick they needed to drive with their headlights on in the middle of the day. That eerie "flare" lasted for two weeks. Houses shook, and terrified residents couldn't sleep or concentrate. Children wheezed and coughed and came down with bloody noses and headaches. The flame climbed a hundred feet in the air and could be seen from 30 miles away at the Midland Country Club.
But the Midland office of the state's environmental agency, T.N.R.C.C. (Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission), did nothing. The local air-section manager, Mike Hagan, excused the event as an "upset," which is what they call an unscheduled release of chemicals. The T.N.R.C.C. doesn't track the number of upsets at each plant, and some, like Alcoa's Rockdale smelter, can have upsets daily. Ludicrously, the agency puts no limit on the amount of toxins or duration of releases. A Huntsman Corporation executive in charge of environmental matters, Don Olsen, insisted there had been no flare. "There just isn't evidence that anything like that happened." he said. In fact, in the first three days of the two-week upset the plant burned more than 60,000 pounds of ethylene, a suspected neurotoxicant that has adverse effects on the nervous system; more than 30,000 pounds of propylene, which adversely affects breathing; and hundreds of pounds of benzene and butadiene—both recognized as highly hazardous carcinogens which promote cancer of the liver and are toxic to the heart, the blood, the respiratory and intestinal and immune systems.

Gene Collins, president of the Odessa chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., organized residents into one of the largest protests against community pollution in the state—3,100 individual affidavits from people who complained of health problems and medical bills. The enforcement division of the T.N.R.C.C. cooperated with Huntsman in negotiating a $7,500 fine, which the agency agreed to waive when the company offered to make a contribution to the betterment of the affected community.
Last October, Huntsman told the Hays school it was putting in an expensive new air-quality monitor, right on the school grounds. It was actually provided by the T.N.R.C.C. in response to the community outcry. "A Huntsman person came over and explained they would be monitoring things 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says the principal innocently. "We feel confident they are monitoring the air, so we feel like it's safe for the kids."

Hays has 350 students, of which the majority are black or Hispanic. The principal admits that some parents have complained that their children are having problems with "allergies," but says the school's complete attendance records are a year or two behind. Careful about what she says, since many of the children have parents who owe their jobs to the Huntsman plant, the principal praises the company for taking an interest in their school. "They get real involved in our science fair, and they provide computer equipment."
"What good does it do if you give a child a computer and then 20 years later he gets cancer from all the pollution he got from going to Hays Elementary?" asks Dr. Neil Carman, a former air-quality-control inspector for the T.N.R.C.C., widely known as "Trainwreck." "The whole system they use is a hoax and a fraud," says Carman, who quit the agency in disgust in 1992 and now works for the Sierra Club in Texas.

The Huntsman operation in Odessa is not the worst case of alleged environmental recklessness in Texas, but it is a classic example of how the interests of the oil and power and petrochemical industries are protected by the Bush administration, while the population is virtually helpless against the dangerously mounting pollution levels.

The T.N.R.C.C. insists it does have "guidelines"—E.S.L.'s, or environmental-safety levels—which are pseudo-standards that the agency can apply or dismiss at its discretion. But they mean almost nothing. Why? Because Texas is not enforcing its clean-air laws. Under the federal act signed in 1990 by President Bush, each state was allowed to choose its own strategy. Under Governor Bush, the Texas strategy was conceived by industry executives working with the governor's office and blessed by the three commissioners of the T.N.R.C.C.—Ralph Marquez, a 30-year veteran of the chemical industry; John Baker, a professional lobbyist; and Robert Huston, an oil-industry consultant—all appointed by Governor Bush.

Here is how it happened in Texas, and how it might be expected to happen at the national level under President Bush.

An alarm bell was sounded in Bush's office in January 1997 by his point man for environmental policy, John Howard, who warned in a memo that the "industry has expressed concern that the T.N.R.C.C. is moving too quickly and may rashly seek legislation this session." The legislation in question might have closed the grandfathering loophole that allows the worst of Texas air polluters to continue operating their decades-old plants with outmoded technology.
That June, executives of Marathon Oil and Exxon sent a letter to other oil executives with good news: Governor Bush, it stated, "asked us to work with his office to develop the concepts of a voluntary program to permit grandfathered facilities in Texas." These are plants more than 30 years old, and they account for more than a third of all industrial emissions in the state.

Executives from more than a dozen oil and chemical companies, including Huntsman, together with their lobbyists, met through the fall of 1997 in complete secrecy until they had drafted a new law to their liking. One troubled DuPont engineer sent out an E-mail stating, "Clearly, the 'insiders' from oil & gas believe that the Governor's Office will 'persuade' the T.N.R.C.C. to accept whatever program is developed between the industry group and the Governor's Office."
Then Governor Bush created a blue-ribbon committee, misleadingly named CARE, to bless the new program. On June 18, 1999, Bush sealed it with his signature on a law that makes it entirely voluntary for companies with old, grandfathered plants to cut their pollution emissions.

That spring, when Bush announced his intention to run for president, his campaign was jump-started by contributions from the owners of these same grandfathered plants and their law firms. Among the most generous were Enron ($103,100), Exxon ($19,200), and Shell ($25,000). Vinson & Elkins, the law firm that represents Alcoa on air-pollution matters, contributed $184,800. Baker & Botts, which has lobbied on behalf of eight grandfathered polluters, including Huntsman, gave $82,000.

Probably some of those highly paid lobbyists were on the links the day in mid-July when I had a late lunch at the Midland Country Club. The club, once frequented by George W., hosts luncheons for oilmen who belong to the Landmen's Association and Natural Gas Producers. After a game of golf they might enjoy oysters in crawfish cream sauce and green chili and then sit out on the veranda, boasting about their latest prospect.

Suddenly, from the veranda, I noticed what looked like a big torch in the sky. "Could that be a flare from the Huntsman petrochemical plant?" I asked the assistant manager of the club. He wrinkled his nose. "It doesn't look very nice."

I was in Midland that day doing interviews for this story. Having read a report that almost a quarter-million children in Texas attend school near grandfathered plants that emit smog-producing pollution, I had asked for an interview with the principal of the Hays school. When I called Gene Collins, a graduate of Baylor University who is the N.A.A.C.P. man in Odessa, he said, "Y'all picked a good time to come up here. Huntsman is passing out flyers in the community announcing they are going to have a flare and an upset [defined as accidental!] tomorrow starting at six a.m."

It was the first time the company had given Odessa residents a warning of a flare, though it is legally required to do so by the E.P.A. Collins sounded genuinely pleased: "They are really trying to do something for the community."
Collins was not available when I called back. The company had started flaring 12 hours in advance of the time given in the flyer, and he was passing out gas masks to residents.

My Texas researcher, Mike Smith, and I drove over to Odessa to experience a flare firsthand. As we approached the low-income neighborhood of South Odessa, a rumble was noticeable, and a tall narrow flame lit the sky above the squat houses. Residents were in the streets handing out thin tissue masks. I stopped to speak to Mary Hernandez, whose neck was collared by a raw red scar. "I had a thyroid tumor removed three months ago," she said. "Like a golf ball."
She was checking on the elderly residents, many of whom have obtained oxygen tanks. The mothers and grandmothers looked very worried. "This one has been going for two or three nights already," said Bobbi Palmer, a retired grandmother of 15. "The rolling—at night it sounds like thunder. The kids get very upset because the noise keeps them awake."

Collins says, "We have a much higher than normal rate of kidney cancer. So many people in Odessa are on kidney dialysis now, we have a special clinic for it. And just about everybody has some sort of respiratory problem."
After less than an hour I noticed my own throat closing up. My eyes were running, my voice became hoarse, and I began to feel disoriented. The company's response had been a program called "Shelter in Place": people were told to tape their windows and seal themselves in during a flare—hardly humane in the 90-plus-degree summer heat for people whose air-conditioning is to open the windows and doors.

Dozens of Odessa residents had traveled to Austin last spring to petition Governor Bush for help. He ignored them.
That evening we stopped by the Hays school to see the new monitor. It looked like a small railroad car, padlocked, with a little glass jar attached to sample the air. We could hear it "breathing," sucking in the air, but Collins said that when he'd asked for data from it, the local T.N.R.C.C. representative told him they didn't have the staff to read the data. (The T.N.R.C.C. has 3,000 employees.) After a month of chasing around, a technical person at the T.N.R.C.C. campus in Austin downloaded 13,000 pages of data documenting the emissions at the Hays school on an hourly basis from the time the monitor had been installed, nine months before.

The results were shocking. Even Dr. Carman, the former T.N.R.C.C. inspector who had worked for years in the Odessa plants, had never seen anything like it.
"It's like having an open incinerator in your backyard, but this incinerator is burning a very large soup of toxic chemicals," said Dr. Carman after analyzing the data from the three days in mid-July when I had followed the flare in Odessa. "With all of the toxic air releases occurring in Texas—tens of thousands of them—this is the first time a continuous monitor has recorded, in real time, emissions from a flaring episode in Texas," to Dr. Carman's knowledge.

The "normal" level for benzene in the area ranges from .5 to 2 or 3 parts per billion (p.p.b.) molecules of air. The evening I was in the neighborhood the benzene level spiked up to 6.5 p.p.b. At 11 p.m., after the last local newscaster left, the benzene level jumped to 13. But we were still being exposed to the effects of a truly stratospheric climb recorded at seven that morning—up to 269 p.p.b., at least a 200 percent increase!

And benzene wasn't the only deadly carcinogen the plant was spewing. There were also high levels of toluene and butadiene, both neurotoxicants that are considered extremely hazardous to children's development as well as to the reproductive health of men and women and particularly to the unborn.
"This is dramatic evidence that these flares are not burning everything, but rather releasing a mixture of highly toxic chemicals into the air at ground level," Dr. Carman said. "I can tell you, the T.N.R.C.C. has no idea what this stuff does to people. They are certainly not going to tell anyone that it is killing them, because that is bad for 'bidness' in Texas."

The Huntsman plants are among hundreds of such outmoded, free-flaring facilities. And the saddest part, says Dr. Carman, is that what comes out of most of these plants is not even monitored.
When I read off the data from the Hays monitor to a director of enforcement at the T.N.R.C.C., Joe Vogel, he was evasive. He isn't a toxicologist, he said, he's a business-administration person. Yet he insisted, "A lot of short-term spikes don't necessarily have a health impact.… There is not a refinery that does not have upsets."

The managers of another Huntsman plant, in Port Arthur, had been found criminally guilty in 1999 of falsifying reports on a similar incident of a huge benzene release. (One of the convicted managers was a former state air-pollution regulator; while on appeal he still has his job with Huntsman.) "We have never been able to prove a condition of air pollution, because we were never able to prove that the smoke impacted the neighborhood," says Vogel about Port Arthur.
Vogel failed to say that the T.N.R.C.C. has set acceptable levels for short-term releases, and Huntsman had clearly exceeded them and may be endangering the health of the community. The short-term safety level of benzene is four p.p.b. an hour for 24 hours. On July 11, the average measurement of benzene per hour in South Odessa was 20 p.p.b.

My call must have set off alarm bells in the Salt Lake City headquarters of Huntsman. A conference call with Don Olsen was arranged by a lobbyist with the public-relations firm created by Governor Bush's media guru, Mark McKinnon. "We bought this plant because we thought it helps Odessa and the end products it makes are necessary for society," said Olsen. He also said that the company had spent millions on putting in a new flaring system. "We're working closely with the T.N.R.C.C."
But he said he knew nothing about a July flare, nor about any data generated by the expensive new monitor, and professed ignorance of any benzene releases. When he heard some of the numbers, he changed his story: "The T.N.R.C.C. or E.P.A. has not contacted us about that. It's not our responsibility to read the monitors. If they find something wrong, they have the responsibility to tell us." The next day Huntsman's excuse was to say the monitor wasn't even operating on the three days for which we had data.

Several days later, the company provided us with a duplicate of the data from the T.N.R.C.C. but insisted that all the chemicals recorded were far below levels of concern. They also tried to blame the pollution on a nearby rubber plant. Huntsman put out 2,936,559 pounds of toxic chemicals in 1998—25 times as much air pollution as the rubber plant, according to the E.P.A. Other toxic chemicals found by the Hays monitor are primarily associated with Huntsman's facility (propylene, ethylene, propane, ethane, and methane).
"It's a farce," Gene Collins said with a bitter laugh. "Governor Bush has turned his head. Maybe that is how he interprets 'compassionate conservative'—I won't watch your suffering."

In the month after the Odessa upset, Collins reported, "we've had two people die from acute asthma attacks. It's really scary."
Even the company's P.R. spokesperson, Barbara Laing, complained, "We fear that Huntsman is being held up as the poster child for Bush's shitty environmental record here in Texas."

I hoped to have an opportunity to ask Governor Bush about his learning difficulties, his religious awakening, and his environmental policies. Coming out of the celebratory Republican convention, I joined Bush's whistle-stop train tour through the Midwest, expecting a real grassroots trip. Instead, it was a long string of privately owned railroad cars. The campaign had hired a top Philadelphia caterer, who was told to "take care of the press, first class," which meant laying on heavy hors d'oeuvres—smoked-salmon napoleons and caviar on crème fraîche—while the train purred through traditionally Democratic states. Crowds were huge and highly charged, but the faces were almost exclusively white.

Running down the roadbed at one stop, I collared Don Evans. I asked him how Bush, as president, would balance his loyalty to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries with the nation's growing concerns about environmental policy. The pause was long. "We'll have a policy position on the environment and energy—it's being worked on." Evans emphasized that the governor has taken "enormous constructive steps to reduce pollution."

The next morning I was told by Karen Hughes, "The governor will not be able to participate in your profile."

Gail Sheehy is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. No stranger to dissecting the corridors of power in our nation's capital, Sheehy has written about Newt Gingrich, Elizabeth Dole, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton for the magazine.


Turtle said...

Good stuff

I think I've read all Gail Sheehy's stuff - her and Barbara Ehrenreich

Come visit our other blog, talk to us

We're lazy and mostly putting up videos

Crossposts welcome too

Bukko_in_Australia said...

Where's that post about economics that you said on Pottersville that you were going to write? Curious to see your take.

Progressive Texas Chicano said...

Sorry I have been outta the loop. WOW! Great post man...very insightful. I have had to suffer Dumbya as governor of Tex-ass AND the prez. I detest the air that bastard breathes!

Days Left Until Bush Leaves Office, Maybe, Countown Clock