Go, West!

What the West report tells us is that 33(83% of the total) facilities in Texas that store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate still are located within a quarter mile of homes. Apart from weakening the reporting and classification requirements, the only substantive thing Governor Abbott has done is to remove your right to find out if you live near a storage location.

Today also marks the day that the Chemical Safety Board reported back on the West disaster, another recent shadow over Texas.

There is no surprise that the report findings include damning conclusions on the disaster; a massive explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility fatally injured twelve volunteer firefighters, two members of the public and caused hundreds of injuries. . The preliminary findings are here.

In the months following the disaster, I for one was appalled at the actions of then Texas Attorney General, now Texas Governor, Greg Abbotts actions. I wrote first about this in a June 2015 post called “The Texas Freedom Illusion“. In that, I remarked

The good news is Texas isn’t much worse than many others, at least we still have the ultimate freedom, to leave.

Which, coincidentally what I’ve done, leave. I also discussed West in the guise of the restrictions of information, when discussing the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

What the West report tells us is that 33(83% of the total) facilities in Texas that store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate still are located within a quarter mile of homes. Apart from weakening the reporting and classification requirements, the only substantive thing Governor Abbott has done is to remove your right to find out if you live near a storage location.

Remember, you too have the freedom to leave.

Decaying Texas

It’s been an interesting month. I live in Austin Texas, boom town USA. Everything is happening in construction, although nothing much in transport. In many ways Austin reminds me of rapidly developing cities in China, India and other developing countries. I’ve travelled some inside Texas, but most on I10 and out East. I’ve tended to dismiss what I’ve seen in small towns, mostly because I figured they were unrepresentative.

Earlier this month I did my first real US roadtrip. I had my Mum with me for a month and figured a week or so out of the heat of Texas would be a good thing. We covered 2,500 miles, most up from North West Texas, also New Mexico, and Colorado. On the way back we went via Taos, Santa Fe, and Roswell and then back through West Texas.

There they were small town after small town, decaying. Every now and again you’d drive through a bigger town that wasn’t as bad, but overall massive decay, mostly in the commercial space. Companies had given up, gone bust, or got run out of town by a Walmart 30-50 files away. Even in the bigger ones, there was really no choice, there were Dollar Stores, Pizza Hut, McDonalds or Burger King, Sonic or Dairy Queen, and gas stations. Really not much else, except maybe a Mexican food stop.

It was only just before sunset on the drive back through West Texas, with my Mum asleep in the backseat, I worked out that my camera and telephoto lens rested perfectly between the steering wheel and the dashboard and I started taking pictures. These are totally representative with what I’ve seen all over Texas. Just like the small towns out near Crockett and Lufkin in East Texas; pretty similar to anything over near Midland; outside El Paso; down south towards Galveston.  Decaying Texas.

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What there were plenty of, in the miles and miles of flat straight roads, were oil derricks, and tankers, hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s not clear to me what Governor Perry means when he talks about the Texas Miracle, but these small towns, and to some degree, smaller cities have more in common with the towns and cities in China and India, slowly being deserted, run down in the rush to the big cities.

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Interestingly, while writing and previewing this entry on wordpress, it suggested the mybigfatwesttexastrip, which ends with the following

The pictures above tell the story of a dying West Texas town and the changing landscape of population movement away from the agrarian society to the city.

The Texas Freedom Illusion

Governor Perry is well known for his brags that “the Lone Star State’s winning mix of low taxes, reasonable regulatory structure, fair court system and world-class workforce has been paying dividends” and bringing business to Texas, even when it isn’t true.

Courtesy the Dallas News
Courtesy the Dallas News

For the day to day Texan, their freedom is becoming increasingly an illusion too.

To have real freedom, you need choice. Increasingly Texans have no freedom, because they have no choice. This week, Attorney General Abbott confirmed the ban of releasing information to the public as Tier II reports in the 1986 Emergancy Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA).

What this means is, YOU, yes You! can no longer find out what dangerous chemicals are stored by businesses in your town, or your neighborhood. The sort of chemicals for example, that were the cause of the West, TX explosion last year. The Dallas Morning News in their research found 74 facilities that 10,000 Pounds or more of Ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive material on site.

Given one of the startling discoveries post West, TX. that

“The fertilizer plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. Its owners do not seem to have told the Department of Homeland Security that they were storing large quantities of potentially explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines”

wouldn’t you want to know this stuff was happening near your home, school, or work place? WFAA has a great video report showing Texas regulation at it’s best/worst. Confusion.

Gov. Perrys claim for low regulation is in fact obfuscated by the fact that plants like the one in West, TX are regulated by as at least seven different state and federal agencies. OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service. If you think this creates a smooth, efficient, low cost and safe way of managing risk, then “good luck with that”.

The good news is Texas isn’t much worse than many others, at least we still have the ultimate freedom, to leave. Unless of course it’s via the Mexican border where Abbott continues to press for the Federal Government to be tougher, fence more, fence frequently border control. What Texas does a best is apparently marketing the illusion of freedom via the cheerleader in general, Gov. Perry.

Low regulation comes with a cost

The influx of workers, the migration of people continues apace, as does the Governors low tax, low regulation mantra.
Gov. Perry to Newsmax: Low Taxes, Less Regulation Key to ‘Texas Miracle’

The lax oversight though has direct impact on everything from fertilizer plants, to your children. Systems in place better work, there is often no fallback.

Austin and Alcohol tourism

I’m not trying to conflate two separate subjects with this post, but finally people are starting to get part of the real need for alternate transport options in Austin. Urban Rail and Drink Driving.

NPR posted a link to this KUT segment/web page to it’s facebook page today. I listened to the story as I drove to work this morning on Morning Edition. Providing additional transport isn’t enough, it will need a generational change.

However, generational change needs real leadership to solve this problem and that’s been distinctly lacking from the “Rail or Fail” Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and departing Governor of Texas Rick Perry. Perry, the longest serving Texas Governor has not only been absent from the discussion, but allowed the airline South by South West to completely derail the last serious attempt at real rail in Texas.

Remembering Kelly is a passionate and articulate argument about why something needs to be done. Ben Wintle totally nails the problem for Austin where in his blog he says

Austin is a city of alcohol tourism. We have at least three neighborhoods dedicated to the consumption of alcohol. People travel to our city from all over the world to get drunk. We need to stop burying our heads in the sand. The 6th st entertainment district over-serves their clients on a regular basis. No one should be carried out of a bar because they are too drunk to walk and that behavior is just normal for dirty 6th. The Austin bus system isn’t horrible but it’s not enough. This city desperately needs a more comprehensive public transportation network. That network should include trains, buses and contiguous sidewalks.

 

Project Disconnect
Picture taken from Project Connect aspirational web page

Our two departing “superheroes” share the blame. In addition to Perrys’ “do nothing” approach to alternate transport, Leffingwell leaves office having presided over a meandering, rudderless transport policy for the city that has had Lavaca a major road through downtown completely jammed up for the past 8-months and going to miss it’s rescheduled completion; a red line that is totally underutilized; yet self congratulating at every opportunity at an Austin that is best for this, top for that.

Rather than rally behind what most transport conscious users and urbanization advocates believes would be hard, but right choice to put a rail line of some sort, straight down Lamar from North West Austin, Leffingwell used his last state of the city to rally behind the current rail proposal.

M1EK has long been an outspoken critic of the policy, process and people involved. This blog entry contains a good summary of my feeling and it’s a re-post with some useful links in the comments.

And here is the problem. Even if this line is a success, it would at best encourage the development of a 4th alcohol tourism destination, it won’t do anything to address the ones we already have. Instead, trains will terminate a good 20-minute drive from the existing centers, rather than stopping on Lamar around 5th, and looping through downtown, perhaps as shown through the ProjectConnect screen grab shown above.

In the meantime it is hard to see how Austin will tackle the problem of drink driving for the next 5-years, what’s clear is that it is going to take more than more punishment, stiffer fines, etc. Leffingwells’ Austin and Perrys’ low regulation, low taxation dreams are starting to show their nasty underbelly.

Dead wrong

I must admit, I’ve struggled to decide how to tackle one of perhaps the most fundamental differences between my UK upbringing and what continues to be one of the most egregious demonstrations of rugged, religious and notionally righteous Texas, it’s use of the death penalty. Although I’m now a confirmed atheist, I was bought up in a Church of England, Christian family. So while I don’t believe in God, morally I believe in “Christian values”.

With Texas executing some 40% of the total executed in America; with America being the country which legally executes more people than any other; it is almost inevitable that Texas leads the world in wrongful executions, the most recent of which, the Cameron Todd Willingham case is morally, socially, politically, and legally troubling. The LA Times has a good review of the issues.

Current Texas governor Rick Perry, has presided over more death penalty executions than any governor in U.S. History. Just this month, the State executed Suzanne Basso, Basso was the fifth woman to be executed in Texas since 1982 and the 14th nationwide, she was the second person in executed in Texas in 2014.

and then today, a friend shared this on facebook, it is an open letter from Dan Jensen to Washington state Governor Inslee. Thank you Dan for expressing what so many of us think and feel. Next stop Texas!

Kudos to Governor Inslee for putting a moratorium on enforcement of the death penalty in our state. While I grant that there are indeed crimes that are heinous enough to deserve it, I don’t think the cost to society is worth it.

First and foremost, there is the risk of executing someone who was wrongly convicted. The death penalty once imposed can’t be taken back. The risk of wrongly executing one person is not worth the justified execution of dozens of the guilty.

Next is the cost of prosecuting the cases. Is society’s need for closure (revenge?) worth it?

In practice the death penalty is more likely to be imposed on minorities and/or the poor who can’t afford the best defense attorneys and are forced to rely upon overburdened public defenders.

Those who claim to be pro life should oppose the death penalty and also support universal access to healthcare. It seems incongruous to me that many ‘pro life’ conservatives support the death penalty.

I believe life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate punishment for those who commit terrible crimes. Is it always the most satisfying option for a society that seeks closure/revenge for horrible crimes? I concede it is not, and I admit that I am lucky to not have been put in the position of being affected by such a crime. I hope and pray that I would be able to accept something less than the death penalty as punishment for someone who killed a person I love. As a Christian, I believe that is what I would be called to do. It would be a heavy cross, but one that I know God would help me carry.

Therefore, we need to move beyond the need for ‘eye for an eye’ revenge and seek closure in other ways that are probably healthier for victims and for society as well. I hope that the moratorium on executions in Washington is permanent, and will be confirmed by legislation eliminating it soon.