The Queque - December 22, 2010

Bow your heads

There is no cross on the wall at the Willie M. Cortez Senior Center. During the summer, however, the execution device benevolently radiated illegal religious favoritism over the tops of the bowed heads as city staff led visitors in prayer. Of course, there are no more city-funded prayer leaders these days. A local resident got that shut down after he complained to various city officials in June. “The cross came down a week later amid wailing, and crying, and complaining,” the resident told the Current last week. “A few days later it was announced that prayers would stop and the moaning and everything started up again.”

Yet prayers quickly resumed. Today, senior center employees leave the room after the news announcements and before the Pledge of Allegiance while a community member leads the prayer. Not good enough, insists an attorney for the non-profit legal team at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In a letter dated December 9, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan wrote Gilberto Romero, director of the senior center: “Because the private citizen is simply carrying out an action that the government has effectively delegated to him or her, the government is still legally responsible for the prayer.”

Romero referred questions to mid-level public-relations staff, who punted up to City Attorney Michael Bernard. “The city staff and the volunteers at the senior center, they can’t organize it, they can’t lead it, and they can’t make ’em do it. They can’t prevent the participants from doing it, either,” Bernhard said. While agreeing in general with Americans United’s legal reasoning, he disagreed that continued prayer is a problem, saying, “It’s not a ‘pregnant pause.’ It’s not a nod and a wink.”

The complainant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the issue won’t be over for him until “the city pays fines for its violations … I think heads should roll.” Of course, to bring things to a fuller embroglio, someone may have to, oh, we don’t know, go on the record?


Judges vs TCEQ

Those of you who attended a Sunset Review hearing on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at downtown’s Central Library last month are already well-versed in the litany of complaints that have been lobbed against the agency tasked with protecting our commonly held winds and waters. Perhaps you even thought the apparent consensus that the TCEQ commissioners too frequently overlook industrial pollution in favor of economic development would force the agency to turn over a new leaf. Think again.

Earlier this month, state Administrative Law Judges recommended denying two controversial environmental permits: one for a proposed petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi that would most likely exceed allowable standards for lung-clogging particulate matter, and another for a proposed uranium mining operation fought vigorously in the courts and at public hearings by the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District and county commissioners. On the Las Brisas power plant, the judges wrote the company “has not made the necessary compliance demonstration to ensure that emissions from the proposed facility would not contribute to air pollution.”

Last Friday, more than a dozen protestors held a sit-in at the TCEQ’s offices at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi demanding commissioners abide by the judges’ decision. A few days earlier the TCEQ commissioners overturned the judgment of the Ad Law judges on uranium mining in Goliad County. In that case, the judges saw reason to believe equipment problems may have skewed the results of tests performed exploring a hydrologic fault that could, theoretically, one day allow radioactive water from the proposed uranium production field into the Guadalupe River. They recommended a new test be performed. TCEQ commissioners, however, decided last Tuesday the issue was … not an issue.

But if Ad Law judges aren’t the end of the permit line, neither is the TCEQ — at least when it comes to uranium mining. UEC still needs to get the aquifer declared “exempt” by the U.S. EPA. And the forces of Goliad (county commissioners, groundwater district, and area churchgoers and ranchers) are rounding up the posse for one last stand in early 2011. “We’re in new times,” lamented Art Dohmann, head of the Goliad County’s Groundwater District. “Maybe today the benefit to industry is there, but in the long term it could come back to haunt us. You just get to a point of pollution where it’s overwhelming.”

Speaking of overwhelming toxic pollution: Corpus organizer and Las Brisas opponent Daniel Lucio said the TCEQ Commissioners are expected to vote in the next couple of weeks on Brisas. TCEQ’s Executive Director Mark Vickery, the judges found, assisted Las Brisas Energy Center LLC in trying to show its pollution would fall within federal air standards. Commissioners are anxious to get the plant approved before EPA greenhouse standards become the law of the land in January.


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