Trees v. plains, SAPD's cold-case files

SAPD: cold case files

As we round out the month of Fools and Fiesta, the QueQue would like to end on a serious note: The National Sexual Violence Resource center named April Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The Sex Crimes Unit of San Antonio Police Department didn’t need the reminder, and has recently taken steps to attempt to alleviate one of the more pernicious outcomes of sexual violence — SA’s 5,200 sexual-assault cold cases. Last month City Council authorized SAPD’s pursuit of a National Institute of Justice grant to fund DNA analysis on those cold cases. According to a spokesman for the SAPD, sexual-assault cases can go cold in just 45 days if the Sex Crimes Unit has “exhausted all investigative leads.”

That may sound draconian, but it’s not at all uncommon for this type of crime, says Tory Camp of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Camp says that the trail can go cold even in the more common cases, in which the attacker is known to the victim, because the alleged atacker denies the charges or claims the sexual contact was consensual and there’s little evidence to support the victim’s side of the story. In the cases where the perpetrator is unknown, investigators simply fail to find the alleged attacker. Camp says in both situations witnesses are rare and its crucial that victims receive a Sexual Assault Nurses Evaluation (the SANE test) within 96 hours.

Many sexual-assault allegations don’t make it to the prosecution stage, handled here through the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, says Camp, and only 20 percent of rapes are ever reported to law enforcement nationally. The National Institute of Justice, part of the federal Department of Justice, believes investing in DNA analysis can help solve not only homicides (of which San Antonio has 1,200 on their books), but also violent sexual assaults. The NIJ writes in their grant RFP, “Advances in DNA technologies have substantially increased the successful DNA analysis of aged, degraded, limited, or otherwise compromised biological evidence.”

Nothing puts the he said/she said argument to rest like a conclusive DNA sample. The SAPD would use the $800,000 grant to fund overtime for detectives analyzing and investigating the cold-case backlog, forensics experts to assist both Homicide and Sex Crimes investigators, and DNA testing fees. As it stands, homicide has two full-time detectives dedicated to cold cases, while Sex Crimes assigns cold cases to its 38 detectives “on an available basis,” according to a City Council document. The same document estimated each detective works on 15 felony sexual-assault cases per month, leaving QueQue to infer the detectives log few idle hours to devote to cold cases.

We asked if the many cold cases in Sex Crimes could mean the department was understaffed, but SAPD asked to defer that answer until a commissioned staffing study is completed. The department will learn if they’ve received the grant later in the year, likely in June when the NIJ archives the grant solicitation (applications closed March 12). Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to get help if you think you’re the victim of rape or sexual assault. Call the local Rape Crisis Center hotline at (210) 349-7273 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1(800) 656-HOPE. As evidenced by our sad sexual-assault cold-case numbers, in these investigations, time is of the essence.

Con-fusion: hot docs?

The modeling for a worst-case meltdown and explosion at the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Matagorda County performed in 1982 suggested 18,000 area residents would die, followed by 4,000 additional cases of cancer within 30 years. Strangely, when just such an accident occurred in 1986 in northern Ukraine, the United Nation’s World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and dozens of other international agencies put the death toll at about 50. Thousands of others may ultimately be sickened and die from the fallout, the contingent allowed, but the numbers were far below what experts had been expecting. As the UN’s figures were coming out, regional doctors in the Ukraine were complaining of being “overwhelmed” by new cancers. Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection, suggested a few years ago that 500,000 might have already died from the accident. Now, a report published in the New York Academy of Sciences that draws on more than 5,000 studies — many of which had not been translated out of Russian until recently — suggests the number of deaths attributable to Chernobyl may have already approached a million.

“The conclusions reached by this report call into question the ability or the willingness of the WHO to undertake reliable health studies,” said Cynthia Folkers, radiation and health specialist with Beyond Nuclear in a prepared release. “It points to the agency’s conflict of interest in its working relationship with the IAEA, whose mandate is to expand nuclear-energy use while the WHO objective is to promote and protect health. It is impossible to investigate health consequences from radiation with any integrity while at the same time promoting nuclear power.”

With the Chernobyl legacy so far from settled, it seems strange that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission would do anything to trouble public perception of risk at U.S. nuke plants. Yet the NRC is doing just that by fighting off requests for documents showing how the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company would respond to a fire or explosion at the plant — even after being ordered to release a redacted version of those documents by its own Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The three groups pushing for the release of that information — the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, Public Citizen, and the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy — filed a legal brief with the NRC last month after the NRC appealed the judgment of the ASLB. The applicants (who could not be reached before deadline) say the agency’s secrecy is at odds with President Barack Obama’s stated commitment to creating more transparency in government.

Why is all this important? Because sometime this summer $10 billion in federal funds are expected to flow to one of three competing projects, and STP’s expansion hinges on receiving those loan guarantees, NRG Energy officials have said. Last week, George Vanderheyden, CEO of UniStar Nuclear Energy, told Energy & Environment that what had been considered a three-way contest had boiled down to a two-way race between STP in Matagorda County and UniStar’s proposed plants at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. “It is really is down to the two of us,” Vanderheyden said. “These two plants are neck and neck.”

DOE spokesperson Ebony Meeks could not comment on which plants were racking up the most points in the competition and downplayed talk of a decision in a matter of weeks. “We could easily run into months, from my understanding,” Meeks told the QueQue. Shoot. By that time, we’re certain to have this whole 1,000,000-versus-50 death toll thing figured out, and the nuclear lions will be lying down with the disclosure-requiring Obama lambs. Or is that “lying to?”

Tree ordnance

In the last 50 years, half of the world’s forests have been razed to manufacture “premium” beef and executive-grade ass wipes. (And, yes, we are including your boss in one of those categories.) Industrial agriculture has played a huge role, as have the expansion of cities. Without a doubt the world needs more trees. They absorb unhealthy pollutants (including climate-destabilizing CO2), keep smog levels in check, provide shade to offset the heat-island effect, and much more.

But they don’t heal all wounds.

The proposed tree ordinance that’s headed to a Council vote next week has been accused of disproportionately punishing San Antonio’s South Side by setting a city-wide goal of 40-percent tree cover and is expected to inspire some debate on the subject, according to at least one Southside Council aide. After all, ecologically speaking, trees are more of a Northside thing, with Hill Country forests nudging in as they do. The South, meanwhile, is dominated by the brushier South Texas plains ecosystem. So, to comply, developers complain, they will have to plant more trees.

It’s a point even the greens acknowledge.

“It’s definitely going to be a disincentive, it seems to me, if you’re having to plant in areas where historically its more a plains-type environment,” said Annalisa Peace, director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

Don’t get her wrong. Peace praises the proposed ordinance for its attempt to close a much-abused ag-exemption loophole that has allowed too many land parcels to be clear-cut for development. She just worries it doesn’t do enough to steer development away from the North Side’s Camp Bullis, golden-cheeked warblers, and Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. She’d like to see the tree canopy raised to 55 percent over the recharge zone to help protect the city’s primary source of drinking water.

“Our group wants to develop on the south, downstream of the sensitive areas,” Peace said. “This ordinance is slanted toward people that already have investments in those environmentally sensitive areas `to the north`.”

Richard Alles of the Citizens Tree Coalition has pushed for years to get to this point. And yet he calls it “mythology” to say that under this proposed ordinance “when a developer chops down a tree, he pays a fee. In fact, it’s just the opposite.” `See his chart, above.` For starters, most trees are too small to be counted. Others are the wrong species. Even more are discounted for being rooted in the right-of-way or along easements — which can make up a third or more of a lot.

“It’s so hard to get across how weak the ordinance is,” Alles said. “People look in the ordinance and they see a number that says you have to preserve 35 percent of the significant trees. They don’t read the part that says easements and rights-of-way are excluded. They don’t realize, that’s a third of the land. And this percent, this 35 percent, that only applies to the remaining two-thirds of the land.

“They can destroy 80 percent of what’s on a site without paying a penny in fees.”

There could be something to Southside objections if the ordinance were a strong one. But tree people like Alles say as long as virtually any tree can still be axed, the proposed ordinance is less of a tree-preservation ordinance than a tree-planting directive. And it costs developers a lot less to plant a tree than build around one. That alone keeps the South attractive.

Bar fries

Maybe it’s won’t be as universally popular as Councilwoman Leticia Cantu’s proposed texting ban, but District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez is moving ahead with a bold plan to prevent laughing while smoking. As promised, he submitted a Council Consideration Request memo to the City Clerk last week, asking the Governance Committee to get on with closing most of the remaining loopholes in the City’s 2003 smoking ban. If Council ultimately fulfills his wish list, it’ll be illegal to smoke in pool halls, gaming and bingo joints, comedy clubs, and bars and restaurants that are currently exempted by the code.

“It’s a public-health issue,” Rodriguez said, citing both the “additional adverse effects” of smoking while drinking, and the long-term consequences for employees who work in smoking establishments. As for the argument that those workers can choose to earn their wages somewhere else: “Well, sometimes that’s just not the reality; sometimes those are the only jobs people can get, especially right now.”

Rodriguez hadn’t spoken with representatives of the restaurant industry before he authored the memo, but said he had heard they would be amenable to tightening the regulations if Council is flexible about continuing to allow outdoor designated areas. He expects the biggest resistance to come from bars, and his proposal does not list cigar bars. He listed cities such as New York, Houston, Dallas, and Austin that have instituted broad bans as evidence that it won’t kill the local food-and-drink industry.

“I think the gut reaction is, we’re going down the tubes,” he said, “but that was part of the sky is falling argument in 2003. I don’t think we’re going to see ultra lounges opening in Schertz because you can’t smoke in San Antonio.”

Yolanda Arellano, executive metro director for the San Antonio Restaurant Association, disagrees. “Everybody has to be on the same plane,” she said, and to that end SARA has been working with the organization’s Texas parent chapter to lobby for a statewide ban. ”If you’re going to do it at the city level, at least help us out and not give other cities the advantage.”

Arellano was scheduled to meet with Rodriguez April 27. Among the worries it sounded like she’ll be conveying: It’s a tough time for an industry that runs on 3-4 percent margins and is still suffering through the lingering effects of the recession. ”It’s not like we’re not concerned,” she said. “Of course we want healthy customers.”

Rodriguez’s memo cites a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that concludes second-hand smoke is very bad stuff, indeed, but he could as well have mentioned the 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine, which one panel member told the New York Times found that “Even a small amount of exposure to secondhand smoke can increase blood clotting, constrict blood vessels, and can cause a heart attack.” (Fine, just don’t make those sexy smokers on Mad Men quit; we’ll live vicariously through them.)

Mayor Julián Castro, who encouraged Rodriguez to push for the ordinance and signed the CCR, says he’s willing to bet there are more folks who don’t go to restaurants because smoking is allowed than there are folks who don’t go because they can’t smoke. Why would the hospitality industry would cater to the 20 percent of the population who smokes rather than the other way around, he wondered. “Our ordinance is quite the dinosaur. I’m confident that our restaurants will flourish.” •

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