The Queque - October 13, 2010

Spanking Mercado

El Que snuck into the Pearl Stables for a bit of stall mucking last week at a panel discussion on the future of water in the region. What we found was un dais populated by all the usual aquatic suspects: expensive ties (and one power suit) from SAWS, BexarMet, Texas Water Development Board, and private industry interests were discussing the ups and downs of briny water and slippery state law.

But for Express-News Editor and perennial moderator Bob Rivard, BexarMet’s GM Victor Mercado proved too attractive a target and the Clean Tech-sponsored luncheon quickly devolved into journalistic S&M, with Rivard riding whip and Mercado choking on the gag.

Rivard ran down the laundry list of grievances against BexarMet, including the recent firing of a whistleblower decrying the utility’s financial health, and retreaded pledges by state lawmakers to file a bill again this upcoming Legislative session to dissolve the utility. “What do you say to all this?” asked Rivard, concluding his set-up to a room erupting in laughter.

“BexarMet is finally stable,” responded the owl-eyed BM GM. “It has 90 days of operating expenses. … It has never defaulted on any of its debts or payments.”

Rivard stepped up again: Would Mercado consider selling just a fraction of coverage area, say, Stone Oak, which is already ringed about by SAWS water and sewer lines? (a burst of applause) before closing with a weak theoretical: were Mercado buying a house today, would he choose a BexarMet or SAWS service area? At this Mercado finally summoned some vinegar, spitting back that service problems have been overblown by the media. “We actually receive very few complaints.”

SAWS President Robert Puente, however, said he hears constantly from BexarMet customers, urging him to “please take us over.”

While dissolving BexarMet would be a voter decision, Puente said the city utility is prepared to act. In fact, a detailed plan has been sitting on a SAWS shelf for years. And (voters: remember) there would be “immediate” cost savings, he pledged, “because we don’t have to compete for the same water.”

But Puente broke from the Mercado pile-up momentarily to fire a barb at Rivard, complaining that the paper was nowhere to be found when he was moving legislation to dissolve BexarMet years ago. “I sure wish I could have had that help back when I was in the Legislature.”

Rivard deflected that criticism by giving Mercado yet another good-natured kick to the ‘nads. Pausing for a drink of water, Rivard praised the delicious fluoride in his glass of SAWS’ product. In a cost-saving move, BexarMet recently voted to stop putting the industrial byproduct in their supply.

Of course, on the topic of water, Rivard as opinion-maker has some make-up work to do. Last water rally, he came away high on billion-dollar notions of ocean desalination, taking some well-earned jabs, including one from yours truly.

Puente drove home the message at the forum that desal does not have to mean Gulf of Mexico water moving uphill through massive pipelines. “Why do we have to go to the Gulf for salt water when we have it right here in Bexar County?” he asked. “We’re in a situation right now where we say, ‘Damn, we hit fresh water,’ because we’re looking for salt water, for brackish water.

Super K

The Supreme Court showed South Texas free thinkers no love last week by failing to defend us from another case of free speech illin’. The Supremes could have settled the most resistant stain in contemporary artistic debate, that is: “junk or art?”

Back in February, a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans rejected Planet K owner Michael Kleinman’s plea to overturn a lower court’s ruling regarding his thoughtfully decorated ’88 Olds/cactus planter covered in such cutting edge slogans as “Make Love, Not War.” Seems the black robes liked that city ordinance that would fine Kleinman for failing to dispose of unsightly trash/art/automotiveness, which the city finally removed in April after a years-long standoff. Last week, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.

“We’re extremely disappointed that the court upheld that only great works of art are protected under the First Amendment,” San Marcos Planet K Manager Joe Ptak told the QueQue. “Does that mean only great speech is protected? If that’s true, we’re all in trouble.”

The city ordinance in question forbids junk vehicles from being placed or remaining on public or private property. Misdemeanor offenders net themselves fines of up to $200, the total growing daily. “Nobody wants to live next to the neighbor with the car up on blocks,” reasoned Michael Cosentino, San Marcos’ city attorney.

While a local judge ordered the vehicle removed, Kleinman claimed the vehicle was his exercise in Constitutionally protected Free Speech, landing the whole shebang in federal court where the question then became whether such “undistinguished” works of art are protected under the First Amendment. Guess we’ll pull all those little pinwheels out of our frontlawn collection of doggie droppings now. Do fascists never rest?

Squeamish Weems

Watching the rapid development of the Eagle Ford shale formation across South Texas, Democrat Jeff Weems likes to use Ronald Reagan’s famous quote: “Trust but verify.” With each major investment in the region (yesterday’s China story on the state-owned oil giant’s $2-billion buy-in to Chesapeake’s holdings offering a perfect example), the daily paper trots out its marching bands and tickertape to cheer column inch over column inch. Despite their endorsement of Weems as a candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission this weekend, the paper hasn’t managed to process Weems’ message regarding the oil and gas fracking gathering speed across more than a dozen South Texas counties. When Weems meets with area landowners he talks to them about the immediate need for a “frontburner” RRC study on how to best protect the region’s limited groundwater from the gas fracking. He speaks plainly about the need for more inspectors supervising the exploding oilfield development (one inspector per 4,500 wells sounds untenable to us, too). He even dares to suggest we may need to demand mandatory water recycling at every well. “If there is anything positive we can take away from the Deepwater Horizon incident offshore, it is that your weak link is the actual hole that you put in that two miles of rock and the well that you drill. That’s your weak spot,” Weems told the Current on Tuesday. While the actual fracturing of the shale rock itself takes place thousands of feet below the region’s freshwater formations, if casing is not placed correctly, those toxic drilling fluids can flow back and contaminate that water, Weems said. And the millions of gallons of wastewater that flow back to surface frack tanks can also cause havoc if spilled, dumped, or improperly injected into disposal wells.

Fracking has proved disastrous in places like Pennsylvania, so much so the state of New York issued a moratorium on the practice until the U.S. EPA has carried out a full study of the risks involved. The EPA has instructed residents of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation not to drink their water, and Terri Hansen reports in Indian Country Today that locals use fans while bathing to reduce the risk of, um, explosion.

Touring the communities over the Barnet Shale zone in North Texas this week, Weems suggested the short-term gains that some South Texas communities are just beginning to realize don’t always trump long-term negatives. “It’s all nice and fun and exciting when you have all this royalty revenue and ad valorem tax revenues just pouring into your county coffers, but in a couple years when you’re left with the ghostlike infrastructure there and there’s very little production and your property values have plummeted because of the infrastructure that’s in place, that’s something that people need to plan ahead for,” he said.

It’d be nice if the paper of record would make a note of that.