AACOG in air denial, Rivard flirts with UT job

Remedial oxygen

Clean-air bullies at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are considering cutting smog out of the American diet, but warning shots fired by our Bexar County Commissioners and officials with the Alamo Area Council of Governments suggest they’ll have to slice their way through South Texas politicians to get it done.

Bexar’s Commissioners and AACOG last month objected to lowering federal ozone limits, a move that could bring vehicle emissions testing and other horrors to Sprawl City, USA.

Members of AACOG’s AIR Committee framed their argument in a recently passed resolution, suggesting: 1) the San Antonio region has worked “proactively” with the EPA on air quality in the past; 2) health studies used by the EPA linking ozone and poor health all took place in areas with “chronic” ozone problems; and 3) San Antonio Metro Health examined the issue and found “little or no correlation between asthma-related emergency department visits and occasional ozone exceedances.”

One problem. Metro Health really didn’t study the topic so much.

“There was not an official study and/or report that was conducted from that. They just kind of surveilled it for a little while,” said Metro Health spokesperson Christine Padman. The chief “surveiller” in this case couldn’t remember much about it since that was more than five years ago, she added. “He said, ‘It wasn’t an official study or official report so I’m not quite sure how it ended up in their resolution.’ He doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the fact that they cited it in the resolution.”

He may want to take it up with Kyle Cunningham, program manager at Metro Health’s Public Center for Environmental Health, who submitted this particular “Whereas” to the AIR Committee, according to Peter Bella, head of natural resources for the 12-county body.

The U.S. EPA is expected to reduce federal limits on ground-level ozone (otherwise known as smog) from 75 parts per billion to somewhere between 60 ppb and 70 ppb by the end of summer. In the hopes of countering smog-quashing tyranny, AACOG is asking the EPA to specifically prove the nasty stuff in our skies (much of which drifts in from Houston, they argue) is unhealthy for local residents before piling on new regs. Perhaps they could stop in at North East Independent School District and pal around with the more than 6,000 asthmatic students.

When complaints of itchy eyes, runny noses, and breathing problems arise at NEISD schools, they’re logged with Jerry Lamping, director of indoor air quality for the district. Lamping told the Current he begins his investigations by first checking the outdoor air, where he typically finds either high soot or smog hanging over the region. “We do get more calls for indoor air-quality investigations when there is high ozone occurrences,” Lamping said.

Should Metro Health actually do an ozone investigation, they may want to consider not using emergency-room visits as the symptom, said Diane Rhodes, a registered respiratory therapist and director of asthma education at the North East Independent School District. It can take several days after exposure to bad air before the worst of reactions set in. “You may not walk out the door and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t breathe,’” Rhodes said. “It’s a cumulative process. … You should not have to go to the emergency room if you have asthma. There are too many good drugs out there. That’s an extreme case.”

Regarding Rivard

San Antonio Express-News Editor Bob Rivard is one of the most recognizable San Antonians we have. His news résumé showcases 30 years of determination and talent gilded with the sorts of awards working writers gnash their teeth over. He’s been a force for free speech and press not only here at home, but in Latin America as a board member of the InterAmerican Press Association.

As the daily’s editor, however, he’s also been criticized for squelching in-house investigative journalism `See “The Story That Didn’t Run,” December 2, 2009` and strolling out on some tortured limbs in his regular column duties `go nukes and billion-dollar ocean desalination?`.

But as of today, Rivard has a one-in-three chance (give or take some UT faculty prejudices) of slipping from us entirely. On Monday and Tuesday, Rivard met with faculty at the University of Texas as one of three candidates being considered for the position of director of the School of Journalism. The interim director, Tracy Dahlby, didn’t return our calls, but “He’s a great teacher and he wants to go back to teaching and writing,” one source told us.

Rivard also was mum on the topic, failing to return the QueQue’s calls.

Other candidates for the post include Glenn Frankel, a nearly 30-year Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada, and Linda Steiner, an academic from the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, who also held positions at Rutgers and something called Governors State University.

Contact @sacurrent on Twitter for instructions to get into our office betting pool.

Limping north

The spring monarch migration has been a bust. Only a lucky few have caught sight of more than a couple of the iconic insects currently on their northward jaunt through Texas. Mainstream news reports have blamed the usual suspects for the population collapse of this most recognizable of the flitter-bys: Soggy weather and illegal logging in their Mexican over-wintering grounds. Less widely reported is the ongoing loss of habitat in the United States, as well as our widespread use of toxic herbicides, pesticides, and genetically modified corn. Researchers have shown that the pollen of some genetically modified crops are fatal to monarch larvae.

“Their breeding ground is being ‘cleansed,’ as it were, of milkweed. People are using Roundup Ready crops, herbicide-ready crops,” said Mike Quinn, a former Texas Parks & Wildlife entomologist and current president of the Austin Butterfly Forum. Those are just some of the shifts in agricultural practice that Monarch Watch blames for eliminating more than 80 million acres of monarch habitat in recent years.

While Mexico’s butterfly reserves and Midwest breeding grounds may feel far from us in South Texas, there’s a lot local residents can do to help. Texas is a “springboard” for the northward migration, the site of the monarchs’ first rush of egg laying. “So the conditions here in Texas play a big role in the success of future monarch generations going north,” said Quinn.

You can help a monarch out by cutting down on your pesticide use and rushing out to plant some milkweed, sunflowers, and other goodies. Under these extreme conditions, every backyard butterfly garden helps.

Parading in the Big Easy

Last month, the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition learned that oral arguments in their case against the City and its revised parade ordinance will be heard by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The QueQue squeezed into the group’s serious meeting on April Fool’s Day to see how the exhaustively active group would handle the April 27 one-hour-plus hearing.

Attorney Amy Kastely and the Free Speech Coalition claim that after massive immigration rights marches in 2006, a new parade ordinance quickly appeared applying a different fee schedule for First Amendment and non-First Amendment events. And who decides what constitutes a “First Amendment” event and thus lower fees? Why, the San Antonio Police Department, of course. Law enforcement has an awesome record with those sorts of determinations.

Giving the police the broad power to decide who marches, revels, or protests and how much they should pay seemed a tad unconstitutional to U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who issued an injunction halting enforcement of the ordinance on February 21, 2008. Judge Rodriguez insisted the City meet several requirements, and they did, to a degree. The chief of police still decides what qualifies as a First Amendment event, but the new ordinance requires the chief to consider several specifics in determining the amount of traffic control needed, making fees more transparent. They also don’t exempt funeral processions or VIP motorcades. Is that enough to pass Constitutional muster? 

Judge Fred Biery, who took over the case after Judge Rodriguez recused himself, thinks so. He both lifted the injunction and granted the City summary judgment, advising, in his folksy way, that the plaintiffs “apply for permits early to avoid last-minute egg-beater pleadings.” 

But the plaintiffs say the cost of a parade permit is still unreasonably high, especially the $2 million insurance policy the City strongly suggests, and its proposed alternative for cash-strapped marches is laughable: San Antonio’s cracked, unevenly curbed, and narrow sidewalks. They appealed the summary judgment, and the case was r cently chosen as one of just a dozen or so a year in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals hears oral arguments. Decisions at this level can set binding precedents. Even though the present court is, according to Kastely, very right-wing and very Republican, “so much of the Civil Rights movement happened there. They are bound by some decisions made during that period,” and some of those relate directly to public protests. 

Assistant City Attorney Debi Klein says parade ordinances vary nationwide, with some cities enforcing much more stringent permit requirements than San Antonio.

“We’ve given every opportunity to allow people to have those `First Amendment` events at no cost,” Klein said, pointing out that the City picks up the first $3,000, and will make arrangements for expenses above that amount in some cases. She also notes that applicants can indicate whether they believe their event qualifies for First Amendment status when they apply for a permit, and the police department consults with the City Attorney’s office. “We err on the side of caution and presume it’s a First Amendment event.”

Klein said she expects the loser at the Fifth to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

The Free Speech Coalition wants to use the opportunity in New Orleans to join up with local groups like New Orleans’ renowned Second Line, who have lately faced major permit increases for performing at street funeral processions and public events. Though they’ve not yet finalized when they’ll go or how they’ll get there, the group is confident they will have more than adequate representation. We’ll be there, too, if only to hear what the court has to say about that whole egg-beater thing. •

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