The QueQue - February 16, 2011

Clearing the air

The good news is that the EPA is expected to declare San Antonio in compliance with ozone standards under the Clean Air Act in a couple weeks — so keep whatever federal highway dollars are left a’ flowing, feds. The bad news is that, like our annual ozone season, new EPA regs are only a few months away.

Those standards, while thrice delayed already, are expected to put San Antonio (if not most of Texas) in a probationary position when they are announced midsummer.

The Alamo Area Council of Governments and Bexar County have staunchly resisted lowering the upper limits on smog. AACOG officials went so far as to write last year that, based upon studies by Bexar County’s Metro Health, there was “little or no correlation between asthma-related emergency department visits and occasional ozone exceedances.” Not only did such a pronouncement ring woefully false with school nurses in the area, a little poking around revealed there was no such study. In fact, the METRO staffer who “surveilled” air quality “for a little while” said he was not comfortable with his limited work being cited by AACOG, as QueQue reported last year.

Now, the group is taking a more realistic approach to the coming regs. On Monday, AACOG’s Air Improvement Resources Technical Committee heard a proposal from a fellow COGer, Andrew Hoekzema, from the Austin-area CAPCOG. The proposal from Austin (where, like San Antonio, the majority of ozone and ozone precursors like nitrogen oxide blow in from out of the area, ie. Houston) is to request the EPA regulate the state under a section of the Clean Air Act that would offer more flexibility for local governments by taking into account where the pollution is actually being produced … which was sort of AACOG and Bexar County’s complaint to begin with. Another concept floated at the meeting included petitioning the EPA to create larger non-attainment zones around our two cities that would rope in industrial coal plants belching in largely rural areas. San Antonio, it was suggested, should start taking a look at the polluting potential of the Eagle Ford oil shale play across the region.

Early estimates of air pollution from “fracking” oil- and gas-bearing shale in the Haynesville formation beneath northeast Texas and western Louisiana, for instance, is producing 140 tons of nitrogen oxides a day and is expected to increase to 267 tons a day by 2020. (A typical coal plant puts out about 50 tons per day.) Another potent ozone precursor, formaldehyde, has proven to be an issue in the fracklands of DFW. At Monday’s AIR committee meeting, Hoekzema suggested that San Antonio could get lumped by the EPA into a larger “non-attainment” zone in a federal effort to exert pressure on oilfield operators to clean up the air. “`Region 6 EPA Administrator` Al Armendariz, who is very interested in air emissions from oil shale fracking, may include all of the Eagle Ford shale counties,” he said. Such a move would certainly generate some potentially air-cleaning tension.

Bread-n-water report

Medical care in Texas prisons is the state’s best-kept secret — for a reason. Last week, The Texas Civil Rights Project, that quaint legally schooled band of Texans who believe that too many traffic tickets is no excuse for prison rape or leaky catheters, called out the state last week in a report suggesting state prisons have done such a poor job of caring for inmate’s health needs that prison-provided health care is actually a “secret death penalty.” With proposed funding cuts that would take our per-inmate expense from just under $10 per day down to $6 per day for those 154,000 in lockup, TCRP thought it fitting to remind residents of a variety of “medical horror stories” from prisons around Texas, warning also that proposed cuts to prisoner health care could also prompt a wave of lawsuits, in turn costing the state more than it would take to simply reform the system.

In California, the prison system was placed under judicial review after a panel of federal judges said jail conditions were unconstitutional — and that at a polished-silver plate setting of $28 per prisoner per day.

The report called prison health care a “tempting target” for lawmakers, saying prisoners are “an easy political punching bag.” Consider 34-year-old David West, who died while serving a four-year sentence at a Beeville facility for larceny and assault convictions. When West collapsed and became unresponsive in one of the jail’s shower pods, prison staff refused to enter and remove him for two hours, claiming he was “faking,” the report says. An autopsy later revealed West’s body temperature went through the roof due to prolonged exposure to the steam and hot water, shutting down his vital organs.

Instead of further limiting the already bare-bones care inmates receive, the Project suggested lawmakers push the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to release more of the state’s prisoners who qualify for parole, especially the elderly and extremely ill who require substantial, and costly, medical care in prison. According to the report, about 65 percent of the state’s prisoners are eligible for parole. “Our representatives can continue to follow expensive, failed ‘tough on crime’ policies, or become ‘smart on crime,’ incarcerating the most dangerous criminals while working to re-integrate non-violent offenders into society,” the report says.

Strip suit update: Last call for humility compensation! If you were strip searched at Bexar County Jail between November 2005 and April 2009 you could qualify for a free 33-disc $400 Sopranos box set (or you could just take the cash) as part of a class-action settlement with the County. You may recall the lawsuit was settled late last year for up to $5.5 million. Well those Washington lawyers are leaving the window open until March 16 for any stragglers. The suit claimed the County’s former strip search policy, which included those booked in on misdemeanor charges, was unconstitutional. Selection criteria: You must have been booked on a misdemeanor charge; any weapons or drugs involved only bank you $100 (or a complete Seinfeld collection. Yeah. We feel ya.). Go to for more information.

Census cranks

Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau set for release this week are sure to spark the long-awaited fight over redrawing district lines in Texas. The new census data is expected to provide detailed population figures for cities and counties around the state, showing which ones grew as well as giving an ethnic breakdown of that growth — information that will influence how lawmakers redistrict the state.

Texas won big when the initial results of the 2010 Census were released in December, showing the state grew more than double the rate of the nation as a whole. Texas’ population exploded more than 20 percent over the past decade, and as a result gained four new congressional seats — further raising the stakes for the upcoming redistricting process.

Early estimates indicate a Latino boom in Texas accounted for much of the state’s high population growth. And while Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature (giving state GOP leaders almost complete control over how to redraw district lines), some of the new seats would undoubtedly have to go to Democratic-leaning areas where Hispanic growth was particularly high (we’re giving you a highway wave, Vallistas!).

At least one lawsuit over redistricting has already been filed in federal court, and it’s likely more could follow as the redistricting process begins to move forward.

Austin attorney Michael Hull, representing three voters from North Texas, filed a suit last week against the state, the Census Bureau, and a long list of others (including the chairs of both the Republican and Democratic state parties, to be fair). In the suit, the voters claim that counting undocumented immigrants in census figures waters down the votes of those in districts without as many non-citizens.

In short, the lawsuit charges that citizens in districts with more undocumented immigrants could have more voting power than those in districts without as many immigrants, and asks that only U.S. citizens be counted. That’s one way to eradicate those 1.4 million residents propping up our economy. According to our Texas Comptroller, if Texas ever experienced that metaphorical Day Without a Mexican we’d lose $1.58 billion overnight (and not to mention a lot of really nice people). That’s quite a bit more than the billion-and-change in state services our undocumented brothers and sisters required in the study year of 2005. Maybe the Dallas CVB should start marketing for their own non-citizens.

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