About Air and Water

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Conservation groups oppose land auction

The Associated Press - Sun, Aug. 26, 2007
AUSTIN -- Conservation groups that donated more than 9,000 acres near Big Bend National Park to Texas now oppose state efforts to auction the land to the highest private bidder.

The General Land Office closed bidding last week after receiving six bids and plans to announce the winner next month.

The Conservation Fund, which donated the land, sent the office a letter opposing the sale, especially if the new owner is a private user.

"It was the hope ... that this land would be made available to the general public for hunting and other recreational uses," Richard Erdman, Conservation Fund executive vice president, wrote in the Aug. 8 letter.

An official from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which paid for the land and donated it to Texas through the Conservation Fund, threatened to quit donating if the sale goes through. The foundation has used land donations to set aside open space in 50 states and has given about 40,000 acres to Texas in the Chinati Mountains.

The deed stipulates that the state can sell the land only if it first offers it to the Parks and Wildlife Department and to the National Park Service, and then only if the fund approves the sale.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said that provision is probably unenforceable because a property owner should not have to ask the previous owner for permission to sell.

The land office can't manage the land, and the state and federal parks agencies have declined to take over the property, Patterson said.

Any sale would include restrictions, such as that the land office would retain water and mineral resources under the property. Off-road vehicles, utility lines and livestock grazing would be banned, Patterson said.
Read more

Monday, August 27, 2007

Grand Prairie toughens rules on gas wells near homes - Requirements for wells within 1,000 feet aren't enough, residents say

By KATHY A. GOOLSBY - The Dallas Morning News - Sat., August 25, 2007
Grand Prairie's City Council tightened its gas drilling and production ordinance last week, further restricting wells located less than 1,000 feet from homes.

But some residents say the new rules are not tough enough and will do little to discourage companies from drilling near neighborhoods.

"Oil companies don't care about those restrictions," said Frank Viso, who lives in the Grand Peninsula area near Joe Pool Lake. "If you're drilling for $55 million in gas and they charge you $10,000, that's a drop in the bucket. The only ones who are going to make anything off this is the city with the permitting."

Both the original ordinance and the amended rules allow gas drilling within 500 feet of homes. The new rules increase fees and add restrictions for wells within 1,000 feet. Requirements for such wells include additional noise abatements, such as hospital-grade mufflers and sound barriers; hard surfaces on driveways and parking areas to reduce dust; and stone walls or wrought-iron fences covered by landscaping to screen the site.

"We've also increased the fees," said Jim Cummings, the city's environmental services director. "We've doubled them. It's $5,000 now, so it'll be $10,000 for wells within 1,000 feet."

Mr. Viso said Grand Peninsula residents have been approached by a company trying to lease mineral rights in hopes of drilling wells on the west side of Lakeridge Parkway near Hanger Lowe Road. He would prefer that any wells in that area be limited to the east side of Lakeridge.

The city has approved six of the nine permit requests it has received since the ordinance was passed in September 2005, Mr. Cummings said. No permit requests have been submitted for the Lakeridge area.

Mr. Viso said residents have safety and quality-of-life concerns. Breezes from the lake blow through the proposed well sites and across the neighborhood, he said, and would carry any odors or other airborne pollutants to the residents.

Christina Kang, a state-certified residential appraiser who moved to the peninsula last year, is afraid that homes closest to the wells would decrease in value. With so much open space around the lake, she said, there is plenty of room to move wells farther from residential areas.

City Council member Ron Jensen, who represents the lake area, said officials can't tell people not to drill on their own land as long as they are following the rules.

"If I was a homeowner living on the peninsula, I wouldn't want a drilling rig behind my house either," Mr. Jensen said. "But we're not going to get into the decision-making process of telling someone he can or can't put a drill on his land. This council doesn't like interfering with individual homeowners."

The ordinance must apply throughout the city, even in areas with fewer open spaces than the peninsula, Mr. Cummings said. In more densely populated neighborhoods, disallowing wells within 1,000 feet would eliminate drilling sites near enough to bring up the gas.

State law says that mineral owners must be given access to those minerals, Mr. Cummings said.

"We're trying to strike a balance between the folks with mineral rights and the rights of residents to use their property and not be subject to nuisances," Mr. Cummings said. "When you compare our ordinance with others in the metroplex, we feel ours lines up."

Some municipalities have less-restrictive ordinances. Dallas and Arlington have a standard setback of 300 feet from homes, and Fort Worth's setback is 600 feet.

Like Grand Prairie, Flower Mound, Grapevine and Trophy Club have a more restrictive residential setback of 1,000 feet, but do not specify additional fees and restrictions for closer wells.

However, most cities have a process allowing companies to request a waiver of the distance requirements, usually by consent of all affected property owners, council approval or both.

In Grand Prairie, three-fourths of the council must approve the waiver for drilling closer than 500 feet to homes, but in no instance is a well allowed within 300 feet. State municipal code sets the minimum distance at 200 feet, but cities can impose stricter regulations.

It's the waiver possibility that concerns Ted Arrington, who lives in the Enclave at Westchester. Although no permit application has been submitted to the city, a well site has been proposed 563 feet from his home, he said.

"There are places where these wells explode, and there are four houses between mine and the site," Mr. Arrington said. "That puts six adults and at least eight children closer than me, and we have a day-care center near here. There's a lot of discomfort and worry about our children being here and what a well will do to our neighborhood."

Mr. Arrington would like the oil and gas companies to go elsewhere, but he understands that the city can't prohibit drilling. The tighter restrictions are at least a step in the right direction, he said.

"If we can't make it illegal, let's at least make it more difficult," Mr. Arrington said. "It's one more hurdle for them, but I don't think it's going to be a deterrent."
Read more in the Dallas Morning News

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gas deals' fine print can be costly

By Mike Lee - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sat. Aug. 25, 2007
FORT WORTH -- More than a year ago, homeowners in Oakhurst, a middle-class neighborhood northeast of downtown, became some of the first in the city to sign up for natural gas drilling.

The landmen called it "mailbox money." By signing the leases, the property owners would get a royalty check for the life of the gas well.

Now, those homeowners are learning about the fine print in natural gas leases. Before they can cash their royalty checks, they have to get legal releases called subordination agreements from their mortgage companies. And the mortgage companies are asking for fees that amount to several years' worth of royalty payments.
Read the entire article

Friday, August 24, 2007


TCEQ - August 24, 2007In 2006, American Airlines saved $983,262 by treating and re-using water in its Aircraft Wash Facility in Fort Worth. Through innovative design and water management, the facility reduced use by more than 234 million gallons of water. NORIT Americas, Inc. in Marshall synchronized its generator with the electric utility to cut energy consumption by 1.4 million kWh saving $166,666. These are just two examples of savings realized through the effective application of pollution prevention plans.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is hosting workshops to educate industry professionals on filing required pollution prevention plans. Environmental, health, and safety managers, plant managers, production personnel, wastewater operators, municipal solid waste technicians, and engineers, or related professionals, are encouraged to attend.

The Waste Reduction Policy Act requires both large and small generators of hazardous waste, and facilities that report to the Toxic Release Inventory, to file a pollution prevention plan with the state. The workshops will teach participants how to draft and file the plans and also explore the benefits to a company’s bottom line.

Workshops are scheduled as follows:

Austin—September 26–27, The University of Texas at Austin Joe C. Thompson Conference Center

Houston—October 18–19, Hilton University of Houston

Fort Worth/Arlington—November 1–2, University of Texas-Arlington Automation and Robotics Research Institute,

Beaumont—November 8–9, MCM Elegante Hotel

For more information, visit the Pollution Prevention Planning.
For workshop registration questions contact Jennifer Lasseter at 512-239-3100.
Register online.

N.Y. Utility Scrapping Ocean Wind Park

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - August 24, 2007
GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) -- Long Island's utility company intends to dump plans to build a $700 million wind energy park in the Atlantic Ocean, a top official said.

''It's just too expensive,'' Long Island Power Authority Chairman Kevin Law told The Associated Press. ''It's not going to work. This is an economically based decision. We didn't even have to consider environmental or aesthetic concerns.''

The utility's board of directors will meet next month to officially vote on scrapping the project.

Initially popular with environmental activists, politicians and residents, the project, which was to include 40 turbines in an 8-square-mile area, has lost support because of construction costs and concerns that it would mar the landscape of Long Island's south shore beaches.

It is the second offshore wind project to be scrapped in recent months. A developer in South Texas called off construction of about 170 turbines there after determining it no longer made economic sense to proceed. That developer said building an offshore farm would have been more than double the cost of one on land.

Plans are proceeding for an offshore wind farm in Massachusetts, where a company called Cape Wind hopes to build 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind has not said how much that project would cost. Developers in Delaware also are planning an offshore wind farm.

Original estimates for construction on the Long Island wind farm were between $150 and $200 million. In 2004, FPL Energy, a subsidiary of Florida Power & Light, won the right to build the project with a bid of $356 million, pending regulatory approvals. The latest estimates put the cost at $697 million.

A call to FPL seeking comment was not immediately returned, but the company told Newsday it had not received official word from the utility that the project was being scrapped.

In a recent report, the Department of Energy said the nation's wind-power capacity increased by 27 percent in 2006, and that the U.S. had the fastest-growing wind-power capacity in the world in 2005 and 2006. Still, despite wind farms now operating in 36 states, wind accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. power supply.
Read more stories in the New York Times

Scandal and Suicide in China: A Dark Side of Toys

By DAVID BARBOZA - The New York Times - August 23, 2007
They found the body hanging on the third floor of the Lee Der toy factory.

Zhang Shuhong, a 52-year-old businessman, had apparently committed suicide, just days after Mattel blamed his company, Lee Der Industrial, in Foshan, in southern China, for the recall of one million toys coated in toxic lead paint.

In a summer of high-profile recalls of Chinese exports — pet food, shellfish, tires — Mr. Zhang’s suicide read like the latest twist in a morality play. Each week, it seemed, brought news of another faulty Chinese product; and with it, growing concerns about unscrupulous Chinese businessmen: cutting corners; pouring cheap, sometimes lethal, ingredients into their products; endangering consumers around the world, even children, to make a bigger profit.

But at the Lee Der factory in Foshan, an industrial city 140 miles northwest of Hong Kong, Mr. Zhang’s colleagues and workers tell a less familiar narrative. They say that Mr. Zhang was a victim, too — of his own duplicitous suppliers, of China’s faulty supply chains, and of the pressures of its loosely regulated brand of capitalism, where Chinese entrepreneurs feel squeezed between Western companies’ appetite for cheap goods and the fierce local competition to satisfy it.

Unmarried and reportedly devoted to his company, Mr. Zhang was one of the hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs who had helped make China into the world’s factory floor, providing the inexpensive goods that fill the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target. According to those who knew him, he was anything but greedy. In fact, in an industry with a reputation for mistreating its workers, he paid his employees on time and did not make them perform mandatory overtime.

“For the last 10 years he lived in a humble 25-square-meter room in the factory,” said Xie Yuguang, chairman of Lee Der, in a telephone interview. “He didn’t save too much money for himself. He put everything back into the company.”

Family members declined to be interviewed for this article, but colleagues say Mr. Zhang grew up in Hong Kong, and started out running errands for Hong Kong factories as a boy. Eventually, he helped run toy factories in nearby Guangdong Province, where China’s big toy producers are based.

After more than a decade with Lee Der, Mr. Zhang took over the company’s operations in Foshan a few years ago. He helped turn the money-losing unit around, colleagues said, reinvesting most of the company’s earnings in new buildings and equipment. Indeed, at the time of his death, workers say one of his three factories was preparing to relocate to a large $5 million plant that had just been completed.

Mr. Xie says that one of the contractors supplying for Lee Der received the lead paint from one of its suppliers.

Mr. Zhang, he says, had no way of knowing the paint on Lee Der’s toys contained lead.

Mattel’s investigation, so far, has found less clarity. The company says it has tracked down three paint suppliers working for Lee Der. The primary supplier of the lead paint pigment — a company called Mingdai — has disappeared, according to Mattel officials, who now believe Mingdai was a trading company.

But it was Mingdai, Mattel believes, that sold the yellow paint pigment containing lead to Dongxin and Zhongxin, which produced the paint.

Jules Andres, a spokeswoman at Mattel, said the company was still trying to determine whether the three paint suppliers — Dongxin, Zhongxin and Mingdai — sent paint to other toy factories supplying Mattel.

But that does not explain why Mr. Zhang — who had lead-detecting equipment on his premises, according to Ms. Andres — did not detect the contaminated toys.

“People at Lee Der were never fully able to give an explanation,” she said. “They had testing equipment on site. And they tested before. We don’t know why they didn’t use it” in this case.

Of Lee Der, Ms. Andres said, “Sadly, they just didn’t have an answer.”

Chinese regulators have blamed an unnamed paint supplier for producing “fake” unleaded paint. Workers said the paint supplier was Dongxin, which was owned by a close friend of Mr. Zhang. But Mr. Xie, Lee Der’s chairman, said Zhongxin sold the tainted pigments to Dongxin using false certificates. “Dongxin people didn’t recognize the fake documents, such as registration documents, quality inspection certificates, provided by Zhongxin,” he said.

Long supply chains, involving multiple contractors and subcontractors, are common in China; and every link in the chain is susceptible to fraud or contaminated goods.

No one has shown clearly where Mattel’s and Lee Der’s supply chain broke down but such uncertainty is common in China, too.

Mattel said lead paint was found only in toys Lee Der had manufactured since April

Wherever the weak link failed, and whether Mr. Zhang was a party to the deceit or not, some experts say part of the blame for tragedies like Lee Der’s must be assigned to the system that puts contractors under constant pressure to keep costs low.

“Labor costs are going up; the renminbi is going up,” Marshall W. Meyer, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “Mattel relied on one supplier for 15 years, the supplier to other people for parts. So the question is how many other suppliers are there? Is control possible?”

“The larger the chain, the more people involved, the greater the difficulty in controlling the quality of the product,” he added.

The timing of Mattel’s discovery was particularly bad for Mr. Zhang. A toy recall earlier this year involving lead paint had already helped fuel a rising chorus of global anger about how greedy Chinese businessmen were putting the world’s children at risk.

With China under fire for exporting contaminated or problem goods, multinational corporations and Chinese regulators were forced to get tough on violators.

Colleagues say Mr. Zhang appeared demoralized by the turn of events but resigned to closing the company. He encouraged workers to look for other jobs. He instructed managers to sell equipment. And then, apparently, he locked himself in a factory workshop and hanged himself.

“He called me that day and told me to sell some equipment,” said a manager who asked not to be identified because of the controversy surrounding Mr. Zhang’s death. “I just thought he wanted us to get some new equipment. I had no idea he was going to kill himself.”

Meanwhile, Lee Der has shut its doors, and its employees, many of whom lived on the factory campus and earned a base salary of $120 a month, an average salary in Foshan, have left to look for other jobs.

A funeral was held for Mr. Zhang on Friday. That morning, workers burned paper offerings — gifts for the afterlife — in the yard of the factory where he spent his last moments.

Mattel announced the recall on Aug. 2, just weeks after offering a New York Times reporter a tour to show off its sophisticated testing and inspection facilities, including equipment that could detect lead paint on incoming products or supplies.

“You’ve never seen a boss as good as he was,” said a worker last Thursday, as a crowd of employees gathered outside the gates of one of Lee Der’s factories.

On the other side of the gates, boxes of toys were stacked, waiting to be discarded.

Read more and see photos in the New York Times

Friday, August 17, 2007

SB 12: TCEQ considers prohibition against truck idling and Funds SOLAR Residential Low-income Housing Grant Pilot Project

TCEQ - Aug. 10, 2007
Items Approved for Consideration for Rule Proposal

SB 12: Idling of Motor Vehicles
The rulemaking will extend prohibitions that were set to expire on September 1, 2007, until September 1, 2009. Additionally, the rulemaking will prohibit idling within 1,000 feet of a hospital, residential areas, and if an electrification facility that provides external heat and air conditioning hook ups is within two miles of where a vehicle may be idling.
Source: TCEQ

Comment by Faith Chatham:
How much sweeter it would be if this rule which was already in effect were PUBLICIZED so that the public understands that it is illegal to leave a vehicle idling near a residence, hospital or power plant! The text of the bill sounds more like it pertains only to trucks than to automobiles.

When I looked up the bill I discovered much more than mere vehicle idling.

SB 12: Relating to programs for the enhancement of air quality, including energy efficiency standards in state purchasing and energy consumption; providing penalties
Author: Averitt Co-Authors: Ellis & Hinojosa.
Enrolled and Signed by Governor 6/8/2007 effective immediately except for Article 5 which is effective Sept. 1, 2007

The Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston-Brazoria areas of the State of Texas do not currently meet air quality standards for ozone, and the largest contributor to the formation of ozone in these two regions are mobile resources, such as personal automobiles and diesel engines found in construction equipment. Because federal law precludes state regulation of emissions from these sources, the State of Texas has developed the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP) and the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program (LIRAP), aimed at reducing these emissions. TERP is primarily designed to affect diesel engines, while LIRAP is intended to lessen emissions from personal automobiles. Currently, Texas does not meet the new federal air quality standards effective in 2010.

C.S.S.B. 12 increases the scope of both the TERP and the LIRAP programs to reduce emissions from mobile sources, increases the number of individuals eligible for grants under LIRAP, and increases the amount of the grant for purchase of a new vehicle. C.S.S.B. 12 seeks to reduce statewide emissions from electrical generation units by providing for the updating of building energy codes, encouraging the purchase of efficient appliances, and providing efficiency standards for school districts, institutions of higher education, state agencies, and governmental entities in counties.

It is the committee's opinion that rulemaking authority is expressly granted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in SECTIONS 1.04, 1.05, 1.06, 1.12, and 1.14 of this bill and to the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) in SECTIONS 3.01 and 3.06

C.S.S.B. 12 amends the Health and Safety Code to set forth definitions for "hybrid motor vehicle" and "qualifying new motor vehicle". The bill removes the limitation on the vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program that applies it only to gasoline-powered vehicles, making vehicles that are not gasoline-powered subject to the vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program. The bill also subjects to the vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program, vehicles that are newer than model year 1980 rather than those that are less than 25 years old.

The bill prohibits more than 10 percent of funds provided to counties for LIRAP to be spent on administration of the program. The bill prohibits more than 10 percent of LIRAP fees collected in a county that is subject to an early action compact and has a LIRAP program from being used to pay for administration of the program.

The bill provides that if a vehicle is to be retired under LIRAP, the replacement vehicle must be a qualifying motor vehicle. The bill authorizes TCEQ, by rule, to provide monetary or other assistance under LIRAP for the replacement of a vehicle that meets criteria set forth in the bill. The bill sets forth the maximum amounts that may be provided toward the purchase of a qualified replacement vehicle based on the vehicle type and model year. The bill authorizes this money to be used as a down payment for purchase of a replacement vehicle. The bill specifies that a vehicle owner's income cannot exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for vehicle replacement under LIRAP. The bill requires a participating county to provide an electronic means for distributing LIRAP repair and replacement funds and requires these funds to be transferred to a participating dealer within five business days. The bill sets forth provisions relating to documentation that will be issued to a person eligible to purchase a replacement vehicle. The bill sets forth provisions relating to the dismantling and scrapping of a retired vehicle. The bill provides that an automobile dealer that is participating in vehicle emissions programs must be located in this state. The bill specifies that participation in these programs is voluntary.

The bill authorizes the appropriation of money for LIRAP local initiative projects only for programs administered in accordance with the Uniform Grants and Contract Management Act. The bill authorizes a participating county to agree to contract with an appropriate entity to implement a vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program, LIRAP, or LIRAP local initiative project. The bill requires LIRAP local initiative projects to be implemented in consultation with TCEQ and sets forth examples of these local projects. The bill sets forth limits on how these funds may be expended.

The bill adds an amount made available to the consumer under LIRAP for vehicle replacement to the definition of "total consideration" in the Tax Code.

The bill adds violations of provisions of the Texas Clean Air Act relating to vehicle emissions to civil penalties provisions of the Water Code.

The bill repeals Subsection (e), Section 382.0622; Subsections (q) and (r), Section 382.202; and Section 382.217 of the Health and Safety Code.

The bill requires TCEQ to review its current cutpoint levels for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and determine whether a lower cutpoint standard would best serve the interest of public health and welfare and make necessary adjustment to LIRAP. The bill requires TCEQ to seek to work in partnership with automobile manufacturers and dealers in the state and the steel industry and automobile dismantlers to implement provisions of this bill.

The bill amends the Health & Safety Code to delay the expiration of the TERP program from 2010 to 2013. The bill requires TCEQ in administering TERP to hire staff and consultants needed to implement the TERP program in a timely manner. The bill requires TCEQ to make proposed revisions to TERP grant guidelines available to the public 30 days, rather than 45 days, before the guidelines are adopted. The bill changes the percentage of time or vehicle miles that must be traveled within nonattainment or affected counties from 75 percent to 50 percent. The bill also authorizes TCEQ to allow travel on roads designated by TCEQ that are outside nonattainment or affected counties to count towards this percentage. The bill allows TCEQ to consider a project for a marine vessel that operates within nine miles of a nonattainment area or affected county in addition to existing requirements. The bill increases the maximum cost effectiveness amount for TERP grants from $13,000 per ton of NOx emissions reduced to $15,000 per ton. The bill adds marine vessels to the types of engines eligible for grants for infrastructure projects for auxiliary power units. The bill sets forth provisions related to providing funding for and promoting idle reduction technologies. The bill requires TCEQ to encourage the use of external power units at ports and border crossings. The bill requires TCEQ to set aside funds in the TERP rebate grants program for projects with non-road engines used in construction and ensure that these projects are funded at a level commensurate with their percentage contribution to the nitrogen oxides emissions from mobiles sources. The bill requires TCEQ to implement an internet based application process for these grants and notify potential applicants of changes to the program by email and on the TCEQ website. The bill moves the administration of the TERP fund from the comptroller to TCEQ. Changes to the allocation of TERP funds that were set to take effect in 2008 are repealed and previous provisions are reenacted.

The bill makes an institution of higher education based in Houston eligible to administer the New Technology Research and Development Program (NTRD) and authorizes TCEQ to contract with more than one organization to administer the program. The bill sets forth conditions that a non-profit organization under contract with TCEQ to administer the NTRD program is required to meet and sets forth provisions relating to TCEQ oversight of the NTRD program. The bill sets forth provisions relating to the establishment of a testing facility to evaluate new technology that may result in NOx emissions reductions. The bill removes air quality studies from the list of eligible NTRD projects. The bill provides that the selection of NTRD grant recipients by a nonprofit organization is subject to the TCEQ's review. The bill prohibits a nonprofit organization from making a grant of TERP funds if TCEQ or executive director of TCEQ does not consent to the grant.

The bill amends the Tax Code to extend the expiration for the TERP fees and surcharges from 2010 to 2013.

Changes to the amount of the fee charged on a certificate of title that were set to take effect in 2008 are repealed from the Transportation Code. The bill provides that the portion of these title fees that are sent to the comptroller and then deposited to the credit of the Texas Mobility fund beginning in 2008 will be deposited directly to the credit of the TERP fund beginning in 2010. The bill provides that the TERP surcharge on certain vehicle registrations expires in 2013 rather than 2010. The bill amends the Health & Safety Code to authorize SECO to adopt new editions of international energy conservation code and sets forth a process for doing so. The bill adds institutions of higher education and state agencies to provisions requiring political subdivisions to implement certain energy efficiency programs. The bill provides for reporting on energy efficiency programs to SECO that would indicate no change from previous reports.

The bill amends the Education Code to require school districts to establish a goal to reduce annual electric consumption by five percent each year for six years. The bill amends the Government Code to require the Texas Building and Procurement Commissions (TBPC) to develop a list of equipment and appliances that meet energy efficiency standards and assist state agencies in selecting products from that list. The bill requires TBPC or another state agency to purchase equipment and appliances that meet the federal Energy Star standards.

From the text of the bill:
SECTION 4.01. Subsections (b), (c), and (d), Section 382.0191, Health and Safety Code, are amended to read as follows:
(b) The commission may not prohibit or limit the idling of a motor vehicle when idling is necessary to power a heater or air conditioner while a driver is using the vehicle's sleeper berth for a government-mandated rest period. Idling is not necessary to power a heater or air conditioner if the vehicle is within two miles of a facility offering external heating and air conditioning connections at a time when those connections are available.
(c) No driver using the vehicle's sleeper berth may idle the vehicle in a residential area as defined by Section 244.001, Local Government Code, or in a school zone or within 1,000 feet of a hospital or a public school during its hours of operation. An offense under this subsection shall be punishable by a fine not to exceed $500.
(d) This section expires September 1, 2009 [2007].

The bill also enables a solar energy demonstration program. From the text of the bill:
SECTION 7.01. Subchapter Z, Chapter 39, Utilities Code, is amended by adding Section 39.9051 to read as follows:
Sec. 39.9051. ENERGY EFFICIENCY DEMONSTRATION PROJECTS FOR SOLAR ELECTRIC SYSTEM; GRANT PROGRAM. (a) The commission by rule shall establish grant programs for:
(1) a demonstration project for installation of solar electric systems for new residential subdivisions;
(2) a demonstration project for installation of solar electric systems for new or established affordable housing for persons with low incomes; and
(3) a demonstration project for installation of solar electric systems for not more than three small businesses.
(b) To qualify for a grant under this section, the solar electric system must be a device that:
(1) generates electricity using solar resources;
(2) has a generating capacity of not more than 1,000 kilowatts; and
(3) is installed with a manufacturer's warranty against breakdown or undue degradation for a period of at least five years.
(c) A demonstration project grant program established under this section must provide for full or partial payment of the cost of equipment and installation for the solar electric systems. The commission shall establish for each grant program a competitive bidding process for grant applicants. The commission shall
consider the value of funding demonstration projects in different parts of this state, after considering the demographic and geographic diversity of this state.
(d) To qualify for a grant under Subsection (a)(1), the applicant:
(1) must be a person whose primary business activity is the building of residential housing developments; and
(2) must have installed or must be contractually obligated to install qualifying solar electric systems in each residence constructed in a residential subdivision.
(e) To qualify for a grant under Subsection (a)(2), the applicant must have installed or be contractually obligated to install a qualifying solar electric system for residential real property:
(1) appraised in accordance with Section 23.21, Tax Code, as affordable housing property; or
(2) subject to a contractual obligation that the property will be appraised in accordance with Section 23.21, Tax Code, as affordable housing property within a reasonable time after the grant is received.
(f) To qualify for a grant under Subsection (a)(3), the applicant must be a small business or owner of a small business that meets qualifications adopted by the commission after consideration of federal Small Business Administration standards for qualification for loans from that administration.
(g) The commission shall issue a report to the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house of representatives not later than December 1 of each even-numbered year summarizing the status of the grant programs established under Subsection (a).
The report must include the amount of money granted to each demonstration project and an evaluation of whether the projects demonstrate the economic and ecologic viability of solar electric system installations.
(h) This section expires December 31, 2010.
SECTION 7.02. (a) The Public Utility Commission of Texas may not spend money to implement a demonstration project grant program established under Section 39.9051, Utilities Code, as added by this article, except for money described by Subsection (b) of this section that is appropriated to the commission.
(b) The Public Utility Commission of Texas may solicit and accept gifts, grants, and other donations from any source to carry out the demonstration grant program established under Section 39.9051, Utilities Code, as added by this article.
(c) This section expires December 31, 2010

Read Text of Enrolled Bill
Read History of Bill
Read Fiscal Notes

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ancient forest found in Hungary - An ancient forest of cypress trees, estimated to be eight million years old, has been discovered in Hungary

BBC NEWS - Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007
Archaeologists found the 16 preserved trunks in an open cast coal mine in the north-eastern city of Bukkabrany.

The specimens were preserved intact while most of the forest turned to coal thanks to a casing of sand, which was perhaps the result of a sandstorm.

It is hoped the trees may offer experts a valuable insight into Earth's climate eight million years ago.
The massive trunks are of a species known as swamp cypresses, which grew for 200-300 years.

The BBC's Nick Thorpe in Budapest says the wood of the trees is still brown in photographs taken by the archaeologists, giving the impression that it has only just been split.

The stumps, 2-3m (10ft) in diameter and 6m (19ft) high, stand uncovered on the lowest level of the mine.

However, now that the protective material around them has been stripped there is a danger that the trunks could turn to dust before the scientists' eyes.
Read more and see video report on the BBC

Here Comes the Sun: Solar Energy Is Becoming More Attractive For Mainstream Consumers

By Kavar Peter - Solar Light Center - Aug. 4, 2007
The price of a barrel of oil has never been higher ($62.00+ in summer 2005 even before the chaos caused by Katrina). Some say this is a temporary spike, but more and more analysts are agreeing that this kind of pricing is here to stay. World consumption is at an all time high and given the new thirst for oil in China and India it is unlikely to diminish. According to International Energy Outlook, global demand is expected to continue to increase by as much as 59% in the next fifteen years.

Already, consumer energy bills have been increasing on average 6.5% per year for the last thirty years in the United States. Given the dramatic rise in the cost of producing energy using traditional non-renewable resources, this rate is bound to be overtaken by unheard of price increases in the very near future. And for consumers who are becoming more and more environmentally conscious, the thought of the millions and millions of tons of CO2 and other bi products being released into the atmosphere annually through the use of fossil fuels in creating energy is very alarming.

It is a no brainer that our reliance on oil to create energy leaves us very vulnerable. There are renewable technologies that produce energy, but the problem has been one of cost effectiveness. It has always been cheaper to supply energy using fossil fuels, and consequently, renewable sources such as solar or wind power have not taken off. But the situation now appears to be changing. More and more, our consumption of energy is outstripping supply. The grid can barely keep up with demand and rolling blackouts are no longer just a concept. No wonder governments are looking for alternatives. And no wonder everyone is talking solar once again.

In 1985 annual worldwide solar power system installation accounted for 21 megawatts of power. By 2004, this had multiplied to an incredible 927 megawatts in new installation power production alone. The demand for solar produced energy over the last several years has increased annually about 25%, although in 2004 sales were up a whopping 67% from the previous year.

There are several reasons for this increase in popularity for all things solar powered. Beyond the obvious environmental considerations and the privilege of not having to rely on power from a grid that is aging and stretched to capacity, solar is getting cost effective. While traditional energy production gets more expensive, technological advances are making solar power cheaper.

In 1980 the cost of harvesting energy from the sun stood at about $100 per watt. Literally a hundred times more expensive than the going rate of electricity, these systems were not economically viable. By 1999 however, technology had reduced this to about $4 per watt and costs have continued to decline by about 5% per year since. The Return on Investment is becoming very attractive for many commercial organizations and consumers.

Efficiencies have been realized in several technologies. The inverters that transform the collected DC energy into usable AC energy used to deliver only about 65% efficiency. 35% of the collected energy was lost in the transformation process. Today’s transformers are so efficient they deliver up to 96% of collected energy into usable AC current.

Photovoltaic technology has also made solar collection far more efficient. Twenty years ago, only 5% of the sun’s energy hitting a solar charging panel was harvested. This figure is now in excess of 15% and will continue to climb as more efficient compounds are designed and introduced in the manufacture of these photovoltaic panels.

All levels of government are increasingly looking at solar to provide stable, cost effective and environmentally friendly power. 35 states now have some kind of rebate program for homeowners that install solar power systems. And this is not just the southern “sunny states”. While California is the clear leader in promoting solar powered energy solutions (a program introduced in 2003 is promoting the introduction of solar powered energy systems into a million homes over the next several years) New Jersey and New York are next in line for solar investment.

At the municipal level, many jurisdictions have introduced solar solutions for traffic and streetlights. 50% of the energy used to run the City of Sacremento’s water purification plant is solar. NASA uses solar powered energy systems in many of its buildings. And governments are not using solar just because it is good for the environment and sets an example for commercial entities and consumers (although these benefits cannot be lost on them!). They’ve concluded that opting for solar systems will save them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With so many rebate programs today homeowners are coming to the same conclusions. Once the initial return on investment is recouped (as early as 4 to 6 years with the rebate programs in California for example), solar users don’t have any additional energy bills, almost no maintenance to worry about and are not slave to an electrical grid that is becoming more and more fragile as demand outstrips supply. No wonder solar power is getting attention!

Solar power is still more expensive than traditional energy production methods, but the gap is narrowing every year. Solar power applications are also multiplying at an amazing rate. House heating, solar pool lighting and heating, hot water tank heating, calculators, flashlights, solar garden lighting and on and on. Solar is clean, it’s efficient and it’s here to stay.

About The Author
Kavar Peter is a successful freelance writer with a strong interest in renewable energy issues. He writes regularly about solar powered products at http://www.solarlightcenter.com

How to Create the World's Biggest Grassroots Movement

Circle Nov. 3, 2007, on your calendar -- it's the next big date in the fight to get America to finally do something about climate change
This article is reprinted by permission from Grist
By Bill McKibben - Grist Magazine - August 10, 2007.
Movements need to keep on moving; once the rock starts to budge you've got to push even harder on the pry bar. It's time to Step It Up once more.

Circle Nov. 3, 2007, on your calendar -- it's the next big date in the fight to get America to finally do something about climate change. We're calling it Step It Up 2: Who's A Leader? With your help, by the time night falls on that Saturday -- almost exactly a year before election day -- we should have a better sense of who will finally muster the political will for meaningful action about the biggest threat we face.

Step It Up 1 happened on April 14 and was the first open-source political protest in U.S. history. People in 1,400 cities and towns in all 50 states staged rallies to demand strong climate action. For those actions, we concentrated on American geography: people picked places (the coral reefs off Key West, the tide lines in a dozen coastal cities, the dwindling glaciers on western mountains) that showed what was at stake from global warming.

This time we're focusing on American history instead. People are planning rallies at sites that commemorate great American leaders of the past -- not saints, necessarily, but people who rose to the occasion and actually dealt with the great questions of their day. Some are world-famous: we've already heard from people organizing events at the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery, on top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, and even at the church where John F. Kennedy was married. Other leaders are known in their communities: there'll be an event in Navajo country, for instance, honoring elder Roberta Blackgoat, who helped lead the fight against coal development on tribal land. With any luck, these will be occasions to remind ourselves what leadership is all about -- and also to have some fun. (In a country with tens of thousands of people who regularly dress up to reenact the great battles of American history, the possibilities should be endless.) Creativity is what we need, and fast.
There's no "group" organizing these protests -- just a few recent college graduates working from a storefront office in Manchester, N.H., to coordinate the actions of volunteers across America. They'll be making sure all of the presidential candidates know about the events, of course, but they'll also be helping local organizers invite senators, congressfolk, and candidates to their rallies. When they get there, organizers will present them with the platform drawn up over the summer by One Sky, a new coalition of climate campaigners from around the country. It calls for a long-term goal of at least 80 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2050, an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and a strong green-jobs program to install all the solar panels and insulation we could ever use.

We'll make it easy for local organizers to take up this cause, even if they've never staged a rally before. It needn't be big and it needn't be slick; homemade is best, in fact. And we can connect you with all kinds of people in your community who want to take action and just don't know quite where to begin. Once they've assembled, we'll use the web to link these rallies together into something larger than the sum of their parts -- to show our politicians that this is no longer a second-tier issue, but something they simply have to address.

When we tried this in April, we found out just how eager Americans really were to start this movement going. In 11 weeks, they created the biggest day of mass environmental protest since Earth Day in 1970. And it worked. In the months since, every Democratic candidate for president has embraced the 80 percent by 2050 goal, and Congress has passed tougher energy legislation than many would have predicted. But the movement isn't strong enough yet to finish the job: President Bush is almost certain to veto any strong new law, and Congress couldn't quite bring itself to ask Detroit to increase gas mileage. And the leading Republican candidates for president have mostly ignored the issue.

That's not all that's changed since April, of course. We've seen the hottest July in history across a large swath of America, seen record flooding in the United Kingdom and Asia -- and seen powerful new science detailing both the threat of global warming and the possibilities for dealing with it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in late spring that new technologies mean it is both possible and affordable to transform our energy economy in rapid order. What we lack is political will -- what we lack is the kind of movement that inspires leadership.

But that kind of energy is a renewable resource. Join us!

Bill McKibben is the author of 10 books, most recently Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

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Are the Bees Dying off Because They're Too Busy?

By Susan Kuchinskas - East Bay Express - Sat., August 11, 2007
Are bees dying because factory farms are "overworking" them? California bee farmers who let their hives take it easy find their colonies are thriving.

All across America, a mysterious disease is wiping out bee colonies. This malady causes all the bees in a hive to seemingly vanish overnight, abandoning their brood in the nursery, as well as their stores of honey and pollen. Other bees and pests, which normally plunder deserted honey, shun these hives. This baffling die-off dealt a financial blow to commercial beekeepers this season and raised fears of environmental and economic disaster. For farmers, no bees means no pollination.

But pollination is happening like mad in Leah Fortin's tiny yard in North Oakland, Calif. Busy little bee bodies cover the clumps of lavender, salvia and roses that line her driveway. More bees work the malaleucas on the parking strip, those trees with shaggy bark that look like giant Q-tips when they're in bloom.

A lot of these bees -- although surely not all -- come from the hive on Fortin's roof. The unobtrusive wooden box, barely 20 inches by 16, and 13 inches high, sits on the tar-and-gravel roof of her stucco bungalow, sheltered by the chimney. Honeybees bustle in and out of the narrow slit along the bottom, delivering bundles of pollen and droplets of nectar, then hurrying out again for more.

"The neighbors call us 'The Little House on the Prairie,'" Fortin said on a recent summer afternoon. "They think I'm a kook."

Fortin, who administers after-school programs, captured this wild swarm in early May, and so far it's thriving. "My book said to take two pieces of cardboard and scoop them into a five-gallon paint can, so that's what I did," she said. "I was scared shitless. I had no idea what I was doing." She covered the can with a net and drove home. "It worked, and there they are."

Fortin put out a small jar of honey to make the new colony feel at home; since then, she's done nothing except peek at them once in a while. "It doesn't matter what you know and what you don't know," she said. "The bees know what they're doing." And what they do is pollinate.

Honeybees aren't native to North America, so indigenous plants don't need them for pollination. If all the honeybees disappeared, we'd still have corn and wheat. But most of the imported fruit and vegetable species commonly thought of as quintessentially Californian -- almonds, grapes, plums, cucumbers, cantaloupe, asparagus -- need the help of bees to wed male pollen to female pistil. Without bees, there would be no apples, no cherries, no tomatoes, no zucchini. Even tofu would be scarcer -- soybeans depend partly on the honeybee for pollination.

Most of these crops are no longer pollinated by wild honeybees. Like many indigenous insects and plants, feral honeybees have been nearly wiped out by pesticides, loss of habitat and parasites like the varroa mite.

Meanwhile, commercial beekeeping has come to resemble other kinds of factory farming. While the bees themselves retain more freedom of movement than almost any other living creature raised by man, a commercial bee lot is more like a cattle feed lot than a wild meadow.

Beehives are crammed close together in rows just a few feet apart; in the wild, a square mile supports at the most three or four hives. A wild colony's diet is diverse, comprising pollen and nectar from myriad plants. To compensate for the lack of forage around bee lots, bees are typically fed high-fructose corn syrup, the same stuff that's contributing to a human health crisis. And just like other agricultural livestock, bees become stressed when you crowd them together. They're more susceptible to diseases and parasites, less able to function naturally.

It's all making some bee scientists wonder: Is the epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder real, or are the bees simply being worked to death?

Big beesness

If you want to put bees' value into dollars and cents, just look at California's almond industry. Almonds are the state's second-largest crop, with farmers raking in $2.34 billion in 2005. This year's yield, grown on 615,000 acres, is expected to be a record 1.310 billion pounds, up 18 percent from last year -- despite the dire statistics about Colony Collapse Disorder.

If you drive through the heart of California's agriculture industry, the Central Valley, watching the miles of orchards in bloom, they look natural. In fact, the California almond industry depends on a herculean human effort to subvert the natural order of things. In nature, most flowers don't get pollinated. But you don't get a billion-pound harvest by letting nature take its course. In the old days, an orchard owner might invite a beekeeper to keep hives on his land in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The agribusiness way is to rent hives for the two-week almond pollination season. This year, growers paid $150 per hive, placing three to five hives per acre.

Since 1999, beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest have earned four to five times more income from pollination than from the combined sales of honey and wax, according to a survey by Oregon State University.

But it was hairy out in the fields this year, as beekeepers from around the country raced to get their hives to California before they collapsed. Some growers found themselves renting empty hives.

Thousands of beekeepers had done the math and begun building up their stock. It's not uncommon for a commercial operation to run to 10,000 hives, trucking them from California to South Dakota to Florida in the course of a single year. One million hives, or nearly half of all the hives in the United States, were hauled into California this year, according to Randy Oliver, a beekeeper in Grass Valley, Calif., who has pollinated almonds for 25 years.

For a honeybee, the lucrative almond pollination season comes at the worst possible time. The natural lifecycle of a bee colony follows the seasons, with a hibernationlike rest period during the winter. Unfortunately for the bees, California almond trees bloom around Feb. 10, a miserably rainy time of year.

A colony may rear ten to 12 generations of bees in a year. The queen moves through the hive, laying eggs in combs toward the center of the nest. The eggs hatch in three days; the larvae are fed nectar by nurse bees until they emerge from their cells in 21 days to begin work in the hive. A few are male; they're called drones because they do nothing but hang around and eat, on call in case the queen dies and a new queen needs to mate. The females get to work, spending three weeks as house bees. They may feed the larvae, keep the hive clean, attend the queen or just fan their wings to cool the hive. Some act as sentries, attempting to chase away bears, skunks and robber bees from other hives. Then they go out to forage for another three weeks, completing their lifecycle. Elderly bees don't retire; they simply fly out one day and don't return.

As the days shorten and the sun dims, the hive produces its last generation of the year. These "winter bees" must survive the cold months and live long enough to raise the vigorous new brood that will bring back the spring pollen and begin the cycle again.

"Winter bees live for about six months," Oliver said. "Come spring, when the hives are moved to almonds, these same bees that survived the winter and raised the first brood then have to go out to forage. They can't do it." Instead of gathering the pollen, the exhausted bees drop dead outside the hive, Oliver surmises.

Eric Mussen, who specializes in beekeeping (an apiculturalist) for the University of California, Davis, thinks malnutrition could be another piece of the syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder -- the same kind of malnutrition afflicting Fast Food Nation.

Wild bees live on water, nectar, and pollen. Nectar provides the carbohydrates they use for energy and to make honey, while pollen is a rich mix of protein, fats, minerals, vitamins, and micronutrients. But just as human food can lose nutrients from overcooking, Mussen thinks adverse weather could produce tiny changes in pollen grains, resulting in one of the mysterious symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder -- reports that the vanished bees leave behind combs rich with pollen. Too much chilling, as well as weather that's too hot and dry, can cause pollen to become sterile by killing its protoplasm. Perhaps, he speculates, bad weather destroyed some nutrients vital to the bees as well, making the pollen useless to their bodies.

The normal dearth of pollen in the fall, combined with the drought that swept the country last year, could have created a season's worth of undernourished bee colonies -- colonies too weak to stand up to the strain of life in the agrifactory.

"Perhaps bees in that malnourished state could have made it had they not been fed on by mites and viruses," Mussen says. Like humans, all bees carry viruses, but the immune systems of healthy bees usually keeps the viral load under control. "They haven't found a bee with less than two viruses. In some apparently healthy colonies, some bees had five to six different viruses. You can't blame the viruses, but if you have a weak bee, such things can overwhelm it."

Add this to the stress of days spent bumping over the interstates, and it wouldn't be surprising that colonies can't fight off the mites and viruses that plague them. A working bee's life has become as stressful as any human cube-dweller's. Colony Collapse Disorder, then, may be no more than the result of one too many things going wrong in a bad year, surmises bee broker Denise Qualls Beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers, have always lost 10 to 20 percent of their hives when they come out here for pollination," says Qualls, whose company, Pollination Connection, helps manage the annual rush of bees from all over the country that converge on California for the almond season. "Granted, the loss is higher, but -- you know, they used to just call it bad beekeeping. Now they have a name for it."

Buzz in the backyard

Qualls thinks inbred queens are another possible factor in collapsing colonies. The queen produces all the eggs to replace workers, and she secretes pheromones that keep the hive humming. The conventional wisdom is to purchase queens bred to be gentle and good honey producers; some beekeepers replace the queen each year, because a younger queen is supposed to be healthier. "But they keep coming from the same stock," Qualls points out, so any vulnerabilities may get reinforced.

Think of all the hereditary ailments that afflict purebred dogs, and compare that with the health of your basic mutt. Maybe these queens have become the poodles of the insect world. During last year's pollination rush, Qualls says, a significant number of queens died: "They just weren't strong enough."

Maybe that's what happened to Peter Scholz. For several years, he bought a starter package -- a queen and three pounds of bees -- and carefully placed them in the hive that sits on a four-foot-square perch under a tree in the backyard of his two-story Oakland Edwardian. All through the summer, they worked the flowers. But every winter, the colony dwindled away -- or, you could say, collapsed.

Scholz gave up, but left the hive in place. Two springs ago, a feral swarm moved in. This colony is thriving, and he expects to get 50 pounds of honey this year. "It makes sense in a Darwinian way that the hives that flourish locally and swarm are the ones you want to adopt," he says.

It's a method that's worked for commercial beekeeper Steve Gentry for nearly 30 years. He keeps around a hundred hives scattered in 14 locations from here to Santa Cruz; in winter, he takes them all to the Santa Cruz Mountains to get fat on the manzanita bloom. Every colony originated from a wild swarm.

"All my hives are survivor stock," he says, ones that have managed to fight off varroa and tracheal mites, two parasites that began infecting American colonies in the 1990s. "It's survival of the fittest. If my bees swarm, there's some vitality there. Beekeepers say they don't have time for swarms. But when they don't have any bees, they'll have time."

Living among the bees

Swarming is the natural process by which a colony reproduces itself. Capturing swarms is a popular pastime for backyard beekeepers -- and it may provide insurance against whatever disasters are befalling commercial operators. A colony has to be strong, healthy and able to fight off disease in order to expend precious resources in swarming. The swarm is a group of hardy pioneers led by a queen who has proven herself through breeding and, perhaps, in combat with another queen.

In the spring, while the hive is buzzing with newborn bees and the combs drip with honey, the colony produces a second queen. The old queen flies out with a batch of drones to mate, and then takes off with a thousand or so workers to find a new home. The swarm pauses to rest and feed, gathering en masse on a tree limb or wall, while scouts look around for an attractive site. They may stay for a day or two and then move on if they don't find a good spot.

So, when Leah Fortin gets another swarm call on a hot June weekend, she throws her gear in her truck and, with neighbor and fellow beekeeper Peter Scholz, goes after it. But this mass of bees on a clump of lilies in the front yard of a house near Grizzly Peak is no longer a swarm; it's begun to set up housekeeping on several fronds of the plant. They must have been desperate; worker bees in a swarm have only three weeks to establish a new colony, lay down comb, and let the queen begin to lay eggs before they die. When it gets close to their time, they'll build comb on just about anything. But there's no way this nascent colony could have survived the winter's cold and wind.

Fortin uses a special smoker to calm the bees -- this is a standard practice, although no one knows exactly why it works. She grasps the bundle of leaves clotted with wax and snips them off. Now she has a bee bouquet. She gently places it in a five-gallon bucket.

Back at Scholz's house, it takes only minutes to put the bees into their new home. A standard beehive consists of a wooden box with a separate bottom and a lid that rests on top. Inside the box, nine or ten wooden frames hang from a ledge, like folders in a file cabinet. Each frame holds a sheet of foundation on which the bees will build their hexagonal chambers to hold eggs, developing larvae, pollen and honey.

Bees generally fly as far as four miles in search of food, but they do best when they don't have to venture more than half a mile. Pickings should be good in this heavily planted neighborhood, even though there are at least three other tame hives and one wild colony nearby.

While Fortin's North Oakland neighborhood is teeming with bees, others may have none.

The yield from Bill Smith's home orchard in the Alameda County town of Hayward, Calif., doubled after he installed his first hive five years ago. It all started with the 4-H Club. Another member had a hive near horse stables and mischievous boys, a bad combination. Smith agreed to take them: "I noticed that the following year, we got a much better fruit set around here. We really were starving for bees."

Smith claims he keeps bees only for pollination. But now there are the ten hives piled on a small trailer in a corner of his hilltop half-acre, plus a tottering stack of empty hive boxes waiting for new colonies. He is president of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association, and he's stockpiling honey to make mead. It's a sure case of bee fever.

The engineer lives with his family in a century-old house on a former chicken ranch. You can see the successive waves of development. A few two-acre pastures still dot the hill, surrounded by 1950s ranch houses. Lately, some of those pastures have been replaced by stucco mini-mansions that fill almost the entire lot.

"Don't tell the neighbors I'm here," Smith says. "They don't know." The row of yards bordering his are downhill enough that the honeysuckle-covered fence between them completely obscures their view. To the north, the hives are shielded by a thick cedar tree, and the house and garage obscure the view from the street and the south side.

Like Fortin, Smith is a laid-back beekeeper. "I hardly ever work the bees," he says. "Bees know how to take care of themselves. You give them a place to live, and they go crazy on their own."

Indeed, bees follow an internal timetable that's been bred into them through eons. Home beekeepers know that the less you try to do for the bees, the healthier they'll be. Is it some pheromone the bees put out that places you in their thrall? Or just that they're so fascinating, so soothing to watch? In any case, Smith is far from the first person to find that one hive leads to another.

"I hear about a good deal, or someone calls me up and says, 'I just captured some bees, and I have nowhere to put them.' I guess I'm just greedy," he says.

Back to nature

Although Steve Gentry says bees are a sideline for him, it's a pretty robust sideline. Gentry sells 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of Steve's Bees-branded honey every year at gourmet groceries and natural-foods stores, all small-run varietals. Right now, he's featuring chamise honey, made from the nectar of the tough, white-flowered chaparral bush. He has another lucrative business removing hives from inside the walls of homes.

While commercial beekeeping has become a high-labor, low-margin line of work, in the backyard it can be as natural and laissez-faire as you please. If you get a couple of quarts of honey, it's all good. But there is a middle ground, and people like Gentry are moving there. They're taking some tips from the Slow Food movement, offering high-quality, locally produced products at premium prices.

Marshall's Farm Honey, based in American Canyon in Napa County, is credited with being among the first companies to take honey upscale. Spencer and Helene Marshall have taken their cues from the winemakers of Sonoma County, offering small batches of varietal honey at farmers' markets. They scatter a few hives at choice locations throughout the Bay Area and isolate batches produced by the sequential wildflower and tree blooms. They encourage consumers to appreciate the "special flavor nuances and wonderful color variations" that result. The Marshalls even offer Hood Honey, described as a middle-range amber village mix, harvested from Oakland's neighborhoods.

Honey is just one product of those highly productive bees; the pollen and wax they produce are valuable, too. Exploiting them -- making use of everything possible -- is another lesson from boutique farmers.

For instance, you'd never know it from Judy Casale's house in an upscale subdivision in Castro Valley in California's Alameda County, but she whips up batches of lip balm, soap, lotion, candles and specialty honeys in her Tuscan-style kitchen. There's even one hive in her lushly landscaped backyard; her remaining stock of 34 hives is dispersed on private property throughout the Alameda County areas of Livermore and Castro Valley.

Like a lot of beekeepers, Casale got interested by chance ten years ago, after a presentation at a meeting of the California Rare Fruit Growers. "I liked the idea of backyard honey and pollination," she recalls. "I wasn't crazy about handling bees, but I got over it. The first time I poured a container of bees into a hive was pretty scary." She still completely suits up when she works the bees in her backyard, a colony with a cranky temperament.

She branched out from selling honey seven years ago. "There are only so many candles you can make, use, and sell, and I was looking for something more creative," she says. Today, her Dominique skincare line is a thriving operation that's transitioning from a hobby to a sideline business. Casale has landed accounts at several Los Angeles spas and is looking for more in the Bay Area. Her latest concoction is mojito-flavored lip balm.

Randy Oliver, the Grass Valley beekeeper, is another who looks beyond honey and wax. In fact, he looks to exploit every niche he can find. In addition to managing and renting 500 hives, he raises and sells queens and starter colonies in the spring. He teaches apiculture to bee clubs and schools, and he writes articles for journals. He's even getting into Web media, charging a small subscription fee for his website content.

Oliver wants to help commercial beekeepers get off the slippery slope of using more and more chemicals that have less and less of an effect. His 500 hives are small-time by commercial standards, but enough to prove the effectiveness of a more natural approach. He aims to be a bridge between agribusiness bees and the backyard.

Big operations have become monocultures, making more money from pollination than from honey -- and sometimes even killing off bees at the end of the season. Instead, Oliver advocates integrated pest-management strategies that keep mite populations down to reasonable levels without pesticides. At the same time, he acknowledges the professional's need to automate and minimize labor.

For example, dusting bees with powdered sugar causes varroa mites to fall off them. If you also replace the solid bottom of the hive with a screened bottom, the mites fall all the way out and have trouble crawling back in. But sprinkling powdered sugar is a lot slower than fumigating a hive, so Oliver invented a brush/cup combo that lets a beekeeper powder down a hive in just 15 seconds.

"Beekeepers, like most agriculturists, are pretty conservative and not willing to risk their operations by trying something out," he says. "They want to see other beekeepers doing something successfully and making money doing it. If they see people making money, they'll change."

Freelance journalist Susan Kuchinskas covers business, technology and science. Her book, Love Chemistry: How Oxytocin Lets Us Love, Trust and Mate, will be published in May 2008. She tracks oxytocin research on her blog, Hug the Monkey.

Zero-emission all-electric scotter unvieled - VECTRIX

Michael Taylor - San Francisco Chronicle Auto Editor - Friday, August 10, 2007

Bay Area zero-emission advocates got their first test ride Thursday on a zippy new all-electric motor scooter that can take two commuters on a silent freeway ride that will cost them just pennies in electrical power.

The plug-in hybrid automobile crowd, in the news these days because of advances in the technology of fuel-efficient hybrids, gathered at San Francisco's Presidio to see the latest wrinkle in emission-free transportation - an electric motor scooter called the Vectrix that can whiz along at 60 miles an hour.

At $11,000, the Vectrix may be a bit pricey, but it is a first of sorts and it will probably appeal to the same high-income people who have ordered the $100,000 all-electric Tesla sports car. "We want to get to the right consumer demographics," said Jeff Morrill, Vectrix's managing director for marketing. "It's for urban commuting, and it targets environmentalists, active (electric power) enthusiasts."

One of those was Marc Geller, a San Francisco photographer who owns a rare all-electric Toyota RAV4. He said of the Vectrix: "I've ridden it and it's fantastic. It's all about the (electric) plug and environmental concerns, petroleum concerns. I think it's totally cool, compared to that noisy piece of crap."

He was referring to a loud gas-powered vehicle that sped past as a few Vectrixes quietly tooled around the Presidio's main parade ground in a public demonstration of the new electric-powered scooter.

The Vectrix is a lot like other scooters - it has the normal right-hand twist grip for power, similar to motorcycles. On a 20-minute ride, a Chronicle reporter found it was pretty good in the zippy department, quite comfortable and, yes, very quiet.

It handled well, its fit and finish seemed good, and it had a trunk under its passenger seat that was large enough to accommodate a motorcycle helmet. But overall it wasn't much different from other, much less expensive, gas-powered scooters.

The 462-pound Vectrix scooter takes two hours to recharge its batteries on 220-volt house current and three hours on a 110-volt current. Its makers say it has a top speed of 62 mph and, when traveling at a constant speed of 40 to 45 mph, has a range of about 60 miles on a charge. It is freeway legal and is sold in San Francisco by British Motor Cars.

The Vectrix looks a lot like modern scooters made by Honda and Suzuki. Its major departure is the fact that it is powered by a small electric motor affixed to the rear wheel. Otherwise it feels the same as its gas-powered brethren.

But it's the price that gets people.

"Eleven thousand dollars? It's bloody insane," said Morris Friedlander, a veteran scooter and motorcycle dealer. Friedlander, who said he last operated an East Bay dealership for about a year, said most prospective scooter buyers are looking for economical transportation.

He said a typical scooter buyer might spend $3,000 or more - sometimes up to $8,000 - for a new gasoline-powered scooter that will run circles around the Vectrix and still get 50 to 80 mpg.

After riding the Vectrix, Friedlander said, "the speed is acceptable and the weight is well balanced and the brakes worked well. The downside is that its appearance is derivative" of other motor scooters.

Greg Beemer, who commutes 55 miles roundtrip each day on his $7,000 Aprilia 500cc scooter, said he was impressed with the Vectrix.

"To begin with, it's silent," he said, "and it's inexpensive to run and to maintain." He paused for a moment, then added, "But that price. That's something they'll have to overcome."

E-mail Michael Taylor at mtaylor@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Boom or Fizzle

By JEFF MOSIER - The Dallas Morning News - Sunday, August 12, 2007

Barnett Shale natural gas has made boomtowns out of many places in North Texas. But for some, a bust might be on the way.

The exponential growth of drilling in the massive gas field has made millions for local governments. However, the dramatic increase in tax rolls has eased in some early exploration hot spots and reversed in others, thanks to lower natural gas prices last year and migration of new drilling southward.

Denton County's mineral values dropped by about $1 billion this year, and Wise County lost $190 million in value. Both were on the leading edge of the Barnett Shale boom.

The mineral values in Tarrant County grew slightly, but the two school districts with the highest mineral values saw their numbers slide.

"It's great to have this value," said John Marshall, Tarrant County's chief appraiser. "But I've warned them [local governments] that counting on this being steady every year is not a good idea."

Tarrant County's mineral values are up 18 percent in 2007, which is a trickle after nearly doubling in each of the two previous years. Mr. Marshall said Tarrant County's mineral values will eventually peak and possibly drop steeply like in Denton County – although no one can predict how quickly.

The early signs of a decline are already here.

The mineral values of the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district in northwest Tarrant County – where the county's early drilling started – dropped by nearly 9 percent. And Northwest Independent School District in Denton County, which has more than $2 billion in mineral values, saw an even sharper decline.

An 11 percent drop in the average natural gas price in 2006 contributed to the slump, but it's also the result of more drilling moving toward southern Tarrant County and Johnson and Parker counties.

Some companies have even started exploring in Dallas County. Since December, permits for 22 wells in Dallas County have been approved by the Texas Railroad Commission. Wells have been cleared in Dallas, Grand Prairie and Irving as well as areas in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and just north of Waxahachie.

Budget concerns

A slowdown won't make a critical difference at budget time for many cities and school districts – most of which count mineral values as less than 2 percent of their total tax base.

For others, this could be a bigger problem.

Krum ISD Superintendent Troy Hamm said his Denton County district was classified as poor just six years ago.

Since then, the property values skyrocketed from $182 million to $723 million – a majority of that from gas. Mineral values now make up nearly half the district's tax rolls.

Recently, Mr. Hamm received a letter from the Texas Education Agency naming Krum a property-wealthy district that must share revenue with poorer districts.

"How long we can maintain it, I don't know," Mr. Hamm said.

Mr. Hamm said the new gas well money has helped boost teacher pay to a competitive level and eased the cost of a bond package that included an early childhood center and fine arts auditorium at the high school.

At the same time, his district's mineral wealth – down 8 percent this year – might have peaked. The drop was offset by new strip malls and subdivisions filled with starter homes, but that gave the district a slim 4 percent growth in its tax base.

Mr. Hamm said the 1,400-student district hasn't spent its entire windfall. Krum ISD expects to have about $6 million in reserves, which is enough to operate for about six months and perhaps cushion its finances against the volatile mineral values.

"We've been cognizant of the fact that this well will run dry soon, if you'll pardon the pun," Mr. Hamm said.

Natural cycle

The mineral values in booming areas tend to have a sharp incline and then a sharp decline just because of the nature of the calculation.

The mineral values are calculated only when a well starts producing, but then reserves are depleted every day. If prices remain steady, the values rise only if the number of new wells drilled outpaces the declining value of the existing ones.

Gas wells in the Barnett Shale tend to be very productive during the first year of operation, so the decline in mineral values for an active well is particularly steep. Vic Henderson, engineering services manager at Pritchard & Abbott Inc., which estimates the mineral values for local appraisal districts, said it's common for production to drop by 50 percent or 60 percent by the end of the first year.

The wells are projected to keep producing for at least 12 to 15 years, although Mr. Henderson believes they could pump natural gas out of the Barnett Shale for even longer.

Julie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Energy Corp., said her company has plans for new wells at least through 2013, although that could change with technological advances or more restrictive city ordinances.

Gas wealth hasn't made a difference for every school district with wells. Janice Cooper, superintendent of the Lake Worth school district, said she hasn't seen much of an upside.

"We do nothing but go backwards," she said. "As our appraised values go up, the state sends us less money."

Dr. Cooper said the boost from drilling in the Barnett Shale has been offset in her district by the educational funding formula set in Austin. Mineral values make up more than 38 percent of the district's tax rolls.

Now, mineral wealth in the Lake Worth district is starting to drop slightly – 15 percent this year. Dr. Cooper said she hopes that as the values decrease, that will lead to an increase in state funding and keep the district's finances steady.

"I hate to say that things could get worse because I know they can, but I don't anticipate that will be the case," she said.

A different view

Not everyone is expecting a quick increase and quick decline when it comes to mineral values.

Mickey Hand, chief appraiser for Wise County, said his decline in mineral values mostly comes from the drop in natural gas prices. He also said that drillers have shifted their focus to more suburban areas. Drilling is generally prohibited within 300 feet of homes – although that can increase to 1,000 feet depending on the city ordinance – so many energy companies are trying to get wells in place ahead of subdivisions.

"They are not in as quite a hurry here," Mr. Hand said about his still mostly rural county.

But he said he expected the gas companies to return soon and focus more on Wise County when the suburban and urban areas are tapped out.

In the Denton County town of DISH, mineral values make up two-thirds of the tax base.

Mayor Calvin Tillman said the 25 percent drop in mineral values this year will cut deeply into his finances. The town will lose about $10,000 from an $80,000 budget.

Luckily, Mr. Tillman said, the town has $20,000 in reserves to possibly hold it over until an 80-home subdivision starts selling. The town also intends to annex more land.

"I think we're going to be OK," he said. "We've made it a priority to replace the gas money."
Read more

Water Gardens deaths lead to safety amendment

By Mike Lee - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Thu, Aug. 02, 2007
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, wants the federal government to educate cities about the dangers of ornamental fountains, in response to the 2004 deaths of four tourists in the Fort Worth Water Gardens.

Burgess attached an amendment to an existing bill that would encourage the Consumer Product Safety Commission to educate the public about the danger of drowning in swimming pools, and encourage manufacturers to include safety features such as anti-entrapment drains, fences and safety covers in new pools.

The amendment would expand the educational program to include "ornamental pools" such as the Water Gardens, which has three large pools surrounded by concrete steps and plazas.

"I hope that through this amendment, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will be able to educate cities on the unseen dangers hidden in ornamental pools," Burgess said.

Fort Worth officials redesigned the main pool of the Water Gardens to reduce the suction of the drain system after the accident.

The safety commission will also have $10 million to give to states that want to begin their own educational programs. Burgess' staff members said they didn't know which, if any, Texas agency would be in charge of such a program. The bill has been approved by a subcommittee, and must be approved by the full committee on energy and commerce and then by the full House and Senate.

Read more

Keeping natural treasure natural

By JACK DOUGLAS JR. - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sun, Aug. 12, 2007

Photo by John Graddy
For a while there, it looked as if an oasis in the middle of the Texas Hill Country -- a water playground for kids swinging on a rope from a cypress tree -- would turn into a residential development crammed with homes and pavement, closed off to the people who shared their youth there.

That is when the residents of the small town of Wimberley banded together, eventually calling themselves the Friends of Blue Hole, and managed to buy 126 acres of lush land near the town square, outmaneuvering developers who had planned to build several hundred homes around an iconic Texas swimming hole.

Instead of another row of driveways and mailboxes, Wimberley residents now have the Blue Hole Regional Park, with near-future plans -- laid out by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center -- for nature trails, "primitive" camping sites, tennis courts and soccer fields.

For kids 12 and under and seniors 60 and over, $2.50 will pay for a dip in the beautiful Blue Hole, the price being $5 for everyone else. Season passes go for $10.

"Saving the Blue Hole is one of the greatest legacies we could leave future Texans," former Gov. Ann Richards said.

Dorothy Cook, store manager at the Gingerbread House in Wimberley, agreed. The banks of Cypress Creek and its spring-fed swimming hole must remain open for the "average, normal person, the hardworking person" who remembers the Blue Hole from his or her carefree youth as a place to go after school, a cool spot for that first smooch with a sweetheart.

"It's a neat place to go play," Cook said. "It should be for everyone."

Since the 1920s, the tree-shaded stretch of Cypress Creek, including the Blue Hole, had been a place to sneak away to. But by 2003, word was spreading that a developer was going to buy the property, which a business partnership in Austin owned.

Instead, Peter Way, a Houston businessman and part-time Wimberley resident, agreed to buy the Blue Hole and hold it until Wimberley civic leaders could raise enough money to purchase it.

That happened in 2005, thanks to $1.9 million in federal park funds administered through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, $700,000 in Hays County bond funds, $200,000 from the Lower Colorado River Authority, a $143,000 loan from a land conservation group and $700,000 in private donations.

"It really was, for a community of this size, an extraordinary effort to protect an extraordinary piece of property," said Don Ferguson, city administrator for Wimberley, 15 miles west of San Marcos, between Austin and San Antonio.

Way said he agreed to take a loss in investment opportunities and sell the Blue Hole for the amount he paid for it -- just over $3 million -- to keep yet another "high-density residential development" from scarring the Hill Country. A new neighborhood may also have depleted the water source for Wimberley's 3,000 residents who, Way said, had for too long been "sneaking into the Blue Hole."

Way said that after decades of swinging from a rope on a cypress tree, then belly-flopping into the cool clear water, the locals deserved to finally own the place.


Read more - see photos

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Working together to meet federal air quality standards

By RICHARD GREENE - Special to the Star-Telegram - Sun, Aug. 05, 2007
Editor's note: EPA Regional Administrator Richard Greene sent the following reply Thursday to Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley's letter, printed in the July 29 Star-Telegram. It is being published with Greene's permission.

Thank you for your recent letter expressing concerns about the adequacy of the clean air plan that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has proposed for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

I have shared our reservations about the proposal with state officials and explained that the EPA cannot approve a plan that does not meet federal air quality standards. I am pleased to be able to say that we enjoy a good working relationship with our state counterparts, and efforts are ongoing to develop ways to strengthen the proposed plan.

All of the specific questions and suggestions contained in your letter are under active consideration and review. I am especially encouraged by your attention to various measures to clean up the air that can be accomplished by local government entities.

Under the jurisdiction of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, in which Tarrant County is an active participant, initiatives are being considered that could result in the adoption of city or county ordinances designed to reduce and eliminate local sources of harmful emissions that lead to air pollution.

Nothing could serve the public better than unified and committed officials at all levels of government working to achieve healthy communities. I am pleased to know of your strong interest in air quality and your willingness to assume a leadership role, and I look forward to your continued efforts to help find local solutions.

Richard Greene is Region 6 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bluedaze.: Corruption in Government: Comprehensive List

TxSharon - Blue Daze - Aug. 5, 2007
Bluedaze.: Corruption in Government: Comprehensive List: "Corruption in Government: Comprehensive List "

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Glen Whitley does good - Judge to EPA: Beef up clean-air plan

By Faith Chatham - Aug. 3, 2007
I am frequently critical of Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley for his maze of associations which I view as conflicts of interest. However, he deserves kudos for his action recently. He took a bold move which deserves recognition. He is reported as the first elected official in this region to write a letter to the EPA objecting to the TCEQ's approval of the DFW Clean Air Plan. He urges more funding for passenger rail and mass transit in this region. Currently there is no mass transit in Arlington or Grand Prairie, two of the larger cities in this region. I hope that other officials will mirror this move and speak out for the protection of the health of our citizens. Judge Whitley nails it when he calls for controls on the emissions on gas drilling, tougher standards for power plants in Central and East Texas, a solution to the Tower 55 congestion which leaves locomotives idling, and greater funding for passenger rail and mass transit to move people instead of vehicles in the DFW metroplex. Judge Whitley's stance is chronicled in a Fort Worth Star Telegram article:
By Scott Streater - Fort Worth Star Telegram Sat, Jul. 28, 2007
FORT WORTH -- Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley has issued a blistering critique of a state ozone reduction plan for Dallas-Fort Worth, arguing in a letter to federal regulators that the plan fails to protect public health because it does not take aggressive enough steps to clean the air.

Whitley, in a three-page letter to Richard Greene, the Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator in Dallas, urged the federal government to demand further pollution reduction from power plants and local cement kilns, and to put more money into expanding passenger rail and other mass transit to reduce auto pollution.

"I am urging you to withhold federal approval of the plan until it includes measures that will move the D/FW area closer to attainment of the federal health standard for ozone," he wrote. "The plan, as it stands now, fails to propose sufficient measures to protect the health of Tarrant County's 1.7 million residents and the more than 6.4 million residents in our urban North Texas region."

Whitley's letter, the first sent to the EPA by a local elected official since the state approved the plan in May, follows an unflattering analysis of the state plan last week by a Southern Methodist University engineer, who warns the EPA that it is inadequate.

The EPA must approve the State Implementation Plan, as it's called, which outlines exact steps the region will take to comply with federal ozone standards. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is struggling to meet the federal ozone standard by June 2010 or face severe sanctions.

Whitley said Friday that he hopes the letter will spur the EPA to strengthen the plan.

Greene said he will formally respond to Whitley in the next few weeks. However, he hinted Friday that the state cleanup plan will be modified.

"We've already told [the state] that we're looking for improvements in this plan," said Greene, whose staff is meeting with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to resolve their differences. "They have been receptive. They are listening. We are exploring ways to improve the plan, and to get further emission reductions."

Greene said he has talked to local leaders and state regulators about including a requirement that all government agencies in the region retrofit diesel-powered equipment with pollution controls. Most of the cost would be paid for under a state grant program.

Despite the criticisms, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials "remain confident" that the plan is adequate and will be approved, said Terry Clawson, a commission spokesman.

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks, who has publicly criticized the state plan before, praised Whitley for sending the letter.

"The fact is, the plan they have adopted does not do anything to clean the air," Brooks said. "It's just a wholly inadequate plan."

Whitley concluded his letter to Greene by insisting that federal and state regulators explore all air-quality improvement options.

"The plan to improve air quality in North Texas must succeed," he wrote. "Failure to meet tough air quality standards is not an option."

Ground-level ozone

The federal government regulates ozone as a health concern.

At high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.

The Dallas-Fort Worth nonattainment area consists of nine counties: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall and Tarrant.

Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, needs lots of sunlight and heat to form. Ozone season in Dallas-Fort Worth runs from May through October.

Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds. Those come mostly from automobile exhaust and industrial smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Another article on Judge Whitley's letter to the EPA appeared in the Star Telegram Sunday, July 28th.
Needing a better plan for our air
By GLEN WHITLEY Special to the Star-Telegram
Editor's note: Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley sent the following to EPA Region 6 Administrator Richard Greene on Thursday. It is being published with the judge's permission.
Special to the Star-Telegram

Star-Telegram/Ron Jenkins
The Fort Worth skyline is shrouded in pollution as traffic flows along Interstate 35W north of the city on Aug. 8, 2003. Editor's note: Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley sent the following to EPA Region 6 Administrator Richard Greene on Thursday. It is being published with the judge's permission.

I am writing to express my continued concern about the state's proposed clean air plan for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

I first stated my concern about the failure of this plan to protect public health at a state hearing on a draft of the plan in February, long before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to submit a revised and weaker plan to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As you know, these revisions weakened an already tenuous clean air plan. Therefore, I am urging you to withhold federal approval of the plan until it includes measures that will move the D-FW area closer to attainment of the federal health standard for ozone.

Other than in the Houston area, Tarrant and Denton counties suffer from the worst air pollution in Texas. The rest of the Metroplex is not far behind. North Texas residents are constantly put at risk by their chronic exposure to levels of ozone that exceed the current health standard. The plan, as it stands now, fails to propose sufficient measures to protect the health of Tarrant County's 1.7 million residents and the more than 6.4 million residents in our urban North Texas region.

Further, the recommendation by an EPA science advisory panel to tighten the ozone standard by about 15 percent, and EPA's own proposal to tighten the standard by about 10 percent, make our situation in North Texas even more troublesome.

The state plan should provide measures to bring the D-FW area into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act by 2010. However, an independent analysis of the plan by a Southern Methodist University scientist shows that it is inadequate and has little chance of succeeding.

Federal law allows Texas to argue that the plan will bring air quality in the region close enough to what is required under the Clean Air Act. Based on that, state officials say, the EPA should approve the plan. However, the EPA can only approve the plan if it believes the state's technical evidence and other data demonstrate that the entire D-FW region will be in compliance with the current federal ozone standard. But to reach that goal, ozone levels in the D-FW area would have to drop dramatically.

Under the revised state plan, ozone levels at four air monitors in the D-FW area would be out of compliance, up from two monitors in the draft plan.

Excessive ozone levels at two of those monitors may outweigh the state's other evidence of regional compliance with the Clean Air Act.

In addition to the ozone we create here, air pollution is driven into North Texas by weather and winds. It is transported into our region from other areas. It travels south from the Ohio River Valley. It comes from the Houston area and from East Texas -- often creating high background levels.

Add that to our own homemade ozone, and it becomes doubly difficult to meet federal clean air standards.

In 2001, the EPA approved a state clean air plan for North Texas that led to some significant air pollution control measures and improvements. Most of those measures involved reducing on-road vehicle emissions, about half the local air pollution problem. Cars and gasoline-powered trucks now undergo emission testing.

The program to get the worst-polluting vehicles off the road or get them fixed is also successful. But the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan -- a program that offers grants to retrofit or replace older diesel engines with newer, cleaner ones -- needs to meet its goals. Voluntary measures, like high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and other traffic control measures, may help, but that will not get us entirely where we need to go.

Also, the Texas Legislature must give North Texas the tools necessary to implement a regional passenger rail initiative. Such a system will result in fewer cars on the road, now and in the future, and reduce air pollution.

As we make progress, as new cars run cleaner because of technology and as older polluting cars leave the streets, non-road sources of pollution become an ever-increasing share of locally and regionally produced ozone.

Pollution from diesel equipment and locomotives -- like those that sit idling at the Tower 55 rail crossroads in Fort Worth -- must be addressed. Additionally, pollution from industrial sources like cement kilns and power plants must be addressed.

We can leave no stone unturned in our effort to improve air quality.

Now is not the time to relax our effort to provide clean air for the citizens of the region. We need an honest and accurate across-the-board assessment of our pollution sources and a full disclosure and application of all possible pollution control measures and remedies.

We need to use the best available control technology to reduce pollution linked to emissions from cement kilns and power plants, train engines and on- and off-road vehicles.

Electricity generating power plants in Central and East Texas should have to meet the same emissions standards as power plants in the D-FW area. Additional air pollution from new natural-gas drilling rigs and compressors must be addressed.

Smog and unhealthy ozone readings are an unpleasant fact of life in North Texas. It's been that way for decades. Air pollution compromises the health of our children, our seniors and those with chronic respiratory disease. It affects all of us. It compromises economic development and our business climate. It could lead to penalties such as restrictions on industry and the loss of federal highway dollars that would harm development in this fast-growing region.

The plan to improve air quality in North Texas must succeed. Failure to meet tough air quality standards is not an option.

Glen Whitley is Tarrant County judge.

Travel to other worlds ... UTA Planetarium

Immersive full-dome 3-D Digital planetarium show narrated by Ewan McGregor (Obi wan Kepobi from Star Wars) - Astronaut takes you exporing the worlds of inner and outer space. The movie is projected all around you. You recline in specially constructed chairs which enables you to comfortably view the immersive full-dome planetarium show. Astronaut! (produced from the National Space Centre in England) goes beyond the stereotypical space movie. Experience a rocket launch from inside the body of the astronaut. Float around the international Space Station moving thorugh the microscopic regions of the human body! Discover the beauty and perils as "Chad", the test astronaut experiences everything thrown at him.

Summer Schedule (June 2-August 26):


shows at the UTA Planetarium.

Wed. through Saturdays at 11 a.m.
and Thursday at 7:00 p.m.

Cosmic CSI

shows at the UTA Planetarium 3-D Digital Dome.

Wed. through Saturdays at 2 p.m.

Rock Hall of Fame 1 (The Original)

shows at the UTA Planetarium.

Thursday at 8:00 p.m.

Read more (Warning their flat dull website doesn't give much of a glimmer of the multi-dimensional experience you'll have once you enter the dome of the UTA Planetarium!)

Admission: Adults: $5.00

Seniors, Students, Children: $4.00

UTA Faculty, Staff & Alumni (with ID): $3.00

UTA Studens (with ID): $2.00

Groups of 10 or more with reservation: $3.00

Call 817 272-1183 or e-mail planetarium@uta.edu