A Victory for Activists – Council May Retain Oversight of Austin Energy

Austin_night1Amy Smith
Austin Chronicle

What a difference three months of citizen hell-raising makes.

Back in February, a Council majority was poised to hand over its decision-making authority of Austin Energy to an unelected governing board. At the same time, a bill was wending its way through the Legislature to allow Council to short-circuit voters in this process. Both measures drew strong opposition from a large group of consumer and environmental activists, as well as regular citizens.

Now it appears that most Council members have backed away from the wildly unpopular idea of surrendering control of the city’s largest asset to an unaccountable panel of professionals. And this week, the bill giving Council the okay to amend the city charter without voter approval (aka the Austin-bashing bill endorsed by Council) was still stalled in committee as the Legislature’s clock winds down to the session’s end on May 27.

As things stand now, Council is set to vote May 23 on a revised proposed ordinance in which Council would retain its powers over the utility while taking a more conservative approach to delegating authority to a new board – a board whose members would be selected by Council. Also next week, Council Members Chris Riley, Laura Morrison, and Mike Martinez will introduce a resolution to create a new “Council Committee on Austin Energy” to oversee utility matters. Riley’s proposal for a separate Council committee – an idea Morrison initially floated in a May 5 States­man op-ed – would establish City Coun­cil’s control over the makeup of the new board. The original proposal would have put a professional headhunter in charge of lining up potential candidates for what would have been paid positions. Tovo is a safe bet to vote for the Riley/Morrison/Martinez proposals, while Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman have signaled a willingness to meet them somewhere in between. Leffing­well has already stated his opposition to the revisions.

Nothing Like the Original

The latest plan reverses the initial proposal sponsored by Leffingwell, Spelman, and Cole, which underwent a fair number of amendments at its first reading. Their plan called for granting sovereign authority to an independent panel, while still ensuring openness and transparency. Proponents of that scenario included all but one member of the Electric Utility Commission – a Council advisory group – and a coalition of large commercial and industrial businesses, which receive discounted electric rates as part of a special deal that expires in 2015. By that time, Council will be under a 10-1 district governance structure, and the big energy users like Seton and Samsung would feel more comfortable negotiating a new deal with an independent electric board rather than a brand new Council.

Riley, the lead sponsor of the new plan, laid out his position this way: “In my view, the current proposal provides for more transparency and more accountability than the original draft, and it offers the potential of providing oversight that’s far more ­effective than our current system. Even if we can’t reach agreement on all the details of the utility’s governance,” he continued, “I’m hopeful that we can at least agree on forming a standing Council committee to keep working out those details. I’m also hopeful about forming a new board to govern the utility, and I think a Council committee could play an instrumental role in helping us get a new board up and ­running.”

Morrison says the new proposals take into account public concerns about possible unintended consequences of relinquishing all Council authority with a single vote. The additional time given to what was originally deemed an “emergency,” she said, “allowed us to come up with a much more refined approach to address the issues we wanted to address and avoid the pitfalls and potential negative consequences. Yes, it can be a challenge and frustrating sometimes to go through a months-long dialogue, but it’s a process that’s working. I think it’s an example of good governance.”

Proud of Our Utility

Opponents who had organized against the governance overhaul applauded Coun­cil’s willingness to listen and respond to their concerns. “There’s still some things that need to be done to improve [the revised proposal], but it’s certainly come a long, long way,” said Karen Hadden, an energy activist and the only member of the Electric Utility Commission who opposes a governance switch. Opponents’ biggest concern now is that the newly created utility board will be the result of an ordinance, rather than a voter-approved charter amendment. “Once you create a board of this kind through ordinance, you can easily change it through ordinance,” Hadden said. “We don’t want to see a new Council coming in and deciding to delegate huge authority to this unelected board.”

Three months of listening to various stakeholders convinced Riley that Council should slow down. He went from being a likely yes vote on the governance makeover to a lead sponsor of the revised, more palatable proposal. “Over the past several months, in the wake of the settlement of the rate case appeal, we’ve been hearing from more and more Austinites who are proud of our utility and protective of the public’s control of it,” he explained in an email. “I’m proud of it too, and I’ve come to realize that we need to move very cautiously on any measures that could affect the public’s ability to influence the utility’s course.”

Texas appealing to other states for radioactive trash, looks to expand program

Barnini Chakraborty

When it comes to nuclear waste, many states have a not-in-my-backyard attitude. But Texas is rolling out the welcome mat.

A measure that would allow three-dozen states to dump even hotter radioactive waste at a West Texas nuclear facility is picking up steam as it makes its way through the state legislature — despite growing opposition from environmental groups who argue the economic incentives shouldn’t trump public safety concerns.

Introduced by Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, the “low-level radioactive waste bill” encourages other states to send waste with higher concentrations of radioactivity to the 1,300-acre waste burial ground in Andrews County. The bill would keep the maximum volume allowed at the site the same but change the type of material allowed, Seliger told FoxNews.com Tuesday.

“The majority of the items are safe,” Seliger said. “The county and the state of Texas has a lot to gain.”

The bill highlights how, in Texas, nuclear waste storage has become big business.

During the last legislative session, Texas lawmakers approved the plan to allow waste from more than three dozen states to be buried on the land owned by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists. Currently, toxic oil-tainted sludge dredged from the Hudson River in New York as well as Cold War-era radioactive waste from an Ohio uranium-processing plant is already buried at the site located near the Texas-New Mexico border.

If Texas lawmakers agree to up the concentration of contaminants, the county and state could receive a considerable boost in money they’d get from Waste Control Specialists. In theory, states and businesses would pay more to send the higher levels of radioactive material to Texas. The company would make more money and in turn the amount it paid the county (5 percent) and the state (25 percent) from its quarterly revenues would also rise.

But according to the Texas Campaign for the Environment, the money made should not be a trade-off for public safety. The group claims politics are to blame.

“To be clear, this proposal is being pushed to directly financially benefit one of the largest campaign contributors involved in Texas politics: billionaire Harold Simmons of Waste Control Specialists who has donated millions of dollars to Gov. Rick Perry and other politicians who are supporting this legislation,” program director Zac Trahan told FoxNews.com. “His company stands to earn millions of dollars by turning part of our state into a radioactive waste site which will be poisoned for generations to come.”

Calls made to Waste Control Specialists for comment were not immediately returned.

Asked about the claim, Seliger said: “I don’t know anything about that.”

Seliger’s bill also promotes sending low-level waste, known as Class A, out of Texas for burial while upping the annual curie limit — which refers to the radiation level — for the state to 300,000 from 220,000. The higher level would allow locations that have Class B or Class C levels of waste to ship it to the Lone Star State for disposal.

The Senate version of the new bill removed a provision that limited Texans from challenging permits to the plant granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

A similar bill is making its way through the Texas House. That version, filed by Rep. Drew Darby, goes a step further and not only limits citizen challenges in Texas but also bars people from other states from challenging Waste Control’s licenses.

The closest populated town to the site is Eunice, N.M.

Darby’s chief of staff, Jason Modglin, told the Texas Observer the legislation was written to streamline “a burdensome process.”