Greg Palast is an investigative reporter and columnist with the Observer of London and BBC television’s Newsnight. You can read and subscribe to his columns and view his reports for BBC at GregPalast.com. This one ran last Sunday. The highlighting is mine.
Inside Corporate America
By Greg Palast
Ah, the smell of Texas in the morning!
According to LaNell Anderson, real estate agent, what I’m smelling is a combination of hydrogen sulphide and some other, unidentifiable toxic gunk. We’ve pulled up across from a pond on Houston’s ship channel, home of the biggest refinery and chemical complex in America, owned by Exxon-Mobil. The pond is filled with benzene residues, a churning, burbling goop. Though there’s a little park nearby, this is not a bucolic swimming hole. Rather, imagine your toilet backed up, loaded, churning and ripe ñ assuming your toilet is a half-mile in circumference.
I flew to Houston to prepare for this week’s official release of President George W Bush’s proposal to end the energy crisis in California. The Golden State is suffering rolling black-outs. The state’s monthly electricity bill has shot up by one thousand and still going higher. But as soon as I got a whiff of the President’s proposals, I knew his plan had nothing to do with helping out the Gore-voting surfers on the Left Coast. Bush’s ‘energy crisis’ plan reeks of pure eau du Texas, that sulphurous combination of pollution, payola and political power unique to the Lone Star State.
Bush put his Vice-President Dick Cheney in charge of the Committee to save California consumers. Recommendation number one: build some nuclear plants. Not much of an offer to earthquake-prone California, but a darn good deal for the biggest builder of nuclear plants based in Texas, the Brown and Root subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation. Recent CEO of Halliburton: Dick the Veep.
Suggestion number two: drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge. California does not burn oil in its power plants, but hey, committee member and Commerce Secretary Don Evans gave the arctic escapade a thumbs up. Evans most recent employment: CEO of Tom Brown Inc, a billion-dollar oil and gas corporation.
And so on. Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower told me, “They’ve eliminated the middle man. The corporations don’t have to lobby the government any more. They ARE the government.” Hightower used to complain about Monsanto’s lobbying the Secretary of Agriculture. Today, Monsanto executive Ann Venamin IS the Secretary of Agriculture.
Well, back to energy. California’s electricity watchdog agency claims that speculators and a little club of energy merchants exercised raw monopoly power to overcharge state consumers by a breathtaking $6.2 billion last year. Bill Clinton, before his final bow, issued an order on December 14, halting uncontrolled speculation in the electricity market. You could hear the yowls all the way to Texas where the big winners in the power game – Enron, TXU, Reliant, Dynegy and El Paso corporation are headquartered. These five energy operators, through their executives and employees, ponied up $4.1 million for the Republican Presidential campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
They didn’t have long to wait before their investment – excuse me, donation – paid off big time. Just three days after his inauguration, Bush swept away Clinton’s orders directing controlled power sales to California.
Back in the ship channel, once LaNell picked up the scent of airborne poisons, she hopped from her Lexus, pulled out a big white bucket and opened a valve, sucking in a 3-minute sample of air which she’ll send off to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA will trace and fine the polluter. Hunting killer fumes is a heck of hobby. LaNell began after learning she had a rare immune system disease associated with chemical pollution. Her mom and dad died young of lung disease and cancer. She grew up and lives near the ship channel.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she might as well chuck away her buckets. Quietly tucked into President Bush’s new budget, is a big fat zero for the key EPA civil enforcement team. This has no connection whatsoever to the petrochemical industry dumping $48 million into the Republican campaign.
LaNell stopped to chat with some Chicano sub-teens playing soccer with an old bowling ball. They live in what Exxon-Mobil calls its “vulnerability zone.” The refinery released 1,680,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air and water here last year by accident. According to Exxon-Mobil records, if the pentane on site vaporized and ignited, it would burn human skin within 1.8 miles. Seven thousand three hundred people live in that zone. Bush is addressing the problem. He’s closing down public access to these reports on the killing zones.
A giant flare suddenly lit up the other side of the channel – and LaNell sped off to investigate. She discovered that a chemical plant blew a hydrogen line – and the operators, rather than store the ruined batch of ethylene, chose to ignite it. The toxic fireball, big as the Houses of Parliament, burned from the stack for several hours, exhaling a black cloud over Houston.
LaNell said this sickening ‘sky dumping’ procedure is okey-dokey with Texas state regulators. Now Bush proposes moving air quality enforcement away from the tougher feds to these laid-back state agencies. And this week’s Bush energy plan proposes additional loosening of EPA rules on the chemical industry.
On to Dallas, where I met with Cynthia Glazer, founder of a group of bereaved mothers in Winona, Texas. They lost their children to rare diseases which they believe is related to a local hazardous waste ‘injection well,’ a big underground chemical dump. Cynthia wore one of those fancy Western dance shirts with the metal bangles and cowhide fringe, so I brilliantly asked her if she enjoys Texas two-stepping. “Actually, I don’t do a lot of dancing these days. My bones are deteriorating.”
Phyllis and the moms took a bus to Washington DC. But official doors slammed in their faces. “They said someone who’s given 200,000 or a couple million, their call goes straight through.”
One Texan who made his way through the doors to power is Ken Lay, the Chairman of Enron, the electricity speculating outfit which made out so well in this week’s energy plan. Lay is a Pioneer, not the kind that lives in a little house on the prairie, busting the soil. A ‘Pioneer’ designates the big buckeroos who pledged to raise $100,000 apiece for Mr Bush. Four hundred Pioneers – that’s $40 million in campaign booty.
Lay wouldn’t talk to me, but his fellow Pioneer, Senator Teel Bevins, Texas Panhandle rancher, was right friendly. His office walls in the Capital in Austin sport a pair of riding chaps, his Pioneer medallion, and the head of a deceased Long-Horn. I was assured the back half of the beast ended up on the Senator’s barbeque.
Getting the hundred grand for Bush was no problem for the cowboy-politican. Easiest money he ever raised (“Eezist monuh ah eva rayzed”). And Bush never forgets his friends. One unheralded milestone of Bush’s first hundred days is his allowing beef packers to zap meat with radiation to kill salmonella, a disinfectant cheaper than non-nuclear methods. (Bush’s proposal to simply permit a bit of salmonella in school lunch meats was withdrawn after the public reacted with loud gagging and retching noises.)
I told the Senator about Phyllis Glazer, the cancer victim and pollution fighter, and her complaint that Washington access required big bucks donations.
“Well, it’s easy for the press to take some victim and make her a poster girl. The reality is individuals in a country with 300 million people have very little opportunity to speak to the President of the United States.”
But what about Pioneer Lay of Enron Corp? His company, America’s number one power speculator is also Dubya’s number one political career donor. Lay was personal advisor to Bush during the post-election ‘transition.’ And his company held a private meeting with the Energy Plans’ drafters. Bush’s protecting electricity deregulation has meant a big payday for Enron, profit up $87 million this quarter.
The Senator is nothing if not candid. “So you wouldn’t have access if you had spent two years of your life working hard to get this guy elected President raising hundreds of thousands of dollars?” In case I didn’t understand, he translated it into Texan. “Ya’ dance with them what brung ya’!”
I couldn’t argue with that. If President Bush chose to two-step with Lay of Enron instead of Phyllis Glazer, well, let’s be honest, Phyllis ain’t much on the dance floor these days.
See the BBC television Newsnight webcast of Palast’s investigation in Texas – and subscribe to Palast’s columns at GregPalast.com.
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