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Near-Catastrophe During Flooding Highlights Issues at Dam in Austin

Crews work to dislodge a barge from Longhorn Dam. The dam that creates Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.

Austin Energy

Crews work to dislodge a barge from Longhorn Dam, the dam that creates Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.

A lot of people who walk or drive past Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin probably assume it’s a natural feature. They appreciate the trails and parks that line the lake’s 416 acres, unaware of the series of floodgates on the Longhorn Dam that hold its waters in. But recent flooding along the waterway has called attention to longstanding mechanical problems at the dam, problems that the City of Austin is aware of, but hasn’t found the money to address.

While its been called the “jewel in the crown” of Austin, Lady Bird Lake was created to serve a utilitarian purpose: to provide water for a now-decommissioned gas power plant in the Holly neighborhood of East Austin. Because of its connection to the power plant, the dam is operated under the supervision of Austin Energy, the city’s publicly-owned electric utility. Built in 1960, the floodgates on Longhorn Dam have stored and released water from the lake for over 50 years. Now that age is showing.

“There’s been a lack of maintenance on the dam for the last 15 years,” Dennis Hipp, a recently-retired Austin Energy employee tells StateImpact Texas. “It’s steadily gotten worse and it’s to the point now where it’s going to start doing some damage. [Both] upstream and down.”

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As Texas Towns Shake, Regulators Sit Still

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

Photo: OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

State Oil and Gas Regulator Says No Changes Needed After Latest Earthquake Swarm

After twenty minor earthquakes in a month, residents in the small towns of Azle and Springtown outside of Fort Worth are understandably confused about why their once-stable region is now trembling on a near-daily basis.

Teachers in the Azle school district are taking a page from the California playbook and holding earthquake drills for students. Inspectors are making regular visits to the earthen Eagle Mountain Lake dam, as well as others in the area, checking for damage. (So far they’ve found none.) And locals like Rebecca Williams are constantly looking at their own homes for damage. So far she’s found cracks in her home, driveway and in a retaining wall in her backyard.

The quakes have been small, below the threshold that is known to cause significant damage. But they’ve unnerved residents like Williams, who moved out to Eagle Mountain Lake looking for some peace and quiet.

“You can actually see my house rocking from side to side,” Williams says. She was at home when the largest of the quakes (magnitude 3.6) struck on the evening of November 19th. “I tried to get up and run downstairs,” she says. “And for a moment, I couldn’t run, because the house was shaking so bad!”

So what’s behind the tremors?  Continue Reading

Here’s Obama’s New Plan to Deal With Climate Change

In a speech in Washington today, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to deal with climate change, one that focuses on reducing emissions from the energy sector, building up the nation’s renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency. It also calls for the country to prepare for the impacts of climate change, like rising sea levels, and for the U.S. to become a leader in addressing increasing carbon emissions.

And for the first time, Obama is proposing to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, which is sure to generate controversy in Texas, with a large fleet of aging coal power plants and state officials ready to fight federal regulation at every turn.

The plan says:

“… Climate change is no longer a distant threat – we are already feeling its impacts across the country and the world. Last year was the warmest year ever in the contiguous United States and about one-third of all Americans experienced 10 days or more of 100-degree heat. The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15 years. Asthma rates have doubled in the past 30 years and our children will suffer more asthma attacks as air pollution gets worse. And increasing floods, heat waves, and droughts have put farmers out of business, which is already raising food prices dramatically. These changes come with far-reaching consequences and real economic costs.”

You can read the 21-page plan in full after the jump: Continue Reading

Request for FEMA Funds Denied After West Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

The aftermath of the explosion in the small town of West, Texas. FEMA has denied the state's request for funds to rebuild a school and repair roads.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not provide relief funds requested by Texas to help rebuild the town of West, which was badly damaged (and in some parts, destroyed) by a fertilizer plant explosion in April. As the Associated Press first reported today, Texas’ request for FEMA money to help rebuild roads, a school and a damaged sewer system was denied by the federal agency. In a letter from FEMA to Texas Governor Rick Perry, the agency’s administrator writes that “the impact from this event is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration.” You can read the letter in full below.

The explosion in April killed 15, injured hundreds, and destroyed several buildings and homes, including two schools.

FEMA has provided aid to individual residents and households, but a major disaster declaration and public  would provide money needed to rebuild parts of the city. The agency will also not provide unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, legal services and other aid. Continue Reading

Shades of Texas Law Seen in Proposed Federal Fracking Guidlines

REUTERS /Anna Driver/LANDOV

While it's called the Railroad Commission of Texas, it actually deals with regulating oil and gas in the state. And a name change isn't likely to happen this session.

As Americans watch the U.S. Bureau of Land Management develop rules to manage fracking on federal land, the Texans among them would be forgiven for wondering “what does have to do with us?” After all, due to the state’s unique history, there are virtually no federal lands in Texas.

Well, the rules may have more to do with Texas than you may think. Particularly in their reliance on the online database FracFocus.org to disclose what chemicals drillers are pumping into the ground.

As we reported last month, FracFocus was criticized in a report from Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program. It found that the database doesn’t do a good job of disclosing information and can make it more difficult for companies to comply with state regulations. Twelve states, including Texas, require drillers to use FracFocus to disclose their drilling chemical mixes.

The Harvard report, which was quickly dismissed by many state regulators including the Railroad Commission of Texas, also echoed previous findings that FracFocus allows too many companies to hide their chemical ingredients under the guise of trade secrets. This is especially a concern for people worried about the potential for groundwater pollution associated with fracking.

Part of the aim of the Harvard report was to encourage the Bureau of Land Management to seek out  a more comprehensive and user-friendly system for companies to disclose what chemicals they use.

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Environmental Justice and the EPA’s New Man in Texas

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Ron Curry at a Superfund site with Harris County officials

Ron Curry is the EPA’s new administrator for Region 6, overseeing enforcement of federal pollution laws in New Mexico (where he once headed that state’s environment department), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and in Texas.

Texas, where the state has gone to court to stop the EPA from enforcing pollution laws. Texas is also where the previous EPA regional administrator, Al Armendariz, had a rocky relationship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Armendariz left last year to join the Sierra Club after a firestorm erupted when he was heard on a video using the word “crucify” as he explained how tough his staff could be on the worst polluters.

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UPDATED: AG Stay Request Denied in Whooping Crane Case, Judge Amends Order

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The Texas Attorney General says the TCEQ, the state's environmental regulator, was not responsible for killing 23 rare whooping cranes.

UPDATE: Late Friday afternoon State Attorney General Abbot’s request to stay the ruling on TCEQ water management was denied, according to The Aransas Project, the plaintiffs in the case.

However, the language of Judge Jack’s original order (the one the state was trying to stay) was amended to allow the TCEQ to approve water permits from the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins which are “necessary to protect the public’s health and safety.”

You can find the document denying the stay and amending the original order here.

Earlier this week, a federal judge found the state’s environmental agency guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act. The ruling, which could have implications for the water management across the state, said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was responsible for the deaths of 23 rare Whooping Cranes. It prohibited the TCEQ from issuing new water use permits for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River unless the Agency could prove that the cranes would not be impacted.

Today, the Texas Attorney General said the state would appeal that ruling, and sought an emergency stay from the federal district court while the state plans that appeal.

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Polluters and Penalties: Will Higher Fines Make a Difference in Texas?

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

TCEQ commissioner Toby Baker

For years, critics of how Texas enforces environmental regulations have charged that polluters didn’t pay enough when caught, that it was cheaper for big corporations to pay the fine than obey the law.

But the newest member appointed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Toby Baker, said changes made by the state legislature are putting more bite in enforcement. Continue Reading

Central Texas Water Conflict Heats Up Again

Graph by LCRA

This graph shows how little water has flowed into the Highland Lakes since mid-year.

Mark Dewey of KUT News contributed reporting.

Two high-profile Texas legislators have put the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) on notice this week: if you send water downstream to rice farmers in 2013, there will be consequences. In a letter to the LCRA, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Abilene, urge the LCRA to withdraw the emergency water management plan passed in November. That plan, if approved and followed, would likely result in water being sent down the Lower Colorado to grow rice. Even though it would be a smaller amount than usual, opponents of the plan fear it could be enough to send the Highland Lakes down to drought of record levels.

“We appreciate the letter and understand the concerns expressed by the senators,” the LCRA says in an emailed statement. Acknowledging the extremely dry conditions and low inflows into the lake, the authority says that it is “continuing to closely monitor the situation” and may seek a different emergency drought plan when it meets next month that could result in rice farmers’ water being cut off. Continue Reading

Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters

Photo by KUT News

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat says he wants to put the fracking study controversy behind him.

One University of Texas at Austin professor has retired and another has resigned his position as head of UT’s Energy Institute, the school announced Thursday after the release of a scathing review of a study on fracking that has become mired in controversy.

The man at the center of the storm for sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has declined a request for an interview, but has talked to us about his take on the matter in a series of emails over the last 24 hours. “While I admit that even though my reasons for not disclosing my industry connection were valid in terms of connection to the report results,” Groat writes, “I should have made a disclosure.”

In his most recent email to us, Groat writes, “I don’t have anything further to discuss regarding my role in the project.”

Under an Open Records Request, we have obtained Groat’s letter of retirement dated November 21, which you can read in full below. In it, Groat makes no mention of the controversy, instead he writes of his new position as head of the not-for-profit Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana, where he and his wife are moving.

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