- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Houston Chronicle. May 16, 2014.

Climate change is real: Debating the reality of climate change is a waste of time. Debating what to do is not

The recent report on climate change from the U.N.-chartered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a sober reminder that what we as individuals happen to “believe” about global warming - unless we happen to be climate scientists - has absolutely no bearing on whether the phenomenon is a vast hoax perpetrated by 99 percent of the scientific community or a looming crisis that, as the report underscores, will affect everybody on this planet.

Skepticism on most issues is, indeed, healthy, but in any number of areas, whether it’s relying on M.D. Anderson for cancer treatment or a Texas A&M-trained; civil engineering fund to erect bridges and skyscrapers, we have to trust the experts. So it is with measuring and assessing the evidence of climate disruption. As conservative columnist Michael Gerson pointed out in the Washington Post recently, “Our intuitions are useless here.”

The report from the scientists, economists and other experts on the IPCC panel is about as sobering as it can get. The panel warned that the planet is indeed warming, that humans are primarily responsible and that we are not anywhere near prepared for the dire consequences.

What’s coming if we can’t or won’t change our ways are low-lying island nations disappearing, coastal cities going the way of Venice (at best), abnormal weather patterns and growing seasons and tropical pathogens migrating into formerly temperate zones.

In Texas and elsewhere, change already is upon us. We’re seeing increased rates of water loss, depleting water resources, increased wildfires and the spread of invasive species. Our grandchildren and their children will see a rise in sea level from 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century.

“Climate change is no longer a future issue,” Katherine Hayanoe, director of Texas Tech’s Climate Change Science Center, told the Chronicle recently. “For the United States as a whole, climate change will affect our lives through its impacts on our health, our water resources, our food, our natural environment and our economy.”

Debating the validity of climate change - or whether we believe in climate change - is a waste of time; debating what to do in response is anything but a waste.

According to the IPCC report, emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases grew faster between 2000 and 2010 than over the previous three decades. That disturbing statistic is despite real progress being made in some parts of the world. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel has laid out a plan to fill more than 40 percent of her nation’s energy needs from renewable sources. The United States has reduced its carbon emissions by nearly 10 percent since 2005, in part because of stricter automobile fuel economy standards but also because of the lingering recession. Progress, though, pales in contrast to the increase in emissions by China and other rapidly industrializing countries.

We know what needs to be done, but if we can’t summon the political will and the sense of worldwide urgency to implement some kind of carbon tax or to develop new technologies that limit future carbon emissions, then we need to begin preparing for the worst. That means reassessing where we live and where we build, how we feed ourselves, how much water we use, among numerous other major adjustments. Gondolas in Kemah, anyone?


Austin American-Statesman. May 19, 2014.

An outline for preventing another West

In retrospect, we often come to understand that many tragedies could have been prevented if only certain procedures had been followed or a few safety devices had been in place beforehand. We gain clarity by looking back, but the clarity is wasted if it doesn’t lead to a meaningful attempt to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring.

It is the debt we owe the dead. It is what we do so others might live.

Last week, the State Fire Marshal’s Office released its investigation into the deaths of the 12 men who were trying to put out the fire at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17, 2013. The fire caused 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility to explode.

The explosion killed 15 people: 10 volunteer firefighters, two civilians who were helping the firefighters, and three residents of West. More than 200 people were injured and a 37-block area of the farming town near Waco was destroyed or damaged.

The firefighters reacted heroically and did what they could to battle the blaze, but they were facing a large, dangerous fire they weren’t prepared to handle. The investigation report includes a handful of photos of the fire taken by passersby. The photos accentuate the report’s understated, bureaucratic description of the fire as one “significantly beyond the extinguishment phase.”

The West fire was in a wood-frame building where fertilizer was stored in wooden bins. One volunteer firefighter, Brian Renegar, a former employee of West Fertilizer Co., told investigators he feared a potential explosion of the ammonium nitrate and warned West Fire Chief George Nors Sr. and another firefighter they needed to pull back. But Nors, who, like Renegar, survived the blast, and other firefighters were dealing with conflicting information about the threat of an explosion.

Amid the uncertainty about the risk firefighters were facing, events happened quickly. At 7:51 p.m., about 22 minutes after the fire was reported, the building’s roof collapsed onto the now-unstable ammonium nitrate, acting as a detonator. The resulting explosion was massive; debris from it was found 2.5 miles away.

To overcome the “systemic deficiency in training and preparation” that contributed to the firefighters’ deaths in West, the report reasonably recommends the state develop training standards for volunteer firefighters and allow counties to enact fire codes. Facilities that store ammonium nitrate should be retrofitted with sprinklers, and areas where ammonium nitrate is stored should be made of concrete, metal or other fire-resistant material.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office has identified 46 facilities statewide that store ammonium nitrate in wooden bins similar to the ones used in West. State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been leading the effort to try to prevent another deadly disaster like the one in West, meeting with owners of fertilizer businesses to discuss their handling of ammonium nitrate and touring dozens of towns statewide with fertilizer facilities to preach “best practices” for safely storing ammonium nitrate.

We commend Connealy’s efforts, but he has only powers of persuasion. He doesn’t make policy. Only the Legislature has the power to turn recommendations into law.

Lawmakers don’t meet again until January, but what they shouldn’t do is rely on voluntary compliance to prevent another West. Voluntary compliance will prove inadequate. It often does.

And it’s not just a matter for state lawmakers. Congress and federal officials must join the effort to streamline, strengthen and enforce a fractured and confusing collection of agencies and rules that govern the storage of ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals.

Meanwhile, the cause of the fire that triggered the West explosion remains under investigation. Investigators have identified three possible sources: a defective battery on a golf cart stored in the same building at the ammonium nitrate, a malfunction in the building’s electrical system, or arson. Given the devastation the explosion caused, investigators might never determine the cause.

But the cause of the explosion is known. And it seems likely the explosion could have been prevented.

Relatives of those killed in West were given the state fire marshal’s report during a town meeting. Carmen Bridges, widow of firefighter Morris Bridges, told the Associated Press after the meeting, “Everybody’s going to learn something from this.”

We hope so.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 16, 2014.

Legislators push RR Commission to take charge

Earlier this week, the Texas House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity told the Railroad Commission something its members should already know by now: it’s time for some precise findings on what is causing the earthquakes in Tarrant and Parker Counties.

Since last November, things have been a bit shaky in Azle and Reno, as a series of small tremors rolled through the area.

While no significant quakes have been reported since January, there is still understandable concern among area residents who feel efforts to pinpoint and address the earthquakes’ causes have been shallow.

The Railroad Commission regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, and Monday’s House subcommittee hearing set out to consider exactly what role that industry might be playing in the recent seismic activity in North Texas, and what might be done in response.

These are questions to which many, including Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes, believe there are obvious answers. And she contends that the state has the information it needs to act.

But Craig Pearson, the newly-hired seismologist who went to work for the Railroad Commission just last month, was equivocal. He testified that he “hopes” to have “a definitive statement” regarding the source of quakes within a year. At that point, the state could determine what regulatory changes might be needed.

That’s not exactly a consolation for those who are living with constant anxiety that the earth will move again - and not in a good way.

Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett said that the experience of the people in Azle could be summed up in one word: frustration, adding “Everyone seems genuinely concerned, but there is a disconnect among the various stakeholders.”

Those stakeholders include legislators, geologists, state regulators, private industry and the people of North Texas.

The frustration is likely to continue until the commission returns its findings. But it is encouraging to see legislators pushing that body to take charge and keep the trains moving.


Galveston County Daily News. May 16, 2014.

Prayer and free speech: Are they really the same?

The Supreme Court says public prayer before city council meetings is OK.

That’s got to be a victory in the culture wars. But, will people who are deeply religious be happy with the notion of prayer as a form of free speech?

The subject of prayer before governmental meetings wouldn’t be contentious except for one fact: Prayer is occasionally used not to invoke blessings and guidance from the Almighty, but as a weapon to hurt other people.

Local governments in Galveston County have had problems with this concept.

Perhaps the low point came a few years ago in a lawsuit involving the Santa Fe school district. Prayers and instruction were used in a way to ridicule and demean a student who was Jewish. The court also was appalled about things said of Mormon students.

The problem isn’t isolated. It wasn’t long ago you could hear prayers at public meetings across much of rural Texas that were overtly anti-Catholic.

Last week, the court essentially ruled prayers at government meetings are a matter of free speech, meaning that government bodies can’t really edit the content.

If the person saying the prayer before the city council meeting wants to make a sectarian attack on another sect, there’s just nothing the local government can do.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 5-4 ruling, put it this way: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance or criticizing their content after the fact.”

That raises an interesting point: While government can’t criticize the content after the fact, individual citizens sure can.

One of the widely accepted rules of free speech is if you allow some people to say something, you have to allow others to respond. That’s particularly true if you allow people to say something cutting, hurtful or vicious.

And so, if you open a public meeting with a form of free speech that can be construed as hurtful, mean or bigoted, it’s only fair to let people point that out.

If the idea of a chorus of dissenters offering critiques of the content of prayers said at public meetings offends your notion of what prayer is, take that up with the U.S. Supreme Court.

For many religious people, prayer is the expression of a private conscience toward a higher power. That expression is deserving of profound respect and reverence.

Prayer as depicted in this ruling is something else. It’s just another form of free speech, legally in the same category as the kind of thing you hear at the coffee shop or on talk radio.

Profound respect and reverence do not necessarily follow.


Longview News-Journal. May 18, 2014.

Justice is served in Tiede’s release

In the United States, the rule of law is indivisible.

The Constitution is our governing and most important set of laws, but it’s only the beginning. Congress and every state legislature pass laws of all kinds for all purposes. Some are good, others have been proven to be poorly crafted and repealed over time. But even those, while in force, are the law. All are to be followed, even when we are not in total agreement.

We bring this up as it relates to the case of convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, who was released on bonds earlier this month while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considers a motion that would set his sentence at “time served” in the shooting death of Marjorie Nugent of Carthage.

Many may believe “murder is murder,” but that isn’t how Texas law sees it. In fact, the range of punishment prescribed by law for first-degree murder shows that those who wrote the laws grasped the importance of circumstances.

A person convicted of first-degree murder, as Tiede was, can receive a sentence from five years (and that can be probation) to 99 years in prison. Sentencing for second-degree murder ranges from two to 20 years in prison.

Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson said in court this month that had he known of Tiede’s long history of being molested as a boy and how it played into the circumstances of Nugent’s shooting, he would have charged him with second-degree murder. How much difference would that have made? It almost certainly would have meant Tiede would have been free years ago.

As Davidson said: “I think I might have put 80 years on Bernie that he didn’t deserve.”

Since he was released, we’ve heard complaints that Tiede is “getting off,” but nothing could be further from the truth. He has served 15 years in prison, an amount of time that is not inconsequential.

Tiede was certainly guilty of killing Nugent. He admitted as much to police and in court testimony. He deserved punishment that included a significant prison term for what he did.

And that is just what he got.

Perhaps we would not be so convinced the right course of action was being followed if there was any disagreement among any of the parties involved. Obviously the defense is interested in seeing Tiede released, but so is Davidson, who has never been known to be soft on crime. Judge Diane DeVasto, a former appellate judge, also has shown no reluctance to move this matter on to the next level.

The law determines the limits of justice, despite what our own emotions may tell us. When emotions become involved, the rule of law - and justice - is always endangered.

In the Tiede case, the law is telling us what is just, and we should listen to what is being said.



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