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SOS sues EPA over failure to protect salamander
Groups cite EPA's refusal to consult with Fish & Wildlife Service on effects of pesticide useAustin’s Save Our Springs Alliance has joined forces with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a Tucson-based environmental advocacy group, in filing suit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to look at the impact of pesticides on the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. Scientists from the City of Austin and other entities have tried to determine why a number of salamanders have developed skin bubbles and other abnormalities. Some have died, while others have recovered under the watchful eye of scientists working at the springs. But no cause has been found for the illness. The suit, filed yesterday in federal district court in Washington, DC, specifically challenges the EPA’s failure to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding the effects of pesticides on the salamander “and by failing to use their authority to carry out programs to preserve this declining species.” The pesticides cited as likely endangering amphibians, including the salamander, are atrazine, prometon, simazine, carbaryl, metolachlor and diazinon. The EPA is the agency responsible for oversight of pesticide sales and use in the US and can prohibit their use if it finds that that the pesticide causes “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” Brad Rockwell, deputy director of SOSA, said yesterday that internal governmental documents “indicate that FWS officials wanted to consult with EPA on this issue and felt like there is a problem with EPA allowing atrazine to be used in ways that could affect the Barton Springs Salamander.” FWS notified the EPA about its concerns that atrazine could be harming the salamander in 2002. FWS noted that a study had found atrazine along with other pesticides in the springs where the salamander lives. The suit cites scientific evidence of the negative impacts of atrazine on amphibians, including skeleton malformations and reproductive disruptions. The suit cites similar concerns and evidence on the use of the pesticides prometon, diazinon, simazine, carbaryl and metolachlor. In a press release issued yesterday, the environmental organizations said, “The Bush administration EPA has ignored FWS’s concerns. Although numerous scientific studies link pesticide use with significant developmental, neurological and reproductive effects to amphibians, EPA refuses to consult with the FWS regarding the impact of pesticides on the Barton Springs salamander.” CBD and SOSA are asking the court to order the EPA to consult with FWS within 30 days of a court order to that effect and to review its programs to determine how best to protect the salamander. They are also asking for the court to “enjoin EPA from authorizing uses of pesticides that allow pesticides to enter the Barton Springs watershed until the consultation process has been completed and EPA has brought its pesticide registrations into compliance with” the Endangered Species Act. Attorney Robert Ukeiley of Kentucky is representing SOSA and CBD. Rockwell said, “ We don’t know for sure how atrazine is getting in Barton Springs, but we know it's sold for home use in the form of Scott’s Weed and Seed, which is sold at Lowe’s and other home improvement stores. It is commonly used on golf courses, and we can guess it’s probably used by some professional landscapers,” also. That is a safe assumption since the State of Texas does not require landscapers to reveal which pesticides they are using, Rockwell said. Thus, there is no way for either the public or the state to know how much is being used or where. RMA spokesman explains policy work to House committee Environmental policy modeled on state standards The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) was front and center during testimony before the House Transportation Committee on Monday morning. The committee’s interim charge is to review the status of rules and policies created under the omnibus transportation bill passed last session. Attorney Brian Cassidy of Locke Liddell & Sapp told the committee that most of the CTRMA’s policies to date have focused on measures necessary to set up house, such as conflict of interest, the procurement process and the participation of women- and minority-owned businesses in RMA contracts. Cassidy has worked with the CTRMA since its inception in 2002. In addition, the CTRMA has established its own environmental policy. Cassidy said the RMA is not bound to the same environmental standards as the state, but the mobility authority knew the issue would be of special concern to Central Texas residents. “We were very thorough when we established our environmental review process, knowing we’re in Central Texas and knowing these issues are important to the community,” Cassidy said after the meeting. “We reviewed this policy more than any other policy or procedure we have established and even had a public hearing on the subject. We really bent over backwards to make sure everyone was comfortable.” In the end, Cassidy said, the CTRMA’s environmental policy closely modeled the state’s environmental standards, although the authority has tried to streamline the approval process. The goal was to be careful, but quick. Future policies may be thornier for the CTRMA. Like the state, the authority will have to wrestle with how Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) are shaped, implemented and safeguarded. CDAs are intended to cut the timeline on road projects by rolling design and construction into one contract, rather than separate phases. Participation under the CDA can stretch to include private acquisition, finance, maintenance or operation of a potential turnpike project. The Texas Department of Transportation approved the initial set of CDA rules last August. But as is the case with many first-time efforts, the state continues to monitor the success of those rules and how they might need to be adjusted. The CTRMA remains the only functioning RMA in the state, although Bexar County created its own regional mobility authority in December 2003. Bexar County is currently in the process of appointing a board. In its petition, Bexar County identified a 50-mile tollroad network to connect to existing roadways. Michael Behrens, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, said that a number of other Metropolitan Planning Organizations have expressed an interest in RMAs, including El Paso, Brownsville, Nacogdoches, Belton, Waco and Copperas Cove, among others. The CTRMA is in the process of using the CDA process for the contract on US 183A, an 11-mile turnpike through Williamson County that will relieve congestion in Cedar Park and Leander. The process started with an unsolicited bid from Zachry and Kiewitt, which allowed the RMA to ask for a Request for Qualifications from competing developer teams. Next month, the CTRMA will short-list qualified teams, Cassidy said. Those teams will be invited to present a more detailed proposal for the CTRMA to review. A final decision on a CDA partner will likely be made by June. “First, we’ve agreed you’re qualified,” Cassidy said of the process. “Then we ask you, ‘How do you meet these guidelines? How do you meet these criteria? And what will you do that will be innovative and really make this project work?’” The House Transportation Committee will consider testimony on other rules created under HB 3588. Those include the creation of rail facilities, advanced acquisition of property for possible use in future transportation facilities and the conversion of non-toll segments to turnpikes, as well as the transfer of turnpikes to local governments. The bill is also intended to provide the rule-making authority to create Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor project.. House Democrats endorse Doggett Barrientos alone in endorsement of Hinojosa Each of the three Democratic members of the Travis County delegation to the Texas House of Representatives yesterday endorsed U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett. Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Elliott Naishtat and Dawnna Dukes gathered with Doggett at the State Capitol to announce their support as Doggett squares off against South Texas candidate Leticia Hinojosa for the party’s nomination in Congressional District 25. Dukes had already shown strong support for the incumbent Congressman. All three said they had selected Doggett as the best person for the job of representing the Hispanic-majority district because of his experience in Washington and his stand on the issues of concern to the people who live in the area stretching from East Austin to the Texas-Mexico border. “Lloyd has demonstrated over the years that he can effectively represent a diverse constituency . . . whether we’re talking about North Austin, South Austin, East Austin or West Austin,” said Naishtat. “Lloyd has done the job. He has represented all of the people of Austin and Travis County on a variety of issues.” Naishtat also pointed to Doggett’s seniority in Congress and membership on the influential Ways and Means Committee as other reasons to support Doggett’s return to Washington. The state lawmakers called upon local Democrats to vote for Doggett as a way to show their displeasure over redistricting. “I cannot let the Republicans undo the coalition we’ve had in Austin for so long,” said Rodriguez. “A coalition of minorities and Anglos working together to elect the best possible people, regardless of race or ethnicity.” Naishtat was even more direct, bragging that “Lloyd Doggett has been an outspoken and effective thorn in the side of Tom Delay and the Republican leadership since the day he set foot in Washington DC.” The trio of lawmakers also argued that Doggett was just as capable of representing the majority-Hispanic district as Hinojosa. “We’ve seen minorities who have gotten elected who have not best served the needs of the minority community,” said Rep. Dukes. “We see it on the Republican side of the ticket all the time. On the Democratic side of the ticket, we have lots of elected officials who happen to not be minority, but they cast a vote that is in the best interest of the minority community.” While the Travis County Democrats in the House are backing Doggett, Travis County’s representative in the Texas Senate is backing Hinojosa. State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos announced earlier this month he would not be endorsing Doggett. However, the Congressman downplayed that split in Monday’s appearance at the Capitol. “I’m disappointed; I’m not surprised,” Doggett said. “It was clear from early December that that would be his decision. But each of these representatives will be working with Senator Barrientos on behalf of Travis County when the legislature convenes . . . and when this election is over I hope to do the same thing. We need to look beyond personalities. When the election’s over it’s time to put that aside and work together on behalf of our community, and I think all of us will be big enough to do that.” UT Shuttle drivers picket Capital Metro Cap Metro says it will not intervene in dispute between contractor and drivers About 20 members of Amalgamated Transit Union picketed yesterday’s Capital Metro board meeting to show their displeasure over treatment of University of Texas shuttle drivers. Union members, concerned about pay and benefits, say the union has been negotiating with ATC/Vancom and Capital Metro for more than two years. They accused Capital Metro of maintaining an inappropriate relationship with UT when it came time to ask for more money from the university. Capital Metro’s standing comment on labor disputes between Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549 and contractor ATC/Vancom has been that the transit agency did not consider it appropriate to intervene between a contractor and its employees. “It is extremely important for ATC/Vancom workers and the public to understand that the personnel performing this contracted service are under the exclusive direction and control of ATC/Vancom and are not Capital Metro’s employees,” Capital Metro President and CEO Fred Gilliam said in a prepared statement. “Therefore, neither the Capital Metro board nor our staff can legally become involved in the negotiation process in any way.” Intervention would not only be inappropriate but would hinder the negotiating process, Gilliam said. Two UT shuttle drivers at yesterday’s meeting, however, questioned what role Capital Metro should be playing and when and how it should intervene. Shuttle driver Glen Gaven told Capital Metro that the transit authority had sent not one, but two, representatives to committee meetings to ask for additional funding. Capital Metro employees Joe Richmond and Dotty Lancaster went to the UT Shuttle Committee and asked for additional funding. Gaven claimed both promised that a portion of the funding would go to providing raises to shuttle bus drivers. “Agents of Capital Metro have interfered,” Gaven said. “They told us we were going to get a raise and then turned their back on us.” Gaven also questioned how Capital Metro could wash its hands of its UT shuttle bus drivers when the safety of the buses was in question. Gaven said it was “pretty scary” to think that the buses were subject to fires if they weren’t checked every 6,000 miles. This happens, he said, while the buses “carry around the future of Texas” on a daily basis. Norm Couture, another shuttle bus driver, first thanked the board for its service and then asked it to pass only one policy: Pay people well. If Capital Metro were committed to paying people well, its contractors would likely respond positively. He ended his speech by singing a chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” Capital Metro board members made no comments. In his statement, Gilliam said that Amalgamated Transit Union 1549 and ATC/Vancom needed to follow suit. “We hope these organizations can come to a mutually beneficial resolution for the riding public,” Gilliam said. Today’s meetings . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10am today at City Hall and the Health Care Subcommittee will follow at 3:30pm. Both meetings will be in Room 304. The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm at One Texas Center . . . Beat the traffic . . . Capital Metro will officially dedicate its Northwest Park & Ride facility tomorrow, but it’s been in service since January 5. This facility marks the first major component in Capital Metro’s five-year facilities plan. The plan includes eight additional new Park & Ride facilities, six new transit centers and 11 new neighborhood transit centers to complete the comprehensive, regional transportation system. Amenities in the 21-acre Northwest Park & Ride facility include 500 parking spaces, six bus shelter canopies with connecting covered walkways, a terminal building and a “kiss and ride” lane to accommodate quick and easy dropping off of passengers near the bus bays . . . Bus stop contract approved . . . Yesterday the Capital Metro board approved a $136,000 contract with Muniz Concrete and Contracting to improve bus stop accessibility at 35 bus stop locations. The funding is available through the Build Greater Austin budget . . . Forum on electronic voting. . . Across the country, states are adopting electronic voting machines for use in elections. These machines are designed to reduce voter error and tally votes much faster, but many people are disturbed by what these machines can also allow: closed-door evaluation by public officials, computer errors—even election fraud. With the Presidential election cycle already in full swing, the role of electronic voting will only become more important and controversial. A panel of experts will talk about Austin’s electronic system and answer questions from the audience at 8pm Thursday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, 4700 Grover. Panelists include Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir; Dan Wallach, electronic voting software expert; Ann McGeehan, Director of Elections; Secretary of State's Office,Bill Stotesbery; Hart Intercivic, manufacturer of the eSlate system used in Travis County; and Adina Levin of the ACLU Texas Safe Voting project. The forum is being co-sponsored by the Travis County Green Party and Austin Democracy Coalition.
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