Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day Reflections

It's memorial day weekend. Time for barbeques, big sales, and the Indy 500. This is the start of summer and the kids are out of school. In all the partying and traveling, it's difficult to remember what memorial day is all about.

Wikipedia has a good overview of the origins and history. Decoration day, as it was originally called, was set aside to honor the fallen of the civil war. As the holiday evolved, it also became a time to honor all those living and dead who have served, fought, and sacrificed for this country. They fought so that we can live well and free.

A year ago I did my first Memorial Day reflection. It is as relevant today as it was then. Sacrifices are still being made for bad ideas.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Something to look out for

I received an email earlier today that people should watch out for. It was a supposed alert about Ashley Flores, but as that link and this one will explain it was a hoax. This one seems to be little more than a little hoax or practical joke that got way out of hand, but there could be some real problems here.

This type of message is worded to create an uncritical emotional response. Everyone wants to help find lost children, and they can't imagine anyone sending this out unless it was true. Bad guys are using this type of message to spread emails with potentially destructive payloads and attachments. Emails with an emotional appeal have been used in the past to spread destructive virus and trojans. Today's virus's are mutating into a big business. They are now used to gather personal and financial data that is used in identity theft schemes, or they are used to set up hordes of "zombie" computers that the bad guys can use in various internet attack schemes. Don't think that just because you have the number one selling antivirus on your machine you are safe. The reality is that most virus writers and script kiddies will test their virus and trojan against the latest antivirus software they can find before they ever release it. Even if there is no virus or trojan, emails such as this can be a big problem.

The hoax we are looking at had an unused email address at Yahoo for replies. Imagine that instead of a dead address, they had included the email address of a small sheriffs department or small business. The avalanche of incoming emails could have created what is called a mail bomb. Similar emails have asked for donations or other information that could be used in identity theft schemes.

So what can you do? First, never forward an email to all the people in your address book just because you are asked to. Next, in any email sent or forwarded to you asking for help, go back to the source and ask for verification. At the minimum, do a quick check on line. A quick search using google had 4 sites at the top debunking this as a hoax. Next, check your machine with an online antivirus scan from a company different than the one you use for your resident scanner. I like Housecall and Activescan but every major antivirus company has some sort of free online scan or checkup. They might also try to sell you one of their products, which are good, but you don't need to buy one to fix the problem. Don't open any attachments. If the email was infected (or a scam) get in touch with the person that sent you the email and inform them of the problem so they can take the appropriate action.

People like to help each other when they can. The sad thing is that there are people out there that will take advantage of that helpfulness to do things that range from pulling a prank to breaking your computer and stealing your money and identity. Be cautious of junk emails.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Technology and Parks

Two items on the last city council agenda really got me thinking. First, there were the concerns of Blaine's picnic. Then there was a follow up on the graffiti at the skate park case. Both of these cases do have something in common: law enforcement officers and security can't be everywhere at once.

With only 17 security officers, and 7000 attendees at the picnic, there is no way the officers on the ground could see everything that was going on. The problem with the parks is even worse. With only 5 park and lake police officers, and over 50 parks in the city, there is no way for them patrol every park every night. Even with the help of the SAPD, there will be long periods of time when no officer will be available to watch the parks. There is a solution though.

Next time you are in WalMart take a look at the top of some of the light poles and the top edge of the roof. You will see a lot of cameras. There are also signs all over reminding you that the cameras are there. These cameras have helped stores that use them reduce crimes in their parking lots dramatically. A new generation of that technology is becoming available that could help local law enforcement monitor public parks and facilities when no officer is there. It could also give them a view of large events that they wouldn't otherwise have. Adding these virtual eyes would help immensely.

With the emergence of wireless technology, installation of these cameras is relatively simple. Once power is supplied to the camera (which could be battery or solar power), and they are put in place, they are pretty much operational. They could connect to a wireless mesh network if the city gets one, or to an access point some distance away in a protected building or enclosure, which can then connect using services from an existing broadband internet supplier. All this video could then be monitored and recorded from one central location.

There are problems and concerns with this approach. First, there have to be safe guards in place. We need to ensure that these government owned cameras only monitor public facilities and events. We need to ensure they are only used for legitimate law enforcement, public safety, and government management functions. The facilities need to be posted with warnings that there is the possibility of video and audio monitoring. There need to be procedures in place that the recordings are erased or otherwise disposed of when no longer needed unless part of a court proceeding, and we need to ensure that access is limited to those that need access to carry out their job.

Graffiti at the skate park cost the taxpayers over $3,000 and permanently damaged the surface that was vandalized. That would probably have paid for a simple camera setup for the park. The profits from the picnic could probably pay for installation of cameras at the river stage. It's time to give this tool to our local law enforcement agencies, as long as we make sure the safe guards are there as well.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Picnics: Blaine and Simple

Blaine had his picnic this last weekend. Lots of people were there, most people had a good time, and money was made. Economically it was a success.

There were lots of problems. There were over 70 arrests for multiple offenses. People were arrested as they staggered out the gate and attempted to drive off. Many minors were drinking or in possession of alcohol. Old furniture was left behind for others to clean up. Trash was left until Monday to blow around the area and spread to the surrounding area. The after math is currently making its' way through the judicial system, and will affect some lives for years. This is, to say the least, a problem.

It would be easy to come up with a laundry list of fixes and solutions. More and better security people. Use technology. Everyone can add to the list. In the end fixing the problem depends on one simple fact: It's a matter of setting priorities.

The rules and regulations for the use of the river stage are set down by the Civic Events Board with review and approval by the City Council. The CEB has a responsibility to develop rules and procedures for events that will bring business and make money for the city. They have an even bigger responsibility to make sure that the events hosted are safe and not a catalyst for crimes such as DWI or MIP. The hands off approach and the emphasis on little but economics has led to large picnics with lots of attendance but corners cut that compromised the safety and image of the city. We were just lucky that there were no serious injuries, and that there were no problems serious enough that the city and event organizers could have been sued.

I'm in favor of picnics like Blaines. They can be a great event. Still, the CEB, the City Council, and city staff need to do a better job of setting down and enforcing the rules. We need to do better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Letter on the Gasification Project

The following was submited for publication. As always, additional comments are welcome. References were added on our Gasification reference page.

To city leaders, future or present, and all concerned and involved citizens, I would like to provide some information regarding the proposed gasification plant that is now being considered to mitigate the methane buildup at the landfill. I beg you to consider the possibility that there would be more risks associated with this project than we currently face with the methane situation at the landfill. The waste industry has launched a massive effort to build incineration-like technologies for hazardous waste, garbage, and medical waste. Most companies promoting these technologies claim there would be no toxic emissions. Unfortunately, this absolutely false, just as it was when they made the same claims for incineration, and they do pose a threat to the health and environment of our communities.

It is also doubtful that the project would be worth the little extra energy it might provide. We need to see the data that supports the claims that this project would provide energy for Shannon, or the University, considering that the Syngas that would be produced has only ¼ the energy rating of natural gas, our limited supply from the waste stream, and the primary obligations the city would have to three military bases. There is also evidence that these types of plants have been known to under perform when it comes to the energy they are expected to produce.

In the area of economics this project does not add up. The extreme expense and environmental risks involved with this technology have prevented it from becoming established as an energy resource in North America. The revenue that this project is projected to generate is totally theoretical and speculative, and in fact, Siemens has no waste gasification plants in operation in the world. They do not even mention waste gasification technology on their extensive web-sight. The only experience they seem to have ever had in this experimental niche of the energy market was in Germany where their waste gasification plant was closed after an entire neighborhood in the town of Furth had to be evacuated when clouds of gas leaked from the plant following an explosion, resulting in the hospitalization of personnel and locals. The incident prompted the Siemens Company to shelve its waste treatment business altogether, until now it seems.

A hand out provided at a public meeting last week declared that “Thermal Gasification Is Not Incineration;” however, the EPA's own data show that gasification units produce more dioxins, furans, nitrogen oxides, the same amount of lead, mercury and cadmium. Some of the chemicals such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, are reduced, but not eliminated.

Supporters of this resurrected technology, such as Michael Williams, Texas Railroad Commissioner who has appeared in the paper touting this technology last week, and who is a member of the National Coal Council, (an important conflict of interest) has been taking advantage of semantic tricks that have been made possible by the EPA, using terms such as “zero emissions,” and “renewable energy” when referring to gasification. Clean up for these plants always adds hefty operational expenses (which create a powerful disincentive to invest in adequate safety equipment, backup systems and procedures) and is never fail safe or complete. In addition, whatever toxins they can “remove” from the air, are still produced and must be disposed of or reintroduced into the environment somewhere. Most of the toxins that are diverted from the air will end up in the landfill but should be classified and treated as hazardous waste.

Methane is not toxic... Hydrogen sulfide and cyanide, nitrogen oxide, dioxins, furans, mercury and lead are without doubt produced by gasification and without doubt, top the official list of the most toxic, cancer causing, potentially lethal, substances known to science and man...

This hand out that our city saw as sufficient to inform the public was a 2 page excerpt taken from a 200 page report from and investigation into gasification by Alameda Power and Telecom, the public power agency of the city of Alameda, CA. Much like the scenario here in San Angelo, APT had first discussed siting the garbage plant in a low-income community, without public discussion. Residents and environmental justice groups responded by forming a three-city grassroots coalition that challenged the claims of “no emissions” and advocated for clean, renewable energy. The mayor of San Leandro, where the plant was to be located, spoke strongly against the project. After investing $500,000 to conduct the investigation into 6 different companies, they decided to REJECT a possible garbage “gasification” plant to meet Alameda’s future energy needs. If you would be interested in reading some of the public responses received by APT from the educated public in that area, they can be found at this web address: .

Some may argue that this is par for the course in “wacky” California, but obviously the proposal to build a gasification plant could not hold up against the scrutiny that occurred in that community, even after the initial $500,000 investment had been made. The full report reveals in that investigation into gasification, that the "Potential for Emissions of Air Toxics" was "less impressive" than all the other data on their score chart- yielding an average index of only 43 out of 100 when reviewing data from 6 different companies making proposals..."DESPITE THE FACT THAT ALL THE SUBMISSIONS MADE WERE CAPABLE OF MEETING FEDERAL, STATE, AND LOCAL SITTING AND PERMITING STANDARDS..." The report continued that, “…the team chose an aggressive approach of deducting strongly for any technology that is potentially less than completely thorough in destroying or re-creating these (hazardous) compounds…”

We should ask: who among those supporting this proposal in our community has engaged in any serious inquiry into the risks involved and where are their findings???

City manager Harold Dominguez claimed at the public meeting that he had been to Japan and had witnessed how this alleged “cutting edge” technology is being implemented with great success. But, according to the Zero Waste Program Declaration of the Kamikatsu-cho, Katsuura, Tokushima Prefecture, September 2003, the people of Japan are pressuring the government to move away from these technologies, which have bogged down progression toward what they now understand is necessary –a zero waste management plan with a focus on recycling and consumer and manufacturer responsibility. “The tendency to build and become dependent on facilities such as incinerators is contributing to such major problems as environmental pollution, growing anxiety among residents and an enormous burden on regional government budgets. These expensive waste disposal facilities only encourage increased waste output and do not contribute to waste reduction.”

Some are claiming that burning trash is the solution to reducing the methane building up in the landfill. But as the space opens up, the city plans to charge other towns to bring their trash to the San Angelo landfill! This scenario will never result in the reduction of methane or waste. Once the investment is made there will actually be an incentive to perpetuate the accumulation of garbage and methane to continue to produce the gas.

If we look at the trends in waste management of some of the most progressive areas of the world, such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the EU and some states in America like California, Washington and Colorado, we can conclude that this $100 million dollar investment will be obsolete in about 20 years – just about the time the city expects to pay off the debt and start making their money. Many in these areas also conclude that gasification is not a Green Technology but an incineration “make-over,” which is just as hazardous, and counter-productive to real solutions.

If San Angelo wants to look towards measures for our future and be ahead of the curve, first and foremost, we all need to change our mentality about trash, start producing less waste, and recycle everything we can. This is the most efficient, effective, sustainable, clean, safe, and potentially lucrative, way of dealing with the very serious issue of waste management that our society faces today. If we understand that recycling is a fundamental part of any waste management program, but don't think West Texas is intellectually ready to implement big changes in this direction, then we need to educate.

We need our leaders to recognize how far behind a gasification plant could leave us in the decades to come. This project will put us years behind where we already stand on recycling, not to mention the ramifications of the hazardous waste build up in our community. We do not need to create more problems that will cost us again, in many ways, in the long run. We need leaders to promote “developments” with health, safety, quality of life, economic responsibility, and foresight in mind. All the theoretical cash generating projects should be secondary to this principle.

Here is one of the exclusions, passed by EPA in 2002 that that makes it possible for the industry to claim that this gasification is a “Green,” nonpolluting technology:

The EPA is proposing revisions to the RCRA hazardous waste program to allow a conditional exclusion from the definition of solid waste. This exclusion would be for hazardous oil-bearing secondary materials generated by the petroleum refinery industry when these materials are processed in a gasification system to produce synthesis gas fuel and other non-fuel chemical by-products.

Other loopholes are inherent the air emission standards themselves. In addition, the few records available regarding the testing of emissions on these plants have been done while the facilities were operating with controlled and reduced inputs, and often data collection begins subsequent to the initial start up period when most of the toxins are released.

While it has been said that the residual waste products we will be left with will be “inert” and disposed of in the landfill, this is also a conclusion drawn with the utilization of semantic and logistical tricks. The following is an except taken from a report by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League on the impacts of waste gasification on the environment and public health:

A national controversy about ash toxicity erupted in 1995 when then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner allowed incinerator operators to mix bottom ash and fly ash together prior to toxicity testing. Fly ash raises the pH of the ash, reducing the reliability of the tests. But citizens who gathered samples of ash from incinerators which had passed the EPA’s tests found very high levels of toxic metals. Gasification units produce both bottom ash and fly ash. The toxicity of gasification combustor ash would be no different than incinerator ash because the source, municipal solid waste, is the same.

Other countries treat bi-products produced from waste gasification as a concentrated hazardous waste, and are recognizing gasification as incineration, an old technology that has already wreaked havoc the world over…

Honest leaders with primary concerns for the health and well being of all should look very critically into EVERY angle of everything they do in the name of the public good. We cannot always rely on the biased “experts” to supply us with the information we need. Especially when looking at extremely costly and risky endeavors that require huge investments of money, time, and intellectual capital. A lot could be done with $100 million. We need to make sure the investment will take us as far as we can go.

Thanks for your careful deliberation on this important matter,

Allie Devereaux

Friday, May 12, 2006

Data Storms

Records and data are a major part of life today. Government agencies record births, deaths, property sales, etc. in great detail and have to retain that data for very long times. With the advent of computers, it is too easy to create more detailed records. Many of those end up on paper, which takes up a lot of room. This leads to some significant problems.

All these records need to be kept somewhere. The original push to turn the Hemphill-Wells building into the library was caused by the County's and City's need for more room to store records. The Ed B Keys building will become a vast records warehouse. That will help with the space problem for a while, but there are still other problems.

The records stored by the city and county are critical for the functioning of the community. Titles, deeds, marriages, divorces, births and deaths all are to be stored in this warehouse. Some of these records go back over a hundred years, and need to be retained indefinitely. Loss of some of these records could be devastating.

In 1973, a fire in St Louis destroyed the official military records of many Army and Air Force veterans. Alternate sources of records were used to reconstruct some of the data, but many WWI and WWII veterans were impacted because their service records no longer existed.

Katrina and Rita caused loss of many records. Some of them can be reconstructed by sources such as the records of loan companies, title insurance companies, etc. but that will take time and will delay reconstruction. Some records and their copies were completely destroyed. The rebuilding of this data caused unexpected problems. The tragedy of Katrina and Rita continues in unexpected ways.

The good news is that most new records are digital. Your marriage, divorce, automobile license, drivers license, property sales, etc. are all recorded electronically. There are some concerns that need to be addressed to prevent the data from being lost because of lack of a compatible program to read information in proprietary formats, but that can be solved.

The paper records we have are a different story. They can be lost because of a number of natural or man-made problems. Simply copying them on paper or microfilm and sending them off to another place is a very expensive process. There is a better solution. These documents can be scanned and converted to digital format. Once that happens, the records take up much less room and copies can be stored remotely easily. Once a record set has been scanned, verified, and backed up remotely the paper record can either be returned to the archive or recycled and the space used for new records.

If we do this right our records will be safe.

Monday, May 08, 2006


WTOS held its assembly this past Sunday May 7, 2006. The purpose of this assembly was to introduce all the candidates to the WTOS and let them know that WTOS is here and is going to work for the community, holding our elected leadership accountable to insure that all areas of the city are treated equal.

If you have not heard of the WTOS, this is a brief description: The West Texas Organizing Strategy, a coalition of 60 congregations and schools across the region, supports the families of our communities who face economic, social and cultural pressures. WTOS member institutions believe strong families are the foundation of the prosperous society and will work to ensure family needs are addressed so all can share in the prosperity of our community, holding our elected leadership accountable.

The candidates present for this assembly to answer questions and give their support to the citizens and to the WTOS to support the goals of the communities were Debbie Albert, John Fields, Jon Mark Hogg, Sonny Shapiro, Daniel Cardenas and Johnny Silvas. All of the candidates stated that they would support the WTOS and would work toward equal and prosperous communities within San Angelo. All the candidates said that it was important to take action on areas that are in need and clean up the areas that are unsafe for adults and children and to provide City services in the Rio Vista and Blackshear communities that have gone undone for a long period of time.

It is time for change! The citizens of San Angelo are the ones that can make that change start. Stand up and be counted. The way to do this is to go and vote for the candidate that you feel will support your community, take an active part and insure that all areas of the city are treated equal. Only you can do that! VOTE.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Power and People

The City government, along with Siemens, is looking at building a power plant that would by powered by city trash. The trash would be first be sorted and processed to remove metal and some other recyclable materials before being fed to a gasification plant. The resulting "syngas" would then be used as fuel in a modern electric generation plant that could produce a minimum of 10 megawatts. The power would then be sold to large commercial customers signed to long term contracts. Goodfellow Air Force Base is one of the customers mentioned. A unique feature of the proposed plant is that the waste methane produced at the land fill and waste treatment plant would be used as part of the fuel in the gasification and power plant.

There are a number of reasons why this is being considered. Land fills are expensive to create and maintain. Our land fill, like most, produces problematic levels of methane that must be dealt with either through a flare or use in project like this power plant. The end result of the process will take up much less room than the original trash, and will be inert. The separated metals and some of the other materials can be sold to recycling companies. The electricity will be sold which will bring in revenue, which could even result in lower taxes.

There are potential downsides. There could be problems with pollution. Special attention needs to be paid to the initial separation so that hazardous materials don't end up in the plant. This will require closer monitoring than a conventional power plant. There are also concerns that this could make different approaches such as a Zero Waste Programs harder to implement or promote. They even go so far as to say that plants such as we envision could be obsolete about the time the loan is paid off.

This project is going to take some time to complete. The permitting process alone could take a couple of years. Add on construction, inspection, etc. and we are looking a few years down the road before the first watt of power is produced. If the concerns and requirements of the EPA and TCEQ can't be met, the project will never be built.

This project is about one way to handle trash without spending a lot of taxpayer money. The amount of power produced probably wouldn't power 10% of the homes in San Angelo. The wind generation project that the Commissioners Court is persuing could eventually power the concho valley and still sell energy to major markets like Dallas and Houston.

This issue is still young. We will be following and analyzing it here and have started a reference page on our website.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Transporting Neighbors

A resolution was passed by the city council to consolidate the cities transit system with the CVCOG rural transit system. This is the beggining of merging the two systems into one consolidated system serving both markets.

The potential for savings and service improvements is significant. This will eliminate administrative overhead and improve flexibility which should mean better service for all public transportation customers at a lower cost.

This is another good neighbor moment.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Risk Assessment and Gas Wars

Sort of a random thoughts piece here. I'm going a bit astray of strictly local issues, but as these items have been in play in the local news so much, perhaps I can be forgiven.

The Standard-Times has run several articles on the "bird flu threat", I guess the tipping point was an ad for a made-for-TV movie that appears to try to scare the socks off viewers. I have a bit of insight here, my Father was Head Virologist, later State Veterinarian for North Carolina. My high school science fair project, breeding E Coli to be resistant to antibiotics would probably be considered biological warfare by the Homeland Security people, might today land me in a basement of Gitmo.

We are several iterations of mutation from seeing this flu become easily transmissible human to human. There are less than 220 deaths wordwide attributable to it, and its lethality could very well be inflated by the fact that in the third world many people do not go to a doctor until they are at death's doorstep. No one knows or can know how many cases came and went as more or less normal and unreported influenza.

In that America has more people die in a typical month from slipping in the shower than have died worldwide from H1N5 since it first appeared, this disease is not high on my list of things to worry about, BUT, just in case, I am totally prepared for it. Have enough canned goods on hand to live without personal contact with others for, say a month. If you do not get within sneezing distance of a possibly infected vector, you will not catch the dread bird flu in the unlikely event it does mutate. The Spanish influenza of WWI fame arose out of a perfect storm scenario where tens of thousands of wounded soldiers were cheek to jowl in less than sanitary field hospitals, then once the flu started in that incubator, the infected soldiers were sent packing to the far corners of the world, putting infectious vectors all over the landscape. A better launch point for a pandemic could not have been designed by our worst enemies, and the Spanish flu ended up killing more people than the war had.

Seriously folks, this is way overblown as a threat. I'm sure it sells newspapers and it assures nobody asks too many questions when CDC asks for a supplemental approriation of a billion or so bucks, but if you want a realistic worry, worry about whether Stephen King will have a new novel ready for beach reading season.

Gas wars: Get REAL! If you are as old as I am, you remember 30 cent and less gasoline. I remember filling up the parents' LTD and getting change from a five dollar bill. I also remember minimum wage then was $1.10. Adjust for inflation, and that 30 cent gas would be $2.75 in today's money. WOW!, it's 20 cents higher than that, or, again adjusting for inflation, the equivalent of 32 cent gas in '68. We are spoiled rotten energy hogs. My caution here; the last time the government "helped" us through a gas crunch, we ended up with gas lines and alternate buying days, if one could find any. You may recall, all that went away almost overnight as soon as the government quit "helping" us. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

By the way, I have zero personal interest here, I only buy gas for lawnmowers. My vehicle runs on propane and the highest I've paid is $1.85.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Letter on Tennis

I received this letter on the tennis situation and post it here for your information and comments. The only changes are some minor spelling corrections.

Dear Editor,

As an individual who has promoted tennis since 1993, I appreciate your work in identifying the history regarding efforts to improve tennis in San Angelo. However, I would like to add two points that support the need for improvements. A report distributed in Feb. 2001 by Carter-Burgess, a consulting firm hired by the City at a cost of $92,000, ranked 33 activities that needed improvement in San Angelo, based on surveys and national standards. The top five HIGH priority items include (1) playground/playground equipment (2) restrooms (3) picnic shelters/pavilions (4) hike/bike trails (5) lighted tennis courts (6) lighted baseball fields (7) lighted outdoor baseball fields (8) open spaces (9) natural areas (10) lighted softball fields.

A second consultant hired by the City at a cost of $10,000, MHS Planning & Design, prepared a "Needs Analysis For Sports Facilities For the City of San Angelo." The first paragraph of the "Conclusions & Recommendations" area states: "Based on the needs assessment, interviews, standards and the existing sports facilities in San Angelo, there are sufficient game fields for baseball, youth softball, hockey, and soccer. There are shortages in tennis courts and adult softball fields. The consultant also recommended acquiring 8 acres for tennis courts at at market value, plus construct a 14-court tennis center with a Pro Shop.

Also, I'd like to make a correction. I did not resign from the Recreation Advisory Board in my fourth year due to the situation with the direction of the tennis complex. I was asked to resign by the mayor, or my name would have been placed on the agenda requesting my removal. I met the deadline to resign, but my name was placed on the agenda to remove me. Before the council meeting, a line was drawn through the agenda item.

It's been several months since I resigned, and the mayor and I have spoken on several occasions. I choose to work with the mayor in trying to find a way to reach the goal to improve tennis for ALL ages in San Angelo, especially for families who cannot afford the private clubs.

Your efforts are commendable. Thank you very much.

--Patsy Rainwater-Maddux