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Greg Palast reports on a surprising series of coincidences 17/5/01

Any fantasy that a CEO has can come true if you put enough money into Bush's political ambitions.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the lobbyist's money has found its mark.

For George W Bush's run for the White House, Texas energy giants ponied up $50 million. The return on their investment, changes in government rules worth over $5 billion. They didn't have to wait for Bush's election. Payback began right here, while Bush was still Governor. Welcome to toxic Texas. A 15 mile ride through a forest of smoke stacks on the edge of Houston, the place famous for pumping out pollution, profits and the political donation that helped put George W Bush into the White House. Let's go down and take a look. When it comes to pollution, Texas is champ, the number one state in emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals. This mile-long cloud of smoke and flames 200 feet high erupted out of a Houston cracking plant. They're burning off a ruined batch of toxic chemicals after a hydrogen line snapped. This sort of accident is common this side of Houston, where poisonous smoke rains on local neighbourhoods. And it's not just visible emissions locals have to worry about. LyNell Anderson lived in the shadow of the Houston smoke stacks. Her mother and father died too young, bone cancer and lung disease, and LyNell became suspicious. She started taking air samples after an ethylene leak caused a local high school running team to collapse on the track. Lab analysis of her bucket samples have found carcinogens in the air way above legal limits.

Ah, we've got a good sample. That's an excellent sample.

She has since found out that local lung cancer cases are twice the normal rate. She took us on a toxic tour.

They don't want to pay to have them disposed of properly.

What are you doing?

I'm smelling something. Do you smell it?

Oh, yeah. It's disgusting, but tell me what it is we're smelling.

It's hydrogen sulphide. It's that rotten eggs smell. Do you smell it?


That's what it is, it's hydrogen sulphide.

Are they supposed to be releasing hydrogen sulphide?

No. They're not supposed to be releasing anything. Offsite chemical impacts is what they're not supposed to have. In other words, they're supposed to stay within their fence line.

How do the polluters get away with it?

Vending machine governors in the citizens' view is, when the lobbyists put the money in, they get what they paid for out, and that is relaxed regulations. So it's just an ongoing war with the corporations. They don't care what their neighbours think. They don't care if their neighbours die.

This is the home of America's petrochemical industry, including the nation's biggest refinery, Exxon's plant in Bay Town.

Exxon is on my radar screen.


Because they're the largest emitter in Harris County and they have the worst attitude of any corporation I've witnessed.

Exxon wouldn't accept that, and neither would George Bush. As Texas Governor, Bush quietly set up a committee, led by Exxon, with other oil and chemical companies to advise him what to do about the state's deadly air pollution. Regulators wanted compulsory cuts on emissions of up to 50%. This secret committee, instead, proposed making the cuts voluntary. Bush steered the polluters' plan through the state legislature. Texas anti-corruption law makes it illegal to donate money to Bush as Governor while such legislation is under consideration, but that month, Bush declared for President, making the $150,000 donated by committee members and their representatives legal. The bill passed and pollution did go down by 3%, saving the companies hundreds of millions of dollars compared to the compulsory cut. And there's been a bonus for the chemical industry donors since Bush became President. He's quietly restricting public access to estimates of the number of people who will burn or die in case of a catastrophic explosion near these plants. On a clear day, you can see downtown Houston. This is Enron Field, new home to the Houston Astros, $265 million, including the sliding roof. You've never heard of Enron Corporation? They're America's number one power-trading team and they know you can't win the power game unless you play the political game, and they're the champs. No-one has given more money to the political campaigns of George Bush than Enron. Let's go and see if we can find their headquarters. The biggest power traders are on this corner. Is this it? No, Elpaso. Elpaso is in a little trouble. They're under investigation for manipulating the California power market. Luckily they gave $750,000 to the Republican campaign. This it? No, that's Reliant, $600,000 to the Republicans. Oh, Mr Ferish's building. He gave $140,000 and Bush made him Ambassador to Great Britain. The guy that got France put up $400,000. Let's see, Dynergy, only $300,000. There's a new building. Maybe that's our boys. Investigations are proceeding into profiteering by power traders during the California energy crisis and blackouts. The state of California has accused Elpaso Corporation and Dynergy of restricting the flow of natural gas through the pipeline from Texas, creating an artificial shortage causing prices to go up ten fold. On December 14, President Clinton ordered an end to speculation in energy prices in California which bit into the profits of Elpaso and Dynergy and Enron and Reliant too. But they were betting on another horse. Between them they gave $3.5 million to Bush and the Republicans. Reliant told us:
"Frankly, we feel some candidates' philosophies will benefit the company, its stock holders and its customers more than will others."
Three days after his inauguration, Bush swept away Clinton's anti-speculation orders. Profits for these power traders are up $220 million in the first quarter. After Bush lifted the controls, Enron's profits jumped $87 million. Not a bad return on political contributions of $1.8 million. We skidaddled out of the big city, following the Bush money trail 200 miles west into the mesquite, ranches and cowboy country. But there's a big hole on the range where the deer and the antelope should be playing. See that lovely scar down there? That's a lignite strip mine. It's about the filthiest fuel you can burn. It feeds the Alcoa aluminium plant. I wonder what it's like to live next to that thing? Alcoa is facing a demand to cut emissions by 50%. That would have meant replacing the cheap and dirty lignite with clean, but expensive natural gas. But within a month of the vote on Bush's voluntary pollution law, a train with a law firm pleading Alco's case to regulators gave $170,000 to the Republican campaign. Coincidence? Alcoa denies any link. They told us they exert no control over the legal and lobbying firms they retain. In sleepy Rockdale, its rancher Wayne Brinkley faces the fallout. Why don't you clean that thing, buddy.

Well, you can't get it off. It's got potash from the plant. It won't come off. I've tried to wash it. It just won't come off. If you notice the roof over there, it's rusty and that's coming from the plant. I tell you one thing, if that tree ever dies from the pollution, I will be mad.

Too late for that one.

The tree line right here is the edge of the property and the mine's on the other side of the tree lines. And then you can see where the plant is located right here, which is east of us. And you can see the smoke coming out of there now. There's sulphur burning. It burns your eyes. There's just a lot of pollution comes out of that plant. They don't want to do anything about it.

And there will be no point going to the environmental protection agency. Newsnight has discovered deep in Bush's new budget, the $1 million fund for civil enforcement to deter pollution will be axed. Law enforcement will be left to locals and in Texas, the weak state watchdog is letting Alcoa open a new lignite pit 20 miles away. Now other ranchers are coming to Wayne's to see what they're threatened with.

Hello, Billie.

Hey Wayne, how's it going?

Billie Woods is on the front line. So, you have a little hole near you. I mean, you've got to have aluminium in this country.

It's not a little hole. It's 250 feet deep. They close roads. They pump out all the water. My well will go dry. They run their operations 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. I will no longer be able to see stars at night from the lights. I run a stable that is dependent on the serenity of the area.

Alcoa's former chief, Paul O'Neill, is making new friends. Bush named him secretary of the US Treasury, so he has to sell off his Alcoa shares. He'll get about $100 million. Alcoa made a $100,000 contribution to the Bush-Cheney inaugural. They said it was in honour of Paul O'Neill. He's also on Vice-President Dick Cheney's energy group. Apart from Paul O'Neill, the committee includes Bush's commerce secretary, Don Evans. He was CEO of Tom Brown Inc, a billion dollar oil and gas company. And energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, a motor industry favourite. They gave him $700,000 last year. And Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, former boss of Halliburton, the world's largest oil services firm. And, what a coincidence, today, the Cheney group recommended building more nukes, drilling more oil and burning more coal. Our hunt for the secret behind Bush's astonishing fundraising prowess eventually led us to the Texas state capital. Executives of the big banking firm MBNA invested $3 million in George Bush's political career. Their boss, Charles M Collie contributed $70,000 himself.

What did they get? One of the first pieces of legislation to go through Congress under President Bush is a bankruptcy bill that protects MBNA, the largest manufacturer and seller of credit cards. Citizens in this country can no longer write off credit card debt when they file for bankruptcy. Collie bet early and often that Bush would some day be in the White House and deliver on his favours.

Wall Street analysts put MBNA's gain at $75 million. Collie is a pioneer, not the kind that lives in a little house on the prairie, but a member of a special club set up by George Bush.

He put together this network of what they call the pioneers. A group of 400 people, most of them corporate executives who pledged to raise a minimum of $100,000. That network alone delivered over $40 million.

But what did they get in return? We went into the capital to ask a real pioneer the tough questions. Tell us about chaps?

No, they're not chaps, they're "shaps". They're spelt c-h-a-p-s. But I'm in the ranching business. That's what a Texan does.

Senator Teel Bivins is a power in the Texas legislature. One of the founding pioneers along with Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron Corporation. George W gave the Senator his nickname.

I'm Biv. I said Teel Bivins and he said, "Biv, how are you?" and that's it. I've been Biv ever since.

So, if Americans want to be on first-name terms with the President, do they have to pay for it?

The reality is individuals in a country with 300 million people have very little opportunity to speak to the President of the US.

Well, Ken Lay, who was a pioneer, has had direct access to the President as a member of the transition team advising the Governor on energy matters, including those issues in California which made Enron a very profitable corporation that year. He's had access, as a pioneer.

So, you would not have direct access if you had not spent two years of your life working to get this guy elected President, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars? You dance with them, what brung ya?

This is the model for Bush's America. For Bush's planet. It's all in Cheney's energy announcement, another Pioneer pay day.

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