Wednesday PM February 17th, 2010

Pasadena Fire Chief reports on Tuesday night chemical leak from Air Products and Chemicals plant…Federal Reserve predicts another two years of high unemployment…Motorists continue getting break at the pump…

Plant officials are investigating what caused a chemical release at a Houston-area plant that forced neighbors to stay indoors for a couple of hours. An orange cloud was seen above Pasadena after Tuesday night's release, prompting emergency personnel to order a shelter-in-place. Pasadena Fire Department Chief Lanny Armstrong says some motorists who drove through the orange cloud called for help.

"The initial reports were the release of a product called nitrous oxide, or NOX. We were pretty certain. We had some difficulty identifying the product, but once we did identify the product, there was a hazard to the public. Fortunately for us, after some research, the product itself has a very, very high vapor pressure, which dissipates very rapidly."

That chemical turned out to be nitric oxide, which is considered dangerous, and not laughing gas. Air Products and Chemicals, in a statement Tuesday night, said a pipe leak resulted in the formation and release of the vapor cloud. The statement says there was no fire and nobody was hurt at the unit, which did not suffer significant damage. There were problems in law enforcement being able to quickly identify the chemical, and plant manager Jacques Joseph apologized for the inconvenience. Armstrong says officials are evaluating the notification system.


The Federal Reserve predicts unemployment will stay high over the next two years because recession-scarred Americans are likely to stay cautious making for only a moderate-paced economic recovery. Fed policymakers say it will take "some time" for the economy and the jobs market to get back to normal. And, a minority think it could take more than five or six years for that to happen. Previously, Fed policymakers suggested it could take five or six years for economic conditions to return to full health. In updated economic projections, the fed says the unemployment rate this year could hover between 9.5 percent and 9.7 percent. Next year, it will drop to between 8.2 percent and 8.5 percent. By 2012, the jobless rate will range between 6.6 percent and 7.5 percent.


President Barack Obama says the emergency legislation he signed a year ago to help the struggling economy has saved at least two million jobs and avoided a deeper recession. Speaking on the first anniversary of the >strong>American Recovery and Investment Act, Obama said that embracing the $787 billion measure "wasn't a politically easy decision," but said he had no choice. He conceded that too many people still are in need of work and many more are struggling to pay bills. But Obama also chided critics. He said that many of the same lawmakers who assailed the stimulus bill "showed up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies in their districts." But Obama also acknowledged that current economic conditions don't "feel much like a recovery" to those who are still hurting.

Vice President Joe Biden is asserting that taxpayers have "gotten their money's worth" out of the $787 billion stimulus program that Congress passed during the depths of the recession. In an interview broadcast on CBS's The Early Show, Biden defended the program against accusations by Republican critics that it hasn't been the job-manufacturing machine the administration promised to the American people. He argued that money invested in both private and public-sector initiatives has saved as many as two million jobs, and said, "I don't think they realize it." Biden said the program, now a year old, was designed to be implemented in two stages, saying "we've only been halfway through the act."

U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas is critical of the stimulus bill, saying hundreds of billions of dollars later, unemployment is still in the double digits, with near four million Americans without jobs.


Industrial production rose 0.9 percent in January, the seventh consecutive monthly increase as manufacturers help lead the nation's economic recovery. The Federal Reserve reports that January's numbers rose in all three major categories: manufacturing, mining and energy utilities. That's the first such show of strength since August 2009. It says manufacturing rose 1.0 percent, while mining and utilities each gained 0.7 percent. The results are a more meaningful sign of economic progress than December's number, which the fed revised up to 0.7 percent from the 0.6 percent reported earlier. That increase was driven by weather-related increases in utility production, while manufacturing posted a 0.1 percent loss.


Housing construction posted a better-than-expected increase in January which pushed activity to the highest level in six months. The solid gain raised hopes that the construction industry is beginning to mount a sustained rebound from its worst slump in decades. The Commerce Department said that construction of new homes and apartments rose 2.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 591,000 units. That was better than the 580,000 annual pace that economists were forecasting. Applications for building permits, considered a good barometer of future activity, fell 4.9 percent to a rate of 621,000, but that was after two months of large increases.


Texas leaders will review five percent budget cutting proposals offered by agencies as the state faces a potential 2011 shortfall of up to $16 billion. Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus set a February 15th deadline for agencies to offer plans to trim their budgets, although Monday was a federal holiday. The Texas Education Agency is proposing $135.5 million in cuts, including science lab grants and funding for steroid testing. TEA also proposed eliminating the $1 million it would cost to continue steroid testing for student-athletes competing in university interscholastic league events. An exemption is sought by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to allow the prison system's budget cuts to total $50.4 million. Corrections authorities say no exemption would mean the Texas prison system would have to trim about $294 in spending.


The federal deficit through the first four months of the budget year is running at a record-breaking pace even though the deficit in January was slightly smaller than expected. The massive tide of red ink reflects the continued fallout from a deep recession and a severe financial crisis. It highlights the formidable challenges President Barack Obama will face in trying to get the deficit down to more manageable levels. The Treasury Department said that the deficit for January totaled $42.63 billion. That left the total of red ink so far this budget year at $430.69 billion, 8.8 percent higher than last year when the deficit soared to an unprecedented level of $1.42 trillion.


The government's mortgage relief plan has helped about 12 percent of borrowers who signed up since President Barack Obama announced the program a year ago. The Treasury Department says that as of last month, about 116,000 homeowners had completed the application process and had their loan payments reduced permanently. That compares with more than a million homeowners who started the process. More than 61,000 homeowners have dropped out so far, either because they failed to make payments or didn't return the necessary paperwork. Treasury officials say they are working with the mortgage industry to speed up the approval process.


Toyota is thinking about issuing another recall--this time, it's the hot-selling Corolla subcompact. There have been complaints about problems with the power steering. The world's largest automaker already is reeling from a string of recalls for safety problems. A Toyota exec says details of what may be wrong and the number of cars that could need repairs are still unclear. Meanwhile, Toyota's president says he won't attend a U.S. Congressional hearing on the automaker's safety lapses. In a news conference, he said his company's U.S. executives will answer lawmakers' questions on the massive gas pedal recalls.


Motorists are getting a break at the pump. Gasoline prices continued their month-long slide, falling to a new low for 2010. Auto club AAA says retail gasoline prices hit a nationwide average of $2.61 per gallon and fell below $2.40 in parts of the country, including Ohio, Oklahoma and Missouri. And the Energy Information Administration says gas prices averaged nearly $2.61 per gallon Monday, down 4.4 cents from a week ago. Benchmark crude for March delivery rose $2.88 to settle at $77.01 a barrel on the NYMEX.


Students in the Career and Technical Education programs in middle schools and high schools throughout the Galveston Independent School District are taking part in CTE Career Fair activities through tomorrow. The events emphasize the importance that career and technical education play in preparation for the workforce. CTE prepares students for jobs while still in, or just out of, high school. Ball High in Galveston, for example, offers 11 out of 16 CTE-approved "career clusters," including classes in hospitality, engineering, health science, welding and auto mechanics.


The union representing ground workers at American Airlines wants to take a big step toward a strike against the nation's second-largest airline. The Transport Workers Union said it will ask federal mediators to let the employees walk away from contract talks if there is no deal by March 8th. If federal mediators agree, the workers could go on strike 30 days later in early April, although the president or Congress could block a walkout. The issue could become a test of the Obama administration's handling of labor issues. The union represents 28,000 American Airlines workers, including mechanics and bag handlers, and has been negotiating over a new contract since 2008.


A Texas energy company convicted of illegally storing hazardous mercury in a rundown Rhode Island building has asked a federal appeals court to throw out an $18 million penalty. A federal judge in October fined Southern Union $6 million and ordered it to pay an additional $12 million for storing the mercury without a permit in Pawtucket. The mercury was exposed to the public in 2004 after vandals broke into the building and dumped containers of the hazardous liquid at a nearby apartment complex. Southern Union says in a filing with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the fine was "grossly excessive" and far higher than the punishment it says is handed out for more egregious behavior. The penalty was stayed while the company appealed. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.


Anadarko Petroleum expanded the role of Chief Operating Officer Al Walker by naming him president. The job had held by Chairman and CEO Jim Hackett and the company said that Hacket will hold onto those titles. Walker joined the Houston company in 2005 as a senior vice president chief financial officer, eventually rising to COO in early 2009. Anadarko said he was instrumental in handling acquisitions in 2006 and sale of assets that gave the company the means to pay down debt. In June of 2006, Anadarko said it would pay $21 billion to acquire two smaller competitors, Kerr-McGee and Western Gas Resources three months later, it sold its Canadian subsidiary for about $4.24 billion, and then its interest in 28 Permian basin oil fields in West Texas for $1 billion.

The flow of money into the exploration of the Marcellus shale natural gas formation is continuing. Japanese investment house Mitsui announced it is taking a $1.4 billion stake, or 32.5 percent, in Anadarko Petroleum's Marcellus shale assets. Anadarko has interests in more than 700,000 acres in northern Pennsylvania, and is the largest leaseholder in Pennsylvania's state forests. Mitsui says it expects to invest up to $4 billion in the venture. Anadarko anticipates drilling more than 4,500 wells in the coming years and producing up to 460 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. About 1,100 Marcellus shale wells have been drilled.


The run of the London production of Lucy Prebble's play "Enron" has been extended at the Noel Coward Theatre. It was set to end on May 8th, but will continue withy a new cast until August 14th. That's the ninth anniversary of the whistle-blowing letter from Sharon Watkins to Enron founder Ken Lay that precipitated Enron's collapse. "Enron" is set for a Broadway run in the spring.


The Federal Trade Commission says it is cracking down on con artists who target the unemployed with bogus job placement and work-at-home scams. The Consumer Protection Agency has asked federal courts to shut down seven entities charged with peddling such schemes and to freeze their assets. The agency says the Justice Department is pursuing criminal action in 44 additional cases and state attorneys general are pursing 18 more. The agency is also increasing its efforts to educate job-seekers on avoiding the scams. FTC officials say any ad that promises a job in return for a fee or promises a business opportunity in return for an up-front investment is likely fraudulent. The FTC is also releasing educational videos in English and Spanish about job scams.


A privacy watchdog group has complained to federal regulators about Google's new Buzz social networking service, saying it violates federal consumer protection law. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed its complaint with the Federal Trade Commission just days after Google altered the service to address mounting privacy concerns. Since launching Google Buzz as part of Gmail a week ago, the search company has come under fire for automatically creating public circles of friends for users based on their most frequent Gmail contacts. Over the weekend, Google altered the service to merely suggest contacts for its users' social networks. Despite the changes, Epic argues that privacy violations remain because Google automatically signs up Gmail users for Buzz, rather than waiting for them to do so themselves, or "opt in" for the service.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...