Tuesday AM October 31st, 2006

CSB releasing recommendations and preliminary findings in Houston this morning...Commerce Department reports smallest increase in personal spending in ten months...Study finds ATM fee charged to non-accountholders hits record for third consecutive survey...

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Chairperson Carolyn Merritt and Lead Investigator Don Holmstrom will release new safety recommendations and preliminary findings from the March 2005 fatal BP Texas City refinery explosion investigation at a Houston news conference this morning. Internal documents show budget cuts and a lack of leadership contributed to significant safety problems at BP's Texas City refinery. In preliminary findings, the CSB says BP management knew about maintenance, spending and infrastructure problems well before the explosion. Board chairwoman Carolyn Merritt says BP did respond before the explosion with a variety of measures aimed at improving safety. She says that while the focus of many of the moves was on improving compliance and reducing work injury rates, "catastrophic safety risks remained.'' She says "unsafe and antiquated equipment designs were left in place, and unacceptable deficiencies in preventative maintenance were tolerated.'' BP officials say they're surprised by the findings. They say they hope the federal board's final written report will further explain them. Last December, BP's internal report blamed the blast on failures by management at the refinery--saying it didn't make safety a priority, tolerated risks and failed to communicate. But BP added that it found no evidence of anyone consciously or intentionally taking actions or decisions that put others at risk. Fifteen people were killed and 180 people injured in the March 2005 explosion. BP's top refinery executive has said under oath he didn't know of serious safety concerns until the explosion. The explosion occurred when faulty sensors did not warn of gathering vapors near a unit that boosts the level of octane in gasoline. The vapors ignited as the unit was starting up. The CSB concluded that the unit had a history of problems and that the explosion could have been prevented or minimized.

A review finds health care premiums in Texas rose nearly seven and a-half times faster than working families incomes over the past six years. Details are in a report from a consumer health advocacy group. Families USA of Washington says the cost of health insurance rose nearly 80 percent between 2000 and 2006--while median earnings rose just 11 percent. The report released in Austin is based on information from federal agencies. The group also says both employers and workers are facing higher costs for their share of the premiums. Families USA, which promotes universal health coverage, says premiums rose even though Texas families are receiving fewer benefits and paying higher co-payments and deductibles. The Associated Press reports about 5.5 million Texans--or one in four residents--lack health insurance. That's the highest rate in the nation.

The Commerce Department says personal spending rose just one-tenth of one percent in September, the smallest increase in ten months. Consumers were shelling out money for big-ticket goods such as cars and appliances but cut spending on nondurable goods, like food and clothes. By contrast, personal incomes rose one-half of one percent in September. That's the biggest increase since June.

It's costing you more these days if you use an ATM at a bank where you don't have an account. The latest bankrate.com Checking Account Pricing Study finds the fee charged to non-accountholders for using a bank's ATM, hit a record for the third consecutive survey. It now stands at $1.64--up four cents from last spring and a dime from a year ago. The good news is that fewer banks are charging their own customers for using another bank's ATM. Meanwhile, if you bounce a check, the average fee charged by financial institutions is at a record high $27.40. That's a dime more than you'd have paid this spring. Experts says signing up for overdraft protection, ideally linked to a savings account, is a low-cost way to avoid bouncing checks.

Houston-based Sterling Construction had sold its Pittsburg-based distribution business for $5.1 million to Ohio-based Bostwick-Braun. Sterling is a civil construction company specializing in building and reconstructing transportation and water infrastructure, including highways, roads, bridges and light rail, as well as water, wastewater and storm drainage systems.

Houston-based Enventure Global Technology has acquired Triad Pipe and Steel of Houston for an undisclosed sum, according to the Houston Business Journal. Enventure delivers expandable tubular and drilling management. Triad supplies tubular goods for the energy industry.

Duke Energy Corporation says it'll name its natural gas business Spectra Energy Corporation when it spins the unit off on its own. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke has been running the business under the temporary name of Gas Spinco since June. That was about a year after it first proposed spinning off the natural gas business from its electrical business. Houston-based Spectra will operate primarily in three sectors of the natural gas industry: transmission and storage, distribution, and gathering and processing. Once the separation is complete, Spectra Energy will include the business unit now known as Duke Energy Gas Transmission and Duke Energy's 50 percent stake in Duke Energy Field Services.

Simulation software firm Computational Engineering International of North Carolina is setting up an office in Houston, according to the Houston Business Journal. Clients use CEI's products to manage oil reservoirs and analyzing complex flow physics for the space shuttle. The company is targeting oil and gas, aerospace, construction, medical and other Houston industries.

Continental Airlines is introducing new gourmet menus on its international flights for business class. After six months of development and taste-testing, Continental finalized four different lunch and dinner menus to rotate monthly and vary by region. A typical BusinessFirst five-course menu on international flights includes an appetizer, salad, choice of four entrees, cheese and fruit service and dessert. Continental says it is the only major airline to continue to serve complimentary meals in coach.

Clear Channel Communications said today its third-quarter earnings fell 11 percent. The nation's largest radio station operator blames higher expenses and the sale of some operations that generated profit in the year-ago period. The report comes as the San Antonio-based media company considers whether to sell all or parts of itself. It reports net income for the July-to-September period of $185.9 million. Revenue gained seven percent to $1.79 billion--beating Wall Street estimates of $1.78 billion. Radio revenue rose five percent on higher selling prices for national advertising. Outdoor rose eight percent. Last week the company's board said it hired Goldman Sachs to review "strategic alternatives.'' Analysts say that could include a sale of the company to a private equity firm or the founding Mays family. Clear Channel also sells advertising on billboards and bus stops.

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...