Tuesday AM October 10th, 2006

Settlements within site in BP Texas City blast...Texas creates partnership to update medical records system, lower insurance prices for small business...Lundberg Survey: Retail gasoline prices continue downward trend...

An attorney representing more than 100 plaintiffs in litigation with BP over the Texas City refinery explosion expects all his cases to be settled within ten days. Tony Buzbee is working with 52 federal cases and 59 more pending state court cases. He says three other cases were just settled. BP attorney Kenneth Tekell says the company has settled 950 lawsuits. The settlements could mean that BP Chief Executive John Browne might not have to give a deposition in the federal cases, but a decision is pending on whether he would be deposed in state court. A state action against BP is set for trial on November 7th in Galveston. State District Judge Susan Criss is hearing arguments about whether Browne should be compelled to appear. The blast occurred when faulty sensors failed to warn about gathering vapors near a unit that boosts the level of octane in gasoline. The March 2005 Texas City refinery explosion killed 15 workers and injured hundreds of others.


Governor Rick Perry has issued an executive order to create a partnership to try to ensure the health-care industry uses technology better. The Texas Health Care System Integrity Authority will be tasked with: creating a secure electronic medical records system; finding ways to lower insurance prices for small employers; and helping Texans comparison-shop for doctors and hospitals. Perry says the partnership will consist of consumers, employers, health-care providers, insurers and government agencies. He says creating an electronic medical records system would help doctors quickly know patients' allergies and existing health conditions so they can best treat them in an emergency. Perry also announced a new Web site to allow Texans to compare health plan benefits, research doctors and hospitals and study the average length of stay and death rates for certain procedures. Perry is in a heated four-way race for re-election, opposed by Democrat Chris Bell and Independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman.


As another round of winter heating bills approaches, the Bush administration is proposing new home furnace standards. But critics say the rules won't produce much savings for consumers. The new standard, which would go into effect in 2015, sets minimum efficiency levels for widely used natural gas furnaces at 80 percent. That's a slight increase over the requirement issued nearly 20 years ago. Energy-efficiency advocates say virtually all of the furnaces now on the market already meet that standard, so industry will have little incentive to make improvements. They want to boost the requirement for gas furnaces to 90 percent efficiency.


Retail gasoline prices are continuing their downward trend. According to the Lundberg Survey, prices dropped nearly 15 cents a gallon in the past two weeks. The national average for self-serve regular was about $2.28 a gallon on Friday. Mid-grade prices averaged $2.39 a gallon, while premium cost $2.50. Gas prices peaked August 11th at $3.02 and have dropped nearly 75 cents since then.


The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered El Paso Corporation to clean up the site of abandoned mercury mines north of San Francisco. A subsidiary of the Houston-based company must start removing mercury-laden mine tailings. El Paso became responsible when it bought Colorado Oil & Gas. The mines were active between 1870 and 1971.


League City-based wireless broadband products and services supplier ERF Wireless is acquiring the assets of Lake Jackson-based NetYeti, the wireless broadband division of PCCare, according to the Houston Business Journal. NetYeti does business as 36db.com.


Duke Energy Field Services is changing its name to DCP Midstream. The name pays homage to ConocoPhillips and Duke Energy, the two parent companies. DEFS is based in Denver, formed by combining the natural gas gathering and processing businesses of Duke Energy and a subsidiary of Houston-based ConocoPhillips.


On the heels of a nationwide recall of E.-coli-contaminated spinach, there's now a callback involving lettuce. There's concern this may also involve E.-coli contamination. However, Nunes Company in Salinas, California says the lettuce does not appear to have caused any illnesses. Three deaths have been linked to the tainted spinach. The company has initiated a voluntary recall of green leaf lettuce purchased last week under the Foxy brand name. Foxy is one of the nation's largest suppliers of lettuce, celery, broccoli, vegetable platters and stir-fry mixes. The recall covers lettuce purchased in grocery stores October 3rd through the 6th in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Another E.-coli concern, this time with ground beef in seven states. The government says an Iowa company is recalling about 5,200 pounds of ground beef products distributed in Texas, as well as in Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York and Wisconsin, and to one retail establishment in Iowa. The meat is suspected of having the same E.-coli strain responsible for three deaths in the recent outbreak of contaminated spinach. The government said no illnesses have been reported from consumption of the beef subject to the recall. An Iowa firm--Jim's Market and Locker--produced the ground beef patties between August 31st and September 1st.


Houston-based Russell Industries has completed its acquisition of 54 uranium and vanadium mining claims in Utah, according to the Houston Business Journal. Vanadium is used to strengthen steel. Russell Industries plans to mind the claims in 2007.


Lovett Commercial has purchased 41 acres on Texas 6 South for industrial, commercial and residential use. Hoover Material Handling will take up the industrial portion, making giant containers for transporting bulk liquids and dry products. Valve-maker Dresser moved out of the space in the past year as it consolidated four locations into one facility in Port Northwest near U.S. 290 and FM 529.


A Seattle marketing and communications company is adding a Houston office, according to the Houston Business Journal. Solid State Information & Design is leasing space on Lago Bend Lane, offering communications design services.


Charming Charlie is opening two new outlets in Houston, at Memorial City on the Katy Freeway in the Hedwig Village Shopping Center and on West Grand Parkway in Katy. Charming Charlie is a high-fashion accessories retailer, offering necklaces, bracelets and rings. Last year, the retailer opened stores in The Woodlands on Highway 242 and in the Champions area on FM 1960.


American Airlines announced today a deal to let members of its Admirals club use more than 750 office centers run by the Regus Group. Regus Group provides furnished offices and conference rooms for temporary use in 60 countries under names including Regus and HQ Global Workplaces. American Airlines is a unit of Fort Worth-based AMR Corporation.


The Christmas shopping season will get under way a little earlier this year--at least on the Internet. A study conducted for shop.org finds that more than a third of multi-channel retailers--those who use the Internet and stores or catalogs--will start their marketing campaigns earlier than they did last year. And nearly two-thirds plan to have their promotions up and running by November 4th. That's in keeping with consumer trends that show about 35 percent of shoppers will start their gift-buying by Halloween. Eighty-three percent of online retailers will offer shipping promotions this year, including free or discounted shipping. Two years ago, only 64 percent of online retailers offered free shipping with conditions.


The pumpkin crop looks scary this Halloween season. Farmers and agriculture experts in New York--the country's traditional pumpkin-growing leader--say wet weather has cut crops by up to 75 percent. Summer rainstorms led to mold, fungi and rot. Some farmers said just 25 percent of their pumpkin crops are usable. Others estimated yields of about 75 percent. The pumpkin harvest season runs through the end of the month.


Exxon Mobil plans to spend more than $40 million next year on training programs for U.S. teachers, funding academies and summer camps revolving around mathematics, science, engineering and technology. The corporation will also support a University of Texas campaign to convince engineers and mathematicians to pursue teaching careers. The program is designed to stem to decline in numbers of engineering and geology graduates.


The National Institutes of Health has named researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University as recipients of the inaugural Quantum Grant. The three-year, $2.9 million grant is for research into regeneration of damaged brain cells and blood vessels for the treatment of stroke.


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