Friday PM February 8th, 2008

Search for bodies continues at Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia...Three former El Paso Corporation traders convicted for manipulating natural gas prices by reporting false data...Houston new home construction fell 30 percent in fourth quarter; sales fell 16 percent...

Firefighters have recovered three bodies from a sugar refinery near Savannah, Georgia. And they're searching for the remains of at least three others. A large explosion last night injured dozens of workers and left the huge plant in flames. Officials say three bodies were found in tunnels beneath a building that was reduced to rubble, twisted beams and mangled metal. Crews have been clearing debris so they can move farther into the plant, even as efforts to put out the remaining fires continue. A spokeswoman for an Augusta burn center says 15 fire victims are in critical condition, and three are in serious condition. Authorities believe 95 to 100 people were working in the area of the blast. More than 50 people were taken to hospitals and some airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, Georgia, 130 miles up the Savannah River. The plant is owned by Sugar Land-based Imperial Sugar and is known in Savannah as the Dixie Crystals plant. The CEO of the plant's owner says it appears to have been a sugar dust explosion. The blast injured dozens of people and set the waterfront plant on fire. The blast was felt by residents throughout the Savannah suburb of Port Wentworth, Georgia.


President Bush says he'll sign the $168 billion economic stimulus package sent to him by Congress, even though it's more money than he asked for. Acting just hours after the Senate, the House voted to expand the list of rebate check recipients so that 20 million seniors and a quarter million disabled veterans get checks worth $300. Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it's vital to get the checks into the hands of Americans quickly. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says the IRS will work on two fronts, dealing with the tax returns Americans are filing, and also issuing the rebate checks as early as May. He says everybody who is eligible for a check should get one by the summer. Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas praised the bipartisan effort. The president praised the measure, calling it robust and broad-based. He also says it is proof Republicans and Democrats can work together when Americans expect it. The measure makes clear that illegal immigrants are not eligible for the checks.


Three former El Paso Corporation traders have been convicted of charges related to their efforts to manipulate natural gas prices by reporting false data. That's the word from U.S. Attorney Don Degabrielle in Houston. He says a federal jury in Houston convicted them after three days of deliberations and a trial that lasted two months. El Paso's former head of natural gas trading, James Brooks, was convicted of one count of conspiracy, 22 counts of false reporting and 22 counts of wire fraud. Wesley C. Walton was convicted of one count of conspiracy, 11 counts of false reporting and 11 counts of wire fraud. James Patrick Phillips was convicted of one count of conspiracy, ten counts of false reporting and ten counts of wire fraud. Each man had been on trial for 49 counts of conspiracy, false reporting and wire fraud related to accusations of reporting bogus trade data used to calculate natural gas index prices. Each man faces up to five years in prison per count and are set for May 23rd sentencing. Until then, they're free on bond.


Venezuela's oil minister denied today that the state oil company has had $12 billion in assets frozen by court orders obtained by ExxonMobil. Rafael Ramirez tells reporters that the courts have frozen just $300 million in cash. He calls that a "transitory measure" while state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela presents its case in New York and London. The Irving-based oil giant is seeking to challenge the nationalization of an oil project in the South American country. Ramirez is also PDVSA's president. He accuses ExxonMobil of employing "judicial terrorism'' and says its efforts in court have no direct effect on Venezuela's oil operations. President Hugo Chavez last year nationalized four heavy oil projects in the Orinoco River basin, one of the world's richest oil deposits.


New home construction fell 30 percent in the fourth quarter in Houston, and sales fell 16 percent, according to MetroStudy. The housing analyst says builders are whittling down excess inventories and interest rates have declined. Home starts in the Houston area for the year fell 24 percent to 38,117 units. Sales were down 11 percent in 2007. Starts of homes prices below $150,000 have dropped 41 percent since the fourth quarter of 2006, according to MetroStudy.


Retail gasoline prices have fallen for a fourth week in a row across Texas. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey shows the average price of regular self-serve at pumps in 11 Texas cities is $2.87 per gallon, less than a penny less than last week. Nationally, the average fell a penny to $2.97 per gallon. Houston's average is down a penny-and-a-half, to $2.85 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says gasoline inventories are at a 14-year high because of falling demand. She says that suggests that consumers are driving less because of a weakening economy. Corpus Christi has the lowest average price of regular self-serve at $2.82 per gallon. That's five cents less than last week. Austin-San Marcos has the state's most expensive gasoline at $2.90 per gallon, still two cents less than last week.


The U.S. Labor Department is pressing for civil contempt against an Illinois human resources firm it says botched lawsuit settlement payments to former Enron employees in 2006. The agency says Hewitt Resources failed to adhere to a court-approved allocation plan for the first wave of payments. The firm misallocated $22 million of the $89 million distributed, resulting in overpayments and underpayments. Another $218 million collected in settlements remains to be paid out. The mistake left the fund with a shortfall of more than $9 million that cannot be recovered from adjusting the second round of payments. These pay-outs are separate from another shareholder action that resulted in $7.2 billion in settlements.


Results reported by the nation's retailers for the month of January are providing the latest evidence of the strain being experienced by the consumer. A measure of same store sales growth was up just 0.5 percent. The International Council of Shopping Centers says that's the smallest gain ever recorded by the group, with records going back to 1970. Between high food and gasoline prices, the housing slump and credit crunch, there's no shortage of culprits. Weakness was seen across all key categories, ranging from Wal-Mart to Nordstrom and Macy's. Wal-Mart noted in its news release that gift card redemptions were below expectations and that customers appear to be holding gift cards longer and "using them more often for food and consumables rather than discretionary purchases."


A dealer says Chrysler plans to significantly reduce its product lineup and number of dealerships as the automaker rolls out a new corporate initiative. Alan Helfman is vice president of River Oaks Chrysler Jeep in Houston. He says Chrysler has told dealers it could cut its number of models by as much as half and reduce the number of dealerships selling its cars by as much as a third. It's part of an effort to boost efficiency. A Chrysler spokeswoman declined to comment. But the company says in a statement that it plans to align Jeep and Dodge product offerings under one roof. The company says it's made no final decisions on dealerships or products. Chrysler is restructuring after a majority stake in the automaker was sold last summer to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.


The 22nd annual Houston Hispanic Forum Career and Education Day is set for tomorrow at the George R. Brown Convention Center. U.S. Representative Gene Green will deliver opening remarks.


Baker Hughes in Houston says the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. dropped by eight this week--to 1,755. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,731. Texas gained 13 rigs this week.


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