Wednesday June 15th, 2005

J. P. Morgan Chase to pay $2.2 billion to settle Enron class-action lawsuit…Autopsies issued for 11 victims of BP Texas City refinery blast…Texas Petrochemicals agrees to reduce emissions of toxic chemical by half… The nation’s third-largest bank–J. P. Morgan Chase–has agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit over its involvement with Enron. […]

J. P. Morgan Chase to pay $2.2 billion to settle Enron class-action lawsuit…Autopsies issued for 11 victims of BP Texas City refinery blast…Texas Petrochemicals agrees to reduce emissions of toxic chemical by half…

The nation’s third-largest bank–J. P. Morgan Chase–has agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit over its involvement with Enron. The bank was accused of helping Enron engineer an accounting fraud that bilked investors out of billions of dollars. The settlement has been confirmed by the bank and plaintiffs. It’s the largest settlement deal of lawsuits against banks, advisers and Enron executives connected to the energy trader’s 2001 bankruptcy. It also comes just four days after Citigroup, the nation’s largest financial services company, agreed to pay investors $2 billion to settle the lawsuit. The settlement marks the sixth made in the long-running Enron debacle.

Blunt force trauma was cited as the cause of death in the final 11 autopsies for victims of the BP Texas City refinery explosion in March. The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office released the reports, which were similar to four autopsies released last month. Fifteen people died and more than 170 were injured in the explosions. Local and federal investigations continue in the Texas City blast. More than a dozen people have joined in a lawsuit against BP. Blast injuries were cited as also playing a role in all the deaths but one. Smoke inhalation was listed as another factor in another death.

A Houston chemical manufacturer has agreed to reduce its emissions of a toxic chemical by half. Texas Petrochemicals will achieve the reduction in less than three years in a voluntary agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The chemical 1-3-butadiene–is sold to rubber manufacturers. State monitoring tests show that concentrations of the chemical were high enough at nearby houses and a park to increase chances of developing cancer. However, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cannot say which nearby plant is responsible. Goodyear and Exxon Mobil, other plants in the area, also emit the chemical, as do automobiles traveling on nearby highways.

The Department of Homeland Security’s point man on infrastructure security says voluntary safeguards aren’t enough to keep the nation’s largest and most dangerous chemical plants safe from terrorist attack. Robert Steffan has been testifying before a Senate committee today in support of legislation that would set mandatory federal benchmarks for plant security. Steffan says the administration is most concerned about 272 plants that could be used as weapons of mass destruction. Of that number, there are 33 plants that are considered high-risk. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Susan Collins of Maine says the “potential for tragedy is more than a hypothetical.” Ranking Democrat Joseph Leiberman of Connecticut says the plants present “a clear and present danger”–and it’s clear they are an attractive target to terrorists.

IBM has purchased Houston-based IT consulting company Healthlink for an undisclosed price. Healthlink provides information technology consulting services to some of the area’s largest hospital systems, including the Memorial Hermann Health System, the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System and Methodist Hospital System.

Energy costs climbed 5.7 percent in the Houston metropolitan area during May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U. S. Department of Labor. That’s after a 6.3 rise in April. The introduction of higher summer electricity rates accounts for the latest advance, pushing electricity costs up 19.4 percent during the month. However, gasoline prices fell 3.3 percent last month.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau says Houston will welcome 17 conventions, trade shows and other meetings to the city in July. The bureau says more than 18,000 attendees will spend as estimated $10.6 million in Houston during July. The conventions include the annual spring conference of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America, the Advanced Placement National Conference and the Connectional Lay Convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips has sold its 29 percent stake in Turkish fuel retailer Turcas Petroculuk in a $25 million deal. The Houston Chronicle says Turcas may pursue a merger with Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s Turkish unit.

The Federal Trade Commission has cleared Valero’s proposed $2.8 billion acquisition of Kaneb Pipe Lines Partners and Kaneb Services. The regulator says its approval was conditional on Valero’s selling assets in northern California, Pennsylvania and Colorado. San Antonio-based Valero is an oil-pipeline operator. It agreed to acquire Richardson-based Kaneb in November. Kaneb transports petroleum products. Last month, Valero said it had signed a consent decree with the FTC that resolved the agency’s concerns about the deal. A spokesman for Valero wasn’t immediately available for comment.

A landfill outside Philadelphia is closing after its owner decided not to appeal a state ruling that barred an expansion. That’s the word from Houston-based Waste Management, which operates the landfill. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last year told the company it couldn’t vertically expand the dump. So Waste Management says it’s decided not to appeal because its agreement with West Pottsgrove Township and Berks County requires that the landfill be closed by 2010. Officials say the landfill hasn’t been a significant contributor to Waste Management’s earnings over the past three years.

Weaver Davis & Jacob Realty Group has purchased 19 acres to develop a mixed-use property in Sienna Plantation, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Crossing at Sienna Ranch on Sienna Parkway, one mile south of State Highway 6 and across from Waterbrook West, will feature offices and office condominiums and retail space. This is the second retail development at Sienna Plantation.

A Louisville company has agreed to pay $2.15 million to settle a whistle-blower suit filed against a Texas firm it owns. ResCare is a mental health care provider. Spokeswoman Nel Taylor says it settled because legal costs were mounting and it wanted to close the matter. The suit claimed that Citadel had defrauded Medicaid by billing for times when clients were asleep or arrived late for training sessions. ResCare denied the suit’s allegations. A former Citadel employee, Jennifer Hudnall, will get $100,000 of the $2.15 million. Hudnall filed the suit after working only a few weeks for the company. She claims she was fired for protesting the company’s billing practices. About $625,000 will go toward her attorneys’ fees and other lawsuit costs. Texas will get just over $1 million and ResCare is to pay $405,086 to the federal government. The suit was filed in 2001.

The White House says an ex-official who altered government reports to minimize humankind’s impact on climate change didn’t leave because of the controversy. Press Secretary Scott McClellan says Philip Cooney’s departure was long planned and “unrelated in any way” to the furor. Prior to joining President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality, Cooney was an oil industry lobbyist. And yesterday, Irving-based Exxon Mobil announced it has hired Cooney for as-yet-unspecified duties. Environmentalists attacked Cooney after documents were published showing his alterations overruled language supplied by government scientists–and downplayed a link between human activity and global warming. The administration maintains there’s substantial uncertainty about a link. McClellan says the charge that Cooney was just doing the oil industry’s bidding is “absolutely false.” Top Democrats say the job move by Cooney is evidence of the “revolving door” between the White House and big oil companies.

Southwest Airlines is getting more serious about moving its operations from Seattle International airport to Seattle’s in-town Boeing Field. Boeing Field is a 77-year-old airport operated by King County. The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer report the airline is interested in finding ways to reduce costs and expand the number of flights in Seattle. With 40 landings a day, the Dallas-based low-cost airline has the fourth-largest presence at Sea-Tac, behind Alaska Airlines, Alaska subsidiary Horizon Air and United Airlines. But yesterday’s reports are sure to cause controversy because of the potential for more noise at Boeing Field and the loss of revenue for Sea-Tac. Sea-Tac recently spent $4 billion to increase its capacity in part to accommodate the growth of airlines such as Southwest. King County Councilman Dwight Pelz tells the Times that Southwest’s idea “is a terrible idea.”

The state of Texas is suing “Smiling Bob.” The State Attorney General’s Office announced today that it’s joining five states and the District of Columbia in suing Cincinnati drug marketer Steve Warshak. Attorney General Greg Abbott says the lawsuit filed in a Dallas state court seeks to halt sales and fraudulent free “trial offers” of unapproved drugs Warshak’s companies sell. Among those drugs is Enzyte, a drug heavily promoted on television by the “Smiling Bob” character as a male enhancer. A statement from Abbott’s office contends Warshak’s companies promote 15 products nationwide with advertising gimmicks. It says Warshak’s commercials resemble those of genuine drugs. Sued with Warshak are his firms: Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, Lifekey Incorporated, Boland Naturals Incorporated, Warner Health Care and Wagner Nutraceuticals. Also suing Warshak are Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Oregon. No comment yet from the companies. Federal authorities confirmed in March that they’ve frozen $23.5 million in Warshak’s personal accounts.