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Monday June 20th, 2005

Investigations continue in weekend chemical plant death…Enron seeks approval to transfer PGE subsidiary to creditors…Developer hired to create master plan for Imperial Sugar refinery site… A man who had worked as a contractor at Bayer’s Baytown chemical plant since 1989 has died following an accident there on Saturday morning. A Bayer spokeswoman says external and […]


Investigations continue in weekend chemical plant death…Enron seeks approval to transfer PGE subsidiary to creditors…Developer hired to create master plan for Imperial Sugar refinery site…

A man who had worked as a contractor at Bayer’s Baytown chemical plant since 1989 has died following an accident there on Saturday morning. A Bayer spokeswoman says external and internal investigations to determine the cause were getting under way. The spokeswoman says there was no fire or explosion. She says it was an accident with a single employee. The employee, 57-year-old Salvador Barba, was injured and later died. Bayer says the man worked as a maintenance mechanic and was doing routine work in the plant’s plastics manufacturing area. Raw materials used in the automotive and construction industries are produced at the facility, which employs about 2,000 workers some 30 miles east of Houston.

In Oregon, Enron is seeking state approval to transfer its Portland General Electric subsidiary to creditors under a stock distribution plan. The bankrupt energy company is considering offers for PGE, including one from the city of Portland. Under the plan already approved by a federal bankruptcy judge, newly issued shares of PGE stock would be distributed to Enron creditors in phases, beginning in April 2006. PGE would be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and shares would be publicly traded. But PGE also needs approval of state regulators. The utility filed its plan with the Oregon Public Utility Commission on Friday.

The Arkansas Cemetery Board has ordered a Houston company to pay $37,000 in fines. The penalty against Cemetery Holdings arise from complaints of disrepair and water-sunken graves at four cemeteries it owns in Arkansas. Pine Bluff’s Memorial Park, Edgewood Memorial Park in North Little Rock and two cemeteries in El Dorado have been investigated by the state board for four months. All four properties are for sale, but Cemetery Holdings says burials will continue to take place for the next 90 days. It has 30 days to pay the fines to the state board. Chris Cranford, who runs Cranford Funeral Home in Pine Bluff, says he wasn’t sure a funeral scheduled for today at Memorial Park would proceed. He says his clients pay good money to a trust fund for cemetery maintenance and there’s no reason for poor conditions.

A developer has been hired to create the master plan for the historic Imperial Sugar site in Sugar Land, according to the Houston Business Journal. Richard P. Browne is noted for creating the master plan for George Mitchell and The Woodlands. Imperial Sugar reached an agreement in February to sell the 160-acre Fort Bend County site at Highway 90 and Highway 6 to Cherokee Sugar Land, a joint venture between W. C. Perry Land Development and Cherokee Investments Partners. Imperial Sugar decided last year to shutter the refining plant after operating a sugar refinery on the site for centuries. Meetings will be set up with neighborhood associations and businesses over the next several weeks before the master land plan is created late this summer.

A $2 million renovation project at the Wortham Center begins Tuesday. Morris Architects has designed a wider orchestra pit in the Alice and George Brown Theater, which requires closing all summer as contractors work to complete the project in time for the start of the Houston Ballet’s new season in September. The Houston Grand Opera also performs at the venue. The project is designed to increase performance space, improve ventilation and enhance acoustics in the orchestra pit. The Wortham Center is owned by the city of Houston and managed by the Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department.

The Texas Association of Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce will be holding its 30th annual convention and business expo in Houston this summer. Mayor Bill White made the announcement this afternoon with TAMACC President Carlos Mendoza. The event is set for July 27th through the 30th. The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau says it could draw between 3,000 to 3,500 attendees.

A research company that had planned to test a new radio audience measurement device in Houston has suspended operations, according to Research magazine. Plans to sell Atlanta-based Navigauge have fallen apart. The media and market intelligence company had planned to test its IQMonitor in a bid to compete with Arbitron and Nielsen Media Research.

Soaring crude oil prices are one reason cited by traders for a declining stock market today. Concern is growing about what kind of impact higher energy costs may have on the economy. Building on last week’s gains, crude oil futures are flirting with $60 a barrel. That has Wall Street worried higher prices at the pump could reduce consumer spending and slow economic growth faster-than-expected. A barrel of light crude has been higher on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The conference board’s latest reading of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators showed that the economy could already be slowing. The index for May dropped a-half percent, more than Wall Street had expected. The index was unchanged in April.

Houston-based energy research firm Raymond James & Associates has raised its oil price forecasts for 2005 and 2006 by 10.6 percent. The group also sees an environment of rising natural gas prices.

With oil marching to new heights of close to $60 a barrel, the president of OPEC says the group will consider raising its output ceiling by half a million barrels as early as this week. OPEC raised its output target by that amount last week, though the move appeared to have little impact on prices, which have risen by more than $10 a barrel in the past month. The market has been worried about limited refining capacity and rising demand for gasoline and diesel. Another development that brokers are watching is the threat of a strike by oil workers in Norway, the world’s third-largest exporter. A strike could begin as soon as Wednesday because of a salary dispute. It has the potential to slice the country’s daily output of three million barrels by a third. While oil futures are more than 50 percent higher than a year ago, they’re still below the inflation-adjusted high above $90 a barrel set in 1980.

Two-thirds of executives and investors polled at a recent energy conference held by RBC Capital Markets in Boston predicted that oil prices will peak at $62 a barrel and end this year at around $53. About half expressed concern that continued high oil prices could trigger an economic slowdown in the United States. Houston-based PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts a strong merger-and-acquisition climate during the second half of this year, led by independent oil companies.

A study finds there are significant gaps in the nation’s terrorism insurance coverage that could slow economic recovery after future attacks. A report from the Rand Corporation finds many insurance policies protect against foreign terrorists, but don’t cover losses caused by homegrown militants. The study also finds they don’t cover chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks–which are considered among the top threats for the U. S. Without insurance coverage, the study concludes a terror strike could heavily damage the economy because businesses would have trouble hiring and rebuilding again. The 9-11 attacks cost insurers at least $32 billion in claims and prompted many companies to exclude terrorism from coverage. Many companies now offer limited coverage after Congress approved a program to reimburse losses.

Boston and San Francisco remain the powerhouses of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. But a think tank analysis shows the Philadelphia and New York regions are closing in. The Milken Institute study was commissioned by Philadelphia-area biotech and economic development groups. The results of the study were released today in Philadelphia. The analysis ranks the Philadelphia area third among clusters nationwide. The New York City region was fourth, followed by: Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; San Diego; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Chicago; Seattle and Dallas. Houston was not in the Top Ten.

Two things mark the true beginning of summer in Texas–the heat and roadside stands selling homegrown watermelons. And Texas has plenty this year. A dry spring resulted in one of the best harvests in memory and may put Texas ahead of Florida and California this year as the nation’s top watermelon producer. Texas led the nation in 2003, harvesting 35,000 acres for a $68 million crop. Florida was second, with 24,000 acres for an $62 million crop. But last year’s crop value dropped to $61 million, compared to Florida’s to $67 million. Other leading watermelon producing states include California, Georgia, Indiana and Arizona. Edinburg farmer Tony A nderson attributed last year’s decline to hot weather and excess rain. He says too much water dilutes a watermelon’s flavor. South Texas weather this year has been ideal. With dry weather, growers could irrigate watermelon plants to give them the perfect amount of water. Relatively cool temperatures meant a slower, richer ripening of the fruit. Meanwhile, Florida’s watermelon crop is suffering. Southern fields were slow getting started, and then ripened just in time for a series of rains. That translates into better sales for Texas farmers like Anderson.

Offshore oil worker accommodations may soon match those of a cruise ship. A Dallas firm has built a floating hotel for Petrobras, a Brazilian oil company, that includes movie theaters, a pool, game rooms, a gym and shopping. The concept of flotels, as they’re called, isn’t new. They have been used for years to house workers and allow at-sea repairs of oil-production platforms. But industry labor demands have resulted in higher-end amenities for workers. Mike Mullen, the Dallas businessman who spearheaded the $74 million project, says happier personnel mean more efficient work, which ensures quality. He says it’s going to set a precedent for other companies

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