Thursday October 6th, 2005

Explosion at Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort injures at least five…Hurricane jobless claims hit 363,000…Houston job fair matches employers with evacuees, other job seekers… At least five people received minor injuries after an explosion and fire at a coastal Texas plastics plant this afternoon. The blast happened about 3:30 p.m. at the Formosa Plastics […]

Explosion at Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort injures at least five…Hurricane jobless claims hit 363,000…Houston job fair matches employers with evacuees, other job seekers…

At least five people received minor injuries after an explosion and fire at a coastal Texas plastics plant this afternoon. The blast happened about 3:30 p.m. at the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort. It sent a pillar of black smoke into the sky. Authorities closed nearby roads, including the Port Lavaca Causeway, State Highway 35 and Farm-to-Market Road 1593. Elderly people in the small town were asked to shut off their air conditioners and residents were urged to stay inside because of concerns about air pollutants. The plant makes PVC and vinyl for floor and wall coverings. But it’s unclear what was burning. A Formosa spokesman says the plant has been evacuated. It’s parent company, Formosa Plastics USA, is based in Livingston, New Jersey.

The government says the number of people made jobless by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rose to 363,000 last week. The Labor Department says there were an additional 74,000 hurricane-related claims for unemployment benefits were filed last week. This report contains the first requests from victims of Rita. Overall, jobless claims rose by 21,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 390,000. Next comes word on the monthly unemployment situation, due from the department tomorrow. Analysts look for a rise in the jobless rate, and a decline in payrolls, reflecting the impact of the devastating storms.

A job fair has been underway at the George R. Brown Convention Center, and is open until seven tonight. The Destination Occupation Job Fair features some 200 employers, according to Sue Cruver with The WorkSource:

Sue Cruver audio 1

Cruver says job applicants might be willing to re-locate, as they re-build their lives. So even out-of-state companies like Disney have representatives at the fair:

Sue Cruver audio 2

The job fair is being held in conjunction with the Greater Houston Partnership.

Texas has been awarded $2.4 million as part of a $63 million Department of Labor initiative to strengthen state unemployment compensation systems. The grant will help in detection of improper benefit payments by matching claims data on government data bases.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse Texas $72.5 million for providing relief for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. That’s the word today from Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Some of the evacuees remain in hotels and other temporary housing around the state. About $48 million will go to Houston. That’s two-thirds of the FEMA grant to Texas. The rest will go to Austin and the state. About $1.7 million will compensate the state for use of the National Guard. Texas took in about 250,000 evacuees when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast August 29th. State lawmakers are still seeking reimbursement for the state for the evacuee education, health care and other costs.

Houston will use a $1.9 million federal grant to hire 100 displaced Louisiana educators to tutor students who fled Hurricane Katrina. Rodney Bradshaw, executive director of The WorkSource, says the grant is part of $74 million that Congress gave to Texas to find jobs for hurricane victims. He says tutors will work with evacuee students enrolled in Houston schools and earn up to $2,000 a month for six months. Communities in Schools, a non-profit school-support organization, will hire the tutors.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman says it will take up to six more weeks to get refineries shut by Hurricane Rita up and running. Bodman says electricity is just now coming back on. Full power has been restored to six of the seven refineries shut in the area along the Texas-Louisiana border. According to Bodman, once these refineries restart normal operations, there may be additional calls for crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Atmos Energy Corporation says North Central Texas residential customers could see a 60 percent to 90 percent increase in their gas bills compared to last winter. Dick Erskine, president of Atmos Energy’s Mid-Tex Division, says the increase is a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which disrupted about 15 percent of the country’s natural gas production. He says production was already tight because of growing demands from power plants and other users. Natural gas customers may also see increases with a cooler Texas winter. The past two winters have been warmer than normal. With a normal winter, the average customer could spend $690 during October through March. In comparison, it cost the average customer $367 during the same winter heating months last year.

Libya may ask foreign companies to help revive and expand output at fields that are losing production after more than four decades, according to Bloomberg. The North African country just completed a second round of oil and gas licenses. Nabil Khodadad is a partner in the London office of Chadbourne & Parke, representing some of the bidding companies.

Nabil Khodadad audio 1

Khodadad says U. S. companies have already re-staked their claims from the first round of bids, after President Bush began allowing investment in Libya once again.

Nabil Khodadad audio 2

Libya’s prime minister says he would allow foreign companies to own the oil and book reserves in production-sharing agreements. OPEC nations, including Kuwait, forbid foreign ownership of oil and gas reserves. Libya is trying to compensate for 11 years of oil field neglect caused by United Nations sanctions.

Consumers slammed by high gasoline prices and other impacts of the recent hurricanes appeared to be avoiding some mall-based clothing stores last month. The result was so-so sales numbers from retailers in general. Unusually warm weather may have also hurt demand for fall clothing. Discounters including Wal-Mart posted steady sales numbers, helped by demand for supplies like bottled water and batteries. The world’s largest retailer says sales at stores open at least a year rose nearly four percent, matching analyst expectations. However, apparel chains like Limited Brands and Talbots posted sales declines, seeming to indicate consumers are pulling back under the weight of the sharp rise in gas prices. A trade group says its tally showed a better-than-expected gain of four percent. But the chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers says that number fails to reflect how mixed the numbers truly were.

Hotels along the Gulf Coast are trying to make the transition from putting up hurricane evacuees to welcoming their normal business travelers. At least one chain is asking some evacuees to clear out to make room for people with reservations. Hilton Hotels says they were told when they checked in that room availability would dictate how long they could stay. Evacuees in Louisiana have the law on their side. An executive order signed last month bans hotels from kicking out any evacuees who guarantee payment. But there’s no such protection in Mississippi. An evacuee from Louisiana says staff at a Hampton Inn in Brookhaven told her they’d call the police if she didn’t pick up her belongings. But many hotels are letting evacuees stay. One worker at a Comfort Inn says it would be “morally wrong” to make them leave.

The American Red Cross is coming under fire for delays in distributing debit cards offered by the agency to storm victims. Some Hurricane Rita victims have been calling the agency’s toll-free lines to get the debit cards, worth $360, but report getting busy signals for hours and even days. Red Cross officials said they don’t know when the cards will be available. The processing centers in east Texas have not been set up. Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, Jr., says he thinks the Red Cross could be doing better on that. Griffith criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week for what he considered a slow response with aid after Rita struck.

Lexicon Genetics has been awarded a three-year contract with the National Institutes of Health worth at least $4.9 million. The Houston-based pharmaceutical company will provide 125 of its proprietary mouse cell lines, with embryos missing a particular gene that may hold the key to disease treatment. Lexicon makes genetically engineered mice to aid in human drug development.

Alaska’s oil and gas chief is threatening to revoke leases held by Exxon Mobil and other producers for not drilling in rich fields. Oil and Gas Division Director Mark Myers says Exxon Mobil has made a “mockery” of their obligation to bring oil and gas from Point Thomson to market. Irving-based Exxon Mobil is the largest leaseholder of the vast Point Thomson unit. The region is believed to hold eight trillion cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and condensed natural gas. But it has sat undeveloped for nearly three decades. Producers say it’s not commercially viable to develop Point Thomson–which is near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Exxon Mobil says developing Point Thomson isn’t possible without changing Alaska’s tax and royalty laws. The company says a gas pipeline from the North Slope is also needed.

Airline-sector stocks gained ground today amid optimism about a pension bill that stands to ease the financial pinch facing U. S. carriers. Shares are also getting a lift from another decline in oil prices. Shares in Fort Worth-based American Airlines parent AMR Corporation and Houston-based Continental Airlines led the charge. In midday New York Stock Exchange trading, AMR shares were up almost ten percent, while Continental advanced by about 11 percent. According to the latest version of a pension reform bill in the U. S. Senate, those two carriers would be given more time to pay off under funding in their pension plans. The same privilege was granted last week to Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines after those two carriers filed for bankruptcy protection. Despite record passenger volumes, many U. S. airlines are struggling in the face of unmanageable labor costs and high fuel prices. Those prices hit record levels in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A homebuilder compliance program has been put into effect by the Woodlands Development Company, according to the Houston Business Journal. Signs are placed at home sites specifying hours for construction and deliveries must be between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Contractors are not to block the street, make unnecessary noise or play music disruptive to residents. Contractors must remove trash daily.

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