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Wednesday June 21st, 2006

Expansions planned at South Texas Project nuclear plant…UTMB advised to cut 1,000 jobs by summer’s end…Jeff Skilling asks for new Enron trial… Two new nuclear-powered generation units are planned for the South Texas Project in Matagorda County between Palacios and Bay City. NRG Energy’s Steve Winn says the expansion will create thousands of construction jobs […]

Expansions planned at South Texas Project nuclear plant…UTMB advised to cut 1,000 jobs by summer’s end…Jeff Skilling asks for new Enron trial…

Two new nuclear-powered generation units are planned for the South Texas Project in Matagorda County between Palacios and Bay City. NRG Energy’s Steve Winn says the expansion will create thousands of construction jobs and 500 permanent operator jobs per unit.

“Direct jobs specifically for NRG are likely–well, for NRG and for STP–are likely to be between 1,100 and 1,200 total. On top of that there’s, you know, jobs in the surrounding community and construction jobs that occur. At the peak of construction across the whole set of facilities, you know, the number is sort of between 3,000 and 4,000 peak construction jobs.”

The company has filed a request with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new units at the South Texas Project at a cost of $5.2 billion. NRG owns a 44 percent stake in the nuclear plant. Winn says this may be the first of many nuclear construction programs nationwide.

“While we may have made our decision to do so in a shorter time frame than others, there’s actually been a number of other energy companies around the country who have also submitted the same letter of intent we have. I think the sort of publicly announced number is nine, but I think there’s actually substantially more who have, you know, registered with the NRC their intent to file an application. We’re definitely not the only one. We do feel that we’re on sort of the leading edge of what’s likely to be a wave. And we’re, the sort of most far advanced of any of the ones that might occur in Texas.”

It’s part of a plan by NRG to build 10,500 megawatts of new power generation capacity nationwide in a ten-year, $16 billion expansion.

“That’s right. You know, the first units–the first gas units which are smaller and easier to build–will be online we hope in 2008. The coal plant would be online in sort of 2012, if everything stays on target. And with the nuclear units, our expectation is 2014 and 2015. We’re looking at building some new gas capacity in the Houston zone–between 500 and 1,000 megawatts and an 800 megawatt pulverized coal plant. While we build that we’re also gonna both upgrade and scrub a couple of our other units to improve the overall environmental efficiency of those units.”

The company plans to invest $1.2 billion to build a new coal-fired unit at its Limestone plant, creating 1,000 construction jobs and 100 operator positions. And there are plans to expand capacity at the Parish plant near Houston.

The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has been advised to cut as many as 1,000 jobs by September 1st by Chicago-based Navigant Consulting. That would be ten percent of UTMB’s work force. The staff reductions would be accomplished through attrition and layoffs in the plan, which has yet to be adopted by UTMB officials. It’s part of a three-year strategy to cut expenses and generate revenue. UTMB eliminated 800 jobs in 2003 when it faced a $50 million cut in revenue for two consecutive years. The facility cut about 560 positions in the late 90’s. UTMB is Galveston’s largest employer, with more than 13,000 employees. The state-supported institution provides inpatient and outpatient care, and conducts research, trains doctors and nurses and other health care professionals.

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, convicted last month of fraud and conspiracy along with Enron founder Ken Lay, has asked U.S. District Judge Sim Lake to set aside the verdict or grant him a new trial. Defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli says the evidence presented at the trial was “legally insufficient.” Petrocelli said in his motion that prosecutors unfairly relied upon Global Galactic, the list of improper side deals between two other former Enron executives presented in trial as approved by Skilling. Skilling was found guilty on 19 of 28 counts and Lay was found guilty on six charges and four personal banking charges. Sentencing for the two is set for October 23rd. Skilling or Lay have not yet filed an appeal.

Minimum wage workers won’t be getting a raise anytime soon. A plan to hike the current rate of $5.15 an hour fell eight votes short in the Senate today. Democrats back the increase, but Republicans call it a job killer. Although some states have a higher minimum wage, the federal rate has been the same since 1997. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy says if enough of his fellow Democrats win this November, and take control of the Senate, a minimum wage hike will be one of the first things they’ll consider.

Memorial Hermann Health Care System plans to offer sports medicine research at its new medical plaza under the name of Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens. The Memorial Herman Medical Plaza is currently under construction in the Texas Medical Center. The Roger Clemens Institute for Sports Medicine & Human Performance will also offer education, nutrition, conditioning, biomechanics and massage, as well as surgery. Clemens plans to be hands-on in the development of the facilities and the programs. Clemens and his wife have personally pledged $3 million toward a new pediatric wing and therapy room at children’s Memorial Herman Hospital.

Lawsuits have been filed accusing hospitals in four states–including Texas–of secretly exchanging payroll information to keep nurses’ wages low. The suits were filed by a Washington law firm on behalf of individual nurses in Albany, New York; Chicago; San Antonio and Memphis, Tennessee. They allege human resource employees at several hospitals in the four areas phoned each other over at least the past four years to trade detailed information on wages. Named in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Antonio are Hospital Corporation of America, Vanguard Health System and Christus Santa Rosa Health Care. Preliminary estimates by the law firm claim nurses in the San Antonio area lost $1,300 a year. The lawsuits seek compensation for lost wages and damages.

The Harris County Commissioners Court and the Houston City Council have unanimously reappointed Jim Edmonds as chairman of the Port of Houston Authority Commission. PHA commissioners serve two-year terms without pay. Under Edmond’s leadership, the PHA received a U.S. Army corps of Engineers permit in January 2004 to begin construction of the Bayport Container and Cruise Terminals, to be built in phases to meet market demand. The facility is expected to create some 32,000 non-construction jobs. Completion of the first phase is expected in October.

The 2006 Houston Summer Boat Show is underway at Reliant Center through Sunday. This is the show’s 19th year, and it again features all types of boats, boating accessories and educational seminars ranging from basic boat maintenance to the latest fishing tricks and techniques.

AT&T said today it’ll build a fiber-optic network in a Houston subdivision now under construction. The network will allow the San Antonio-based phone company to sell television and high-speed Internet service to customers in about 20,000 new homes. The arrangement with Bridgeland subdivision developer General Growth Properties would mark the first expansion of AT&T’s video service outside San Antonio. AT&T says its first customers in Bridgeland should be hooked up this summer. Construction in the subdivision is expected to continue through 2020. In Bridgeland, AT&T plans to lay fiber-optic cable directly into customers’ homes. The company also has deals with builders of many other developments to build fiber networks to serve about 270,000 planned houses around the country. An AT&T spokesman says many of those will be a mixture of fiber-optic and copper phone lines. AT&T plans to begin service in 15 to 20 cities by the end of the year. AT&T rival Verizon offers TV service in a handful of north Texas cities.

BellSouth is denying that its merger with San Antonio-based AT&T would reconstitute the “Ma Bell” of old. The denial came today in a BellSouth filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Ma Bell” was the legally franchised, monopoly provider of circuit-switched telephone service during most of the 20th century. The filing by Atlanta-based BellSouth points out that “competition in those markets was a violation of the law.” It says the pending merger would create a company better able to compete across a range of converging and competitive services. Those services would include video entertainment, broadband, wireless and voice services. BellSouth says that since it isn’t a competitor of AT&T’s in the local, long distance or video markets, the merger won’t reduce competition in those markets. The planned $67 billion merger is expected to close by the end of the year if state, federal and foreign regulators approve.

Missouri state regulators are demanding to know whether AT&T violated consumer privacy laws by giving the Feds customer phone and Internet records. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports subpoenas served Monday require San Antonio-based AT&T to respond by July 12th with records and testimony by company officials. They were filed after the phone company announced last week that it would refuse to answer any questions. It says national security laws preclude it from revealing what it might have done. New Jersey’s state attorney general issued similar subpoenas last week. The Justice Department is seeking to block them. Missouri’s, New Jersey’s and other legal challenges set the stage for fights between the state and federal government over competing interests–that is, between civil liberties and national security.

The Houston area is getting about $14.5 million in federal money for hurricane-related grants. U.S. Senator John Cornyn announced the grant money one day after a storm dumped nearly one foot of rain in Harris County. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29th. Rita came ashore September 24th in southeast Texas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the Harris County Flood Control District is getting $6 million. The money will be used to help the district acquire and demolish about 80 structures in a 100-year floodplain to reduce future flood losses. Houston will get $6.6 million for utility costs rung up by thousands of hurricane evacuees between last September and April of this year. Pasadena will get nearly $1.9 million to acquire and demolish 20 structures in a subdivision prone to flooding.

An attempt to keep companies from reaping as much as $10 billion because of an error involving royalty payments is gaining momentum in Congress. The contracts involved deep-water drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The issue is to be the focus of two U.S. House panels tomorrow. Executives of Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Kerr-McGee are scheduled to be questioned by the House Reform Energy and Resources Subcommittee. Later, the House Resources Committee takes up legislation to impose financial penalties on any company that refuses to reopen faulty offshore leases that were negotiated in 1998 and 1999. The Interior Department at the time failed to include the required language that would have forced companies to pay the government royalties on oil and gas taken if prices reached a certain level.

Authorities say they’ve broken up a cattle-rustling ring that stretched across eight southeast Texas counties and stole up to $300,000 worth of livestock. Investigators say the operation is suspected in the theft of 289 cattle, including 17 cows and 30 calves owned by Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. They say the cows taken from Ryan’s China Grove Ranch in Rosharon in September have been returned, but the calves are still missing. Brazoria County Sheriff’s Investigator Jack Langdon says the operation began to unravel when ten cattle were stolen from a Navasota sales barn. The case broke open last week when a series of stolen cattle sales led investigators to a suspect. They say the suspect is a Brazoria County rancher who hasn’t yet been charged, but the investigation is ongoing and more arrests are possible.

Southwest Airlines will test assigning seats to travelers. Southwest travelers currently board in three groups, with priority given to those who get boarding passes first online or at the airport–up to 24 hours before the flight. Starting July 10th, passengers will be assigned seats on about 200 flights from San Diego. The seating program will continue for several weeks. The Dallas-based airline wants to know if assigning seats will slow down Southwest’s ability to unload incoming planes and board passengers for the next flight. Southwest is already updating its computerized reservation system to handle assigned seating and even international flights. Chief Executive Gary Kelly has said neither change is definite, and that Southwest won’t eliminate open seating until late next year–at the earliest.

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