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Wednesday PM December 9th, 2009

Explosion and fire injures two at American Acryl plant…CSB issues new safety regulations in wake of Citgo chemical fire in Corpus Christi… TCEQ approves air-pollution permit for proposed expansion of coal-fired power plant…



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A fiery explosion rocked the American Acryl plant this morning along Port Road in the Seabrook area. Joe Goins is general manager of American Acryl.

“At approximately 8:45 this morning, Central Standard Time, an explosion and fire occurred at the American Acryl production facility, which is located at 4293 Bayport Road in Pasadena, near Seabrook, Texas. The resulting fire is extinguished, the site is secure, the emergency is over. The cause of the incident is unknown at this time. They will be thoroughly investigated. All employees have been accounted for. Two American Acrylic employees have been transported to the hospital for evaluation. One has been released, the other is being evaluated.”

Those injured employees were taken to Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital with flash burns and breathing problems. Black smoke from the plant near the Houston Ship Channel could be seen for miles. Live TV coverage showed gaping holes in a multistory tank at an industrial complex. April Newberry, who lives a half-mile from the site, told KTRK-TV that she heard a loud boom, “all of the houses shook and everybody went out in the street to see what happened.” Shelter-in-place orders were lifted at nearby schools by noon. American Acrylic produces chemicals used in industrial and consumer products.

Federal investigators have issued urgent new safety recommendations after a Citgo refinery accident in Texas that led to the release of tons of a deadly acid. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged Citgo to improve its emergency water systems in case there’s another accident. In July, a cloud of hydrogen fluoride was released and caught fire in Corpus Christi. That fire led to the release of 21 tons of the gas. The United Steel Workers Union and the Sierra Club have been urging the ban of HF at U.S. refineries. The CSB wants Citgo to improve the water systems and to institute third-party audits at refineries in Corpus Christi and Lemont, Illinois. Citgo says it has already implemented many of the measures announced today.

State environmental regulators have approved an air-pollution permit for a proposed expansion of a Central Texas coal-fired power plant. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality commissioners approved the permit in Austin that would expand the NRG limestone plant. Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG Energy proposes to build an 800-megawatt generating unit in Limestone County near Jewett, 100 miles south of Dallas. NRG says the plant would burn pulverized coal to fire its boilers. The Sierra Club and other environmental activists opposed the permit. The project is part of NRG’s $16 billion plan to add 10,500 megawatts in electricity generating capacity over the next ten years. A megawatt is enough power to serve between 700 and 1,000 homes.

Businesses unexpectedly added to inventories at the wholesale level in October, breaking a record string of 13 straight declines. It was a hopeful sign that companies will begin restocking depleted store shelves, helping to bolster the fragile economic recovery. The Commerce Department says wholesale inventories rose 0.3 per cent in October. Economists had expected a 0.5 per cent decline. Sales at the wholesale level rose 1.2 per cent in October, also stronger than the 0.7 per cent rise economists expected.

Departures among the nation’s chief executive officers is down nearly 18 per cent from last year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. So far this year, 1,122 CEOs have left their posts, compared to 1,361 departures announced through November 2008. Hospitals and other health care providers saw the highest turnover in November.

President Barack Obama has been meeting with a bipartisan delegation from Congress, following up on his call for additional government action to improve the nation’s employment numbers. Congressional leaders met with Obama in the White House’s cabinet room to hash out differences over the president’s plan to use money from the $700 billion financial bailout program to bring down the ten per cent jobless rate. Obama proposes new spending for highway and bridge construction, for small business tax cuts and for making homes more energy efficient. He wants to extend unemployment insurance and to help laid-off workers keep their health insurance. Lawmakers estimate a jobs bill could cost $150 billion, or even more.

The House has passed a bill extending $31 billion in popular tax breaks, including an income tax deduction for sales and property taxes. The 45 tax breaks would be financed from a tax increase on investment fund managers and a crackdown on international tax cheats. The tax breaks are scheduled to expire at year’s end. The House voted 241-181 to extend them for a year. The bill now goes to the Senate, which has rejected the tax increase on investment managers in the past. Tax breaks that would be extended include a sales tax deduction for people in states without income taxes, a property tax deduction for people who do not itemize and lucrative credits that help businesses finance research and development.

Only about 10,000 homeowners have received permanent loan modifications under the Obama administration’s mortgage relief plan, evidence of continuing woes for the government’s effort to stem the foreclosure crisis. That means fewer than two per cent of the 650,000 homeowners enrolled in the program as of October had their mortgage payments permanently lowered to more affordable levels. The results spotlight the limited success lenders are having in getting borrowers through the trial period, according to an oversight panel report. The Treasury Department is expected to release updated numbers through November on Thursday.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says the administration is extending the $700 billion financial bailout program until next fall. In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Geithner says the extension is “necessary to assist American families and stabilize financial markets.” Money from the $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout program has helped rescue big Wall Street firms, auto companies and others. That’s angered many Americans, who feel the government hasn’t provided them with relief from high unemployment and rising home foreclosures. Geithner says the program will be extended until October 3rd, 2010.

The panel overseeing the financial bailout is offering a mixed assessment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The watchdog panel says the $700 billion helped prevent an all-out panic last fall. It says confidence in the nation’s financial system has improved, “access to credit is increasing, and the economy is growing.” It notes that some of the funds are being repaid and the final cost of the emergency financial policies is “likely to be significantly lower than previously expected.” But the panel’s report also points to ongoing problems in the financial system, including limited credit, ongoing bank failures, continued weakness at some large banks, escalating job losses and foreclosures, and the banking system’s continued reliance on government support. The panel’s chair notes that Congress set goals for the bailout that “went well beyond short-term financial stability.” Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren says “by that measure problems remain.”

Bank of America says it has repaid the entire $45 billion it owes U.S. taxpayers as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Bank of America funded the repayment through a combination of cash on hand and the sale of $19.29 billion of securities that would convert into common stock. The stock increase remains subject to shareholder approval. Repayment of the funds frees the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank from the government restrictions that have hampered its search for a new CEO, including executive pay limitations. Bank of America has been searching for a successor to CEO Ken Lewis since it announced in late September that he planned to retire on December 31st.

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement chief says his staff is targeting Wall Street rating agencies and their role in the financial meltdown. The three dominant agencies–Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings–have been widely criticized for failing to give investors adequate warning of the risks in subprime mortgage securities, whose collapse touched off the financial crisis. SEC enforcement director Robert Khuzami told a Senate hearing that his staff is “looking very closely at credit rating agencies” and is “focused on that area.” Khuzami says a 2007 law empowers the sec to bring enforcement actions against rating agencies based on false statements they may have made.

A top American Airlines executive says the carrier is seeing a pickup in both leisure and premium travel, at least on international routes. Beverly Goulet, treasurer of American parent AMR Corporation, says advance bookings through February are flat with a year ago. She says international bookings are up nearly three per cent but bookings in the United States are weaker. American and other airlines have been raising fares, including surcharges for peak travel days, and other fees. Goulet told an investor conference in New York that the strategy seems to be working. Goulet says AMR is “modestly encouraged” by the revenue trends.

Qatar’s ruler says natural gas prices are too low and wants gas prices to be linked to the price of crude oil. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani told a meeting of gas exporting nations in the Qatari capital that oil’s rebound this year, after it collapsed last year from nearly $150 per barrel, has not been mirrored in the price of gas. The emir, whose country sits atop the world’s largest natural gas reserves, wants the 11-member state gas exporting countries forum to devise a mechanism linking gas and oil prices. Gas prices have fallen as world stockpiles have surged amid weak demand stemming in part from the global economic crisis.

The president of bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America and three former managers are each seeking a piece of a $1 million corporate insurance policy for legal costs stemming from a salmonella outbreak. The nationwide outbreak sickened about 700 people and has been linked to at least nine deaths. It was traced to the company’s plants in Georgia and Texas. According to federal court filings, Peanut Corporation President Stewart Parnell is seeking the largest amount, $951,000. Three former managers at the Georgia plant also are seeking funds for legal costs. Two former board members asked for unspecified funds. A settlement approved Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon gives $125,000 to the company’s estate for claims made in bankruptcy court.

An analysis released by the Brookings Institution think tank finds immigration is buoying many of the nation’s larger cities. Texas in the last decade has seen population gains due to steady immigration, as well as diverse economies in big cities and an increase in residents from Louisiana after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The figures highlight the stakes involved in the 2010 census, which is used to apportion U.S. House seats and distribute federal aid. Texas previously stood to gain four House seats and Arizona two seats, based on earlier population trends of sunbelt growth during the housing boom. But with U.S. mobility now at a 60-year low, Texas may add just three seats and Arizona one.

AT&T says it is boosting its top available broadband speeds in Austin, San Antonio and St. Louis in preparation for a wider rollout. The company says its new U-verse high speed Internet Max Turbo tier will provide downloads at up to 24 megabits per second and uploads at up to three megabits per second. The new tier will be available where AT&T has upgraded its phone lines to carry its U-verse TV and data service. Max Turbo will cost residential customers $65 per month when bundled with TV. Previously, the top download speed available on U-verse was 18 megabits per second.