Australians find huge mega-wombat graveyard
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, June 21, 2012 7:27 EDT
Australian scientists Thursday unveiled the biggest-ever graveyard of an ancient rhino-sized mega-wombat called diprotodon, with the site potentially holding valuable clues on the species’ extinction.
The remote fossil deposit in outback Queensland state is thought to contain up to 50 diprotodon skeletons including a huge specimen named Kenny, whose jawbone alone is 70 centimetres (28 inches) long.
Lead scientist on the dig, Scott Hocknull from the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, said Kenny was one of the largest diprotodons he had ever seen and one of the best preserved specimens.
Pigeon-toed and with a backward-facing pouch large enough to carry an adult human, Hocknull likened diprotodon to “a cross between a wombat and a bear but the size of a rhinoceros”.
The deposit contained the largest concentration of mega-wombat fossils ever discovered and could hold important clues on how the diprotodon lived and what caused it to perish, he said.
“When we did the initial survey I was just completely blown away by the concentrations of these fragments,” he told AFP by telephone from the far-flung desert dig site, which he estimated at between 100,000-200,000 years old.
“It’s a paleontologists’ goldmine where we can really see what these megafauna were doing, how they actually behaved, what their ecology was.
“With so many fossils it gives us a unique opportunity to see these animals in their environment, basically, so we can reconstruct it.”
The mega-wombats appeared to have been trapped in boggy conditions at the site after seeking refuge there from extremely dry conditions during a period of significant climate change in ancient Australia, he added.
Diprotodon, the largest marsupial ever to roam the earth, weighing up to 2.8 tonnes, lived between two million and 50,000 years ago and died out around the time indigenous tribes first appeared.
Human and climate triggers for its disappearance are hotly debated.
A huge array of other animal bones have also been found at the site, including the teeth of a six-metre long venomous lizard called megalania and the teeth and bony back-plates of an enormous ancient crocodile.
“We’re almost certain that most of these carcasses of diprotodon have been torn apart by both the crocodiles and the lizards, because we’ve found shed teeth within their skeletons from both animals,” Hocknull said.
Towering super-kangaroos up to 2.5 metres tall called protemnodon have also been discovered at the location, along with the remains of tiny frogs, rodents and fish — an important find in what is now an extremely arid region.
“Very little is known about arid zone fish and their evolution, and finding a fossil record for them is amazing,” said Hocknull.
A relative of the modern-day wombat, the herbivorous diprotodon was just one of a host of megafauna to roam ancient Australia including the tree-sized kangaroos and gigantic crocodiles.
Megafauna are thought to have evolved to such large sizes to cope with inhospitable climates and food scarcity, with fossils found in Australia of prehistoric emus, tree-dwelling crocodiles and carnivorous kangaroos.
06/20/2012 05:49 PM
Same Parties in Charge: New Government, But No New Beginning in Athens
By David Böcking in Athens
Greece has a new government, ending weeks of uncertainty in the country. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras was sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday. But he could have formed his coalition with PASOK and the Democratic Left already after the first election in May.
Greek bureaucracy doesn't exactly have a good reputation at the moment. Neither are the country's politicians considered to be very efficient. But Germany's politicians could take a leaf out of the Greek parties' book when it comes to this week's coalition negotiations in Greece. On Wednesday, just three days after Sunday's election, a coalition government was formed consisting of the conservative New Democracy, the Socialists (PASOK) and the moderate Democratic Left (Dimar). The new Greek prime minister is Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, who was sworn in on Wednesday afternoon in Athens.
The success of the negotiations marks the end of weeks of uncertainty for the country and the rest of Europe, where leaders had feared that the left-wing Syriza alliance might win the election, causing the debt crisis to escalate and forcing Greece to leave the euro zone. For now at least, that danger appears to have been averted. In contrast to Syriza, all three parties in the new government broadly support Greece's bailout deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But there is little sense of a new beginning in Athens. After all, New Democracy and PASOK took turns in running the country for 37 years. Many voters blame them for getting the country into its current debt mess.
Flip-Flopping on Austerity
Theoretically the three parties could have already formed a government after the first elections on May 6. But back then they failed to reach an agreement, leading to new elections.
Thus, many Greek citizens have reacted to the new government with scorn. Greek blogger Theodora Oikonomides asked in a Twitter message why the country had gone to so much trouble only to change from a PASOK-New Democracy government to a New Democracy-PASOK government. Another Greek Twitter user asked why the three parties didn't just form a government in May instead of forcing new elections.
Antonis Samaras will have to prove to the voters that his government is not just a new version of the old system. There is, however, not much evidence that he is different: Samaras is just as much a part of the old establishment as his predecessor Georgios Papandreou. The two even shared a room as university students. On top of that, when it comes to the country's austerity measures, Samaras hasn't been that consistent. He rejected them for a long time, only to agree to them in the end.
But in light of the increasing desperate situation in Greece, the austerity measures have now become even more controversial than they already were. At the same time a number of European politicians, including German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, have signaled they are willing to compromise on a reform timetable for Greece.
Within this context, the government seems keen to start renegotiating the bailout terms as soon as possible. Such talks could already begin at the EU summit at the end of next week, said PASOK chief Evangelos Venizelos. "In those two days in Brussels, we will carry out a major battle for revision of the loan and negotiate a framework that will boost the recovery and the fight against unemployment," he told reporters.
The cabinet appointments were expected to be announced by Wednesday evening. Apparently Dimar and possibly PASOK too want to fill the ministries accorded to them with candidates who are not affiliated to a particular party. On the one hand, this could indicate that the parties are getting ready to distance themselves from New Democracy at an early stage. On the other hand, it would prevent the usual party favoritism.
There is apparently already one independent candidate in discussion. The head of the Greek central bank and former economics professor Vassilis Rapanos has reportedly been tipped to become Greek finance minister -- surely one of the toughest jobs in the new government.
Arabs urge Russia to stop arming Syria as Homs battered
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, June 21, 2012 7:21 EDT
The Arab League demanded on Thursday that Russia stop supplying arms to Syria, as a regime onslaught of Homs and its surrounds appeared to stall a Red Cross bid to rescue trapped civilians.
The pan-Arab bloc’s deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Hilli issued the appeal in an interview in which he also called for UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s mandate to be revamped, and for Iran’s inclusion in talks on Syria.
“Any assistance to violence must be ceased because when you supply military equipment, you help kill people. This must stop,” Hilli was quoted as telling Interfax news agency in comments translated into Russian.
“To make (the Annan) plan work, we need to find a new mechanism and the mandate of the special envoy must be reassessed, so we can be sure that all the sides are observing the plan,” he said without elaborating.
He backed Iran joining the Syria Contact Group meeting expected to be held in Geneva on June 30, while saying that Tehran’s participation was still at the discussion stage.
“In my view, all the players taking part in the Syrian crisis must be part of this contact group,” he was quoted as saying in answer to a question about Iran’s participation.
“The main task at the moment is agreeing the agenda of the first meeting. Then a decision will be taken on who will take part in this conference,” he added.
Russia has steadfastly resisted Western pleas to help remove Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad from power despite the escalating hostilities that have battered Annan’s UN-backed peace initiative.
“We believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be in power and who should not,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday after a G20 summit in Mexico.
On the ground, a torrent of heavy mortar and machinegun fire killed at least four people in and around Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, a day after nearly 100 people died across the country.
Streaming video from Homs on the bambuser.com website showed smoke billowing from a residential district as the staccato of automatic gunfire was punctuated by the thud of mortar blasts.
At least two civilians were killed in Homs city, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The army also battered Qusayr, a town just southwest of Homs, after suffering heavy losses at the hands of anti-regime rebel fighters, a watchdog and a journalist said.
Qusayr, a rebel stronghold in Homs province, was surrounded by forces loyal to Assad who bombarded the town heavily, as helicopters hovered overhead, the journalist in the area said.
The shelling erupted at 7:00 am (0400 GMT), and was followed by fierce clashes with rebel forces concentrated near the town’s main hospital.
Abdel Rahman said two unidentified people were killed as regime forces attacked Qusayr, which is situated near the border with Lebanon, with heavy machinegun fire and shelling.
Elsewhere, eight soldiers and a rebel were killed in heavy fighting at Arman az, in the northwestern province of Idlib, following a rebel attack on an army barracks, said the Britain-based group.
In the southern province of Daraa, cradle of a 15-month uprising against the Assad regime, the town of Inkhel was shelled and stormed by troops who then carried out a series of raids.
At least nine people were killed in Inkhel with the death toll likely to rise, said the Observatory.
The fresh bloodshed comes a day after violence cost the lives of 98 people across Syria, including 53 civilians, 35 soldiers and 10 rebel fighters, according to the Britain-based watchdog.
It appears to have halted a planned evacuation of hundreds of stranded civilians from the Homs area by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The ICRC said on Wednesday that it had made a request for a temporary halt in fighting on Tuesday to the government and opposition groups. Both parties said they would respect the pause.
“Our first priority, together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is to evacuate the wounded and the sick to safer areas, where they can be treated,” said the ICRC’s Beatrice Megevand-Roggo.
The Red Cross and the Red Crescent had been ready to enter Homs city, including the hard-hit districts of Khaldiyeh and Jourat al-Shiah, which activists say have been pounded mercilessly for days.
“The shelling is practically constant, and we can’t get anybody out of the besieged districts,” Abu Bilal, an opposition activist in the Homs area, told AFP via Skype on Wednesday.
“Electricity has been cut off for four days” in the Old City of Homs and “there’s no more flour to bake bread. There really is nothing to eat,” he added.
Last week the Observatory said more than 1,000 families were stuck in the region around Homs and spoke of dozens of people wounded in urgent need of medical care.
Egypt on edge as election results delayed
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, June 21, 2012 7:05 EDT
Egypt was on edge Thursday after the Muslim Brotherhood declared an open-ended protest and warned of “confrontation” unless their candidate is named new president to succeed toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The delay in announcing the results, due Thursday, of the June 16-17 presidential vote heightened the Brotherhood’s fears of a “soft coup” by the military, which disbanded the Islamist-led parliament and gave itself sweeping powers.
A senior member of the Islamist movement, which says its candidate Mohamed Morsi won last weekend’s vote, warned the ruling generals of a “confrontation” with the people if rival candidate Ahmed Shafiq was announced the winner.
The electoral commission late on Wednesday said it would delay announcing the result, which had been scheduled for Thursday, as it studied allegations of fraud from both candidates that might affect the final result.
Shafiq’s campaign, which insists their candidate, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, won the run-off election, accuses Morsi’s camp of printing almost one million false ballots, the official Ahram newspaper reported.
Morsi’s campaign, which has published the results from counting stations across the country, denies the allegation and accuses Shafiq’s team of bribing voters.
The newspaper of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), ran a large red banner on its Thursday edition saying, “Sit-in” above an announcement of a protest until Morsi is sworn in.
The military has pledged to hand power to the winner by the end of the month, but Brotherhood members who set up tents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the hub of protests that overthrew Mubarak last year, say they are not convinced.
The generals say they have no intention to remain in power after the new president takes office for the first time since the February 11 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, who is reported to be in a coma in a military hospital.
A court sentenced the former leader to life in prison earlier this month but he was transferred to hospital on Tuesday after suffering a stroke.
“This is a constitutional coup,” said Brotherhood member Abdel Rahman al-Saoudi, one of the protesters camped out in Tahrir on Thursday morning, adding he would not leave the square until Morsi’s inauguration.
The protesters also demand the military repeal an updated interim constitution that allows it to take over parliament’s powers and gives it a say in drafting the country’s next constitution.
The sit-in comes after the Brotherhood held a large rally in Tahrir Square on Tuesday.
“We insist on remaining in the square until we achieve the goals of the revolution and the demands of (Tuesday’s rally): confronting the military coup against legitimacy,” the FJP’s website quoted senior leader Essam al-Erian as saying.
The website also quoted Mahmud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s politburo, warning there could be “a confrontation between the military and the people” should Shafiq be announced the winner of the presidential elections.
“The insistence by Shafiq’s campaign that he won indicates bad intentions from the military council and the election commission,” he said.
In the USA....
Originally published Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Automatic Pentagon cuts could wipe out nearly 1 million jobs
The report, by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), is the latest in a growing heap of studies warning of dire economic consequences if policymakers fail to avert about $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon and nondefense programs next year.
WASHINGTON — Across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to hit the Pentagon in January would eliminate nearly 1 million jobs by 2014, with Virginia, California and Texas absorbing the biggest hits, and Washington state losing more than 25,000 positions, according to an analysis released Thursday.
The job losses probably would include about 750,000 private-sector positions, including about 100,000 jobs in manufacturing, even as President Obama is promoting manufacturing as key to the nation's economic recovery.
The report, by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), is the latest in a growing heap of studies warning of dire economic consequences if policymakers fail to avert about $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon and nondefense programs next year. The cuts, known as a budget "sequester," were adopted last summer as part of a debt-reduction deal.
Separate analyses by George Mason University, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the aerospace industry have reached similar conclusions. The Senate on Thursday approved a bipartisan plan to require the Obama administration to say how it would implement the cuts and to detail the impact on the Pentagon and other federal agencies. If the House passes the measure, a report would be due in August.
The defense cuts are of particular concern to manufacturers — not only big defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin but also hundreds of smaller firms in their supply chains. The NAM study, conducted by the Interindustry Forecasting Project at the University of Maryland, projects the aerospace industry could lose 3.4 percent of its jobs by 2015 because of downsizing at the Pentagon. Shipbuilders could shed 3.3 percent of their workforce by 2014. And employment in the search and navigation equipment industry could drop by nearly 10 percent by 2016.
Taken together, the January cuts and defense reductions already required under budget caps approved last summer could cost the nation as many as 1.1 million jobs and trim 1 percent from the nation's gross domestic product (the sum of all goods and services produced in a year) by the end of 2014, the peak year for job losses, according to projections.
California, Virginia and Texas each would shed more than 100,000 jobs. The study predicts Florida, New York, Maryland, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina would round out the top 10. Washington state would rank 16th, with a loss of 26,800 jobs.
The Pentagon and those who service it — largely military contractors — have been a loud, unified voice, pressuring lawmakers about the cuts and their potential impact on local economies. For example, Northrop Grumman executives met with members of the Connecticut delegation to announce a plant in Norwalk would be closed and 315 workers laid off in part because of the impending sequester, said a person who attended the meeting but requested anonymity. (A company spokeswoman declined to comment.)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has come to Capitol Hill more than once to complain about the cuts, and Republicans have offered several bills, including one that passed the House, to undo sequestration. Members hammer the issue daily; the House Armed Services Committee has devoted its entire Web home page to the issue.
Efforts to forge a compromise have been frustrated by Republicans who oppose any revenue increase and Democrats who say revenue must be part of the package. Now, some Republicans are even talking about raising taxes.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that a revenue increase may be possible as a means of averting the automatic cuts.
The threat "is so devastating that the secretary of defense will not even contemplate the plans necessary to implement sequestration," said McCain, who cited elimination of tax breaks for ethanol as part of a potential compromise.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said he would like to see "positive steps taken" on a legislative fix before the November election. "This is all about trying to improve the economy of the United States and reduce the deficit," he added.
In fact, some lawmakers' political lives may depend on a pre-election solution, said Dov Zakheim, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon comptroller.
Defense contractors are required by law to notify employees in advance if they are likely to lose their jobs, and the requirement is 60 days in most states. With sequestration scheduled to take effect Jan. 2, the 60-day notices may come days "before some of these folks are going to have to get re-elected," Zakheim said.
"You're going to see pink slips flying in October from contractors across the country" unless action is taken by then, said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who added that a significant number of military personnel also could lose their jobs.
"We could be giving pink slips to 150,000 active-duty military members," he said. "That's like doing away with the entire Marine Corps."
The likeliest outcome is that Congress will sidestep the fiscal challenge and pass a continuing resolution that merely would postpone cuts, Zakheim said.
"I don't think this Congress can cut the deal," he said.
Originally published Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:50 AM
Boehner takes hard line on Holder contempt vote
House Speaker John Boehner demanded Thursday that the Obama administration give in and turn over documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation, insisting that's the only way to stop a House vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.
Eric Holder: Contempt vote is "political theater."
House Speaker John Boehner demanded Thursday that the Obama administration give in and turn over documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation, insisting that's the only way to stop a House vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.
Boehner took a hard line against the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder despite a willingness by House Republicans and Holder to negotiate a settlement before the matter becomes a constitutional crisis. The president has invoked executive privilege, a legal principle used to avoid disclosure of internal presidential documents.
While a confrontation between the legislative and executive branches of government would be an academic dispute to most voters, Boehner on Thursday injected a human element into the battle over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. He said the family of slain border agent Brian Terry deserved answers about the guns that killed him.
Two guns that were allowed to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in the failed effort to track weapons were found near Terry after he was killed.
"The Terry family deserves answers about why their son was killed as a result of an operation run by the United States government," Boehner told his weekly news conference.
During the year and a half investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Justice Department turned over 7,600 documents about details of Operation Fast and Furious. But because the department initially denied and then admitted it used a risky investigative technique known as "gun-walking," the committee has turned its attention to how the department responded to the investigation. The additional documents it seeks are about that topic.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who had long eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking has long been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level "straw purchaser" was still allowing tens of thousands of guns to reach Mexico. A straw purchaser is an illicit buyer of guns for others.
The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Operation Fast and Furious.
Boehner renewed his allegation that President Barack Obama's decision to assert executive privilege to withhold the documents "is an admission the White House officials were involved in the decision that misled the Congress and covered up the truth." In fact, historically, several presidents have invoked executive privilege over Cabinet department documents that did not directly involve White House officials.
In an election year, each party leveled charges against the other.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused Republicans of pursuing Holder to retaliate against his effort to stop suppression of voters in the upcoming elections. "I'm telling you, this is connected," she told reporters.
In an effort to back up her assertion, Pelosi's office emailed Democratic reports from 2007, when the party accused Republicans of an ongoing effort to deprive people of the right to vote.
Meanwhile, the liberal People for the American Way distributed a video in which Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., suggested a motive for the Obama administration's initial support of the gun-walking fiasco.
"Could it be that what they really were thinking of was in fact to use this walking of guns in order to promote an assault weapons ban?" said Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"Many think so. And they haven't come up with an explanation that would cause any of us not to agree," Issa said.
Issa commented in an interview during the National Rifle Association convention in April.
His spokesman, Frederick Hill, said, "Emails from officials who worked on Fast and Furious clearly show that they wanted to use aspects of the operation to justify new restrictions on gun sales." Hill provided several documents on the subject from Fast and Furious officials.
Holder, in Copenhagen, Denmark, for meetings with European Union officials, said Thursday the administration had given the committee a proposal to negotiate an end to the conflict.
"I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way," Holder said. "The proposal that we have made is still there. The House, I think, the House leadership, has to consider now what they will do, so we'll see how it works out."
But he called the contempt vote "unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said there was "absolutely" no cover-up on the Fast and Furious controversy. He said executive privilege was asserted only on internal deliberations and "that is separate from trying to find out the truth about this operation."
Democrats contended that a 23-17 party-line contempt vote in the House Oversight committee Wednesday was just political theater.
On Tuesday, Holder offered to give lawmakers a briefing on the withheld documents but insisted that this action satisfy Issa's subpoena for the records and negate the need for a contempt vote.
Boehner on Thursday rejected Holder's approach.
"The negotiation that was proposed by the attorney general is, we should accept some documents of his choosing and, as a result of him turning over some documents of his choosing, that we would never ever pursue contempt," Boehner said. "Now this is not hardly a rational basis for a negotiation, nor is it a reasonable attempt at turning over the documents we've been asking for."
Pelosi: Attacking Holder part of GOP voter suppression plan
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, June 21, 2012 18:47 EDT
WASHINGTON — The top US House Democrat warned Thursday that Republican lawmakers were “frivolously” going after Attorney General Eric Holder in a bid to suppress votes ahead of November’s general election.
A House panel voted along party lines Wednesday to hold Holder in contempt for failing to turn over documents linked to a failed gun-smuggling probe.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was alarmed that Republicans were using “contempt of Congress to frivolously use that really important vehicle to undermine the person who is assigned to stop the voter suppression in our country.”
“This is no accident,” she told reporters. “It is no coincidence. It is a plan on the part of Republicans” to monopolize Holder’s time and “undermine his name” in the midst of a presidential campaign in which some states are grappling with claims of voter suppression efforts.
The US government filed a lawsuit last week seeking to block Florida’s purge of voter registration rolls, claiming Florida was being discriminatory and violating national law by “conducting a systematic program to purge voters” from its lists.
Holder has led the fight against such voter suppression measures.
The row over the probe into Fast and Furious, the botched government operation in which agents knowingly allowed weapons to be smuggled across the border to Mexico in order to track arms flows to drug cartels, has simmered for more than a year.
But it shifted to the front burner Wednesday when President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold documents sought by the House Oversight Committee.
“The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
“What is the Obama administration hiding in Fast and Furious?”
Boehner said he will bring the contempt resolution to a full House vote next week unless Holder produces the documents. Committee chairman Darrell Issa has said he hoped Holder would make the documents available to him.
Boehner said the claim of executive privilege “raises very serious questions” about how the administration handled Fast and Furious — whose gun-running predecessor programs were launched during the Bush administration.
But he dodged the question of whether Holder should resign, saying only that “it’s not about personalities.”
Issa has been pressing the administration over why the Justice Department sent a letter to Congress in February 2011 which inaccurately stated that no weapons were “walked” across the border with US government knowledge.
He also wants to know why it took 10 months to retract that letter and who was involved in the deliberations.
The case has hit the headlines at a bad time for Obama who is locked in a tight race against Republican Mitt Romney.
Even though Pelosi insists Republicans are waging an election-year witchhunt, the oversight committee’s ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings said that — while he is discouraged by the contempt charge — he doesn’t see a broader scandal playing out.
“In the end, I think that when all the dust settles, this battle will be resolved,” Cummings told MSNBC.
The facts behind Obama’s ‘Fast and Furious’ executive privilege claim
By Pro Publica
Thursday, June 21, 2012 16:20 EDT
By Cora Currier, ProPublica
Yesterday, the Obama administration invoked executive privilege to prevent the release of certain documents to Congress related to Operation Fast and Furious, the arms-trafficking sting gone awry that came to light last year. (As we’ve detailed, federal agents lost track of hundreds of guns they sold to suspected gun smugglers, many of which later turned up at crime scenes in Mexico).
The fall-out from the failed operation has been an ongoing battle between Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional Republicans, in particular Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa wants documents related to the Department of Justice’s investigation of the operation.
The committee voted yesterday to recommend that Holder be held in contempt of Congress for not turning over some documents. Holder says that his office has already released thousands of documents, and that the others that Issa wants are internal communications protected by executive privilege.
In the midst of all this back-and-forth, we lay out exactly what the executive privilege is, and what it means in this case.
So what is executive privilege?
The president can invoke executive privilege in order to withhold some internal executive branch communications from the other branches of government. The privilege is based on the separation of powers between the branches.
Executive privilege has been invoked since the U.S.’s early days but isn’t in the Constitution. It was only in 1974, when Richard Nixon tried to prevent the release of White House tapes during the Watergate investigation, that the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality, and set some parameters for it. The Court ruled that no claim on executive privilege is absolute, and can also be overcome if evidence is needed in a criminal trial. (For a full legal history, see this report from the Congressional Research Service.)
So what does it usually cover?
Various administrations have set their own policies as to when they can invoke the privilege. (The Washington Post has a handy timeline showing when presidents have used it.)
Bill Clinton used them a lot, 14 times during his presidency. In 1998, his attempt to keep White House aides from testifying about the Monica Lewinsky scandal was struck down, the first time since Nixon that executive privilege was overruled in court. George W. Bush invoked the privilege six times, not always successfully.
Legal challenges have established two general categories of executive privilege: presidential communications and deliberative process.
The presidential communications privilege applies to communications involving the president or his staff that immediately pertain to the president’s decision-making process. The idea, according to Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University, and author of a book on executive privilege, is that “the president should have the right to candid advice without fear of public disclosure.”
Deliberative process involves a broader scope of executive branch activity: discussions involving White House staff or within other agencies on legal or policy decisions that don’t necessarily involve the president or his immediate advisers. Again, the argument is that government officials need to feel like they can talk honestly. The deliberative process privilege, Rozell says, is generally easier to challenge than a claim of presidential communications privilege.
What is Obama’s view on executive privilege?
In 2007, in an interview with CNN, then-Sen. Obama criticized “a tendency on the part of [the Bush] administration to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place.” During his presidential campaign, Obama said that executive privilege “generally depends on the involvement of the president and the White House,” referring, presumably, to the narrower, presidential communications privilege.
Yesterday, the White House emphasized that this was the first time Obama has invoked the privilege.
So what is Holder trying to keep secret?
Holder asked Obama to invoke executive privilege over documents having to do with “the Department’s deliberative process concerning how to respond to congressional and related media inquiries into that operation.” In other words, Holder is saying the documents don’t deal with the government’s actual response to Fast and Furious.
The letter doesn’t explicitly mention presidential communications. So, contrary to a few Republican congressmen’s claims, the communications could be just between Justice Department officials and not include anybody at the White House itself.
What happens next?
Nobody’s quite sure.
Holder could be voted in contempt of Congress by the Republican-controlled House. But if he is, it’s not clear Holder would be forced to do anything. Congress could file a lawsuit against him or try to arrest or fine him to force him to comply. But that’s a long shot. Disputes over executive privilege are usually settled with a compromise between the executive branch and legislatures.
In 2008, two of President Bush’s advisers were held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with an inquiry into the firing of several U.S. attorneys by citing executive privilege. This led to a stand-off, with the attorney general telling the local U.S. attorney not to enforce the contempt citation. Eventually, more than a year later, a deal was reached with Congress and the issue was dropped.
If it did go to court, the deliberative process privilege might not hold up. In 2004, Bush asserted presidential communications privilege over Clinton administration documents relating to pardons. A court ruled that they didn’t immediately involve the president and would be protected, “if at all” by the deliberative process privilege. The court then ruled that they weren’t protected under that privilege 2014 and the Pardon Attorney had to turn over more than 4,000 documents.
Political ‘dysfunction’ threatens U.S. security: Panetta
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 22, 2012 7:27 EDT
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, seen here in May 2012 (AFP)
Topics: debt reduction ♦ Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ♦ republicans and democrats
The “dysfunction” in the US Congress, where Republicans and Democrats have failed to compromise on debt reduction, threatens US national security, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“One my greatest concerns as secretary is the dysfunction that we see in Washington,” he said late Thursday at a ceremony in which he received an award for public service.
“It threatens our security and it raises questions about the capacity of our democracy to respond to crisis.”
He went on to express concern over a round of automatic defense spending cuts set to take effect in January 2013 in the event that feuding lawmakers are unable to hammer out a deal to slash the country’s $15.8 trillion debt.
“It will force the Department of Defense to throw our new defense strategy out the window. It will pose, I believe, an unacceptable risk to our ability to defend the country,” Panetta said.
If Congress fails to agree on how to slash spending by January, dramatic defense reductions of about $500 billion would be automatically triggered under a law adopted last year.
Bitterly divided legislators have been struggling for the past year to reach a deal to rein in the debt, with Republicans demanding steep cuts in spending and Democrats calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.
The looming election-year showdown comes as President Barack Obama, a Democrat, fights for a second term in a campaign dominated by fears over the sluggish US economic recovery.
Senate rejects bid to label genetically modified food
By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, June 21, 2012 19:40 EDT
The Senate on Thursday rejected an amendment to the farm bill that would have given states the power to require labels on genetically modified food.
“This is the very first time a bill on labeling genetically engineered food has been brought before the Senate,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), who introduced the proposal. “It was opposed by virtually every major food corporation in the country. While we wish we could have gotten more votes, this is a good step forward and something we are going to continue to work on. The people of Vermont and the people of America have a right to know what’s in the food that they eat.”
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow opposed the amendment, claiming it could interfere with the development of drought resistant crops.
The amendment was defeated by a 26-73 vote.
When the Vermont Legislature considered a bill that would have required genetically modified food to be labelled, the agricultural giant Monsanto threatened to sue the state. Despite public support, the legislation failed to pass.
Sanders’ amendment would not have required states to label genetically modified. It would only have given states legal protection to do so.
In the USA............
Experts find 30 trillion tons of toxic liquid injected into earth poisons ground water
By Pro Publica
Thursday, June 21, 2012 13:26 EDT
By Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica
Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.
No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.
There are growing signs they were mistaken.
Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.
In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation’s most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami’s drinking water.
There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.
Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves 2014 from which most Americans get their drinking water 2014 remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground.
But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn’t always work.
“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”
The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells 2014 more holes punched in the ground 2014 are changing the earth’s geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.
“There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth,’ said Stefan Finsterle, a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid flows through them. “You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing, so you don’t know how it will behave.”
A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined 2014 more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.
Structurally, a disposal well is the same as an oil or gas well. Tubes of concrete and steel extend anywhere from a few hundred feet to two miles into the earth. At the bottom, the well opens into a natural rock formation. There is no container. Waste simply seeps out, filling tiny spaces left between the grains in the rock like the gaps between stacked marbles.
Many scientists and regulators say the alternatives to the injection process 2014 burning waste, treating wastewater, recycling, or disposing of waste on the surface 2014 are far more expensive or bring additional environmental risks.
Subterranean waste disposal, they point out, is a cornerstone of the nation’s economy, relied on by the pharmaceutical, agricultural and chemical industries. It’s also critical to a future less dependent on foreign oil: Hydraulic fracturing, “clean coal” technologies, nuclear fuel production, and carbon storage (the keystone of the strategy to address climate change) all count on pushing waste into rock formations below the earth’s surface.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary regulatory authority over the nation’s injection wells, would not discuss specific well failures identified by ProPublica or make staffers available for interviews. The agency also declined to answer many questions in writing, though it sent responses to several. Its director for the Drinking Water Protection Division, Ann Codrington, sent a statement to ProPublica defending the injection program’s effectiveness.
“Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done,” the statement said. “EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program.”
Still, some experts see the well failures and leaks discovered so far as signs of broader problems, raising concerns about how much pollution may be leaking out undetected. By the time the damage is discovered, they say, it could be irreversible.
“Are we heading down a path we might regret in the future?” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who has been an outspoken critic of claims that wells don’t leak. “Yes.”
In September 2003, Ed Cowley got a call to check out a pool of briny water in a bucolic farm field outside Chico, Texas. Nearby, he said, a stand of trees had begun to wither, their leaves turning crispy brown and falling to the ground.
Chico, a town of about 1,000 people 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth, lies in the heart of Texas’ Barnett Shale. Gas wells dot the landscape like mailboxes in suburbia. A short distance away from the murky pond, an oil services company had begun pumping millions of gallons of drilling waste into an injection well.
Regulators refer to such waste as salt water or brine, but it often includes less benign contaminants, including fracking chemicals, benzene and other substances known to cause cancer.
The well had been authorized by the Railroad Commission of Texas, which once regulated railways but now oversees 260,000 oil and gas wells and 52,000 injection wells. (Another agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, regulates injection wells for waste from other industries.)
Before issuing the permit, commission officials studied mathematical models showing that waste could be safely injected into a sandstone layer about one-third of a mile beneath the farm. They specified how much waste could go into the well, under how much pressure, and calculated how far it would dissipate underground. As federal law requires, they also reviewed a quarter-mile radius around the site to make sure waste would not seep back toward the surface through abandoned wells or other holes in the area.
Yet the precautions failed. “Salt water” brine migrated from the injection site and shot back to the surface through three old well holes nearby.
“Have you ever seen an artesian well?” recalled Cowley, Chico’s director of public works. “It was just water flowing up out of the ground.”
Despite residents’ fears that the injected waste could be making its way towards their drinking water, commission officials did not sample soil or water near the leak.
If the injection well waste “had threatened harm to the ground water in the area, an in-depth RRC investigation would have been initiated,” Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for Texas’ Railroad Commission, wrote in an email.
The agency disputes Cowley’s description of a pool of brine or of dead trees, saying that the waste barely spilled beyond the overflowing wells, though officials could not identify any documents or staffers who contradicted Cowley’s recollections. Accounts similar to Cowley’s appeared in an article about the leak in the Wise County Messenger, a local newspaper. The agency has destroyed its records about the incident, saying it is required to keep them for only two years.
After the breach, the commission ordered two of the old wells to be plugged with cement and restricted the rate at which waste could be injected into the well. It did not issue any violations against the disposal company, which had followed Texas’ rules, regulators said. The commission allowed the well operator to continue injecting thousands of barrels of brine into the well each day. A few months later, brine began spurting out of three more old wells nearby.
“It’s kind of like Whac-a-Mole, where one thing pops up and by the time you go to hit it, another thing comes up,” Cowley said. “It was frustrating. … If your water goes, what does that do to the value of your land?”
Deep well injection takes place in 32 states, from Pennsylvania to Michigan to California. Most wells are around the Great Lakes and in areas where oil and gas is produced: along the Appalachian crest and the Gulf Coast, in California and in Texas, which has more wells for hazardous industrial waste and oil and gas waste than any other state.
Federal rules divide wells into six classes based on the material they hold and the industry that produced it. Class 1 wells handle the most hazardous materials, including fertilizers, acids and deadly compounds such as asbestos, PCBs and cyanide. The energy industry has its own category, Class 2, which includes disposal wells and wells in which fluids are injected to force out trapped oil and gas. The most common wells, called Class 5, are a sort of catch-all for everything left over from the other categories, including storm-water runoff from gas stations.
The EPA requires that Class 1 and 2 injection wells be drilled the deepest to assure that the most toxic waste is pushed far below drinking water aquifers. Both types of wells are supposed to be walled with multiple layers of steel tubing and cement and regularly monitored for cracks.
Officials’ confidence in this manner of disposal stems not only from safety precautions, but from an understanding of how rock formations trap fluid.
Underground waste, officials say, is contained by layer after layer of impermeable rock. If one layer leaks, the next blocks the waste from spreading before it reaches groundwater. The laws of physics and fluid dynamics should ensure that the waste can’t spread far and is diluted as it goes.
The layering “is a very strong phenomenon and it’s on our side,” said Susan Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology.
According to risk analyses cited in EPA documents, a significant well leak that leads to water contamination is highly unlikely 2014 on the order of one in a million.
Once waste is underground, though, there are few ways to track how far it goes, how quickly or where it winds up. There is plenty of theory, but little data to prove the system works.
“I do think the risks are low, but it has never been adequately demonstrated,” said John Apps, a leading geoscientist who advises the Department of Energy for Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. “Every statement is based on a collection of experts that offer you their opinions. Then you do a scientific analysis of their opinions and get some probability out of it. This is a wonderful way to go when you don’t have any evidence one way or another… But it really doesn’t mean anything scientifically.”
The hard data that does exist comes from well inspections conducted by federal and state regulators, who can issue citations to operators for injecting illegally, for not maintaining wells, or for operating wells at unsafe pressures. This information is the EPA’s primary means of tracking the system’s health on a national scale.
Yet, in response to questions from ProPublica, the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.
In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011 2014 the last time the EPA issued a public update 2014 less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.
The EPA did not respond to questions seeking more detail about how it handles its data, or about how the agency judges whether its oversight is working.
In a 2008 interview with ProPublica, one EPA scientist acknowledged shortcomings in the way the agency oversees the injection program.
“It’s assumed that the monitoring rules and requirements are in place and are protective 2014 that’s assumed,” said Gregory Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist who studies injection and water issues in the Rocky Mountain region. “You’re not going to know what’s going on until someone’s well is contaminated and they are complaining about it.”
ProPublica’s analysis of case histories and EPA data from October 2007 to October 2010 showed that when an injection well fails, it is most often because of holes or cracks in the well structure itself.
Operators are required to do so-called “mechanical integrity” tests at regular intervals, yearly for Class 1 wells and at least once every five years for Class 2 wells. In 2010, the tests led to more than 7,500 violations nationally, with more than 2,300 wells failing. In Texas, one violation was issued for every three Class 2 wells examined in 2010.
Such breakdowns can have serious consequences. Damage to the cement or steel casing can allow fluids to seep into the earth, where they could migrate into water supplies.
Regulators say redundant layers of protection usually prevent waste from getting that far, but EPA data shows that in the three years analyzed by ProPublica, more than 7,500 well test failures involved what federal water protection regulations describe as “fluid migration” and “significant leaks.”
In September 2009, workers for Unit Petroleum Company discovered oil and gas waste in a roadside ditch in southern Louisiana. After tracing the fluid to a crack in the casing of a nearby injection well, operators tested the rest of the well. Only then did they find another hole 2014 600 feet down, and just a few hundred feet away from an aquifer that is a source of drinking water for that part of the state.
Most well failures are patched within six months of being discovered, EPA data shows, but with as much as five years passing between integrity tests, it can take a while for leaks to be discovered. And not every well can be repaired. Kansas shut down at least 47 injection wells in 2010, filling them with cement and burying them, because their mechanical integrity could not be restored. Louisiana shut down 82. Wyoming shut down 144.
Another way wells can leak is if waste is injected with such force that it accidentally shatters the rock meant to contain it. A report published by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Texas said that high pressure is “the driving force” that can help connect deep geologic layers with shallower ones, allowing fluid to seep through the earth.
Most injection well permits strictly limit the maximum pressure allowed, but well operators 2014 rushing to dispose of more waste in less time 2014 sometimes break the rules, state regulatory inspections show. According to data provided by states to the EPA, deep well operators have been caught exceeding injection pressure limits more than 1,100 times since 2008.
Excessive pressure factored into a 1989 well failure that yielded new clues about the risks of injection.
While drilling a disposal well in southern Ohio, workers for the Aristech Chemical Corp. (since bought by Sunoco, and sold again, in 2011, to Haverhill Chemicals) were overwhelmed by the smell of phenol, a deadly chemical the company had injected into two Class 1 wells nearby. Somehow, perhaps over decades, the pollution had risen 1,400 feet through solid rock and was progressing toward surface aquifers.
Ohio environmental officials 2013 aided by the EPA 2013 investigated for some 15 years. They concluded that the wells were mechanically sound, but Aristech had injected waste into them faster and under higher pressure than the geologic formation could bear.
Though scientists maintain that the Aristech leak was a rarity, they acknowledge that such problems are more likely in places where industrial activity has changed the underground environment.
There are upwards of 2 million abandoned and plugged oil and gas wells in the U.S., more than 100,000 of which may not appear in regulators’ records. Sometimes they are just broken off tubes of steel, buried or sticking out of the ground. Many are supposed to be sealed shut with cement, but studies show that cement breaks down over time, allowing seepage up the well structure.
Also, if injected waste reaches the bottom of old wells, it can quickly be driven back towards aquifers, as it was in Chico.
“The United States looks like a pin cushion,” said Bruce Kobelski, a geologist who has been with the agency’s underground injection program since 1986. Kobelski spoke to ProPublica in May, 2011, before the EPA declined additional interview requests for this story. “Unfortunately there are cases where someone missed a well or a well wasn’t indicated. It could have been a well from the turn of the [20th] century.”
Clefts left after the earth is cracked open to frack for oil and gas also can connect abandoned wells and waste injection zones. How far these man-made fissures go is still the subject of research and debate, but in some cases they have reached as much as a half-mile, even intersecting fractures from neighboring wells.
When injection wells intersect with fracked wells and abandoned wells, the combined effect is that many of the natural protections assumed to be provided by deep underground geology no longer exist.
“It’s a natural system and if you go in and start punching holes through it and changing pressure systems around, it’s no longer natural,” said Nathan Wiser, an underground injection expert working for the EPA in its Rocky Mountain region, in a 2010 interview. “It’s difficult to know how it would behave in those circumstances.”
EPA data provides a window into some injection well problems, but not all. There is no way to know how many wells have undetected leaks or to measure the amount of waste escaping from them.
In at least some cases, records obtained by ProPublica show, well failures may have contaminated sources of drinking water. Between 2008 and 2011, state regulators reported 150 instances of what the EPA calls “cases of alleged contamination,” in which waste from injection wells purportedly reached aquifers. In 25 instances, the waste came from Class 2 wells. The EPA did not respond to requests for the results of investigations into those incidents or to clarify the standard for reporting a case.
The data probably understates the true extent of such incidents, however.
Leaking wells can simply go undetected. One Texas study looking for the cause of high salinity in soil found that at least 29 brine injection wells in its study area were likely sending a plume of salt water up into the ground unnoticed. Even when a problem is reported, as in Chico, regulators don’t always do the expensive and time-consuming work necessary to investigate its cause.
“The absence of episodes of pollution can mean that there are none, or that no one is looking,” said Salazar, the EPA’s former injection expert. “I would tend to believe it is the latter.”
The practice of injecting waste underground arose as a solution to an environmental crisis.
In the first half of the 20th century, toxic waste collected in cesspools, or was dumped in rivers or poured onto fields. As the consequences of unbridled pollution became unacceptable, the country turned to an out-of-sight alternative. Drawing on techniques developed by the oil and gas industry, companies started pumping waste back into wells drilled for resources. Toxic waste became all but invisible. Air and water began to get cleaner.
Then a host of unanticipated problems began to arise.
In April, 1967 pesticide waste injected by a chemical plant at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal destabilized a seismic fault, causing a magnitude 5.0 earthquake — strong enough to shatter windows and close schools — and jolting scientists with newfound risks of injection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A year later, a corroded hazardous waste well for pulping liquor at the Hammermill Paper Co., in Erie, Pa., ruptured. Five miles away, according to an EPA report, “a noxious black liquid seeped from an abandoned gas well” in Presque Isle State Park.
In 1975 in Beaumont, Texas, dioxin and a highly acidic herbicide injected underground by the Velsicol Chemical Corp. burned a hole through its well casing, sending as much as five million gallons of the waste into a nearby drinking water aquifer.
Then in August 1984 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., radioactive waste was turned up by water monitoring near a deep injection well at a government nuclear facility.
Regulators raced to catch up. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, establishing a framework for regulating injection. Then, in 1980, the EPA set up the tiered classes of wells and began to establish basic construction standards and inspection schedules. The EPA licensed some state agencies to monitor wells within their borders and handled oversight jointly with others, but all had to meet the baseline requirements of the federal Underground Injection Control program.
Even with stricter regulations in place, 17 states 2013 including Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin — banned Class 1 hazardous deep well injection.
“We just felt like based on the knowledge that we had at that time that it was not something that was really in the best interest of the environment or the state,” said James Warr, who headed Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management at the time.
Injection accidents kept cropping up.
A 1987 General Accountability Office review put the total number of cases in which waste had migrated from Class 1 hazardous waste wells into underground aquifers at 10 — including the Texas and Pennsylvania sites. Two of those aquifers were considered potential drinking water sources.
In 1989, the GAO reported 23 more cases in seven states where oil and gas injection wells had failed and polluted aquifers. New regulations had done little to prevent the problems, the report said, largely because most of the wells involved had been grandfathered in and had not had to comply with key aspects of the rules.
Noting four more suspected cases, the report also suggested there could be more well failures, and more widespread pollution, beyond the cases identified. “The full extent to which injected brines have contaminated underground sources of drinking water is unknown,” it stated.
The GAO concluded that most of the contaminated aquifers could not be reclaimed because fixing the damage was “too costly” or “technically infeasible.”
Faced with such findings, the federal government drafted more rules aimed at strengthening the injection program. The government outlawed certain types of wells above or near drinking water aquifers, mandating that most industrial waste be injected deeper.
The agency also began to hold companies that disposed of hazardous industrial waste to far stiffer standards. To get permits to dispose of hazardous waster after 1988, companies had to prove 2013 using complex models and geological studies — that the stuff they injected wouldn’t migrate anywhere near water supplies for 10,000 years. They were already required to test for fault zones and to conduct reviews to ensure there were no conduits for leakage, such as abandoned wells, within a quarter-mile radius. Later, that became a two-mile minimum radius for some wells.
The added regulations would have prevented the vast majority of the accidents that occurred before the late 1980s, EPA officials contend.
“The requirements weren’t as rigorous, the testing wasn’t as rigorous and in some cases the shallow aquifers were contaminated,” Kobelski said. “The program is not the same as it was when we first started.”
Today’s injection program, however, faces a new set of problems.
As federal regulators toughened rules for injecting hazardous waste, oil and gas companies argued that the new standards could drive them out of business. State oil and gas regulators pushed back against the regulations, too, saying that enforcing the rules for Class 2 wells 2013 which handle the vast majority of injected waste by volume — would be expensive and difficult.
Ultimately, the energy industry won a critical change in the federal government’s legal definition of waste: Since 1988, all material resulting from the oil and gas drilling process is considered non-hazardous, regardless of its content or toxicity.
“It took a lot of talking to sell the EPA on that and there are still a lot of people that don’t like it,” said Bill Bryson, a geologist and former head of the Kansas Corporation Commission’s Conservation Division, who lobbied for and helped draft the federal rules. “But it seemed the best way to protect the environment and to stop everybody from just having to test everything all the time.”
The new approach removed many of the constraints on the oil and gas industry. They were no longer required to conduct seismic tests (a stricture that remained in place for Class 1 wells). Operators were allowed to test their wells less frequently for mechanical integrity and the area they had to check for abandoned wells was kept to a minimum 2013 one reason drilling waste kept bubbling to the surface near Chico.
Soon after the first Chico incident, Texas expanded the area regulators were required to check for abandoned waste wells (a rule that applied only to certain parts of the state). Doubling the radius they reviewed in Chico to a half mile, they found 13 other injection or oil and gas wells. When they studied the land within a mile 2013 the radius required for review of many Class 1 wells 2013 officials discovered another 35 wells, many dating to the 1950s.
The Railroad Commission concluded that the Chico injection well had overflowed: The target rock zone could no longer handle the volume being pushed into it. Trying to cram in more waste at the same speed could cause further leaks, regulators feared. The commission set new limits on how fast the waste could be injected, but did not forbid further disposal. The well remains in use to this day.
In late 2008, samples of Chico’s municipal drinking water were found to contain radium, a radioactive derivative of uranium and a common attribute of drilling waste. The water well was a few miles away from the leaking injection well site, but environmental officials said the contaminants discovered in the water well were unrelated, mostly because they didn’t include the level of sodium typical of brine.
Since then, Ed Cowley, the public works director, said commission officials have continued to assure him that brine won’t reach Chico’s drinking water. But since the agency keeps allowing more injection and doesn’t track the cumulative volume of waste going into wells in the area, he’s skeptical that they can keep their promise.
“I was kind of like, 2018You all need to get together and look at the total amount you are trying to fit through the eye of the needle,’” he said.
When sewage flowed from 20 Class 1 wells near Miami into the Upper Floridan aquifer, it challenged some of scientists’ fundamental assumptions about the injection system.
The wells 2013 which had helped fuel the growth of South Florida by eliminating the need for expensive water treatment plants — had passed rigorous EPA and state evaluation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Inspections showed they were structurally sound. As Class 1 wells, they were subject to some of the most frequent tests and closest scrutiny.
Yet they failed.
The wells’ designers would have calculated what is typically called the “zone of influence” 2014 the space that waste injected into the wells was expected to fill. This was based on estimates of how much fluid would be injected and under what pressure.
In drawings, the zone of influence typically looks like a Hershey’s kiss, an evenly dispersed plume spreading in a predictable circular fashion away from the bottom of the well. Above the zone, most drawings depict uniform formations of rock not unlike a layer cake.
Based on modeling and analysis by some of the most sophisticated engineering consultants in the country, Florida officials, with the EPA’s assent, concluded that waste injected into the Miami-area wells would be forever trapped far below the South Florida peninsula.
“All of the modeling indicated that the injectate would be confined in the injection zone,” an EPA spokesperson wrote to ProPublica in a statement.
But as Miami poured nearly half a billion gallons of partly treated sewage into the ground each day from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, hydrogeologists learned that the earth 2013 and the flow of fluids through it 2013 wasn’t as uniform as the models depicted. Florida’s injection wells, for example, had been drilled into rock that was far more porous and fractured than scientists previously understood.
“Geology is never what you think it is,” said Ronald Reese, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey in Florida who has studied the well failures there. “There are always surprises.”
Other gaps have emerged between theories of how underground injection should work and how it actually does. Rock layers aren’t always neatly stacked as they appear in engineers’ sketches. They often fold and twist over on themselves. Waste injected into such formations is more likely to spread in lopsided, unpredictable ways than in a uniform cone. It is also likely to channel through spaces in the rock as pressure forces it along the weakest lines.
Petroleum engineers in Texas have found that when they pump fluid into one end of an oil reservoir to push oil out the other, the injected fluid sometimes flows around the reservoir, completely missing the targeted zone.
“People are still surprised at the route that the injectate is taking or the bypassing that can happen,” said Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology.
Conventional wisdom says fluids injected underground should spread at a rate of several inches or less each year, and go only as far as they are pushed by the pressure inside the well. In some instances, however, fluids have travelled faster and farther than researchers thought possible.
In a 2000 case that wasn’t caused by injection but brought important lessons about how fluids could move underground, hydrogeologists concluded that bacteria-polluted water migrated horizontally underground for several thousand feet in just 26 hours, contaminating a drinking water well in Walkerton, Ontario, and sickening thousands of residents. The fluids travelled 80 times as fast as the standard software model predicted was possible.
According to the model, vertical movement of underground fluids shouldn’t be possible at all, or should happen over what scientists call “geologic time”: thousands of years or longer. Yet a 2011 study in Wisconsin found that human viruses had managed to infiltrate deep aquifers, probably moving downward through layers believed to be a permanent seal.
According to a study published in April in the journal Ground Water, it’s not a matter of if fluid will move through rock layers, but when.
Tom Myers, a hydrologist, drew on research showing that natural faults and fractures are more prevalent than commonly understood to create a model that predicts how chemicals might move in the Marcellus Shale, a dense layer of rock that has been called impermeable. The Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee, is the focus of intense debate because of concerns that chemicals injected in drilling for natural gas will pollute water.
Myers’ new model said that chemicals could leak through natural cracks into aquifers tapped for drinking water in about 100 years, far more quickly than had been thought. In areas where there is hydraulic fracturing or drilling, Myers’ model shows, man-made faults and natural ones could intersect and chemicals could migrate to the surface in as little as “a few years, or less.”
“It’s out of sight, out of mind now. But 50 years from now?” Myers said, referring to injected waste and the rock layers trusted to entrap it. “Simply put, they are not impermeable.”
Myers’ work is among the few studies done over the past few decades to compare theories of hydrogeology to what actually happens. But even his research is based on models.
“A lot of the concepts and a lot of the regulations that govern this whole practice of subsurface injection is kind of dated at this point,” said one senior EPA hydrologist who was not authorized to speak to ProPublica, and declined to be quoted by name.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “There needs to be a hard look at this in a new way.”
More protests planned against Egypt military ‘coup’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 22, 2012 7:11 EDT
Egypt’s political forces have called for more protests on Friday against the ruling military’s power grab, as the nation nervously awaits the results of the first post-Mubarak presidential election.
Hundreds of people spent the night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with more protests planned for Friday afternoon, the Muslim Brotherhood and secular movements said in statements.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, will issue a statement at 1130 GMT, state television said without providing any details, as anger mounts over the perceived threat to the fragile democratic gains made since the uprising.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which claimed its candidate Mohamed Morsi had won the divisive election against ex-premier Ahmed Shafiq, has been holding crisis talks with the country’s political forces.
It is due to announce “a national project to defend the revolution,” its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said.
Morsi also spoke by telephone with Nobel laureate and reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei, as well as with former presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh ahead of the protests, the FJP said.
The April 6 movement, which helped launch last year’s uprising that toppled Mubarak, said it would join the protests to express “its rejection of the constitutional declaration” and “continue to fight for the goals of the revolution.”
The National Front for Justice and Democracy said it rejected the constitutional declaration “which constitutes a military coup.”
A recent set of measures consolidating the army’s power has infuriated pro-democracy groups and raised concerns abroad.
The ruling SCAF assumed legislative powers after a court ordered the Islamist-led parliament dissolved and issued decrees giving the army powers of arrest and a broad say in government policy, rendering the president’s post toothless.
Protesters have been in Tahrir Square since the constitutional document was issued on Sunday.
The tension comes as the country waits to find out who will be the next president, after the election commission failed to announce the results on Thursday, saying it needed more time to look into appeals by both candidates.
Morsi’s rival Shafiq — Mubarak’s last prime minister — said he was confident he would be declared the “legitimate” president, raising fears of unrest in a country exhausted by political upheaval and insecurity of the transition from Mubarak’s rule.
06/22/2012 01:00 PM
Fateful Week: Merkel Isolated in Race for Euro Crisis Solution
Slow and steady wins the race: That has been Chancellor Merkel's motto in recent months as she leads efforts to solve the euro crisis. But as problems in the common currency area intensify, many are urging her to hurry up. The next week will be crucial.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as has likely become clear to all by now, is not a fan of the quick fix. Even as the European common currency appears to be collapsing around her -- and the insults flung in her general direction mount -- she refuses to budge.
Time, however, is not one of the luxuries that the euro zone enjoys -- at least according to her host for Friday's preparatory "mini-summit" ahead of the European Union meeting on June 29. In an interview appearing in several leading European papers on Friday morning, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti warned of the consequences should the EU summit at the end of this month fail to reach far-reaching resolutions to calm the financial markets.
"There would be progressively greater speculative attacks on individual countries, with harassment of the weaker countries," he said. "A large part of Europe would find itself having to continue to put up with very high interest rates that would then impact on the states and also indirectly on firms. This is the direct opposite of what is needed for economic growth."
Monti's sentiments are shared by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and French President François Hollande, both of whom will also take part in the Friday meeting in Rome. The trio is demanding a departure from Merkel's slow and steady austerity course in favor of collectivized euro-zone debt and a greater emphasis on turning around Europe's flailing economy.
It is not difficult to divine the source of their concerns. Interest rates on sovereign bonds -- the canary in the coalmine of the euro crisis -- have once again been climbing in recent weeks. Both Italy and, to a greater extent, Spain have been watching as their borrowing costs soar close to unsustainable levels. Despite Monti's repeated insistence that Italy will not need a bailout, fears are increasing that he might be wrong.
Precursor to Wider Bailout?
And there is worry that Madrid might need more help than it has already been promised. Independent auditors on Thursday announced that Spanish banks are in need of €62 billion ($78 billion) in extra capital, money that will likely come from the €100 billion Europe has agreed to supply Spain out of the euro bailout fund. Madrid has indicated that it will make a formal request for that aid money in the coming days.
Many, though, fear that the bank package is but a precursor to a wider bailout. On Thursday, Spain had to pay record euro-era interest rates of 6.07 percent on five-year bonds. Should borrowing not become cheaper soon, the country's finances could be in serious trouble. Rates on benchmark 10-year bonds have for weeks been hovering close to the 7 percent mark, the level at which both Ireland and Portugal were forced to request a euro-zone bailout.
Given the increasing warning signs, even the International Monetary Fund is getting nervous. IMF head Christine Lagarde said earlier this month that Europe had but three months to save the euro. On Thursday, she added that "we are clearly seeing additional tension and acute stress applying to both banks and sovereigns in the euro area. With that in mind, the IMF believes that a determined and forceful move towards complete European monetary union should be reaffirmed."
Her comments come on the heels of similar statements from financial leaders around the world, including World Bank head Robert Zoellick and US Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke.
The tortoise-and-the-hare battle between Berlin and the rest of Europe and the world has been on full display this week. At the close of the G-20 summit in Mexico on Tuesday, Monti demanded that the euro bailout fund be allowed to buy up sovereign bonds from countries in crisis -- free of conditions -- in order to drive down their borrowing costs.
On Thursday, he got his answer from Berlin. "We don't need constant new proposals in public as though we hadn't already reached precise agreements," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. He noted that the European Stability Mechanism, which is soon to go into effect, will be able to buy bonds on secondary markets, though there are conditions attached to the program. "We can't constantly raise completely unrealistic expectations" in an effort to calm the markets, Schäuble said.
The Terminator and Hitler
Schäuble's impatience with Monti notwithstanding, there are several projects in the works, ranging from a European banking union, which could ultimately provide a euro zone-wide deposit guarantee, to the creation of a tighter political and economic union to underpin the common currency. Both of those proposals have received Merkel's support in recent weeks -- but both are also solutions of the long-term variety that the Chancellery prefers.
Other ideas would seem to have little chance against Madame Non, including proposals to collectivize debt via the issuance of some form of euro bond or Monti's idea of allowing the ESM to unconditionally snap up sovereign bonds.
Still, it seems unlikely that Merkel will be able to stonewall completely. With Sarkozy gone from the euro-zone stage, the German chancellor now stands largely alone in her battle for austerity. She faces significant pressure from a newly elected Hollande, a political leader in Monti whose approval ratings are plummeting at home and needs to show some form of success on the European state, and a leader in Rajoy whose management of his country's banking crisis has been widely criticized.
Furthermore, Merkel's crisis management has been blasted by leaders around the world, including US President Barack Obama and the leaders of Brazil, India, Argentina and Russia. The media too has gotten on her case, the most recent -- if breathtakingly tasteless -- salvo coming from the British magazine New Statesman, which compared Merkel to both the Terminator and Hitler in the span of a few short paragraphs and also said she represented a greater threat to the world than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The next few days, in short, promise to be tense. Merkel, though, has managed to find time in her schedule for a bit of relaxation. As soon as the meeting in Rome ends on Friday, she is off to Gdansk. Germany, after all, is playing Greece in the European Football Championship. Euro crisis be damned.
22 June 2012 - 09H22
Pakistan nominates ex-minister Raja as new PM
AFP - Pakistan's main ruling party on Friday named Raja Pervez Ashraf as its nominee for prime minister and hinted at possible early elections after a court issued an arrest warrant for its first choice.
Ashraf has been dogged by allegations of corruption and controversy from his tenure as water and power minister. He served as information technology minister until the Supreme Court dismissed prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday.
On Thursday, an anti-narcotics court took the unusual step of issuing an arrest warrant for former textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin over a drugs scandal. Shahabuddin had been President Asif Ali Zardari's first choice to succeed Gilani.
The lower house of parliament has been summoned to vote in the new prime minister at 5:30 pm (1230 GMT) on Friday.
"Raja Pervez Ashraf is our candidate," senior party official Syed Khurshid Shah told a news conference, hinting that the government could call an election before its mandate expires early next year.
"This is election year and we are going towards elections," Shah said.
"If we have committed some mistakes or did not fulfill our manifesto, then the decision should be left to the people of Pakistan."
06/22/2012 03:21 PM
'Kueka Stone' Controversy: Venezuelan Tribe Demands Return of 'Sacred Rock'
The rock has been in Berlin for more than a decade, but Venezuela's indigenous Pemon people want it back. The group staged a demonstration this week in front of the German Embassy in Caracas to demand the return of the "Kueka Stone," which they claim is sacred and was stolen.
After more than 100 people demonstrated outside the German Embassy in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on Thursday, tensions have flared up once again between the two countries over the rightful owner of a sacred rock. Many of the protestors were indigenous Pemon people, who say the stone was stolen from them and want it returned from Berlin.
The so-called "Kueka Stone" was brought to the capital city some 15 years ago by German artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld, who used the 35-ton boulder in his "Global Stone" project in the city's central Tiergarten park. But the Venezuelans say that the rock, considered to be so holy that humans aren't permitted to touch it, was taken without their permission in 1997. They want it returned to their community in the Gran Sabana tropical grassland region, which is located largely within the Cainama National Park.
"It's not just a stone. It's part of our culture and they must return it," Pemon representative Melchor Flores told an Associated Press reporter during the protest.
Georg-Clemens Dick, the German ambassador to Caracas, appeared before protesters outside the embassy, expressing his respect for their demand and promising to discuss the matter with officials in Berlin. "Please accept that no one ever wanted to take something from you," he told demonstrators. "We have always considered the Kueka Stone to be a gift from Venezuela as part of a global peace network."
Although the sandstone rock in Berlin is one of five stones included in an outdoor artwork aimed at encouraging global peace, it has complicated relations between Venezuelan and German diplomats for some time now. This week the parliament in Caracas set a proposal in motion for bringing the Kueka Stone back home. Parliamentarian Gladys Requena said on Tuesday that the stone had been illegally removed from Canaima National Park in southeast Venezuela.
'So Many Lies'
But artist von Schwarzenfeld disputes this. He describes "Global Stone" as a "worldwide peace project" on his website. He says his aim was to find two special rocks on each continent to sculpt, leaving one stone in its country of origin and bringing the second "sister" to Berlin. The five stones from five continents symbolize love (America), awakening (Europe), hope (Africa), forgiveness (Asia) and peace (Australia). According to the artist, they are arranged so that, once a year on June 21, light reflections create a link between the circle of stones.
Von Schwarzenfeld maintains that he had permission from Venezuelan officials to remove the Kueka Stone and that he has documentation that it was a gift to "the German people" that the Pemon Indians helped him select, AP reported. He also alleged that the dispute has been contrived by President Hugo Chavez's government to gain the Pemon people's support during the country's upcoming election.
"It is not jasper, it is not stolen, it is not a holy stone," von Schwarzenfeld told AP. "It's a pity it needed so many lies to make this conflict and that is why it is very important to get back to the truth."
According to Pemon legend, the Kueka Stone was part of a pair of rocks believed to have originated from a giant stone block split by lightening thousands of years ago. The two stones represent the legend of a love story between a Pemon man and a woman from another tribe. Their inter-tribal romance displeased the Pemon god Makunaima, and he turned them into stone. The two rocks now symbolize the tribe's grandmother and grandfather.
Protesters claim that the removal of the "grandmother" stone has unsettled the country's natural balance and caused deadly disasters.
In the USA...
Analysis: Supreme Court backs Chamber of Commerce in every case
By Kay Steiger
Friday, June 22, 2012 16:51 EDT
Just in case you needed any more proof that the Supreme Court was taking a hard-line dash to the right, a new analysis by The Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank and law center “dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of our Constitution’s text and history,” found Thursday that so far this term, the Supreme Court has voted in favor of the Chamber of Commerce’s position in every opinion they’ve issued.
“Without much fanfare, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is edging towards what could be its first ‘perfect’ Term before the Supreme Court since at least 1994,” a blog post written by the Center’s Neil Weare said. Indeed, a chart showed that the Chamber of Commerce’s average is getting better over time, going from 43 percent of cases won under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s court (1981-1986) to 56 percent of cases won under Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s court (1994-2005). So far under Chief Justice John Roberts, which began in 2005, the Chamber has won 68 percent of the cases it’s taken before the highest court.
The term isn’t over yet, so we’ll have to wait and see if the Chamber will maintain it’s unbelievable winning streak.
Rahm Emanuel: Citizens United is one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history
By Ed Pilkington, The Guardian
Friday, June 22, 2012 14:21 EDT
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has launched a scathing attack on Citizens United, the ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending by a handful of billionaire donors, calling it one of the “worst decisions of any supreme court in American history”.
The mayor of Chicago has added his voice to a growing chorus of criticism for the judgment that removed long-standing restrictions on corporate spending on political campaigns.
Emanuel, who was Barack Obama‘s chief of staff at the time Citizens United came down, said the ruling had damaged the court’s reputation as the nation’s “high court”. He told the Guardian: “I think the decision on the super Pacs will go down as probably in the top five single worst decisions of any supreme court in American history.”
He singled out Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson as the Democrats’ new enemy number one. The tycoon, who has interests in the Chinese gambling city Macau, has already donated with his wife $35m to groups backing Republican causes and candidates. He couldincrease that political investment to $100m before the election is done.
“What Sheldon Adelson is doing, the supreme court with all their wisdom and foresight thinks is legal,” Emanuel said. “Money coming from China – now you tell me how the supreme court earns itself the word ‘High court’.”
Together with the subsequent ruling, SpeechNow, the Citizens United decision paved the way for the proliferation of super Pacs, the largely Republican groups that are distorting this year’s presidential election through a vast injection of private cash.
Super Pacs have become the defining feature of the 2012 election cycle. Collectively, they promise to raise several hundreds of millions of dollars between now and the presidential election on 6 November – much of which is being spent on anti-Obama negative attack ads. Some analysts expect the total raised by the groups to exceed $1bn.
It is possible that the supreme court could agree to look again at its decision in the wake of a case in Montana where the lower courts have openly defied the ruling. The decision of the supreme court over whether or not to reconsider Citizens United could come as early as Monday.
Last month the retired supreme court justice John Paul Stevens, one of the four dissenting justices who opposed Citizens United, said that in his view a revision of the law was now inevitable. The original judgment was made after the justices split five against four, with the court’s five conservative members being in the majority.
Emanuel made a comparison between billionaire funders of super Pacs and John Edwards, the former senator who was unsuccessfully prosecuted for misusing campaign funds to cover up a secret affair during the 2008 Democratic primaries. “Think about this: the supreme court and the justice department are all part of one legal structure – we are a country of laws,” Emanuel said.
“Three weeks ago the justice department spent about $4m pursuing Edwards for a $900,000 ‘violation’ of campaign law. Yet Sheldon Adelson is legally writing a $20m check – now you tell me what’s more screwed up.”
Adelson is the most prominent of a new breed of super-wealthy political donors who have used Citizens United to pour huge sums into Republican-supporting super Pac.
Adelson is just one of a rash of wealthy Americans who have seized the opportunity afforded by Citizens United to intervene in the presidential race. An analysis by Forbes found that Restore Our Future, the super Pac backing the presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney, is being funded by no fewer than 32 billionaires .
By contrast, Obama’s re-election campaign is being backed by relatively few wealthy individuals this year, led by Jeffrey Katzenberg of the Dreamworks animation company.
Emanuel’s strong antagonism towards Citizens United was shared by his former boss. A week after the court made its decision, Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union address, delivered under the noses of the nine justices, that “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
© Guardian News and Media 2012
Right Wing Values: Sponsor Tycoons While Slashing Jobs and Food Stamps
By: Manny JalonschiJune 21,
What a truthful introduction to the American Right Wing this past week has been for any of us who were still unclear as to their priorities and motivations. What’s been offered to us by the sheer hubris of the corporate Right is an opportunity to really help our communities focus in on what that corporate faction considers an important value, and what they consider an expendable value.
As some of our activist elders might say, “this is a teachable moment.”
This past week, for example, we were told that our money (gathered together in a tax pool) was too important, too valuable, too rare to be invested into a bi-partisan bill that would not only save approximately 1.9 million jobs, but also stood to add another million jobs to the economy. With 3 million jobs in the balance, the American people were told that their communal accounts, their public funds, were too precious to spend on something as expensive as a transportation bill.
Put more honestly, though, 3 million jobs for the 99% aren’t worth it for the Right Wing because one pipeline for the 1 percent wasn’t included. This is emblematic of a consistent right-wing calculus. One pipeline (and 6,000 projected jobs) was enough to hold 3 million jobs hostage.
Thus, Republicans outed their own empty campaign propaganda about job growth
…when presented with a bill that saves 1.9 million transportation jobs and purports to create another million, you might be thinking the JobJobJob Party of Jobber Jobs would be all over it. You might be thinking that because you are a rational human, which the aforementioned JobJobJob Party of Jobber Jobs is not. They want their Keystone XL oil pipeline, and they’ll toss 1.9 million jobs in the garbage if they don’t get it.
The bill we doth speak of, dear reader, is the $109 billion transportation and infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate months ago, because that is the house of Congress not in the grips of an angry horde that learned its accounting skills from counting out 50 ears of corn to a bushel.
And let’s be honest here, for all the Right Wing hemming and hawing about communist Democrats and imagined socialist fixations of the Obama administrations, this transportation bill was more than a little generous to corporate America. The extreme posturing of the right-wing also can’t hide the fact that even corporate powerhouses like the Chamber of Commerce opposed the GOP’s own transportation bill. Via RMuse
What Republicans in the House did propose was an economically shortsighted bill that kills a half-a-million jobs next year alone. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “It defies imagination that the Republican leadership and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would turn their backs on the needs of our country and pretend it is good government.” Even the ultra-conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce blasted the Republican version of the transportation bill as being “devastating to construction and related industries—materials, equipment, design, engineering. As important, in the long run, disinvestment results in a less competitive economy and a drag on GDP due to underperforming infrastructure.”
The GOP is willing to jeopardize the national community’s roads, rails and bridges. The GOP is willing to cost us up to 3 million jobs. Why? Because the right-wing insists on using this occasion to force the Keystone XL pipeline, a high priority for Big Oil and related production interests, like the Koch Empire. Three million jobs in a time of economic crisis is quite simply “not worth it” for the faction deepest in bed with the oil interests.
That’s the unchanging, quintessential tenet of the corporate right. If it’s not maximum profit, it’s not worth it. Improving the country and creating jobs aren’t “worth it”–much like feeding needy families isn’t “worth it” to the GOP.
This past week when New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand moved to restore $4.5 billion in food stamp funding, she was overwhelmingly rejected by a GOP-led 33-66 vote (the amendment needed 60 votes to pass). The GOP (joined by a few corporate Democrats) rejected aid specifically to needy families so they could preserve guaranteed profits for the crop insurance companies that help prop up the tycoons of Big Agro, like Cargill or Monsanto. As explained by Michael McAuliff at HuffPo
Gillibrand had hoped to prevent food aid cuts in the $969 billion bill by trimming the guaranteed profit for crop insurance companies from 14 to 12 percent and by lowering payments for crop insurers from $1.3 billion to $825 million.
The cuts target the so-called heat-and-eat initiative in which 14 states automatically make families eligible for more food aid if they receive even $1 in help paying their utility bills. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the decrease would amount to about $90 a month for an affected family, representing a quarter of its food budget.
“Half of the food stamp beneficiaries are children, 17 percent are seniors, and unfortunately now 1.5 million households are veteran households that are receiving food stamps,” Gillibrand said, referring not just to heat-and-eat participants, but the broader population of food stamp recipients.
Feeding folks who also have trouble paying their heating bill? Feeding veterans and seniors who have already paid their fair share into that system? That’s not worth it for the GOP. It’s not worth decreasing how much profit our tax money guarantees for the already profitable crop-insurance giants. Guaranteeing even 2 percentage points less in profit is too much of a compromise of Right Wing values to preserve a program that provides an average of a quarter of a needy family’s food budget.
Much like 3 million jobs aren’t worth it, but their corporate masters’ pet project is, we should notice that this isn’t just a recent flurry of rightwing ideology winning out over the alleviation of human suffering. No, this isn’t some exceptional instance. This is how the right wing works year-in and year-out.
Typical to their entitlement/privilege addiction, the Right Wing habitually and unremittingly uses the tax money we’ve all gathered together to further enrich the tycoons that sponsored their rise to power, like the oil companies, Big Agro, the War Industry and the Koch Brothers. Allowing you to use your own tax money to feed your neighbor in a time when half of us are basically poor, that’s not a concern for the Right-Wing outside of the need to repress it.
Through our government, the GOP is enforcing a national set of priorities where letting the poor starve is okay, and even laudable if in the same process you’re enriching someone who’s already pretty wealthy.
It’s long past time to stop pretending these are exclusively political questions and political failings. These are human questions. These are human failings. The pretense that issues of such life and death consequence are merely political is a dangerous and reductive farce that benefits whichever side has the most to gain from ignoring the real travail and human suffering that results from an accounting change here or there.
When we as activists raise these budgetary topics, it’s not just the niceties of our accounting or the dexterity of our rhetoric that should be the focus of our efforts to change the national discourse. These technical academic points are important but if they’re only contextualized by themselves, academic or statistical narratives can too often be a limited and distant description of a much larger, bleaker and more human reality.
After all, there’s really no proper statistic to encapsulate the amount of desperation a working mother feels when she has to send her kid to school hungry. Abstract numbers under-represent the real, actualized human suffering when a parent has to make tough decisions between housing and food for their children. Profit doesn’t care about the hunger pains of someone who’s been unemployed for an average of 40 weeks. That personal financial terror matters only to people, not to the profit motive that has colonized our government with the well-paid hands of the Right Wing.
Connected to every tax break is a cut to food stamps and the triggered suffering of tens of millions. Behind ever fossil fuel subsidy there’s a public school closed and another generation of young minds wasted. For every scrapped food, water or environmental regulation, there are thousands of deaths, millions of birth defects, billions of asthma attacks, trillions of dollars in personal wealth lost to healthcare expenses. For every tax deduction One Percenters like Romney get for things like a dancing horse, we have to close a firehouse or a park. For every labor standard we don’t stand for abroad, there’s a closed factory and brand spanking new prison at home. For every new tax loophole, there are thousands of lost jobs and thousands of ruined lives. For every Right Wing priority and goal there is a consequence of serious human suffering.
Let’s stop pretending we all want what’s good for everybody in America. The corporate right has colonized our government and they have absolutely zero interest in what’s good for America as a country or as a community of human beings.
The consequences of right-wing politics are, were and will continue to be the exacerbation of human suffering. They won’t stop doing it, so we should never stop pointing it out.
Why? Because alleviating the suffering of our fellow human being is a good and decent act. No politics, no ideology, no amount of billionaire gluttony should ever trump that. Any political stance where human beings aren’t “worth it” is dangerous and will ultimately be as inhumane in its outcomes as it is in its design. Greed hurts. Avarice kills. Authoritarianism, corporate or otherwise, destroys. The fact that we don’t, as a nation, acknowledge that these are destructive behaviors with painful human consequences is a fundamentally disturbing statement about what our basic values are. We’re not just in a fight for politics, we’re in a fight for human values.
We need to turn 90 degrees away from the political stage, ignore our “leaders” for a few minutes, and directly face each other as the 99 percent. We need to remind each other of the human cost of right-wing politics. We are the 99 Percent and if we don’t value each others struggles, no one ever will.
June 22, 2012 12:00 PM
Study: Exponential Leap In LA's 95-Degree Days By Mid-Century
By Susie Madrak
It was 102 here in Philadelphia today, and all my plants are wilted on my front steps. Imagine how bad it will be when California's farming industry is the lucky recipient of so many more scorching days:
By the middle of the century, the number of days with temperatures above 95 degrees each year will triple in downtown Los Angeles, quadruple in portions of the San Fernando Valley and even jump five-fold in a portion of the High Desert in LA County, according to a new UCLA climate change study.
The study, released Thursday, is the first to model the Southland's complex geography of meandering coastlines, mountain ranges and dense urban centers in high enough resolution to predict temperatures down to the level of micro climate zones, each measuring 2 1/4 square miles. The projections are for 2041 to 2060.
Not only will the number of hot days increase, but the study found that the hottest of those days will break records, said Alex Hall, lead researcher on the study by UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The record for downtown Los Angeles is 113 degrees, set Sept. 27, 2010, when the Department of Water and Power electricity demand reached a historic peak of 6,177 megawatts.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the forecasts provide the groundwork for local governments, utilities, hospitals and other institutions to prepare for the hot spells to come. Villaraigosa said the region may have to strengthen building codes to reduce risk to residents. "That could mean replacing incentives with building codes requiring 'green' and 'cool' roofs, cool pavements, tree canopies and parks," he said.
The study, aided by a UCLA supercomputer, is 2,500 times more precise than previous climate models for the region, said Paul Bunje, executive director of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions. The computer made roughly 1 quintillion calculations — the equivalent of eight times all the grains of sand on the beaches of the western United States — over a period of six months to assess every aspect of 25 global warming models that might be applicable to Southern California.
CIA allegedly ordered ‘torture cage’ at secret black site prison
By Muriel Kane
Friday, June 22, 2012 20:41 EDT
A Polish official claims that prosecutors in Krakow have proof the CIA wanted a special “torture cage” to be constructed at one of its secret “black site” prisons.
According to ABC News, the proof consists of a document showing that “a local contractor was asked to build a cage at Stare Kiekuty, a Polish army base used as a CIA prison for al Qaeda terror suspects in 2002 and 2003.”
Senator Jozef Pinior told the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza that he had not seen the construction order himself but that the prosecutor’s office has a copy of it. “In a state with rights, people are not kept in cages,” Pinior stated.
He said he was sure the cage was intended for humans, since there could have been no other purpose for it, and that a cage is “non-standard equipment” for a prison unless “torture was used there.”
The CIA has declined to comment on these allegations.
Gazeta Wyborcza also reports that the prosecutor’s office has a signed order from the former head of Polish intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, authorizing the creation of the black site. According to the paper’s source, there is no American signature “because they do not want to sign documents inconsistent with their own Constitution and international law.”
Siemiatkowski has refused to either confirm or deny the existence of the agreement but acknowledges that he is under investigation for permitting the corporal punishment of prisoners of war.
The existence of the CIA’s black site network was first revealed by the Washington Post in 2005, but the Stare Kiekuty location was only identified in 2007, in a Raw Story article by Larisa Alexandrovna and David Dastych. Since then, Abu Zubaydah and other terrorism suspects have stated that they were tortured at the former intelligence training school before being taken to Guantanamo.
Raw Story reported at the time that “only the Polish prime minister and top Polish intelligence brass were told of the plan, in which agents of the United States quietly shuttled detainees from other holding facilities around the globe for stopovers and short-term interrogation in Poland between late 2002 and 2004.”
According to the current ABC story, “Alexander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, who were president and prime minister at the time it was allegedly used as a CIA prison, have denied the existence of the Stare Kiekuty black site. Sen. Pinior said he presented his evidence ‘with regret, because I always valued [Kwasniewski's] presidency.’”
Study: Sea-level rise two or three times higher than expected
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 22, 2012 16:14 EDT
Global sea levels could rise two to three times higher over the next century than previously estimated, according to a study released Friday by the US National Research Council.
A committee of experts evaluated that latest UN estimates and updated them with new data on polar ice-cap melting that is believed to be speeding up sea level rise around the world.
By 2100, the NRC estimates that global sea levels will rise between 20-55 inches (50 and 140 centimeters).
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projection in 2007 had predicted a fraction of that, at seven to 23 inches (18-59 centimeters) worldwide.
Researchers said the wide range within each estimate is due to increasing uncertainty about sea level projections as they attempt to assess what may happen further and further into the future.
In the near term, the NRC predicted a global sea level rise of three to nine inches (eight to 23 centimeters) by 2030 (over the 2000 level) and seven to 19 inches (18 to 48 centimeters) by 2050.
The committee was convened by an executive order from the state of California to assess sea level rise in order to inform preparations for coastal impact, and to make the first detailed predictions for the US West Coast.
The NRC found that the sea level was projected to rise faster than global estimates in much of southern California due to land erosion and subsiding coastline.
But the northern part of the state as well as the coasts of Oregon and Washington could see less of an impact than the rest of the world because of shifts in the Earth that are causing the coasts there to rise, it said.
“The lower sea levels projected for northern California, Washington and Oregon coasts are because the land is rising largely due to plate tectonics,” said the report.
“In this region, the ocean plate is descending below the continental plate at the Cascadia Subduction Zone, pushing up the coast.”
More severe weather events are expected to accompany higher sea levels, and a major earthquake in northern California could cause a sudden sea level rise of one meter (yard) or more, the report said.
Robert Dalrymple, committee chair and professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University, noted that “as the average sea level rises, the number and duration of extreme storm surges and high waves are expected to escalate, and this increases the risk of flooding, coastal erosion and wetland loss.”
The NRC study was jointly sponsored by the states of California, Washington and Oregon, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey.
Looting in Bolivia as police strike over low pay
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 22, 2012 22:04 EDT
Looting broke out near Bolivia’s presidential palace Friday as junior members of the police force angry over low wages joined a nationwide mutiny.
A crowd of some 200 officers, wearing civilian clothes and covering their faces, attacked the National Intelligence Directorate, smashing windows and pulling out furniture, documents, computers and even setting flags on fire.
The Directorate, which also houses the police disciplinary board, is located one block from the main square in La Paz, where the presidential palace is located.
“Mutiny, police mutiny!” chanted the protesters as they ransacked the office.
Some 20 police stations in the country’s ten main cities, including La Paz and Cochabamba, have joined the uprising. On Thursday, protestors took over the headquarters of the country’s riot police, as well as eight other police stations.
In an upscale La Paz neighborhood, roughly 300 protesters hurled rocks and shattered windows at national police headquarters. Police on duty outside the building offered no resistance.
The protesters, some of whom marched with their wives, also demanded the resignation of national police chief, Colonel Victor Maldonado.
They are demanding to negotiate directly with President Evo Morales, who was in the presidential palace under heavy military protection.
Interior Minister Carlos Romero, however, said in a statement that the government was willing to raise pay and engage in a “dialogue to find solutions.”
Police currently earn an average of $195 a month, and want their lowest pay raised to $287 a month. Demands also include full pay upon retirement.
23 June 2012 - 06H13
Outcry in Latin America as Paraguay leader ousted
AFP - Paraguayan lawmakers impeached president Fernando Lugo over his handling of a deadly land dispute, prompting an angry din across Latin America and refusals to recognize his successor.
In a 39-to-4 vote, senators found Lugo, a 61-year-old former Catholic priest with a string of outstanding paternity cases, guilty of performing his duties badly during a land dispute last week that left 17 people dead.
An hour later, to cheers inside Congress and angry clashes outside, 49-year-old vice president Federico Franco was sworn in as the new leader of one of Latin America's poorest nations.
"The process took place in a manner that was a little bit quick and it took me and all Paraguayans by surprise," Franco said, hours after taking the oath of office and as he set about swearing in new ministers.
Police, some on horseback, used tear gas and water cannons to beat back crowds of thousands outside Congress chanting "Lugo, president!" and tearing down fences.
Lugo, who rose to power in 2008 as a champion of the poor, ending more than six decades of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party, called for calm in a brief speech before leaving the presidential palace.
"I submit to the decision of Congress," Lugo said, adding that "the history of Paraguay and its democracy have been deeply wounded."
"Today I retire as president, but not as a Paraguayan citizen," he said. "May the blood of the just not be spilled."
Holed up in the palace earlier while events in the Senate took their course, he angrily denounced the lawmakers' action, saying: "It is more than a coup d'etat, it's a parliamentary coup dressed up as a legal procedure."
A torrent of furious responses poured in from across the region, not just from traditional leftist allies like Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, but also from centrist and right-wing governments in Argentina and Chile.
"Without any doubt there has been a coup d'etat in Paraguay. It is unacceptable," said Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner.
"In the name of the Venezuelan people and as head of state, Venezuela does not recognize this worthless, illegal and illegitimate government that has been installed in Asuncion," blasted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in words echoed by Bolivian and Nicaraguan leaders.
Even in Santiago, where Sebastian Pinera is Chile's first right-wing president since the late dictator Augusto Pinochet left office, there was disbelief at the move.
The impeachment "did not fulfill the minimum requirements for this type of procedure," Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno said on national television.
Central American nations issued a joint statement urging the international community to reject Lugo's impeachment.
Lawmakers announced the surprise move against Lugo after clashes last week left at least six police and 11 squatters dead on a huge estate poor farmers claim was acquired by political influence decades ago.
Lugo sacked his interior minister and Paraguay's police chief to try to defuse the crisis, which highlighted the president's failure to redistribute land to the poor in a country where only a gilded few have all the wealth.
But the president became isolated when the right-wing Colorado Party joined forces in the impeachment bid with the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, part of his ruling coalition.
Lugo appealed the impeachment proceedings before the Supreme Court, saying they were unconstitutional and that under the law he had the right to delay the process for 18 days to give him time to prepare his defense.
As it turned out, five lawyers acting on the president's behalf had only two hours to present their case in the Senate, where only four of 45 senators remained allied to Lugo.
The suddenly former president, who was recently treated for lymphatic cancer, had already said he would not seek another term in April 2013 elections.
Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, foreign ministers from the regional grouping UNASUR were dispatched to Paraguay from a UN environment summit in Rio de Janeiro after the lower house vote on Thursday.
Extremely popular at the time of his election, Lugo saw his reputation in this predominantly Catholic country take a nosedive by repeated claims he fathered children while under a vow of chastity.
Earlier this month, he acknowledged being the father of Angel, a 10-year-old boy. Already in 2009, Lugo admitted to being the father of another three-year-old boy. In addition, he faces at least two other paternity suits.
23 June 2012 - 05H47
UN summit approves strategy on poverty, environment
AFP - The biggest UN summit on sustainable development in a decade approved a strategy to haul more than a billion people out poverty and cure the sickness of the biosphere.
But critics branded the plan a cruel failure, saying it had been gutted of ambition by national interests.
The gathering of 191 UN members crowned a 10-day forum marking 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, where leaders vowed the world would live within its environmental means.
In a sprawling 53-page statement, the three-day summit voiced dismay at entrenched poverty and mounting ecological stress.
"We... renew our commitment to sustainable development, and to ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations," it said.
Entitled "The Future We Want," the statement highlighted the many perils facing a planet whose human population is set to surge from seven billion today to 9.5 billion by 2050.
The long list includes climate change, desertification, fisheries depletion, pollution and deforestation, and the danger that thousands of species will go the way of the dodo.
"Sustainable Development Goals" will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals from 2015, although defining the aim will be left for future talks -- a process likely to be long and fiercely fought.
The strategy also promotes the green economy, a concept that breaks new ground in official UN terminology but is viewed suspiciously by many developing economies.
The statement also reflected the worries of advanced economies battling a deep financial crisis.
Despite the demands of developing nations for $30 billion in help, the text stipulated no funding figures to achieve sustainability goals.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the outcome "provides a firm foundation for social, economic, environmental well-being."
"It will guide us, all of us, towards a sustainable path. It is now our responsibility to build on it."
President Dilma Rousseff told a press conference that Brazil, the host country, had secured the compromise after months of haggling.
"The consensus is a point of departure, not arrival," she cautioned.
"With this document, nations move forward. We cannot allow anyone to remain behind. The next conference will have to be a leap forward."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the document "marks a real advance for sustainable development. We know this is one of the most pressing matters of our time."
But others said a historic opportunity had been thrown away.
"The two defining challenges we face today are eradicating global poverty and managing the risks of climate change," said British economist Lord Nicholas Stern, author of a landmark study into the costs of global warming.
"But the conference has failed to acknowledge the compelling evidence about the scale and urgency of action required."
A registry that was opened during the conference showed that nearly 700 commitments, mobilizing $513 billion, had been made for sustainable development by governments and businesses, the UN said on Friday.
It gave no details about whether the funding was new or the criteria for determining whether the projects were sustainable.
In the green movement, many activists branded Rio+20 a disappointment to rank alongside the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, a near-fiasco.
"The only people dancing in Rio tonight will be those who continue to benefit from a broken economic model that puts profit ahead of people and planet," said Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth.
"Rio+20 has been a failure of epic proportions," said Greenpeace's executive director, Kumi Naidoo.
"We must now work together to form a movement to tackle the equity, ecology and economic crises being forced on our children. The only outcome of this summit is justifiable anger, an anger that we must turn into action."
Ban had named the Conference on Sustainable Development as the cornerstone of his plan for fairer, cleaner growth, the "No. 1 priority" of his tenure.
But talk of a summit that would draw as many 130 heads of state or government to give a push to his goals was way off the mark.
In the end, less than half of the UN's roll call of countries sent their leader, with the remainder represented by deputies, ministers or simply chief negotiators.
Absentees included US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and British Prime Minister David Cameron.