Hydro Tasmania accused of breaking word over King Island windfarm
Support of residents falls below 60% company said was needed to build southern hemisphere's largest windfarm
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 June 2013 07.33 BST
Hydro Tasmania has defended its decision to continue plans to create the southern hemisphere's largest windfarm on King Island, after a survey of residents narrowly failed to reach a target of 60% of community support.
A postal survey sent out to 1,500 King Island residents revealed that 516 out of 878 respondents want a feasibility study into the proposed 200-turbine windfarm.
This translates to 58.7% support for the study. Hydro Tasmania previously said it would not push ahead with plans for the windfarm if 60% or more of the community did not back the idea, prompting a furious response from anti-wind activists.
"Today's decision by Hydro Tasmania will only create further division in an already divided community," said Jim Benn, a King Island resident and head of the No TasWind Farm Group.
"Near enough is not good enough. 60 is 60, not 58.77.
"How can King Islanders ever trust Hydro Tasmania again? There is no way Hydro Tasmania can proceed to a feasibility study when 362 people or more than 40% of the King Island community has said no."
Benn said that the windfarm plans should be scrapped in favour of a planned golf course.
"The No TasWind Farm Group calls on Hydro Tasmania to keep to its word and abandon its feasibility study," he said.
"This whole debacle has unnecessarily divided our small community. It's time for healing so we can focus on a bright future built on golfing tourism, a future that would have been ruined by turning our home into a giant wind energy factory for Victoria."
However, Hydro Tasmania director of corporate services, Andrew Catchpole, insisted that it had the support to continue with the feasibility study, pointing out that the renewable energy company would create an annual community fund of around $1m for King Island.
Proponents of the windfarm, which would cover around 15% of the Bass Strait island, said the project would create around 500 direct and indirect jobs and between $7m and $9m of additional economic benefit for the island.
"I know some have implied that the figure of 60 is a number that will determine if the project goes ahead or not. However, we have always said that 60% would be a good indication of broad community support. We got 59% and that is a very good result," Catchpole said.
Catchpole said that further measurements on impacts would be made and that the King Island community would "have another chance to have its say" before any development application is lodged.
"From our consultation process we understand that the principal concern of the community is the visual impact of the wind farm, closely followed by the noise and health impact concerns," he said.
"Consequently, we will focus as a matter of priority on resolving the elements of windfarm feasibility that have the most impact on these concerns, especially location, so that we can address these areas of concern.
"While we believe the project if it proceeds to construction will have a significant and positive impact on the island's economy there is a long way to go before that happens. I can only repeat that this project will not proceed without ongoing broad community support."
The establishment of new wind-powered energy has become an increasingly contentious topic, with around 150 people attending a "wind power fraud rally" in Canberra last week.
Maurice Newman, the man slated to be Tony Abbott's top business adviser, has also taken a firm anti-wind stance and is among a group of landholders who are threatening to sue a neighbouring farmer for agreeing to allow wind turbines on his property.
Spanish town goes green by turning sewage into clean energy
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 7:27 EDT
By Tracy Rucinski
CHICLANA DE LA FRONTERA, Spain (Reuters) – A Spanish resort town with sprawling golf courses and tree-lined beaches has added another green site to its attractions: the world’s first plant to convert sewage into clean energy.
The facility in Chiclana de la Frontera on the southwest tip of Spain uses wastewater and sunlight to produce algae-based biofuel as part of a 12 million euro ($15.7 million) project to pursue alternative energies and reduce reliance on foreign oil.
The use of algae for biomass, once touted by U.S. President Barack Obama as the fuel of the future, has been written off by some critics who say the large quantities of energy, water and chemicals needed to produce it makes the process unsustainable.
The project in Chiclana, called All-gas to sound like “algas” or seaweed in Spanish, seeks to prove otherwise, becoming the first municipal wastewater plant using cultivated algae as a source for biofuel.
While industries such as breweries or paper mills have produced biogas from wastewater for their own energy needs, All-gas is the first to grow algae from sewage in a systematic way to produce a net export of bioenergy, including vehicle biofuel.
“Nobody has done the transformation from wastewater to biofuel, which is a sustainable approach,” said All-gas project leader Frank Rogalla, standing outside a trailer-laboratory set up beside an algae pond at the waste treatment site in Chiclana.
Carbon dioxide is used to produce algae biomass, and the green sludge is transformed into gas, a clean biofuel commonly used in buses or garbage trucks because it is less polluting.
All-gas’ owner Aqualia is the world’s third largest private water company. It is owned by loss-making Spanish infrastructure firm FCC which is betting on its environmental services business to relieve pain from a domestic construction downturn.
While energy efficiency projects have gained pace in other European countries, Spain has been held back by a yawning budget gap that was at the centre of concerns the country would need an international bailout last year.
The All-gas project is three-fifths financed by the European Union FP7 program to determine the effectiveness of the methane produced from algae-derived biomass in cars and trucks.
TOILETS TO TANKS
The Chiclana plant, still in a pilot phase and 200 square meters in size, harvested its first crop of algae last month and expects to fuel its first car by December.
All-gas expects it to be fully up and running by 2015, when it aims for 3,000 kg of algae on 10 hectares of land, roughly 10 football fields, to generate annual biofuel production worth 100,000 euros – that’s enough biofuel to run about 200 cars or 10 city garbage trucks a year.
Spain is battling a record 27 percent unemployment rate, with the south worst affected, and cash-strapped consumers have struggled under the weight of wage cuts and tax hikes over the past two years aimed at reining in the public deficit.
Chiclana, which relies on tourism and salt-processing fields for its livelihood, was chosen for the site because of its ample sunlight and a long stretch of land that runs along oceanside salt fields where algae can be easily grown in man-made ponds.
All-gas says its sewage plant is over 2 million euros cheaper to set up and run than a conventional sewage plant.
But whether the project is able to fuel cars on a large scale will depend on the amount and quality of bioethanol it can eventually produce, and at what cost.
Researchers so far have concluded that it may take years before algal biofuels are economically viable, though they may eventually be able to replace some portion of petroleum.
The All-gas model has drawn interest from other efficiency-minded municipalities in southern Spain with populations between 20,000 and 100,000 and with enough land to develop the algal ponds, said Rogalla, who has identified at least 300 small towns where such projects could work.
Aqualia has also had contact with Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and a French company over the possibility of building and operating similar water treatment plants under a concession.
Rogalla is optimistic.
“The opportunity is such that 40 million people, roughly the population of Spain, would be able to power 200,000 vehicles from just flushing their toilet!” he said.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Pravin Char)
[Algae colonies are pictured with a digital camera through a microscope after being collected from a tank at a waste-water treatment plant in Chiclana de la Frontera, near Cadiz, southern Spain June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Jon Nazca]
06/27/2013 01:44 PM
Car Clash: Germany Blocks CO2 Reduction Deal
There were threats, lobbying and even a call from Chancellor Merkel to the Irish prime minister. In the end, Germany got its way and managed to delay an EU decision on lowering the amount of CO2 European-made cars may emit.
Germany has long seen itself as a leader when it comes to efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and combat climate change. Indeed, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government remains committed to radically expanding its reliance on renewable energies in the coming decades.
But when it comes to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases German-made automobiles produce, Berlin is far less ambitious. And this week, Merkel managed to block the adoption of new emissions limits for cars produced in the European Union. Stricter caps, she insisted, could severely handicap Germany's automobile industry, focused as it is on the luxury car sector.
EU member states on Thursday had been set to rubber-stamp a deal hammered out on Monday evening between the European Council -- led by Ireland as current holder of the rotating EU presidency -- and the European Parliament. The agreement foresees the reduction of a company's fleet-wide CO2 emissions from 130 grams to 95 grams per kilometer by 2020.
But Berlin undertook a flurry of lobbying this week, with Merkel even calling Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on Wednesday in an effort to have the issue removed from the agenda of the Thursday meeting of ambassadors to the EU from the 27 member states. Others in Berlin also sought to delay the vote so as to give Germany time to assemble enough allies to block the deal. In the end, the effort was successful and a decision on the item was delayed until October.
A Threat from Berlin
According to the German newswire DPA, diplomats from Berlin had threatened that the German automobile industry would be forced to move out of Europe if the stricter emissions levels were passed. On Wednesday, the Economics Ministry appeared to make the same threat in comments to Reuters. "Many jobs are dependent on the automobile industry," a ministry spokesperson told the news agency. "It is an important factor for Germany's competitiveness. The EU has clearly said it wishes to place Europe's competitiveness in the foreground. As such, we need decisions from Brussels that conform to this ambition."
The delay will give Berlin more time to assemble a blocking minority to weaken the CO2 limits. By October, Croatia will have become a full EU member and observers believe the country could join Germany. Furthermore, Ireland will no longer hold the rotating EU presidency; Lithuania is set to take over. That too could make a difference.
Prior to Thursday, Germany had only been able to garner the support of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both countries that have become increasingly dependent on the automobile industry in recent years.
Carmakers in other European countries, such as Italy and France, would have an easier time meeting the new limits because of the smaller average size of the vehicles they produce. Even so, they too would have some work to do. According to Germany's Federal Motor Transport Authority, even such small-car producers like Renault, Peugeot and Fiat still have an average fleet output of over 130 grams of CO2 per kilometer. BMW is currently over 140 grams per kilometer and Mercedes stands at 153. The Volkswagen fleet emits an average of 139.2 grams per kilometer.
European Union diplomats had voiced anger with German efforts to torpedo the deal. "It is a scandal," one unnamed diplomat told DPA on Wednesday.
There are many in Germany who are likewise unsettled by the government's position, particularly the similarity between the position taken by Merkel and that represented by the automobile industry. Merkel has demanded that automakers be allowed to "bank" credits for the production of electric cars prior to 2020. The current deal only allows electric cars to offset CO2 emissions for the period after 2020. Furthermore, Berlin wanted electric cars to be calculated at a ratio of 3 to 1 instead of the 1.3 to 1 ratio proposed by the Commission.
That position is virtually identical to the position adopted by the German automobile industry, which has heavily lobbied Merkel in recent weeks.
EU plans to make it mandatory for ship owners to measure carbon emissions
Carbon reporting for ships using EU ports will become legally binding if approved by the European parliament
guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 June 2013 12.43 BST
Owners of large ships using EU ports will have to measure and report annual carbon emissions from January 2018 under new European commission proposals published on Friday.
The plans stop short of including shipping emissions in the EU carbon market, but the commission says they can still have an impact and are part of its work towards global emissions agreements.
"The EU monitoring system will bring environmental and economic gains for the shipping sector by increasing transparency about emissions and creating an incentive for ship-owners to cut them," Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for climate action, said in a statement.
The proposals are subject to months of debate and will need approval from EU member states and the European parliament before they can become law.
They would create an EU-wide legal framework for collecting and publishing verified annual data on CO2 emissions from all large ships (defined as more than 5,000 gross tons) that use EU ports, irrespective of where the ships are registered.
Owners – such as Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk A/S, the group behind the world's biggest container shipping operator – will also be required to provide other information, such as data to determine the ships' energy efficiency.
The commission said the EU-wide monitoring system should cut emissions from the journeys covered by up to 2% and could also help to reduce costs to owners.
Debate on how to handle shipping emissions, which the commission estimates account for 3% of global and 4% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, has rumbled on for years with little progress.
Without action, shipping emissions are expected to more than double by 2050 as transport demand increases.
Preliminary discussions between EU member states and the shipping industry addressed the option of including emissions in the emissions trading scheme.
But there is little chance of that happening in the short term, given the international outcry and threats of a trade war that followed an earlier decision to expand the carbon trading scheme to include all flights to and from EU airports.
As a result, the EU agreed to freeze the charge on intercontinental flights for a year to give the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) a chance to come up with an alternative.
Talks are already under way at the International Maritime Organisation on a global deal for shipping emissions. The EC says its measures on both shipping and airlines are only being introduced pending a worldwide agreement and the EU shipping rules would be modified if necessary to conform to any global standards, if agreed.
Indians question how far flash-flooding disaster was manmade
Boom in religious tourism and hydroelectric projects may have contributed to disaster in Uttarakhand
Maseeh Rahman in Delhi
guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 June 2013 10.36 BST
As India picks up the pieces from the worst-ever flash floods in the Himalayas, the nation is beginning to wonder to what extent human intervention – specifically religious tourism and hydroelectric projects – contributed to the disaster.
About 1,000 people have been confirmed dead in Uttarakhand state from last week's flooding, and state authorities say the actual toll could be three to five times higher.
The Himalayas are a relatively young mountain range with a fragile geology prone to landslides. The deluge on 17 June destroyed towns, villages, roads and bridges for more than 60 miles along the banks of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda, two important tributaries of the Ganges river.
The origin of the disaster is beyond dispute: a glacier ruptured under the pressure of water from a severe cloudburst, raining tonnes of ice, water and rock on the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath, on the left bank of the Mandakini.
Uttarakhand has experienced flash floods in the past. The latest disaster occurred at the peak of the pilgrim season, increasing the number of casualties.
The boom in religious tourism has put a severe strain on the state's shaky infrastructure. The region has some of Hinduism's most sacred pilgrim destinations. Domestic tourist traffic has shot up by 300% in a decade, to more than 30 million a year. This number is expected to double by 2017.
"There's a spurt in religiosity across India," said the sociologist Arshad Alam. "After two decades of rapid economic growth, the middle class has expanded and has more money to spend. So pilgrimages have become very popular."
As a result, hundreds of new multistorey hotels, apartment blocks and religious centres have sprung up in Uttarakhand, often on the flood plains of the capricious Mandakini and Alakananda rivers, in defiance of building regulations. Several were washed away last week.
"There has to be a check on the mindless, uncontrolled religious tourism in the Himalaya," said Maharaj K Pandit, director of Delhi University's centre for interdisciplinary studies of mountain and hill environment.
But most analysts believe restricting the number of pilgrims would be political suicide. "The desire to worship at Kedarnath is almost like an irresistible force," said Pavan Srinath, of the Chennai-based thinktank Takshashila Foundation. "Despite the tragedy, people are already talking about when they will undertake the sacred journey. No government can bar the devout from the Himalayas."
Pandit acknowledged it was a "ticklish issue", but said the tourist boom was putting unbearable strain on the Himalayan ecosystem. During the season, for instance, there is bumper-to-bumper traffic spewing diesel smoke on badly constructed mountain roads. "I once counted 117 buses go over a bridge in eight minutes," he said.
In recent years Uttarakhand has also seen a boom in hydroelectric projects. Seventy projects are up or under way in the mountain state, some of nearly 300 planned by Delhi for the entire Himalayas. A few come with dams, but a majority are run-of-the-river projects requiring tunnelling through the mountainside. A recent official audit revealed that in some parts of the upper Ganges basin there is a hydroelectric project planned for every three to four miles of river.
There were reports of serious damage to some of these projects in last week's deluge, with the debris causing havoc to the neighbouring environment, both natural and manmade. One of the worst-hit towns was Shrinagar, downstream from a newly constructed dam on the banks of the Alaknanda tributary. Much of the low-lying town was buried under thick sludge three metres (10ft) high, destroying even large government buildings and warehouses.
A recent article in Science magazine warned against damage to the ecosystem from badly planned, poorly monitored projects. The region is known for its biodiversity – its flowers, butterflies and Mahseer fish. Science estimated that habitat degradation from dam building in the Himalayas could lead to the disappearance of 29 species of flowering plants and terrestrial and aquatic life.
"Nobody is saying there should be no dams," said Pandit, the article's co-author. "But the emphasis should be on securing the Himalayan landscape after understanding its fragility, not on uncontrolled development."
Not all experts are in agreement. Srinath maintains that the devastation would have been even more widespread if the reservoir of the region's biggest dam at Tehri had not contained a significant volume of the deluge. "Dams can also prevent disasters," he said. "The critical issue is not dams, but proper dam management. In India, we just don't have a culture of public safety."
Pandit was not convinced. "Dams do hold water, but once they reach their maximum capacity they become ticking bombs," he said. Tehri dam is dangerously full, even though the monsoon has just begun. Next month a million pilgrims are expected in Uttarakhand for the annual Kanwar Yatra at Haridwar, downstream from Tehri.
"The Himalaya is an earthquake-prone zone, so God forbid, if a major dam ever bursts the destruction it will cause will be unimaginable," said Pandit.
For the devotees of Dhari Devi, a local avatar of the fierce Hindu goddess Kali, the flash flooding might seem preordained. Dhari Devi's tiny shrine in Shrinagar was to have been submerged by the water systems of a local reservoir, and national Hindu leaders appealed to the prime minister against its relocation. According to local lore, the goddess protected Uttarakhand from calamities, so her shrine could not be touched. But the power company moved the black stone idol on the night of 16 June to save it from the swollen dam reservoir. Within hours, disaster struck.
Obama to launch major wildlife trafficking initiative in Africa
By Juliet Eilperin, Published: July 1, 2013 at 8:38 amE-mail the writer
President Obama will launch a new initiative in Tanzania on Monday aimed at combating illegal wildlife trafficking, according to White House officials.
Using his executive authority, Obama will convene a Cabinet-level task force composed of the State, Interior and Justice departments that will be charged with devising a national strategy to curb the illegal trade of wildlife across the globe. The initiative also will include $10 million specifically earmarked for addressing poaching in Africa, particularly of rhinos and elephants.
Grant Harris, the senior director for Africa for the National Security Council, told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama also will announce that he will detail a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official to Tanzania to help them tackle the issue.
This illicit activity—in which elephants, rhinos, sharks and other species are hunted in developing nations and sold to consumers in wealthier countries– has reached unprecedented heights in recent years. It is now valued at between $7 billion to $10 billion a year, placing it among the world’s top five illegal activities after drugs, human trafficking, counterfeiting and arms.
The demand for animal parts, driven largely by Asia, has had a devastating effect on Africa’s wildlife. Roughly 30,000 African elephants were killed illegally in 2012, the largest number in 20 years. And this year alone South Africa has lost almost 450 rhinos, which could make 2013 a record for poaching of the imperiled species.
Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of conservation strategy and science for the World Wildlife Fund in the United States, said the move was significant because it brings “high-level attention to this serious crime issue” in an unprecedented way.
“This takes it up to the highest level in the government,” Hemley said in an interview. “It’s putting it at the level of narcotics and human trafficking.”
Harris said that rhinoceros horns are now selling on the black market for $30,000 a pound, or “literally worth greater than their weight in gold,” as he put it. Ivory from elephant tusks is selling or $1,000 a pound. ”It’s decimating the populations of some of Africa’s iconic animals, including rhinoceros and elephants as well.”
In March an international convention of wildlife officials, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), refrained from imposing sanctions on Vietnam and Mozambique — which conservationists consider the world’s worst offenders in the illegal trade of rhino horn — but strongly urged the two countries to do far more to stop poaching.
U.S. efforts on this front have suffered a financial hit due to sequestration. The Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement canceled plans this year to train 24 new agents who investigate criminal activity.
“One thing we have been doing so far is raising the global profile of how bad this issue is,” Harris said. ”We’ve also had a massive diplomatic campaign, including under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was at the State Department, convening people at State and making this a big diplomatic part of our policy.”
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the president had raised the issue with China in an effort to address the demand side of the equation. “I know its come up at the president and the Secretary of State level with the Chinese,” Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. “A lot of these syndicates are based in China.”
Australian researchers closing in on malaria vaccine
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:15 EDT
Australian researchers said Tuesday they were closing in on a potential vaccine against malaria, with a study showing their treatment had protected mice against several strains of the disease.
Michael Good, from Queensland’s Griffith University, said the vaccine led to naturally existing white blood cells, or T-cells, attacking the potentially deadly malaria parasite which lives in red blood cells.
“A single vaccination induced profound immunity to different malaria parasite species,” the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, states.
Good said the team’s research was focused on inducing the white blood cells to attack the parasite, whatever the malaria strain.
“The T-cells (white blood cells), when they’re induced to kill malaria, can recognise proteins throughout the parasite, even internal proteins in the parasite,” he told the ABC.
“So that’s where we think the novel aspect is: we’ve been able to induce a form of immune response which can recognise molecules in the parasite which are present in every single strain.”
Good said he believed it was the first time that a vaccine had been shown to protect against more than two strains of malaria in mice.
The vaccine was expected to be cheap and easy to manufacture, he added, meaning that — if applicable to humans — it could have a significant impact in poor countries where malaria kills thousands each year.
“But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves; we want to demonstrate, first and foremost, that the vaccine is effective in humans,” Good told the broadcaster.
In 2010 an estimated 219 million people were infected with the disease and some 660,000 died, most of them African children aged under five, the UN’s World Health Organisation said in December.
A study published in the Lancet in February 2012 said the global death toll was more likely to be around 1.2 million a year.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
U.N. report confirms: World gripped by climate extremes over past decade
Wednesday, July 3, 2013 7:42 EDT
By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle
(Reuters) – The world suffered unprecedented climate extremes in the decade to 2010, from heatwaves in Europe and droughts in Australia to floods in Pakistan, against a backdrop of global warming, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.
Every year of the decade except 2008 was among the 10 warmest since records began in the 1850s, with 2010 the hottest, according to the study by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The number of daily heat records far outstripped lows.
It said many extremes could be explained by natural variations – freak storms and droughts have happened throughout history – but that rising emissions of man-made greenhouse gases also played a role.
“Rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are changing our climate, with far-reaching implications for our environment and our oceans, which are absorbing both carbon dioxide and heat,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement.
The study said damaging extremes included Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, floods in Pakistan in 2010, droughts in the Amazon basin, Australia and East Africa and a retreat of Arctic sea ice.
Deaths from extreme events totaled 370,000 people, up 20 percent from the 1990s, the Geneva-based WMO said, though the world population also rose sharply over the period, from 5.3 billion in 1990 to 6.9 billion in 2010.
The jump in the death toll was caused mainly by a heatwave in Europe in 2003 which killed 66,000 and a heatwave in Russia in 2010 in which 55,000 people died.
However, casualties from storms and droughts fell, partly because of better preparedness for disasters.
The study said that 44 percent of nations recorded the highest daily maximum temperature of the past half-century in the decade 2001-10 but only 11 percent reported a new low.
It also said that the decade “continued an extended period of accelerating global warming” with average decadal temperatures 0.21 degree Celsius (0.4 F) warmer than 1991-2000, which was in turn 0.14 C warmer than 1981-1990.
SLOWING RATE OF INCREASE?
Other reports have found that the rate of temperature rises has slowed this century.
“Global mean surface temperatures have not increased strongly since 1998″ despite rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to a draft report by the U.N.’s panel of climate scientists due for release in September.
Some experts say the apparent rise from the 1990s is magnified because a volcanic eruption in the Philippines in 1991 dimmed sunlight and cut temperatures.
The WMO also said it was hard to link any individual extreme events to climate change rather than to natural variability.
However, warmer air can hold more moisture, raising risks of downpours – the study said that 2010 was the wettest year since records began. And sea levels have risen about 20 centimeters in the past century, increasing risks of storm surges.
One 2004 study, for instance, said that climate change had at least doubled the risks of the European heatwave in 2003.
Peter Stott of the UK Met Office who led that study said scientists were now trying to see if there was a human fingerprint behind other extremes in 2012, such as Superstorm Sandy or drought in Australia.
“You can’t just take a record-breaking event and say ‘that’s climate change’,” he said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
[Image: Earth's airglow is seen with an oblique view of the Mediterranean Sea area, including the Nile River with its delta and the Sinai Peninsula, in this October 15, 2011 NASA handout photograph taken by a crew member of Expedition 29 aboard the International Space Station. REUTERS/NASA/Handout]
In the USA...
U.S. pushes back Obamacare employer mandate to 2015
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 18:44 EDT
Obama via AFP
Topics: Administration ♦ health insurance ♦ President Barack Obama
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. administration on Tuesday said it will not require employers to provide health insurance for their workers until 2015, in a move that delays a key provision of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law by a year.
The delay of part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act represents the administration’s response to widespread complaints about the reporting requirements for employers with more than 50 workers who are subject to the mandate.
“We have been in a dialogue with businesses and we think we can simplify the new reporting. We want to give businesses who want to provide health insurance the time to get this right,” a senior administration official said.
The move could add to speculation about whether healthcare reform will be implemented by the time the law is scheduled to come into full effect on January 1.
The administration has already delayed insurance offerings for small businesses that were to be made available through new online exchanges. A recent report by the watchdog Government Accountability Office also called into question whether new insurance marketplaces for millions of individuals would meet an October 1 deadline for open enrollment.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Obama, said in a blog post on Monday that the government was fully prepared to open the new insurance exchanges for individuals in October.
Former FBI director to probe BP misconduct in Gulf oil spill payouts
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 18:42 EDT
Former FBI director Louis Freeh makes remarks regarding his report on child abuse allegations (Reuters)
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(Reuters) – Former FBI Director Louis Freeh will investigate possible misconduct by a lawyer involved in making payments to settle claims by people and businesses affected by the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the judge in the spill damages case said on Tuesday.
Freeh, who recently stepped down as trustee for collapsed brokerage MF Global Holdings Ltd and previously led an internal investigation into the Penn State University sex abuse scandal, was named a “special master” by Judge Carl Barbier, who is hearing the civil case over the spill in New Orleans federal court.
BP had called for an independent inquiry into an allegation that a lawyer working for the administrator of the payments had referred claims to a New Orleans law firm in exchange for a share of subsequent settlement payments.
“The court has concluded that in order to ensure the integrity of the program for the benefit of the parties and the public, an independent, external investigation of this matter should be performed,” Barbier wrote in his ruling.
In a statement on Tuesday, BP welcomed Freeh’s appointment and said he had been granted “wide latitude” to look for other possible misconduct within the Court Supervised Settlement Program (CSSP).
An internal probe by the CSSP is already under way, wrote Barbier, who noted that Freeh’s current firm, the Freeh Group, had experience in conducting a wide range of investigations.
The trial under Barbier to determine blame and overall damages from the Gulf spill is ongoing, while a U.S. appeals court on July 8 is set to hear a case brought by BP about the way payouts are being made by the CSSP.
BP has no control over its payments to claimants, having agreed to a compensation formula and framework in a legal settlement covering certain personal and business liabilities.
While the company insists the formula is being misinterpreted, claims administrator Patrick Juneau disagrees, and the process Juneau is leading has been upheld by Barbier.
The case under Barbier is in re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, No. 10-md-02179. The appeal is “BP Exploration & Production Inc et al. vs Lake Eugenie Land & Development Inc, et al.” in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, No. 13-30329.
Texas lawmakers advance major anti-abortion bill
Wednesday, July 3, 2013 7:24 EDT
Protesters rally before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone
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By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A Texas House committee voted to move forward with a proposal to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and toughen standards for clinics, after at least 2,000 people sought to testify for and against the measure at an eight-hour hearing.
The fiercely contested bill, which was stalled last week by a filibuster of a Democratic lawmaker, now will go to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
Majority Republicans took the action after thousands of people, some with babies in strollers and slings, converged on the Texas State Capitol to give the panel their views.
Wearing colors indicating their position – blue for bill supporters and orange for opponents – the crowd was so large that officials had to set up nine overflow rooms by the time the hearing began.
The lawmakers heard testimony for more than eight hours, but Republicans eventually called a vote early on Wednesday without allowing everyone to speak who had signed up.
The sometimes emotional hearing came a week after Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis spoke for hours in an effort to defeat the bill. She managed to stall action on the measure at the end of the first special legislative session.
Davis became an instant celebrity and focused national attention on the efforts of some conservative states to restrict the right to abortion granted by the Supreme Court.
If the Texas proposal is approved, it would be the 13th state to pass a ban on most abortions after the 20th week of a pregnancy. Some have gone further. Arkansas has banned the procedure after 12 weeks and North Dakota as early as six weeks.
Texas Governor Rick Perry called the legislature back for a second special session after the Davis filibuster. Majority Republicans are determined to pass the abortion restrictions this time.
But Davis’ stalling tactics forced Republicans to start the legislative process over again.
The bill setting out the abortion restrictions had to be resubmitted, and the hearing was the next step in the process.
If approved by the House, it would have to go through the same process in the state Senate.
Supporters of the bill carried signs on Tuesday including “protect women, protect life.” They told lawmakers, sometimes tearfully, that the bill would save babies’ lives and prevent them from feeling pain.
Bill opponents, carrying signs such as “Stop the war on women,” told committee members that the legislation would open the door to illegal, unsafe abortions.
Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, says the measure could lead to the closure of all but six of the state’s 42 abortion facilities. Bill author Representative Jodie Laubenberg, a Republican, disagreed that the clinics would go out of business.
Heather Pencil, carrying 14-month-old Dante on her back, said before the hearing that the bill would protect women by ensuring that clinics were not providing dangerous, substandard care.
“All babies from conception should be protected,” said Gina Baehl, who has three teenage sons.
Kelly Savedra, joined by her 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, said that the bill made her mad.
“I don’t think the government has any right to tell me or my daughter what we can do with our bodies,” she said.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said on Tuesday it was opposed to the legislation, saying that it is “plainly intended to restrict the reproductive rights of women in Texas through a series of requirements that improperly regulate the medical practice and interfere with the patient-physician relationship.”
In ‘sneak attack,’ North Carolina GOP pushes bill that could close all but one abortion clinic
By Eric W. Dolan
Legislation to ban Islamic law in North Carolina now also contains a number of anti-abortion measures, potentially closing all but one abortion clinic in the state.
“This attempted sneak attack on women’s reproductive rights is absolutely shameful,” Sarah Preston of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said Tuesday. “Issues as vital and personal as access to comprehensive health care and doctor-patient relationships deserve to be debated in an open, public process – not hastily pushed through without notice and under the cover of night during a holiday week.”
House Bill 695 originally sought to prohibit courts from using Sharia and other foreign laws in family law proceedings. The North Carolina Senate Judiciary committee on Tuesday unexpectedly tacked on six anti-abortion measures late in the afternoon and sent the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.
U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) said she was “appalled” by Republicans’ attempt to use “procedural tricks” to ram the anti-abortion measures through the state Senate.
The legislation would now allow any health care provider to opt out of providing abortion-related services, prohibit health plans offered through federal health care exchanges from offering abortion coverage, outlaw sex-selection abortions, require doctors to stay in the room during the entire abortion procedure, force abortion clinics to obtain patient-transfer agreements with local hospitals, and mandate that abortion clinics meet the same stringent standards as outpatient surgical centers.
“These loathsome restrictions and the deceitful method through which the Senate tried to pass them are an obvious effort to not simply prevent women in North Carolina from having comprehensive access to much-needed health care, but to not even give them an opportunity to weigh in on legislation that will have wide-ranging impacts on women and doctors all across our state,” Preston added.
Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Morganton) told the News & Observer that abortion clinics should be regulated the same way as surgical centers. Just one clinic in the state currently meets that standard, which includes regulations on corridor widths and room sizes, among many others.
“The politicians who responsible for this backdoor maneuvering have taken seriously the rising tide of activists gathering weekly outside the General Assembly to oppose anti-choice legislation. Unfortunately, the lesson they’ve taken is that the best way to accomplish their goals is to hide their maneuvers from the public,” said Suzanne Buckley of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.
Media Tries to Blame the Color of Obama’s Skin for GOP’s Congressional Failure
By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 2nd, 2013
When explaining why the 113th Congress is an absolute historic fail legislatively, NBC first quoted the very conservative John Samples saying the fail comes from how divided we are, and then proceeded to blame the re-election of the first African-American President for the “divided country”, among other social changes.
This narrative sounds very Republican, seeing as it lets Republicans off of the hook for doing their job. So, somehow Obama’s skin color is partly responsible for turning Republican lawmakers into inept clowns who might be funny if only they weren’t so dangerously extreme.
Instead of admitting the reality that Republicans are focusing on investigating Obama for fictional scandals rather than legislating — as they were directed to do by the conservatives at Heritage Action, Republicans blame the lack of action on the “divided country”.
John Samples of the libertarian Cato Institute instructed NBC, “The country is pretty divided in a lot of different ways, and [Congress] not doing things reflects those divisions.”
Consider these developments over the past four-plus years:
The nation has its first African-American president who won re-election a year ago;
The country is on track to be a majority-minority nation 30 years from now;
Congress overhauled the country’s health-care system in 2010;
And the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits at a time when a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, according to national polls.
Wait, okay, how does Obama’s skin color play into House Republicans’ refusal to engage in the budget reconciliation process? How did the SCOTUS decision regarding gay marriage, which just happened last week, keep Republicans from passing a jobs bill? How are minorities’ growing numbers keeping Republicans from addressing our crumbling infrastructure? Are jobs and the economy only Democratic, liberal concerns now? Or is NBC admitting that if Republicans can’t impose their cultural problems on the rest of the country, they will refuse to legislate?
It’s fine to suggest that the “divide” is responsible for a failure on social issues, but in fact, Republicans in the House have excelled in jamming through extreme social issue legislation. The fact that this legislation is so extreme due to the gerrymandering of House districts as to never get passed by the Senate is not the fault of a “divided” nation, but rather, the fault of a party chock full of fringe extremists who are out of touch with the rest of the country.
No, Congress’ failure can’t reasonably be blamed on the color of Obama’s skin, or minorities, or gay marriage.
The Republican narrative of a “divided country” is one of their own making. It is Republicans who stirred up racial animosity on purpose as a get out the vote tactic, along with ginning up hatred against gays and immigrants with brown skin. It is Republicans who proposed a record number of bills to steal liberty from women and put a concerted effort into keeping minorities from voting. These actions created a divide; the divide was not inevitable. Republicans are furthering the divide with fake scandals that deliberately and desperately feed into the narrative they need in order to get anyone to vote for them.
Because you see, the Republican record sucks. If people knew what they were getting when they voted R (15 laws in 6 months, not one of them a jobs bill), they would never do it. But they will vote against the black guy, the gays, etc. They will vote for white supremacy and resentment.
Republicans have been relying on the “Southern Strategy” for far too long for the press to pretend this divide and partisanship is the equal responsibility of both parties. To metaphorically kick the gays, blacks, and other growing minority numbers in order to excuse the epic failure of Republican lawmakers is laughable.
Inside of the beltway, both sides must be equally at fault no matter what the reality is. Outside of the beltway, guess what. Most Americans don’t give a crap what color Obama’s skin is. A majority voted for him again, hence they are fine with an “African-American” being “re-elected this year”. Even the minority who do care about the color of his skin (and per this argument, we have to assume this is the Republican party or else why would it matter regarding legislation), they have bigger legislative concerns. Most Americans don’t give a crap about “traditional marriage” and hence, gay marriage is not an earth quake that prohibits all legislation from moving forward — that is, unless one party is using it as cover for their refusal to legislate under a Democratic President.
No, most Americans care about JOBS and the ECONOMY. You know, the two things Republicans most refuse to legislate, and the two things that Democrats support and therefore could pass both chambers easily if only Republicans were willing to leave abortion amendments off of jobs/economy bills or even allow them to be put up for a vote.
If Republicans left their culture war games at home for a day, we might actually get something done. I suppose that’s Obama’s fault too, because hey, blame the black guy. It works for Republicans.
Obama’s Brilliant Move Deals A Blow To The GOP’s 2014 Hopes
By: Jason Easley
Jul. 2nd, 2013
With one brilliant political masterstroke, the Obama administration pulled the rug out from Republicans who were hoping to run against Obamacare in 2014.
An innocent looking blog post at the Department of the Treasury has turned the GOP’s strategy for the 2014 election on its ear. Mark J. Mazur wrote, “The Administration is announcing that it will provide an additional year before the ACA mandatory employer and insurer reporting requirements begin. This is designed to meet two goals. First, it will allow us to consider ways to simplify the new reporting requirements consistent with the law. Second, it will provide time to adapt health coverage and reporting systems while employers are moving toward making health coverage affordable and accessible for their employees. Within the next week, we will publish formal guidance describing this transition.”
Republicans have been telegraphing since they lost the 2012 election that they intended to run against the employer mandate. John Boehner mentions Obamacare every week when he meets with the media for a reason. Republicans at both the congressional and state level can’t run on their economic records. They can’t run on their legislative records. Republicans were planning on making 2014 a replay of 2010 by focusing on Obamacare, but the White House kneecapped them with an announcement that nobody expected.
Republican former CBO director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin explained why this announcement was both a stunner and deviously brilliant, “Democrats no longer face the immediate specter of running against the fallout from a heavy regulatory imposition on employers across the land. Explaining away the mandate was going to be a big political lift; having the White House airbrush it from the landscape is way better. It helps with ObamaCare in other ways as well. The administration was flailing to find high-profile allies (e.g., the National Football League) to advertise the wonders of ObamaCare. In a single masterstroke it has given every company a reason to explain its existence (“don’t worry, you’ll be fine in the exchanges”) and created a de facto advertising campaign of enormous scale and reach. Deviously brilliant.”
The GOP had absolutely no clue that this was coming. As usual, President Obama is ten steps ahead of his opponents. Democrats are looking to make 2014 all about the extremely unpopular right wing, job killing, obstructionist Republican agenda. This White House stunner will shake up Senate and gubernatorial races around the country. It is also gives unpopular House Republicans one less issue to hide behind as they run for reelection.
Obama is playing chess, while Republicans are stuck on Go Fish
School District Indoctrinates Ohio Children With Course Teaching Fictional Right Wing History
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Jul. 3rd, 2013
Warren Throckmorton, as ever, is on the watch where Bartonism is concerned, and reveals that Barton is now selling these fantasies in Ohio – to Springboro School District. A school district that last month added creationism to its curriculum.
Because there is all sorts of evidence that the earth was created in seven days and is about 5,000 years old.
Yes. David Barton is reaching out to corrupt the minds of Ohio children by teaching his fantastical tales of an America that never was.
It is a summer course. It is taught by video by Barton and his fellow religious extremist John Eidsmoe. You may not be familiar with Eidsmoe, but as Throckmorton observes, this is the man who was Michele Bachmann’s mentor at Oral Roberts University.
That should tell you all you need to know right there. But as far as details go, kids will learn to think “biblically” whatever that means.
Just going out on a limb here, I would guess it won’t include teaching kids to have slave girls, concubines, or multiple wives, or to never shave or never eat shellfish, or that they will be stoned to death if they disobey their parents or engage in unapproved sexual activities.
You know, stuff that is actually IN the Bible.
Kids who attend will get to have “educational opportunities for learning about your American and Christian heritage.”
As far as the Constitution goes…well, try to connect these two sections if you can:
First distinction – We begin with history.
Great! You say. History! Fact! Okay. And then…
We teach the history of law and government as it originated from God as recorded in the Bible. Going forward, we trace the progression of this foundation through Columbus, the Pilgrims, our founding fathers and we study their belief systems. As students learn these foundations, they begin to see our nation’s history as part of who they are. They begin to see it as their HERITAGE, their inheritance. It’s truth. It’s powerful. It’s motivating. It gives individuals a sense of their purpose and destiny as Americans.
Wait a second! I thought you said you were going to begin with history! You are beginning with fantasy. The minute you say “law and government originated from God as recorded in the Bible” you have ignored the thousands of years of history of law and government that predates Jewish law and government.
There is a reason the Ten Commandments are written in the format of a Hittite vassal treaty: the Ten Commandments were written AFTER the appearance of this treaty form in the Near East.
Third distinction – We teach students HOW TO THINK. While teaching the Constitution, we help the students turn on their brains. We show them how to reason through current events from a Biblical and principled foundation, so they will not be deceived by the media or anyone else.
Somehow, I don’t think children are really being taught to think. They are being indoctrinated to BELIEVE, which is not the same thing.
If you are going to write history, what you say should have at least some passing familiarity with fact; it should have more in common with David McCullough’s 1776 than with, say, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. The America Barton wants kids to believe in is as fantastical as Howard’s Hyborian world. It is all speculative fiction.
No historian is likely to consider the 1942 Battle Stalingrad from the perspective of the Balrog that won the battle for the Russians because a Balrog was not present. By the same token, we should not consider American history from the perspective of a God who was not there.
I am speaking of the United States Constitution, of course, which religious extremists continue to insist embodies biblical law – somehow while not mentioning God, the Ten Commandments, or Jesus. It’s a neat trick.
Then there is the little problem that our government is founded on the principle that political power derives from the will of the people.
Not, it might be noticed, from God. Or from people who pretend to speak for god, like a Pope, or people who claim to be appointed by God, like, say, a king. The people. All of us. Not priests.
We cannot define what Barton peddles as historical fiction because even historical fiction has a historical basis. What Barton writes does not.
He likes to talk about the religious origins of our country while selling theocracy. But even the Protestants of the Revolutionary Era distrusted higher church authorities, let alone a government run by one.
Jesus said praying in public was hypocrisy, yet now our religious extremists, who claim to be followers of Jesus, hold gigantic prayer rallies in football stadiums.
Stadiums – and schools too, if Barton has his way – according to Jesus himself, full of hypocrites.
And ignorant hypocrites at that.
Southern States Are Pushing Themselves Deeper Into Poverty By Voting Republican
Jul. 2nd, 2013
The concept of what is considered good news is definitely one of perception and relative to prior conditions the good news is compared to. There was, depending on perspective, a bit of good news for the state of Mississippi this past week, but in relative terms, there is very little for residents, especially children, to celebrate. However, the news should hearten Republicans in Mississippi, and in Congress, because it is further proof their attempt to drive more Americans into poverty and despair is a raging success and they can revel in the news that a rash of other, mostly poor Republican-controlled, Southern states are falling deeper into poverty and it must make Republicans giddy that the greatest amount of their policies’ damage is affecting children they have shown nothing but contempt for over the past four-and-a-half years.
First, the good news for Mississippi is that the most Christian state in the nation is no longer the worst state for children to live. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation that compiles state-by-state statistics on the well-being of children and families in its’ Kids Count Index, after 24 years as the worst state in the nation for children, Mississippi jumped to number 49 overall as New Mexico took over the bottom spot. In January 2013, new state-level data on Medicaid and food-stamp enrollment released by Kaiser Health showed that, unless one is a Republican, there is very little to celebrate because the data provided a very depressing picture for child poverty in the richest nation on the face of the Earth, and it is all according to Republicans’ plans. Doubtless Republicans are cheering the unfathomably bad news for the nation’s children, and Republicans in the bottom five states can celebrate their success at creating a bleak existence for their state’s children.
The data show that despite improvements in education and health nationally, Republicans have accomplished their goal of seriously setting back progress when it comes to the economic well-being of children in Republican-controlled Southern states. It is bad enough that the richest nation on Earth comes in at number 2 in the world with over 23% of its children living in extreme poverty, but the numbers are worse in the bottom five states that, not coincidently, are controlled by Republicans on a path to increase poverty and keep their poorest and youngest residents hungry, homeless, and in ill-health.
In the new worst state for children’s well-being, New Mexico, 31% of children live in extreme poverty and they can be proud their child poverty numbers are slightly better than Mississippi that boasts 32% of its children suffering extreme poverty. In both states the primary reason for dire poverty numbers is that over 37% of the states’ children have parents who lack secure employment and decent wages. New Mexico is only the worst state because Mississippi does not have as high a number of children without healthcare or early childhood education as New Mexico, but the state’s Republicans have a solution to that problem; reject Medicaid expansion, hope Republicans in Congress obstruct President Obama’ early education expansion, legislate larger cuts to education, and of course slash food stamps to make room for oil, religious, banking, and agriculture subsidies as well as corporate and the wealthy’s tax loopholes.
The bottom five states are rounded out by Louisiana, Nevada, and Arizona and each of the five worst states for children have specific commonalities contributing to the bleak prospects for the survival, let alone well-being, of the poorest residents and their children. All of the states, save New Mexico, enacted right to work (for less) laws that contribute to more people in poverty due to pathetic wages while corporations in each state are thriving with record profits. Two of the states, Mississippi and Louisiana, have rejected Medicaid expansion regardless there is no expense to the states until 2017 and then the maximum cost for Mississippi in particular is only 7.6% with the federal government picking up the remaining 92.4% of the expense. In all, there are 13 states not participating in the free expansion and 6 others leaning toward non-participation and to no-one’s surprise, all 19 states are Republican-controlled and more than pleased to prevent millions of their residents, especially children, from benefiting from the most basic healthcare provisions. From a Republican perspective, it likely makes sense to keep the poorest, and youngest, residents in ill-health to go along with daily hunger to round out an existence steeped in suffering and despair.
All of the states, not just the worst for children, are in line for a dose of despair courtesy of House Republicans as they continue to oppose the President’s call to expand early childhood education while they seek new and clever ways to slash education spending. Coupled with cuts to school lunches, food stamps, and health programs, Republicans have put children on par with the ever-growing list of Americans they will either see go hungry, work for poverty wages, or suffer from ill-health to complete their Draconian attack on the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Sadly, that is the good news for America’s poorest citizens because Meals on Wheels, housing and heating assistance for seniors, and assistance for working poor mothers and children are all suffering from the Republican sequester cuts due to increase over the next nine years of a ten-year program to address the phony debt crisis Washington fell hook, line, and sinker for.
Maybe the report Mississippi is not the worst state for children’s well-being, economic or otherwise, is good news from an improvement perspective, but the idea that any child in the richest nation on the planet lives in extreme poverty is an outrage, and for any human being with a conscience it is unacceptable and depressing. It is sad and should send all Americans, especially politicians, into action to remedy the fact that according to an April UNICEF survey of 29 countries, America ranked number 26 in overall child well-being barely above three of the poorest countries in the survey; Lithuania, Latvia and Romania. However, where extreme child poverty is concerned, the wealthiest nation on Earth, America, did even worse coming in at number 28, and it is likely that since Republicans love touting America as being exceptional and number one, will diligently continue driving more children into poverty to claim the crown of richest nation on the planet with the highest rate of children living in extreme poverty.
Rick Perry Says Democracy Will No Longer Be Tolerated in Texas
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Jul. 2nd, 2013
GovRickPerryRepublicans have stepped out over the ledge and onto a slippery slope. The possibility of civil discourse -let alone sanity – was at the top of that ledge, with which they have now completely lost contact.
Texas Governor Rick Perry announced yesterday that he will no longer tolerate the democratic process in Texas, which he denigrates by calling it “anarchy” and “mob rule.”
At a special session Monday, called to express dismay that their misogynist agenda could be derailed by one courageous woman, Perry said,
Together we can do what they won’t. We can stand. We can stand up together. We can stand up for what’s right. We can stand up for Texas. Texans need someone who will stand up for their values.
Cheers were the sound of democracy dying in Texas.
Perry and his totalitarian supporters were upset that a crowd of people – Texans like Perry himself – shouted “shame! shame! shame!’ as the Republicans tried to sneak their anti-woman bill past the deadline. He claims Texans want what he is offering, saying,
Regardless of whether there is a vocal opposition …Texans and their views will prevail.
But he can push this fiction only so long as he does not let people exercise their First Amendement right of free speech.
As for uppity women like Wendy Davis, whom he previously accused of hijacking the democratic process, and the “unprecedented anarchy” of her perfectly legal and above-board filibuster, Texas’ new self-appointed dictator, Rick Perry had this to say in a statement:
“We will not allow the breakdown of decorum and decency to prevent us from doing what the people of this state hired us to do.”
I suppose you can prevent the hijacking of the democratic process by just doing away with it altogether.
Journalists in Texas better watch out too, because the lieutenant governor threatened to throw them into jail for asking questions Republicans would as soon went unasked. As Media Matters reported yesterday, in a July 28 interview Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said,
We have reports and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings that evening and if I find as I’ve been told examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I’m going to take action against them. That is wrong. That’s inciting a riot. That is wrong. And we have a provision in our rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum, they’re not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them up to 48 hours. Of course that was out of the question with that many people, but it is, we take a democratic policy seriously.
Outrage caused him to backtrack, but now we know how he and Gov. Perry really feel about democracy and the Constitution: It’s damned inconvenient being a totalitarian dictator when people insist on rights and freedom of speech.
Perhaps it would have been better for Texas had Mexican dictator Santa Anna won after all.
July 4, 2013
Lithuania Aims for Energy Independence
By JAMES KANTER
KIAULES NUGARA, Lithuania — The first Soviet republic to reclaim its independence was Lithuania. But more than two decades later, the energy industry of this European Union member still feels like an outpost of a creaking empire run from Moscow.
Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, intends to change that.
This straight-talking politician, who holds a martial arts black belt, has enthusiastically backed a deal to anchor a ship near this tiny island and put it to work processing deliveries of liquefied natural gas into fuel for Lithuanian homes and businesses. That would break the stranglehold of Gazprom, the Russian government-controlled export monopoly that now supplies all of Lithuania’s gas.
The vessel’s name? “'Independence,’ of course,” Ms. Grybauskaite said last week during an interview. She hopes the ship will process up to 60 percent of the gas Lithuania needs. “The name is absolutely proper — ideally proper,” she said briskly.
The price of natural gas in Lithuania was 15 percent higher than the European average last year, according to the European Commission. Only Bulgaria, where Gazprom has a near-monopoly, paid more. Gazprom also has an ownership stake in Lithuania’s natural gas distribution network. Part of Lithuania’s electrical infrastructure is still controlled from Moscow, too, and it is not yet possible to connect the country to the European grid.
That has led the European Commission to declare Lithuania one of the Union’s most vulnerable “energy islands.”
Unlike its neighbor Latvia, Lithuania has no natural gas storage capacity and only negligible hydropower resources. Lithuania also does not use oil shale, which provides much of the electricity for Estonia, the third Baltic member of the Union.
Lithuania used to rely on nuclear power to supply most of its electricity. However, as a condition of joining the Union in 2004, the country agreed to shut down its Chernobyl-style nuclear power station at Ignalina. The plant closed in 2009, and now Lithuania is more reliant than ever on natural gas — and Gazprom — for its energy.
Kiaules Nugara — which translates as Pig’s Back Island—is central to breaking Russia’s hold on Lithuania. The Independence is to be anchored alongside this spot of land less than a kilometer, or 0.62 mile, long that sits in the channel leading to the Port of Klaipeda, a busy cargo hub.
Klaipedos Nafta, a state-controlled oil terminal operator, is leasing the ship, formally known as a floating gas storage and regasification unit, from a Norwegian company, Hoegh, in a 10-year deal for €430 million, or $560 million. A South Korean shipyard has nearly finished building the ship. It is expected in February.
Lithuania’s decision to go ahead with the L.N.G. project irritated the European Commission, which favored an initiative that would include member states in the Baltic Sea region. But Lithuanian government was desperate to lower energy costs, revive strong economic growth and reduce an unemployment rate that last year stood at 13 percent.
Lithuania hopes to import L.N.G. at prices 5 percent to 10 percent less than what Gazprom charges for its gas. Perhaps more importantly, it will have a bargaining chip. “We will be able for the first time in our history to negotiate, because we have alternative sources,” said Rokas Masiulis, the general manager of Klaipedos Nafta.
Much remains to be done. Mr. Masiulis still must sign a contract with an L.N.G. supplier and raise another €43 million to ensure the project is up and running on time.
But Mr. Masiulis said his greatest challenge was overcoming the Lithuanian bureaucracy and fending off attempts to give the project “a shade of corruption.”
Eugenijus Gentvilas, the director general of the Port of Klaipeda until last year and now a member of the Lithuanian Parliament, said he suspected Gazprom of using its influence, albeit indirectly, to hinder the L.N.G. project. He cited several examples of delays and snarls that had hindered the development.
The president herself said she suspected meddling on the part of companies and lawmakers with links to Gazprom and other Russian businesses. But Ms. Grybauskaite said they would not succeed. “To stop the project is not possible,” she said, “but to intervene and to delay it partially, yes.”
Gazprom officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Another challenge is environmental, although opposition to the project has been muted. Kiaules Nugara, which was created by dredging during the Soviet era, has become a nesting spot for birds. Right alongside is the Curonian Spit, which has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
For now, at least, nationalism comes first. “We face huge pressure from Russia, even ‘green’ people are ready to make some sacrifices,” said Erlandas Paplauskis, a senior ecologist at a state park and a member of Zvejone, a local environmental group. “I can’t be an enemy of my nation.”
He said his group and local scientists planned to monitor the area for any disturbances to the nesting grounds and to the migration patterns of fish like the twaite shad, which spawns in the freshwater lagoon running along the eastern side of the spit.
Vilius Palileika, 59, a boat captain, said that while some residents of Klaipeda may feel threatened by the presence of vast quantities of L.N.G. nearby, “The port will become safer because it will be deeper, and because all ship traffic will stop for a few hours during gas deliveries.”
On Friday, Lithuania, a Baltic state of just 3 million people, could gain added leverage to break Gazprom’s domination when ceremonies are held in the capital, Vilnius, to mark the start of the country’s term leading the European Union in Brussels.
Lithuania will be the first former Soviet republic to hold the role, which rotates every six months among the bloc’s 28 member states. The holder of the E.U. presidency sets the agenda for hundreds of meetings among ministers from national governments — including in the highly sensitive area of energy.
Last year, Lithuania pushed the authorities in Brussels to begin investigating Gazprom for suspected monopoly abuses. The battle with Gazprom could intensify in the coming months as the government in Vilnius tries to use the Union’s rules to force the Russian company to give up its partial control of Lithuania’s gas distribution network.
Ms. Grybauskaite insisted that Lithuania would wield its presidency of the Union in an evenhanded way. But she already plans to hold a summit meeting in Vilnius in November to encourage the Union to bring former Soviet bloc states like Ukraine and Belarus into a closer partnership, a development that is likely to irk Moscow.
As for the Independence, Ms. Grybauskaite said the vessel should be ready to go into operation by early 2015 at the latest.
L.N.G. suppliers could include Norway and the United States, where, during a recent visit, she encouraged officials and legislators to lift restrictions on exports of natural gas produced from shale, and to prioritize sales to countries that, like Lithuania, are members of NATO.
“Energy is always geopolitics,” she said.
Harnessing Ocean Current Energy — Promising New System Developed
Ocean currents are a very promising-looking source of renewable energy, but the technology for capturing ocean current energy and using it to create electricity hasn’t matured yet. However, that may soon change — a new ocean current harnessing system capable of working in deep waters has been developed by researchers at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and a prototype has already been successfully tested.
The new experimental prototype — created within the framework of the PROCODAC-GESMEY project — has successfully met the goals of the researchers: it’s cheaper to construct, install, and maintain than current designs; it can produce the expected amount of energy; it can be maneuvered by remote control; it can operate in relatively deep waters; and it’s affordable enough for “a medium sized shipyard” to purchase, as the researchers put it.
The prototype — created in collaboration with the Astilleros Balenciaga company and the Fundación Centro Tecnológico Soermar — is one-tenth the size that a potential “industrial size” 1MW unit would be. The prototype is also accompanied by a newly designed underwater buoy capable of operating in areas of 40 meters of depth.
The Universidad Politécnica de Madrid explains the new design:
Today, to harness energy is an issue of interest, particularly those related to sea. The first generation of systems of harnessing energy from ocean currents was only feasible in areas of maximum depth of 30-50 meters (because the generators were joined at the bottom) and its maintenance was expensive. Consequently, second-generation systems came out: anchoring systems with diverse solutions that allow us a submerged operation with the possibility to put afloat the main elements for its maintenance. The tested prototype of the GESMEY project belongs to these second-generation systems.
The main unit of the prototype includes, as we can see on the image, a structure of stainless steel with a central body and three peripheral parts joined by arms. The generator, the multiplier, and the instrumentation system are inside while the rotor that captures ocean currents is outside.
During the development of the project, tests of integration and the tune-up were conducted in the LEEys Lab of the ETSIN and at the shipyard. They also conducted sea trials divided into tests of maneuvers and trailer. The project was complemented with a research on hydrodynamics and structures as well as maneuvers and energy control. These studies were embodied in various numerical simulations.
The researchers will next be working on the creation of a larger prototype with potential performance improvements.
While this new prototype/research is focused entirely upon harnessing the energy of ocean currents, there are actually quite a few ways to harness the incredible and renewable power of the ocean — waves, tides, salinity, temperatures, etc. It’s been estimated that as an energy resource, the world’s oceans could easily supply all of the energy currently used by humans many times over. Just something to keep in mind….
The new design is patented/patent pending, and the co-owner is the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid within a Framework Agreement signed between UPM and Soermar.
For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. - Ecclesiastes 3:19
World's largest rat extermination returns South Georgia to its bird life
A team covered the island with 183 tonnes of poison to eradicate the rodent population introduced by 19th century whalers
• Rat exterminations on islands across the globe
The Guardian, Thursday 4 July 2013
A team on South Georgia has successfully completed the world's largest rodent eradication in an effort to rid the British territory of millions of rats and mice.
Against the backdrop of an approaching Antarctic winter between February and May, three helicopters encountered perilous flying conditions while peppering the southern Atlantic island with 183 tonnes of the poison Brodifacoum. The team of 25 baited an area of 224 sq miles (580 sq km). The area targeted dwarfed the previous largest rodent eradication, on New Zealand's Campbell Island, by five times.
The project director, Prof Tony Martin, said the team, managed by the Dundee-based South Georgia Heritage Trust, aimed to return the 104 mile (167 km) long island to the millions of seabirds wiped out by rats and mice introduced by 19th- and 20th-century whalers and sealers.
"South Georgia, before man came along, was probably the most important bird breeding island in the world. And it is no longer anything close to that," he said. Probably less than 1% of the original population of burrowing seabirds remains, Martin said.
Many of the island's animals remain unaffected by the rat population. Huge populations of seals and penguins attract thousands of cruise ship passengers every year.
However Martin said others, such as the endemic South Georgia pippit and South Georgia pintail, were clinging to existence "by their claws". The storm petrel, Antarctic prion and cape petrel had been driven away from the vital breeding grounds. Every breeding season a single rat would eat hundreds of seabird chicks.
He said that returning the island's habitat to its natural inhabitants was an act of global significance and that islands like South Georgia were particularly vulnerable to introduced predators.
"What we are doing is allowing an island to go back to the way it was before man came along and screwed it up two and a half centuries ago. Invasive animals are really crucifying the world's biodiversity.
"What you have to bear in mind is the ecosystem of South Georgia evolved in the absence of any terrestrial mammals. So when man came along at the last second of the last hour in evolutionary terms, and introduced these little furry rodents which started to eat them, they were completely naive."
The successful poison drops marked the second phase of a three stage project.
The first stage, which was itself equal in scale to the Campbell Island elimination, took place in 2011. The South Georgia heritage trustee Howard Pearce said it appeared this phase had been successful, lending confidence to the ongoing efforts of the team.
"After two years of monitoring the work we did back in 2011, the first trial phase on South Georgia, we have found no sign of rodents in the areas we cleared then and we are now pretty confident that we were completely successful in eradicating rats from the area," Pearce said.
Martin said that previously rare sightings of South Georgia pintails being followed by groups of ducklings were the best sign the first stage had secured the environment for native species.
He said the island's unique topography made the project possible. Even in summer, 75% of the island is covered by ice and snow. Large glaciers cascade into the ocean, splitting the island's habitable areas into smaller pockets. This meant that the project could treat each region in isolation.
However, said Martin, climate change had created a "race against time". The island's glaciers were receding at up to one metre a year, opening the already treated areas to re-infestation as the rats would use newly exposed shorelines to reclaim their territory.
Pearce said the completion of the second stage was "a fantastic achievement in very difficult circumstances". The team were exposed to the worst autumnal weather in a decade. This made flying extremely difficult and, on most days, impossible. Helicopter pilot George Phillips said he had "never, ever experienced conditions like it".
As time went on and the weather looked set to defeat the project, the expedition doctor, Diedre Galbraith, said the team suffered the psychological stress of uncertainty and frustration.
"As the months went by with no work, day after day after day after day of monotony it can be very detrimental to the whole team morale," she said.
Martin said that he had private moments where he had given up hope of completing the baiting before winter drove them off the island. With days left to go, conditions cleared just enough for the team to complete the stage.
The third stage of the project is planned for 2015, subject to the South Georgia Heritage Trust raising an extra £2.5m. Unusually for a conservation project of this scale, the £7.5m cost of the entire project has been funded largely privately through fundraising by the trust. Only a small proportion of the money was supplied by the British government.
If the rats are successfully eradicated from the entire island, Martin said, it would take an enormous effort to keep the island secure from re-infestation. Cruise and supply ships are already banned from tying up to the island's docks. Martin said that the greatest danger came from fishing boats becoming wrecked on the island's storm-broken shore.
WHO sets up emergency committee on MERS virus
Friday, July 5, 2013 7:05 EDT
GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization is forming an emergency committee of international experts to prepare for a possible worsening of the Middle East coronavirus, which has killed 40 people, WHO flu expert Keiji Fukuda said on Friday.
Fukuda said there was currently no emergency or pandemic but the experts would advise on how to tackle the disease if the number of cases suddenly grows.
“We want to make sure we can move as quickly as possible if we need to,” Fukuda told a news conference in Geneva.
No risk of pandemic yet from MERS virus: scientists
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 4, 2013 21:01 EDT
The new MERS coronavirus that has claimed dozens of lives in the Middle East does not yet have the ability to trigger a pandemic, but vigilance is needed in case it mutates, French scientists said on Friday.
“Our analysis suggests that MERS-CoV does not yet have pandemic potential,” they reported online in The Lancet.
But they urged health watchdogs to keep up their guard and pursue the search for the virus’ bolthole in nature.
“We recommend enhanced surveillance, active contact tracing and vigorous searches for the MERS-CoV animal hosts and transmission routes to human beings,” said the Pasteur Institute team which conducted the research.
A respiratory virus that can cause fever and pneumonia, MERS is a cousin of the deadly SARS virus which erupted in southern China in 2003 and snowballed into a global health scare.
Since Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) first came to light in 2012, there have been 43 recorded deaths, 36 of them in Saudi Arabia.
The death rate is high — at roughly one in every two patients — although doctors say there may be other cases that are not diagnosed as MERS or do not cause grave illness.
The trio of French epidemiologists looked at 55 MERS cases for evidence of “clusters” in which the virus had been passed on from one person to another rather than stopping with the patient who had fallen ill.
The point was to calculate the “basic reproduction number” — known in an equation as R — that is essentially a benchmark of contagiousness. When R is above 1, a virus or bacteria has epidemic potential.
But the worst-case scenario for MERS was an R of 0.69 and the most optimistic scenario was 0.60, the team found.
By comparison, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had an R of 0.8 at the pre-pandemic phase. The disease, which leapt from animals to animals, eventually killed 800 people.
Like SARS, MERS appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering from fever, coughing and breathing difficulties. But it differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure, other research has found.
Study leader Arnaud Fontanet said that despite the encouraging news about contagiousness, health monitors must keep their eyes peeled.
“The R can change swiftly if the virus mutates or if there are exceptional events such as mass gatherings, like the pilgrimage to Mecca,” he told AFP.
The 2012 Hajj drew 3.1 million people, and virologists note that this year’s event likewise occurs in October, as the northern hemisphere slides into the season for coughs and sneezes.
World Health Organisation (WHO) head Margaret Chan sounded the alarm to ministers at the UN agency’s annual congress in May, urging them to provide sound, factual advice for pilgrims.
“One of the main lessons from SARS is that if it had been confined at an early stage, this would have prevented it spreading globally,” said Fontanet.
Figuring out the animal reservoir for MERS and how the virus is transmitted to humans is a priority, he said.
“We have a window of opportunity, and it’s now that we have to act, before it adapts to humans.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on June 26 that 77 laboratory-confirmed cases had surfaced worldwide with 40 deaths.
Saudi Arabia announced two further deaths on Wednesday and on Thursday Britain said a 49-year-old Qatari man who had been airlifted to London for treatment last September had died last week.
At chicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferatehicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferate
By Kimberly Kindy
When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to a rural town in Upstate New York near the processing plant, believing it was a steppingstone to a better life.
Five years later, Navarro was dead. The 37-year-old’s lungs had bled out.
His death triggered a federal investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals in poultry plants. Agriculture Department health inspectors say processing plants are turning to the chemicals to remove contaminants that escape notice as processing line speeds have accelerated, in part to meet growing consumer demand for chicken and turkey.
The department is now poised to allow a further increase in line speeds, boosting the maximum by about 25 percent. This change is part of new regulations that officials say would make poultry production more efficient and reduce the number of government inspectors while increasing the number of private company inspectors.
Under the proposed rules, which could be finalized as soon as this summer, the number of chemical treatments used on the birds is also likely to increase, according to agency documents and USDA inspectors who have worked in plants where line speeds have already accelerated.
To keep speeds up, the new regulations “would allow visibly contaminated poultry carcasses to remain online for treatment” — rather than being discarded or removed for off-line cleaning, as is now common practice. The proposed rules say “all carcasses” on the line would be treated with antimicrobial chemicals “whether they are contaminated or not.”
The heightened use of chemicals would follow a pattern that has already emerged in poultry plants. In a private report to the House Appropriations Committee, the USDA said that in plants that have already accelerated line speeds, workers have been exposed to larger amounts of cleaning agents. “The use of powerful antimicrobial chemicals has increased in order to decrease microbial loads on carcasses,” according to the 2010 report, recently obtained by The Washington Post.
In interviews, more than two dozen USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees described a range of ailments they attributed to chemical exposure, including asthma and other severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus ulcers and other sinus problems.
Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign with the Government Accountability Project, said her group has been collecting statements for the past two years from inspectors reporting illnesses and injuries due to chemical exposure in poultry plants where slaughter line speeds have increased.
“They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick,” Hitt said. “Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”
Although federal officials say the enhanced use of chemicals can promote public health by fighting such contaminants as salmonella, government agencies have not conducted independent research into the possible side effects on consumers of using the chemicals. Instead, they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.
Nor has the USDA studied the effects of the chemicals on its inspectors or private employees. USDA officials said that research into worker safety is a job for other agencies. But no industry-wide study has been done by the government, and it does not keep a comprehensive record of illnesses possibly caused by the use of chemicals in the poultry industry.
Inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at poultry plants show that at least five facilities had problems with chemicals the past three years, according to agency documents. The most common citations were for failing to properly label hazardous chemicals, failing to train employees on how to handle the chemicals and failing to have monitoring equipment in place that would detect when chemicals, such as ammonia, reach toxic levels in a plant.
At the poultry plant where Navarro worked, company officials rejected the notion that chemicals killed him.
During the investigation at the plant, inspectors and plant workers offered a raft of complaints. They said they suffered from irritation to their respiratory system, two reported “coughing up blood” and still others had “various skin diseases,” an OSHA report said.
The OSHA report cited chemicals as the suspected cause of the workers’ ailments.
If the White House signs off on the USDA’s proposed regulations as expected, poultry plants could speed up their slaughter lines later this year. The maximum speed for chickens would increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, and for turkeys, from 45 birds to 55 per minute. Workers, who already often complain of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal disorders, may have to pluck, cut and sort birds even faster.
At the same time, the new regulations would reduce the number of federal health inspectors in the plants by as much as 40 percent.
The proposed rules grew out of a USDA pilot program, which agency officials said was designed to enhance food safety by reducing pathogens. There are financial incentives for both the USDA and the industry: The agency expects to save $90 million during the next three years through staff reductions, and poultry plants could save more than $200 million annually.
The combination of faster processing and fewer government eyeballs means that companies will increasingly rely on chemicals to keep the poultry free of contaminants, according to interviews with six current and former USDA inspectors who have worked in a range of plants across the country where slaughter line speeds have accelerated.
“They don’t talk about it publicly, but the line speeds are so fast, they are not spotting contamination, like fecal matter, as the birds pass by,” said Phyllis McKelvey, who worked as a USDA poultry inspector for 14 years until she retired in 2010. “Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”
In plants where line speeds have increased, more chemical treatments have been added. Plants that used as few as one or two rinses, sprays or soaks now use as many as four or more.
Although procedures vary among plants, in a typical scenario, high-powered nozzles shoot water and chemicals into the interior of a bird and along its surface. Next, the bird moves through one or two spray cabinets, where it is showered with other chemicals. Finally, it is chilled and soaked, usually in chlorine and water.
“They are using the chemicals as a stopgap measure,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group.
Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said the volume of chemicals would increase further under the new rules because a larger volume of birds would be processed.
“If line speeds at a plant are increased and if more birds are produced, obviously the volume of antimicrobials will increase to ensure that each bird is treated with the proper food safety interventions,” Peterson said in a statement.
But she said this would be done safely. Peterson said that processing plants will use only USDA-approved chemicals, that the chemicals are “diluted significantly” and that plants are taking steps to minimize workers’ exposure to them, such as enclosing chemical spray stations and improving ventilation.
The 49-page proposed regulation allows for the use of additional chemical treatments with the new inspection system. For example, plants will be allowed to use chemicals on “air chilled” birds that traditionally relied only on low temperatures to kill pathogens and prevent them from spreading. The proposed rule also encourages plants to use chemicals along the processing line, not just at the end.
The USDA has not conducted research into possible health risks that chemical treatments could pose for consumers of the poultry products. The agency says it relies on the chemical review and approval process of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, for its part, does not conduct its own research but examines data provided by the chemical manufacturers.
Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety and inspection service, said in an interview that she could not comment on how the use of chemicals under the new system would affect the presence of pathogens. But she said the program would modernize inspections, for instance by positioning inspectors more strategically, and save the lives of as many as 5,000 consumers.
“Food safety has to be front and center of any policy we set forward. No one is making a choice between food safety and worker safety,” Hagen said. “Bottom line, plain and simple: We would never put forward a rule that we thought would increase risk for anybody.”
After the interview, the USDA provided a statement saying, “We have no reason to believe chemical usage would increase under this proposed new inspection system, if implemented.”
Asked about the apparent contradiction between this statement and information contained in agency documents and provided by agency inspectors, the USDA released a comparison of plants operating under the pilot program, which allows them to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute, with some plants that are not in the program. The comparison looked at how many places along the processing line chemicals were used to treat birds, and agency officials said the statistics showed there was essentially no difference between the two sets of plants.
But the comparison did not address the amount of chemicals used in the plants or their concentration. Moreover, the number of plants included in the comparison was too small to yield a statistically meaningful conclusion about any differences in chemical use.
Officials said that any increase in chemical use in recent years is the result of plants trying to comply with stricter USDA requirements for reducing pathogens, including salmonella.
Coughing up blood
At the end of each workday at Murray’s Chicken, Jose Navarro would climb into his Ford station wagon, drive by the Holy Ghost and Fire Church, and pass a single stoplight to reach his rented home in South Fallsburg, N.Y.
His wife, Nicole Byrne Navarro, said he would give “lengthy, detailed reports” each evening about his concerns about the plant, which often focused on the chemicals used to disinfect both equipment and birds.
“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs,” Byrne Navarro said. “Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”
Several months before he died, he coughed up blood, but it “self-resolved,” according to the autopsy report. Then on Nov. 19, 2011, he began coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where his lungs continued to hemorrhage. He died a week later after his lungs and kidneys failed, the autopsy report said.
At the time of Navarro’s death, Murray’s Chicken was using chlorine and peracetic acid to treat the birds, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.
Chlorine and peracetic acid are two of the most commonly used chemicals in plants, according to OSHA inspection documents and interviews with USDA inspectors and poultry plant workers.
At plants where line speeds have been increased, inspectors and plant workers say chemical use is on the rise and that the exposure time to the chemicals has been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.
Both chlorine and peracetic acid are toxic, according to the Material Safety Data Sheets that chemical manufacturers give to the plants, which in turn are required to post them.
For chlorine, the data sheets say exposure can cause lung damage, emotional disturbances and even death. Peracetic acid can damage most internal organs, including the heart, lungs and liver, the data sheets show. If inhaled, the chemical can cause “severe respiratory and mucous membrane irritation and possible chemical burns.” It can also cause “acute lung damage.” USDA officials said the chemicals are used at such low concentrations that they are not dangerous.
During the investigation that followed Navarro’s death, an OSHA inspector raised concerns about the “increase in use of disinfectants” at the plant and said “the combination of disinfectants and other chemicals” in addition to pathogens like salmonella “could be causing significant health problems for processing plant occupants,” OSHA documents show.
OSHA issued four citations. Two were for “serious” violations, which included failing to provide inspectors with training about hazardous chemicals and failing to record inspector injuries in a federally mandated log.
OSHA records show that one USDA inspector was exposed to “chlorine odors” that forced a temporary evacuation of the plant. The inspector experienced an “aggravated bronchial condition” and was prescribed antibiotics. Another involved an inspector exposed to “microbial agents” and disinfectants that resulted in a “rash on arms and legs.” The inspector was given a topical steroid, records show.
Dean Koplik, the chief executive of Murray’s Chicken, said in an interview that the company is contesting the citations and that OSHA found no problems with chemical levels and exposure at the time of the agency’s visit.
Koplik dismissed OSHA’s findings that other workers suffered from respiratory problems, saying the agency “made some vague allegation about respiratory issues, but it never provided details. It’s Upstate New York, and it was in the winter. People get respiratory issues.”Navarro’s widow and inspectors at the plant said they believed chemicals contributed to Navarro’s death.
In a written statement, Koplik said “OSHA found no connection or causation whatsoever between the unfortunate passing of the USDA inspector and the plant environment.”
There is no conclusive evidence as to whether the chemicals killed Navarro.
OSHA officials said the agency did not render a judgment about whether the plant was responsible for Navarro’s death. Instead, OSHA officials issued a hazard-alert letter, showing they had concerns about the use of chemicals and made a series of recommendations to improve conditions at the plant.
‘Like I was choking to death’
At other poultry plants, federal inspectors have also reported starting to experience respiratory problems when additional chemicals were added to the mix where they work. They said their biggest problems seemed to come with the introduction of peracetic acid.
USDA inspector Sherry Medina recounted that she developed a severe respiratory infection one month after the Tyson Foods plant in Alabama where she worked began using peracetic acid in June 2011. The infection wouldn’t go away.
“I would walk into the plant, and I’d start wheezing. It was like I was choking to death. I coughed so hard, I broke two ribs,” said Medina, who is now on disability.
She said that the peracetic acid seeped out from the spray cabinet and that chemicals used in processing and for cleaning combined in the drains at the inspectors’ feet, causing respiratory and sinus problems.
Federal inspectors at another Tyson plant in Texas — where chlorine and peracetic acid are used — recently complained about similar problems, prompting an inspection in February by the USDA’s Safety and Health Management Division.
“When maintenance staff opened a cabinet for inspection, a significant plume of mist could be seen moving into the airstream of overhead fans, which were pointed toward the inspection stations,” a Feb. 6 USDA report said.
The report recommended that the spray heads operate at a lower velocity, that maintenance staff avoid opening cabinets during production and that exhaust ventilation be installed by the cabinets. The health investigator also recommended covering the floor drains, especially those where the inspectors work. “This will minimize the opportunity for chlorine by-products or waste PAA (peracetic acid) to enter the air” near federal inspectors.
Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said that drains have been covered and ventilation improved at the Texas plant. At the Alabama plant, new ventilation has been installed and managers were given training on how to monitor and react to chemical concerns, he said.
“Tyson is dedicated to the safety and well-being of each and every team member,” Sparkman said in a statement. “We take their claims very seriously and encourage them to take any concerns about safety to plant management.”
David Hosmer, president of the Southwest Council of Food Inspection Locals, said he is encouraging his members to raise concerns with the USDA about the potential long-term health effects of heightened chemical treatments.
“We are dealing with respiratory issues. We are dealing with burning eyes and sinus issues,” said Hosmer, whose council is part of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The last thing I want is for people to end up with emphysema or someone losing their eyesight. Or even death.”
Scientist warns capacity to grow food is plateauing in many parts of the world
By John Vidal, The Guardian
Monday, July 8, 2013 2:22 EDT
Countries may not be able to increase food production because many staple crops are close to their physiological growing limits
Britain and other countries may not be able to increase the amount of food they grow because many staple crops are close to their physiological growing limits, one of the world’s leading food analysts has warned.
“In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the three leading wheat producers in western Europe, there has been little rise in yields for over 10 years. Other countries will soon be hitting their limits for grain yields. Agriculturally advanced countries are hitting natural limits that were not widely anticipated,” said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Institute in Washington and a former US government plant scientist.
“Rice yields in Japan have not increased for 17 years. In both Japan and South Korea, yields have plateaued at just under five tons per hectare. China’s rice yields are now closely approaching those of Japan and may also soon plateau,” he said.
After decades of constantly rising grain yields, governments have not understood the significance of the plateauing of yields and the fact that it will become much harder to feed the extra three billion people expected to be alive by 2050, said Brown.
“Since 1950, grain yields across the world have tripled. Those days are gone. The pace has slowed. Between 1950 and 1990, the world grain yield increased by an average 2.2% a year. Since then the rise has slowed to 1.3%.”
According to Brown, who helped India double its harvests in the 1970s, rising grain yields have been the key to keeping world food supplies in line with population growth. “We are hitting the glass ceiling. The levelling off of wheat yields is very real. It’s not a great problem in Europe but in China and India it will be. India is adding 18 million people a year to its population.”
British scientists back Brown’s analysis. “It is worrying. Crop yields are plateauing across the board in Britain,” said Stuart Knight, director of crops and agronomy at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and lead author of a new government study of the phenomenon. “In the mid-1990s we were not worried but suddenly food security is on the agenda. Wheat yields tripled in Britain between 1950 and 1990 but now we are running to stand still.”
Britain, he said, will start collaborating with other European countries including Sweden to investigate why yields are not improving. “Crops do have physiological limits but we think we are a long way from that. There is no one reason but we think the genetic pool needs to be refreshed for [crops such as] wheat, but there is no single factor,” said Knight.
Yields depend on the amount of sunlight that plants get, the water and fertiliser they receive, and the seeds. But, says Brown, traditional plant breeders have pushed genetic potential close to the physiological limits, leaving farmers with limited options to grow more.
“Governments have not understood that we have now begun to press against the natural limits of grain yields. There are natural constraints and there is no way round this unless you redesign the plants. Traditional plant breeders have really done just about everything that they could,” said Brown on a visit to London.
“Grain yield per hectare, like any biological growth process, cannot continue rising indefinitely. It has its limits. Once we remove nutrient constraints by applying fertiliser and we remove soil moisture constraints by irrigating, then it is the potential of photosynthesis and local climate that limits crop yields,” he said.
“Scarcity is now the problem. We have real constraints in water, soil erosion and yields all coming on top of climate change. It is a convergence that we have never faced before.”
The best long-term hope of increasing yields, say many governments, is dramatic advances in genetic modification. The UK government, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the International Rice Research Institute (Irri) based in the Philippines have put more than $20m into trying to engineer more efficient photosynthesis in rice to increase production. However, progress has been slow and there is no likelihood of a breakthrough for many years.
“Rice yield growth is a concern. Rates need to increase. We are hoping to ‘supercharge’ rice by giving it a more efficient way to photosynthesise – or convert sunlight to grain – by using “C4″ photosynthesis found in other plants such as corn, which could result in up to 50% higher production, all while using less water and nutrients,” said an Irri spokeswoman in Manila. “It is long-term visionary research that could fundamentally change global rice production.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013