Author Archives: richardbrenneman

Fear, fables, and fact: The age of raptor capitalism


Bill Moyers has evolved from the days he first crossed our path as press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, a tragic figure who fought for the poorest Americans at home and waged war on the poorest people of Vietnam, rising up in rebellion against a small elite maintained in power only by the force of American arms.

A trained seminarian, Moyers moved into the political and journalism realms with a sense of mission of the sort we call the Sermon on the Mount version of Christianity, carrying with the sense of faith a belief that Christian communion involves sharing and giving of things as well as affirmations of faith.

There’s a peculiar version of Christianity implicit in the neoliberal ideology that has transformed the U.S. into an economic system where wealth inequality has reached unprecedented levels [a transformation we’ve witnessed as a journalist]. What else but Calvinism on meth enabled the fairly straightforward investments we recall writing about three and four decades back into today’s kaleidoscopic cascade of   hallucinatory derivatives, in turn piled onto a stock market in which the same share of stock may me traded hundreds of times in a single second?

What have we lost? How did we lose it?

On 4 February 2013, Jacobin published “The Politics of Debt in America,” an essay by historian and writer Steve Fraser from which comes this telling quote:

Today, we have entered a new phase.  What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of servitude.  Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”

In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable form of consumer debt.

Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%.  Even financing poverty became a lucrative enterprise.  Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest of 200% to 300% and more.  As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist.  And these poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank, Bank of America, and American Express.

Fraser — who has taught at both Columbia and NYU — is author of the forthcoming The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Here’s author bio:

Steve Fraser is the author of Every Man a Speculator, Wall Street, and Labor Will Rule, which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in labor history. He also is the co-editor of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Nation, The American Prospect, Raritan, and the London Review of Books. He has written for the online site Tomdispatch.com, and his work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Salon, Truthout, and Alternet, among others. He lives in New York City.

With all that as prologue, here’s a very relevant discussion between Moyers and Fraser, via Moyers & Company:

Moyers & Company: The New Robber Barons

From the transcript:

BILL MOYERS: Fables?

STEVE FRASER: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Of freedom?

STEVE FRASER: Yes. One of them is this notion of the free agent. That he’s out there and he’s going to reinvent himself. Another fable of freedom is an old one but it’s taken on new and very telling life in our time. And that is the fable that you can escape and be free privately through consumer culture. That that is the pathway to liberation. And that has always offered itself up all through the 20th century as a way of escape.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of material wellbeing for people and the need to live a civilized life. To have what you need to live a civilized life. The material things you need. But we have advanced way beyond that. And we deal in fantasy to an extreme degree. And it’s very hard to resist this because the media in all of its various forms presents an image of the country which we’re all supposed to respect, admire and strive for which is at variance with the underlying social and economic reality that millions upon millions of people live.

We’re fascinated by the glitz, the glamor, the high tech. We think of our country as a consummately prosperous one. Even while every social indice indicates the opposite. That we are actually undergoing a process of– we are a developed country underdeveloping. And because what does development mean?

First of all, if it doesn’t mean– how is the general population faring? How– what is the measure of their well being? And if we look at stagnant, declining real wages. If we look at families that can no longer support themselves without multiple jobs. Without both spouses working. If we look at college students deeply in debt in order to, in theory, get that degree which promises them, and that’s an illusory promise to some very significant degree, some upward mobility. It’s that reality which the media often does not portray.

BILL MOYERS: How has the common opinion of elites changed since the first Gilded Age, the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller and the greatest industrialists of that period, and today?

STEVE FRASER: I think elites during the first Gilded Age, the people we sometimes, we used to call the robber barons, were held in great suspicion. Their motives were doubted. They seemed to be behaving in ways that violated the notions of economic justice. Of religious propriety. They seemed to be placing money before all else. They seemed to be threats to the democratic way of life. They were buying Supreme Court justices. They were buying senators and so on. They seemed to be an imminent threat to the American birthright of the democratic revolution.

Elites in our second Gilded Age, in our day, are far less frequently thought to be guilty of that, and on the contrary, as the champions of the free market are thought to be our wise men. Our savants.

BILL MOYERS: Even though the free market fails time and–

STEVE FRASER: Right. Time and again. Right.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s an irony to me. In the recent midterm elections, exit polls showed that 63 percent of the voters believe that the economy works only for the wealthy. Only 32 percent believe that the economy includes everyday people. And yet look how the vote went. Look who the victors were.

STEVE FRASER: Well, there could be nothing more telling that we are indeed living in an acquiescent moment than those kinds of statistics. And those kinds of statistics have been around for a long time. On the one hand, both political parties have run, the Republicans more swiftly than the Democrats, have run far away from the kind of social programs, welfare programs, infrastructure investments, progressive taxation, for fear that they will offend the right, the very powerful and vocal right in American life.

John Pilger on torture, the Ukraine, and history


John Pilger [his website] is one of the best documentarians around, relkentlessly charting the course of imperialism since the days of the Vietnam War.

An Australian native who lives in Britain, Pilger covered social issues for the London Daily Mirror for two decades, winning awards and producing for documentaries for Granada Television as well.

As Noam Chomsky writes of Pilger, “John Pilger’s work has been a beacon of light in often dark times. The realities he has brought to light have been a revelation, over and over again, and his courage and insight a constant inspiration.”

In this interview by RT’s Afshin Rattansi, Pilger covers a wide range, starting with the revelations of the torture report and moving on the conflict in the Ukraine — revealing, among other things, that one major beneficiary of the crisis has been Joe Biden’s son, who sits on the board of a fracking company that landed a contract in the Ukraine.

Pilger’s historical analysis is critical to gaining an understanding of the crisis that as been sorely lacking the U.S. mainstream media.

From Going Underground:

John Pilger: ‘Real possibility of nuclear war’ – Ukraine crisis could start World War 3

Program notes:

John Pilger, film-maker and award winning journalist, talks to Going Underground host Afshin Rattansi about the headline events of the year, from CIA torture to the Ukraine crisis. He says the whole tenure of the BBC coverage of the Torture report was ‘does torture work?’ Modern British history is full of torture, and the British were ‘masters’ at it. When the OSS become the CIA, it split into 2 sections – one an intelligence gathering section, the other a covert operations arm for the presidency, the central part of which was torture.

He warns that the culture of apologising for the state, to minimise its responsibility, has ‘burrowed’ into the minds of correspondents, citing the defence correspondent on Newsnight failing to mention the role of Britain when appraising why the Middle East was a mess. He also says that parliamentary inquiries like the Nolan inquiry and the Chilcot inquiry are stopped before they can get anywhere, describing it as a ‘series of whitewashes.’ He talks of a ‘consensus’ to cover up, citing the arms to Iraq inquiry, where the only person that the judge commended was a Foreign Office official who described the Foreign Office as a ‘culture of lying.’

He says that the number of high-ups in the British establishment who committed serious offences ‘numbered in the dozens,’ and the only difference between the US and UK in torture is ‘in terms of scale.’ The real issue in democracies is ‘dissent being constrained’ physically on the streets. He believes it is ‘dangerous’ to protest in the way people did in 2003, whether you are an establishment figure, a journalist, or just a man on the street.

He says the Sydney siege, whilst horrific, still has to be deconstructed to find what’s missing from it. He points out that the Australian PM declared it a ‘terrorist act’ within minutes of it starting, when it turned out to be a lone wolf, and asks why someone with his history was on the loose. He argues that looking at the list of demands, they were all negotiable, and asks why force was used, and says ‘it seems very likely that the people in there were killed by the police and not by the terrorist.’

With Russia, he says he has never known the truth ‘so inverted’ over any one issue. He believes we are in the midst of a cold war more dangerous than the one he grew up with, comparing the raw propaganda of the prior to what we’re seeing now, with a ‘real possibility’ of a nuclear war. He compares it to Iraq, because both involved ‘fiction,’ the idea that Russia is attacking the West. He says oil prices were driven down by agreement between the US and Saudis, to wreck the Russian economy. He says it was NATO and the US that took over Ukraine, to the point that Joe Biden’s son is on the board of Ukraine’s biggest private gas provider. At a meeting in Yalta in September 2013, the ‘takeover of Ukraine was planned’ by prominent politicians and multinationals. There was a ‘coup stage-managed by the Obama administration,’ and blame shifted to Russia, who acted purely defensively. He says there is a ‘real prospect of war’ with a nuclear power and strong conventional military, and Putin has now started ‘talking red lines’ himself. He describes ‘extraordinary propaganda’ promoting tension and demonising Russia, which ‘may end up being self-fulfilling.’

John is crowdfunding his new documentary, ‘The Coming War between America and China’, about the perceived threat to the US from China.

You can find out more and contribute at bit.ly/ComingWar

InSecurityWatch: War, hacks, cops, and more


We begin with the latest from Ferguson, Missouri, via BuzzFeed News:

Prosecutor Says He Knew Some Witnesses Were Lying To The Ferguson Grand Jury

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch says he knew some of the witnesses who said they saw Michael Brown get shot were lying, but he let them testify to the grand jury anyway.

In his first interview since announcing Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting of Mike Brown, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told radio station KTRS that he allowed witnesses to testify to the grand jury he knew were lying.

KTRS: Why did you allow people to testify in front of the grand jury in which you knew their information was either flat-out wrong, or flat-out lying, or just weren’t telling the truth?

McCulloch: Well, early on, I decided that anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything was going to be presented to the grand jury.

And I knew that no matter how I handled it, there would be criticism of it. So if I didn’t put those witnesses on, then we’d be discussing now why I didn’t put those witnesses on. Even though their statements were not accurate.

A fugitive’s status secured, via Al Jazeera America:

Extradition of Assata Shakur from Cuba unlikely despite restored ties

  • Exiles from both sides unlikely to face extradition given political nature of any alleged crimes, legal experts say

Soon after President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Havana on Wednesday, Cuba watchers began to raise questions over potential extradition orders U.S. exiles in Cuba, specifically regarding rights activist Assata Shakur — who has been living on the island for decades.

Shakur and other black activists, including Black Panther Party (BPP) founder Huey P. Newton, fled from U.S. intelligence and security agencies in the 1960s and 1970s to Cuba, which was sympathetic to socialist ideals. Now supporters of Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, wonder what the future holds for the 67-year-old exile.

Questions have also been raised over Cubans who fled to the United States during the same period, especially those who allegedly took part in organizing the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

But legal experts say extraditions from either country are unlikely to pass muster considering provisions contained in the extradition treaty the United States has with Cuba.

From the Guardian, bellicose branding:

US general rebrands Isis ‘Daesh’ after requests from regional partners

  • Leader of operations against group uses alternative name – a pejorative in Arabic that rejects fighters’ claims on Islam

A top Pentagon general has informally rebranded the jihadists of Isis with the name “Daesh” after allies in the middle east asked he not use the group’s other monikers for fear they legitimize its ambitions of an Islamic state.

Lieutenant General James Terry almost exclusively used Daesh in reference to the militants at a press conference Thursday, although the Pentagon’s policy to primarily use “Isil” – an acronym for “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” – has not changed.

Terry, who leads US operations against Isis in Iraq, said partners in the region had asked him not to use the terms Islamic State, Isil or Isis (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Secretary of state John Kerry has also shifted his language in recent weeks, using Daesh 16 times and Isil only twice during remarks to Nato counterparts in Belgium. Retired general John Allen, the US envoy to coordinate the coalition against Isis, also prefers Daesh. French president Francois Hollande has used Daesh interchangeably with the group’s other names.

Daesh is also an acronym for an Arabic variation of the group’s name: al-Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham. Most of the middle east and many Muslims abroad use Daesh, saying that although the jihadists have declared the nebulous region they control a caliphate, they neither adhere to Islam nor control a real state. Islamic clerics in particular have taken issue with the terms that include “Islamic State”. A group of British imams has suggested to prime minister David Cameron that he call the group “the Un-Islamic State”.

Another branding, via United Press International:

Egyptian jihadists thank U.S. for terror designation

The new terror designation was well received by Ajnad Misr, which posted a message to its official Twitter page thanking the U.S. for the “blessing.”

Ajnad Misr, a Salafist militant group in Egypt, was designated a “global terrorist” by the U.S. Department of State Thursday, eliciting an unexpected expression of gratitude from the extremist group.

The State Department designated Ajnad Misr, a splinter group of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Foreign Terrorist Organization, citing claims of “numerous attacks on Egyptian security forces at government buildings, public spaces and universities, often injuring or killing innocent bystanders.”

The new designation was well received by Ajnad Misr, which posted a message to its official Twitter page thanking the U.S. for the “blessing.”

BBC News covers dronal dubeity:

Leaked CIA report: Targeting Taliban leaders ‘ineffective’

The removal of senior Taliban leaders has had little impact on the organisation, a CIA report released by Wikileaks has said.

The 2009 report analyses “high value targeting” in a number of conflicts – the assassination of senior insurgents. It said the Taliban’s ability to replace lost leaders has hampered the effectiveness of coalition operations against its leadership.

The CIA would not comment on the leaked documents.

The report, which Wikileaks describes as “pro-assassination”, looks at the pros and cons of “high value targeting” (HVT) programmes.

Cold War 2.0 from United Press International:

Poland orders more Norwegian missiles

  • Poland has ordered missiles from Norway’s Kongsberg Defense for a second coastal defense missile squadron

Poland is getting a second coastal defense missile squadron equipped with truck-mounted naval strike missiles from Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace.

The Norwegian company said the contract from Poland’s Ministry of National Defense is worth about $175.3 million.

“This agreement proves the leading position of NSM and our position as a reliable partner and supplier to Poland,” said Harald Annestad, president of Kongsberg Defense.

Neoliberal vengeance? From El País:

“Ruined businessman” rams car with explosives into PP headquarters

  • Gas canisters failed to explode. Man blames ruling party for his financial woes

A man claiming to be a ruined businessman drove a car containing explosive material into the headquarters of the ruling Popular Party (PP) in Madrid early Friday morning, police said.

The failed attack took place shortly before 7am, with no injuries reported.

The car, a Citroën Xantia with Guadalajara license plates, contained two gas canisters, along with two sacks of industrial fertilizer. The material failed to explode, and police said there was no further risk of detonation.

A fed fail from the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

FBI’s genetic tests didn’t nail anthrax killer, GAO says

For a second time in three years, a federal inquiry cast doubt Friday on the FBI’s assertion that genetic testing had cinched its conclusion that a now-dead Army bioweapons researcher mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and terrorized the East Coast in 2001.

The long-awaited report from the Government Accountability Office found that the FBI’s exhaustive, cutting-edge attempt to trace the killer with matches of genetic mutations of anthrax samples at times lacked precision, consistency and adequate standards.

The 77-page report, perhaps the final official word on the FBI’s seven-year investigation known as Amerithrax, lent credence to a National Academy of Sciences panel’s finding in 2011 that the bureau’s scientific evidence did not definitely show that the anthrax came from the Maryland bioweapons laboratory of Bruce Ivins.

More of the same from the New York Times:

F.B.I. Evidence Often Mishandled, Inquiry Finds

F.B.I. agents in every region of the country have mishandled, mislabeled and lost evidence, according to a highly critical internal investigation that discovered errors with nearly half the pieces of evidence it reviewed.

The evidence collection and retention system is the backbone of the F.B.I.’s investigative process, and the report said it is beset by problems. It also found that the F.B.I. was storing more weapons, less money and valuables, and two tons more drugs than its records had indicated.

The report’s findings, based on a review of more than 41,000 piece of evidence in F.B.I. offices around the country, could have consequences for criminal investigations and prosecutions. Lawyers can use even minor record-keeping discrepancies to get evidence thrown out of court, and the F.B.I. was alerting prosecutors around the country on Friday that they may need to disclose the errors to defendants.

Many of the problems cited in the report appear to be hiccups in the F.B.I.’s transition to a computer system known as Sentinel, which went online in 2012 and was intended to move the bureau away from a case-management system based on paper files. But other problems, including materials that disappeared or were taken from F.B.I. evidence rooms and not returned, are more serious.

More dronal dubeity from the Associated Press:

Poll: Americans skeptical of commercial drones

Americans broadly back tight regulations on commercial drone operators, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, as concerns about privacy and safety override the potential benefits of the heralded drone revolution.

By a 2-1 margin, the poll found, those who had an opinion opposed using drones for commercial purposes. Only 21 percent favored commercial use of drones, compared with 43 percent opposed. Another 35 percent were in the middle.

Only 3 percent of people say they’ve operated small drones, which are essentially the same as remote-controlled model aircraft.

Support for using commercial drones was the weakest among women and seniors, while college graduates and wealthier people were more apt to favor it.

After the jump, government cyberspooks abound, and on the the Sony hack and Obama fingering Pyongyang, faulting Sony, and vowing vengeance, Sony fires back, and the FBI piles on Pyongyang, Staples customers’ payment cards hacked, Target customers can sue for losing data to hackers, major flaws patched in software controlling oil and gas pipelines, on to Asia and soaring Afghan civilian deaths, Pakistan begins an campaign of executions as a school mass execution triggers a crackdown on the Taliban, China gains growing military projection power, approaching American frigate sale to Tawian triggers Beijing anger, and hints of a Chinese nuclear buildup, Japan gets its own whistleblower website as Korean peace activists seek a Nobel for the engandered pacifist provision of Japan’s constitution. . . Continue reading

EnviroWatch: Poles, noise, oceans, & nukes


We begin with the southern polar regions with the Atlantic Monthly:

Antarctica Tourism Could Be Making Penguins Sick

  • Human visits to the South Pole may threaten the adorable creatures with deadly diseases

Antarctica remained largely untouched until roughly 200 years ago, and now, more than 10,000 people travel there every year. But tourists bring more than cameras. Scientists are warning that pathogens brought by visitors could threaten the continent’s most iconic inhabitant: the penguin.

Isolation has left local wildlife populations particularly vulnerable to diseases commonplace elsewhere in the world. “The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences,” Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, said to New Scientist. “Penguins are highly susceptible to infectious diseases.”

Her team of Antarctic researchers found multiple infectious agents—bacteria such Salmonella and E. coli, viruses such as West Nile and the Avian pox virus—in captive penguins dating back to 1947. Outbreaks from those diseases have killed thousands of penguins over the years, the team reported in a paper published this month in the journal Polar Biology.

Then head to the northern polar region with the New York Times:

Snow Is Down and Heat Is Up in the Arctic, Report Says

The Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe, and with greater repercussions, scientists are reporting.

The new findings appear in the Arctic Report Card, first published in 2006 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and updated annually. The report card catalogs the wide-ranging changes caused by the rising temperatures, in large part driven by emissions of greenhouse gases.

Snow cover, measured since 1967, was below average and set a record low in April in the Eurasian region of the Arctic. Sea surface temperatures are rising, particularly in the Chukchi Sea, northwest of Alaska, where the waters are warming at a rate of almost one degree Fahrenheit per decade.

The extent of Arctic sea ice, which retreats in summer, did not hit a record low in 2014. But it was the sixth lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979, and the scientists noted that the eight smallest extents have occurred in the last eight years.

And again with Common Dreams:

Chevron Halts Arctic Drilling Plans ‘Indefinitely’

  • Decision ‘further proof that technical challenges of drilling in icy waters, where a spill is all but inevitable.’—Farrah Khan, Greenpeace Canada

In a move cheered by environmental groups, Chevron has put its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic “on hold indefinitely,” the energy company said Wednesday.

It had planned on drilling by 2020 in the Beaufort Sea, but in a letter to Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB), Chevron cited “the level of economic uncertainty in the industry” for its decision, Reuters reports.

CBC News reports that Chevron has already spent over $100 million on exploration in the Beaufort Sea.

NEB policy is that companies engaged in drilling must be able to drill a “same season relief well” in the case of an out-of-control well—an ability, according to the Financial Times, Chevron said was “not feasible.” Chevron was in the process of creating an alternate to such a relief well and have it meet approval of the regulatory body.

Oil news further south with Reuters:

Oil shock to tilt Mexico energy opening in private sector’s favor

Mexico, the world’s 10th biggest crude producer, last week announced bidding terms for the first set of production-sharing contracts, unveiling 14 shallow-water exploration blocks that will pay winning firms a share of each project’s output.

The overhaul aims to reverse a decline in crude output of 30 percent since 2004, but the slumping prices have cut potential returns, putting the onus on Mexico to make it more attractive for firms to invest – at the government’s expense.

By law, what companies must pay the government include a range of taxes and a basic royalty which will vary depending on the price of oil.

The most important consideration in determining who wins the contracts will be what share of operating profits bidders offer the government above a minimum level.

“What will the government do? Well, if it planned on a certain percentage for a given (project), it’s just going to have to reduce the percentage,” said German Pacheco, a congressman from the opposition National Action Party who helped craft the energy reform.

From the Guardian, an oceanic crisis:

Major coral bleaching in Pacific may become worst die-off in 20 years, say experts

  • Warm sea temperatures are causing massive coral reef die-off across the Northern Pacific in what could be the start of an historic bleaching event around the world

Scientists warn extreme sea temperatures could cause a “historic” coral reef die-off around the world over the coming months, following a massive coral bleaching already underway in the North Pacific. Experts said the coral die-off could be the worst in nearly two decades.

Reports of severe bleaching have been accumulating in the inbox of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch programme since July.

A huge swathe of the Pacific has already been affected, including the Northern Marianas Islands, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, Kiribati and Florida. Some areas have recorded serious bleaching for the first time.

“On a global scale it’s a major bleaching event. What it may be is the beginning of a historic event,” said Coral Reef Watch coordinator Dr Mark Eakin.

A delightful discovery, via BBC News:

Birds ‘heard tornadoes coming’ and fled one day ahead

US scientists say tracking data shows that five golden-winged warblers “evacuated” their nesting site one day before the April 2014 tornado outbreak.

Geolocators showed the birds left the Appalachians and flew 700km (400 miles) south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The next day, devastating storms swept across the south and central US.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, ecologists suggest these birds – and others – may sense such extreme events with their keen low-frequency hearing.

Other sounds, ominous in themselves, via Environment News Service:

EU Traffic Noise Causes 10,000 Premature Deaths a Year

More than 125 million Europeans could be exposed to levels of road traffic noise above legal guidelines, causing up to 10,000 premature deaths each year, finds a new assessment published today by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

“Noise in Europe 2014,” the EEA’s first noise assessment report, analyzes exposure to noise levels and the environmental and public health problems that result.

The effects of noise are particularly widespread. For the one in four Europeans exposed to noise levels above the EU’s threshold for assessment and action, 55 decibels, there are both direct and indirect health effects, the report states.

Traffic noise annoys almost 20 million and disturbs the sleep of an estimated eight million residents of the 28 European Union Member States.

Another Obama administration disappointment, from Salon:

EPA goes soft on toxic coal ash

  • New regulations for the dangerous coal byproduct fail to treat it as hazardous waste

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the nation’s very first regulations for coal ash disposal Friday afternoon. But, in a major disappointment to those hoping the agency would come down hard on the substance, it opted to regulate it as solid, instead of hazardous, waste.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants — one that’s less well-known than carbon dioxide emissions, but is also far more prevalent than many likely realize. It’s the second-largest form of waste generated in the U.S., the 140 tons of it that are produced annually stored at over 2,000 disposal sites across the country.

Some of those dump sites have been known to leak contaminants, which include arsenic, mercury and dangerous heavy metals, posing a health risk to the people living nearby. And sometimes things go really wrong. You may remember, for example, the disaster earlier this year in North Carolina, when Duke Energy spilled over 82,000 tons of the stuff into the Dan River.

On to Japan and Fukushimapocalypse Now!, via the Japan Times:

Taiwan says 3/11 ban on Japanese food exports to remain in place

Taiwan will continue to ban food imports from five prefectures tainted by the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster despite Tokyo’s efforts to apply stricter export inspections.

An official at the Health and Welfare Ministry said Friday the import ban will remain in place and that Taiwanese authorities have no plans to lift it any time soon.

“Both sides have been discussing the issue since the ban was put in place,” he said. “We proceed at our own pace and will conduct an overall assessment before making any decision.”

The Japan Times again, with damages sought:

Hundreds of Fukushima evacuees sue Tepco for ¥6 billion

More than 340 people forced to evacuate by the atomic meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011 filed a lawsuit Friday against Tokyo Electric Power Co. demanding around ¥6 billion in compensation.

In the case, filed with the Tokyo District Court, the 344 plaintiffs from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, are seeking ¥10 million in damages for mental suffering and monthly payments of ¥200,000 for three years from the utility once the evacuation order for the Odaka area is lifted, their lawyers said.

The evacuees had sought to settle the case through an alternative dispute resolution system but decided to take it to court after Tepco, which runs the plant, rejected the terms of settlement, the lawyers said.

And from ABC News, the latest on that underground radioactive-waste-enclosing organic cat litter explosion in New Mexico:

Report: Radiation Leak at Nuclear Dump Was Small

A final report by independent researchers shows the radiation leak from the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico was small and localized.

The report released Thursday by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center also says no negative health effects are expected among workers or the public.

The center is associated with New Mexico State University.

Its technicians have been collecting samples since February, when a container of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured after being placed in a storage room at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

MexicoWatch: Charges, protest, troops, pols


We begin with a allegation from a military whistleblower reported by Proceso, here in a translation by Borderland Beat:

Mex. Army General: “The only way an event (Iguala) of this magnitude could happen is collusion and participation of the Army. …. may cause a civil war”

From his personal experience in the militia, where he tried without success to create the office  of  military ombudsman within the army (to protect the public from human rights abuses), the general in retirement José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez affirms that,  his attitude after looking at the facts of Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa, is that president Enrique Peña Nieto  is betting on repression.

What we see” – he says -“ is a sign, an escape valve for the people through active participation in dissent and social mobilization, which these two serious developments show. Paradoxically the only support that Enrique Peña Nieto has as the President of the Republic are the armed forces’

In an interview, the retired General indicates that according to the Geopolitical Observatory of Armed  Groups in Latin America there exists 42 such groups in Mexico.

“The Government must be very careful because it may cause a civil war in the country: we are seeing it in Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guerrero; there are 16 states with the presence of self-defense groups”.

These groups, he adds, were not created to ask for the resignation of Peña Nieto or with the purpose of dismissing and supplanting the government, but because “there is no government, there are no institutions and there is a power vacuum that has been created because we have authorities of illegitimate origin, who have come through fraudulent elections”.

From Fox News Latino, the search continues:

Full of distrust, parents of 43 missing students comb Mexican state searching for their kids

The revelation that the DNA of Alexander Mora, one of the 43 Mexican students missing for almost three months now, was among the charred remains found in a public dump last week, failed to bring the cool-off effect government officials hoped for.

But the crushed family members of the young men last seen on Sept. 26 are not giving up.

They said they are determined to keep combing the state of Guerrero, where the students were allegedly abducted by local police forces during a street protest. Considering that Guerrero, the second poorest state in Mexico, is about the size of the state of West Virginia, the search team has decided to split up into smaller groups to cover the area.

“We will keep looking for our sons,” Felipe de la Cruz, father of one of the missing students, told Fox News Latino. De la Cruz and the other family members say they never truly believed the official version put out by Mexico’s head prosecutor, Jesús Murillo Karam, on Nov. 7.

Parents denied again, via teleSUR:

Elections in Mexico’s Guerrero State Will Not Be Cancelled

  • The Ayotzinapa parents had asked that 2015 local elections be canceled in the wake of exposed widespread government corruption.

Cancelling local elections in Guererro state will cause serious problems says the president of Mexico’s National Electoral institute, rejecting petitions by the families of the Ayotzinapa victims that the process be halted and the government dissolved.

After an evaluation conducted over the existing situation in the state, the Electoral Institute President, Lorenzo Cordova, said that “serious problems” would come from cancelling upcoming elections.

The elections, scheduled for June 7, 2015, will go ahead as usual, the Institute conformed. Voters will elect nine federal lawmakers, the state governor, 48 legislators and 81 mayors as usual.

In view of the failure of local, state and federal officials to produce the missing Ayotzinapa students alive, dissident teachers and other activists have raised the possibility of boycotting the upcoming elections.

The collision of two very different worlds, from Fox News Latino:

Acapulco, Mexico mayor caught up in protest over missing students

The mayor of this Mexican resort city was effectively held captive in his car on Friday by people protesting the Sept. 26 abduction and apparent murder of 43 students.

Protesters formed a human wall to block Mayor Luis Walton’s vehicle as he traveled to Acapulco International Airport for an event.

The demonstrators, who included relatives of the missing students and members of the Guerrero state teachers union, proceeded to puncture the tires and paint slogans on the vehicle as a visibly frightened Walton made calls on his cellphone.

From InSight Crime, fears expressed:

Conflict in Mexico’s South Spurs Guerrilla Worries

  • The disappearance and presumed death of 43 student protesters in Iguala, Guerrero has sparked concerns of a new surge of guerilla movements in southern Mexico, but just how likely is it?

The situation in Guerrero has clearly sparked a democratic crisis. The mayor of Iguala and his wife, charged with overseeing the mass murder of the protesters, were arrested after going underground for several weeks. The governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, resigned amid protests. And activists within Guerrero, including family members of the disappeared students, are now calling for a boycott of all elections until the students are found. One spokesman spoke ominously of “thinking about actions that we don’t want to be thinking about.”

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that some media outlets are reporting increased activities of local guerilla groups. This doesn’t make a return of a full-blown insurgent movement a foregone conclusion, and the barriers to a Mexican descent into sustained civil conflict remain substantial. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in modern Mexico more conducive to fomenting armed civil opposition to the government.

Many of the factors are historical: southern Mexico, and Guerrero in particular, has long been an insurgent hotbed for decades. Much of that steps from the South’s persistent inequality, a social problem that correlates strongly with insurgent movements. Guerrero was the second most unequal state in the country according to one recent study by the Mexican government, and its status in that regard is longstanding.

From the Latin American Herald Tribune, one party excluded in another shootout:

Mexico Vigilante Leader Says Elite Police Unit Not Involved in Deadly Clash

The founder of one of the first self-defense groups in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan denied Thursday that the Federal Police’s elite Gendarmerie division was involved in this week’s armed clash between rival vigilante forces that left 11 dead.

“The Gendarmerie held their position well, and even moved back from where we were,” Hipolito Mora told Radio Formula in regard to the shootout in the Tierra Caliente region, which straddles the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico.

Remarks by rival Luis Antonio Torres, who accused the Gendarmerie of conspiring with Mora’s group during Tuesday’s clash, are false, the vigilante leader said.

Torres told reporters Wednesday that the Gendarmerie had made a “pact” with Mora’s group and that his men had no idea they would come under fire while traveling through La Ruana, the town in Michoacan where the clash occurred.

And from teleSUR, a market alarm:

S&P: Violence, Corruption Could Affect Mexico’s Economy

  • The international rating agency Standar and Poors said Mexico has important challenges in corruption and security.

U.S. rating agency Standard and Poors said on Wednesday that corruption and violence in Mexico are major challenges that could affect the country’s economic panorama.

“The disappearance and death of 43 students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero in September 2014 highlights the important challenges that Mexico has to control violence related with drugs trafficking,” said the agency, according to Mexican newspaper Reforma.

“Even when that kind of violence is not new for the country, Iguala events raised doubts on the capacity of the government to deal with this critic topic and with the impact that violence could have on the economic perspectives,” it added.

EbolaWatch: Numbers, fear, aid, politics


From the Centers for Disease Control, the latest Ebola numbers for the three hardest hit West African countries:

BLOLG Ebola cases

From the CDC report, the latest corresponding Ebola curves:

BLOG Ebola curves

The Washington Post covers a high level visit:

UN chief visits Ebola-ravaged West African nations

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised health workers battling Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia on Friday, saying they have shown “the most noble face of humankind” amid an epidemic that has killed more than 6,900 people in West Africa.

Ban, who made stops in both countries on Friday, travels Saturday to Guinea where the Ebola virus first emerged a year ago.

“Today we have reason to be cautiously optimistic that this terrible outbreak can be defeated,” said Ban at a news conference with Liberia’s president.

“Our response strategy is working — where people are gaining access to treatment, where contacts are being traced, burials are becoming safer, communities are mobilizing to protect themselves,” he said.

Then to Liberia for that election, via the New York Times:

Liberia Will Proceed With Senate Vote Delayed by Ebola

Senate elections that were repeatedly delayed because of the Ebola epidemic and legal challenges, and further complicated by a presidential ban on large political gatherings in the capital, will finally be held in Liberia on Saturday. Whether they will be fair, peaceful and safe is unclear.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said the elections, first scheduled more than two months ago but postponed twice, must be held, otherwise the nine-year terms of half the members in the 30-seat Senate will expire with no successors, provoking a constitutional crisis. Critics have said mass gatherings at the polls raise the risk of more contagion that would aggravate the Ebola crisis, which had shown signs of easing in this country of four million.

Last Saturday, the Supreme Court agreed with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, saying it would not halt the vote. “It is not our place to decide whether it is appropriate to conduct elections at this time or any other time,” said the chief justice, Francis S. Korkpor.

The elections are not only seen as a test of whether Liberia, one of the three worst-hit West African countries in the Ebola epidemic, can conduct the voting without inadvertently spreading an insidious disease. They are also seen as a barometer of Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s popularity. The most hotly contested Senate seat pits her son, Robert, against George Manneh Weah, a former soccer star and presidential aspirant. The seat represents the capital region, where nearly half the country’s people live.

Next, on to Sierra Leone and a dose of seasonal angst from NBC News:

Could Christmas Worsen Ebola’s Spread?

  • It worries Dr. Dan Kelly. And officials in Sierra Leone were concerned enough to limit public gatherings for the holidays.

Right now, Ebola is raging out of control in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown. It’s barely under control in outlying districts like Kono and Kenema. The epidemic started as people traveled across the region’s porous borders, and this will be the first Christmas and New Year holiday since the epidemic started.

“You have a couple of million people in Freetown and I’d say 50-plus percent of those people in Freetown are interested in traveling back to remote villages for the holidays,” Kelly told NBC News.

“And they’ll spend a week there,” added Kelly, who’s worked in Sierra Leone on and off since 2006. “It could spread Ebola all around the country and just create hundreds of hotspots for sure.”

Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, says travel between all parts of the country has been restricted as part of “Operation Western Area Surge,” an effort to get a handle on the epidemic. He says public gatherings will be strictly controlled in the run-up to Christmas.

The Sierra Leone Concord Times covers belated vaccinations coming:

Ebola vaccine to be available in March

Director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine yesterday revealed in Freetown that a new vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus disease, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Sierra Leoneans, will be available in March 2015.

Speaking at a press briefing organised by the Ministry of Information and Communications, Professor Peter Piot said they were in the country to have first-hand information about the disease, do research for developing an Ebola vaccine and getting prepared for a further outbreak.

“Since the first outbreak in 1976 in Congo, we have not been able to develop any effective cure for it. But we will make sure not to miss this opportunity to develop a vaccine that will be first implemented here in February or March 2015,” said the professor who co-discovered the Ebola virus in Zaire while working at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium.

A perspective of bodies from two different tragedies, via the Washington Post:

In Sierra Leone, the ghosts of war haunt an Ebola graveyard

To find Andrew Kondoh, walk through the gates of this city’s largest cemetery, where teams in moonsuits bury more than 50 bodies in white plastic bags each day. Look for the man with the wispy goatee and big belly, who is overseeing one of the world’s most chaotic, dangerous graveyards as if he’s done it all before.

That’s because he has.

Twenty years ago, when he was 13, Kondoh took it upon himself to guard a heap of bodies, people killed by rebels during the country’s civil war. For three years, as the pile grew, he protected them from being trampled or picked at by dogs. When that conflict ended, Kondoh made a promise to himself. He was done working with the dead.

Then Ebola surged in Sierra Leone.

“It’s like I’m back there again,” Kondoh said. “Except this time I don’t see the faces in the body bags. I just imagine them.”

The United Nations Development Programme covers a novel way to pay front line workers:

Mobile money for 16,000 Ebola workers

Marion Sesay gossiped with her two work colleagues while they waited in the shade of a local money handler for their names to be called.

She and her friends, nurses at a nearby hospital, are entitled to hazard pay, an extra bit of money every two weeks to offset the risk of working in health care during Ebola times.

“The money is helping us greatly,” Ms. Sesay said. “We can use the money for our kids, for our families. The money is good, but we just want this thing to end.”

For the third installment of their hazard pay entitlement, Sesay and her national colleagues, some 16,000 recipients across Sierra Leone, received text messages on their phones: how much money to expect and where to pick it up with a security code.

The system, a mobile money transfer scheme, was implemented for the first time the week before Christmas with a great deal of satisfaction.

UPDATE: We inadvertently omitted a video, forthwith rectified. From Agence France-Presse:

Sierra Leone bikers spread the message to fight Ebola

Program notes:

More than 100 motorcyclists hit the road to spread awareness messages about Ebola. Nearly 7,000 people have now died from the virus, almost all of them in west Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

A call for a debt jubilee from the Sierra Leone Concord Times:

Calls for IMF, World Bank to cancel Salone debts

The Budget Advocacy Network (BAN) and Jubilee Debt Campaign UK are calling for the immediate cancelation of debts owed by Sierra Leone externally, especially those owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The IMF is demanding that Sierra Leone repay the sum of US$2.7 million this week, a further US$1.8 million on Christmas Eve and US$1 million on 29 December this year.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone owe a whopping US$464 million to the IMF, out of a total debt of US$3.6 billion.

In 2015, the debt payments of the three countries worst affected by the Ebola outbreak are expected to be US$130 million, including US$21 million to the IMF.

And the president’s State House Communications Unit covers a notable visitor:

Ebola Scientist Assures President Koroma

The Director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) Professor Peter Piot Thursday 18 December assured government of their support in the fight against Ebola through the development of a vaccine that will bring a final halt to the spreading virus.

He made this assurance during a courtesy call on President Ernest Bai Koroma at State Lodge, Hill Station.

The distinguished Belgian microbiologist well-known for his research on Ebola and AIDS is in the country to support government’s fight against the disease and discuss how best science, innovation and discovery can better contribute to defeating the virus.

Welcoming the delegation, President Koroma expressed his profound delight for receiving Prof. Piot, who had been involved with Ebola outbreaks since 1976 and has played a significant role trying to bring a closure to the epidemic.

Quote of the day: CIA Taliban failure admission


From a secret 2009 CIA report, Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool [PDF], just released by [who else] Wikileaks:

BLOG CIA