Category Archives: Corpocracy

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.

InSecurityWatch: Pols, cops, hacks, terror, zones


And so much more, starting with the inevitable from BBC News:

US-Cuba shift: Opponents threaten to block changes

Opponents of President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy have threatened to block his efforts to restore diplomatic relations after 50 years of hostility.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio promised on CNN to block the nomination of any US ambassador to Cuba. Other anti-Castro legislators suggested Congress would removing funding for any normalised ties with the country.

US-Cuban ties have been frozen since the early 1960s – a policy of isolation Mr Obama condemned as a failure. On Wednesday, the US president said it was time for a new approach.

Part of the deal with the New York Times:

C.I.A. Mole, Now Out of Prison, Helped U.S. Identify Cuban Spies

He was, in many ways, a perfect spy — a man so important to Cuba’s intelligence apparatus that the information he gave to the Central Intelligence Agency paid dividends long after Cuban authorities arrested him and threw him in prison for nearly two decades.

Rolando Sarraff Trujillo has now been released from prison and flown out of Cuba as part of a swap for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States that President Obama announced Wednesday in a televised speech. Mr. Obama did not give Mr. Sarraff’s name, but several current American officials identified him and a former official discussed some of the information he gave to the C.I.A. while burrowed deep inside Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence.

Mr. Sarraff’s story is a chapter in a spy vs. spy drama between the United States and Cuba that played on long after the end of the Cold War, decades after Cuba ceased to be a serious threat to the United States. The story — at this point — remains just a sketchy outline, with Mr. Sarraff hidden from public view and his work for the C.I.A. still classified.

Another frightening case of transnational corporate exceptionalism from the Guardian:

US tries to strike deal with EU for immunity over online security breaches

  • Critics fear Tisa talks could be used to further interests of large corporations and undermine right to privacy

The US is attempting to secure immunity from investigation for online security breaches by major US companies under negotiations between Washington and Brussels, according to leaked documents seen by the Guardian.

Such a deal would prevent US companies that were operating inside the EU from being prosecuted by regulators or law officers for data breaches or claims of negligence in the host country, forcing European governments to pursue cases in the US courts.

Public service unions said the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) talks in Geneva revealed how the US planned to protect homegrown businesses from regulations that might hinder their expansion into sensitive areas such as government data handling and healthcare.

Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International (PSI), which represents 650 unions in 150 countries, said the leaked documents, obtained by the Associated Whistleblowing Press, confirmed her fears that “Tisa is being used to further the interests of some of the largest corporations on earth”.

Another major law enforcement failure, from the Los Angeles Times:

Feds sue N.Y.C. citing ‘deeply disturbing’ conditions at Rikers Island

Federal prosecutors sued New York City on Thursday over its handling of violence against young inmates held on Rikers Island, calling the jail complex a place where adolescents are “subjected to unconstitutional conditions and confinement.”

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a filing Thursday that his office wanted to speed reforms at the facility following a Justice Department report in August that found “Rikers is a dangerous place” where a “pervasive climate of fear exists.”

At a news conference announcing the suit, Bharara said, “Today we have taken a legal step that we believe is necessary …. Much, much more needs to be done,” to safeguard inmates at Rikers.

Before federal officials filed the court documents, they notified New York Mayor Bill de Blasio of their intention. Bharara said the mayor supported the move.

The Los Angeles Times again, with the politics of race in Ferguson:

Ferguson-area school district strips power from black voters, ACLU says

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against a school district that serves Ferguson, Mo., alleging that the district disenfranchises black voters.

The lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the Missouri NAACP, comes after months of scrutiny by government agencies and civil rights groups into the area’s local governments and predominantly white political leadership following the Aug. 9 police shooting of an unarmed black man. That incident has triggered a protest movement that has yet to fully subside.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District has seven board members, and only one is black. The district serves 11,000 students in northern St. Louis County, 79% of whom are black, according to the ACLU.

The school board members are selected in at-large elections. The lawsuit charges that because black voters are a minority inside the district’s boundaries, their relative voting strength is unfairly weakened in at-large elections.

From RT America, another troublesome Ferguson failure:

Ferguson grand jury witness wants to “stop calling blacks n*****s”

Program notes:

One of the witnesses in the grand jury that reviewed the actions of Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson is under scrutiny by journalists who believe she may have not even been at the scene of the shooting. Adding to their speculation is a journal entry from “Witness 40,” in which she writes that she wanted to “drive to Florisant… Need to understand the Black race better so I stop calling Blacks n*****s.” Andrew Goldberg, managing editor of The Smoking Gun, gives more details to RT’s Ben Swann.

Cold War 2.0, with added repartee, via the Japan Times:

Danger in the skies as Russia, NATO play cat-and-mouse

Recent close shaves between Russian fighters and civilian aircraft highlight the dangers of the cat-and-mouse game being played out between Moscow and the West in European skies amid the crisis in Ukraine, analysts say.

In the latest incident, Sweden said Dec. 12 that a Russian military jet nearly collided with a passenger plane south of Malmo shortly after take-off from Copenhagen International Airport.

Both countries called in their Russian ambassadors to protest, only to be told that a huge increase in Russian military activity in recent months was “a response to NATO’s activities and escalation in the region.”

Russia later accused Swedish authorities of being under the influence after smoking too much cannabis.

World War 2.0, via Al Jazeera America:

Dutch right-wing politician charged with inciting hatred against Moroccans

  • Geert Wilders’ political party tops opinion polls in the Netherlands

Anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders will be prosecuted in the Netherlands for alleged discrimination and inciting hatred against Moroccans during election campaigning in March, prosecutors said on Thursday.

The charges stem from an incident in The Hague, when Wilders led an anti-Moroccan chant in a cafe, which was broadcast nationally and prompted 6,400 complaints to the police.

Wilders asked supporters if they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in their city, triggering the chant: “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” A smiling Wilders responded, “We’ll take care of that.”

In a later TV interview, he referred to “Moroccan scum.”

Torture lessons from Cold War 1.0, from Newsweek:

When Torture Backfires: What the Vietcong Learned and the CIA Didn’t

The CIA is hardly the only spy service to grapple with blowback from making prisoners scream. Even leaders of Communist Vietnam’s wartime intelligence agency, notorious for torturing American POWs, privately knew that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as the CIA calls them, could create more problems than solutions, according to internal Vietnamese documents reviewed by Newsweek.

In many cases, torturing people wrongly suspected of being enemy spies caused “extremely regrettable losses and damage,” says one of the documents, released to little notice in 1993 by Hanoi’s all-powerful Public Security Service (PSS). But unlike the CIA, Vietnam’s security service constantly engaged in Marxist-style “self-criticism” to review its mistakes, particularly those caused by relying on confessions extracted by torture, the recently translated Communist documents show.

The documents were obtained and translated by Christopher E. Goscha, a history professor at the University of Montreal and one of the leading international scholars on Indochina during the French colonial period. He included them in his book, Historical Dictionary of the Indochina War (1945-1954): An International and Interdisciplinary Approach, which was published to little notice in Denmark in 2011. “Torture and intelligence gathering in a time of war are a tricky combination,” he told Newsweek, “and the [Communists’] policing and military intelligence services were no exception to the rule.”

On to the battlefield, via BBC News:

IS leaders killed by US air strikes, Pentagon chief says

US air strikes have killed several high-ranking military leaders of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, the Pentagon’s top officer says. Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes aimed to hamper the Islamist group’s ability to conduct attacks, supply fighters and finance operations.

IS controls a swathe of Iraq and Syria, where it has declared a caliphate.

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces say they have broken the IS siege of Mount Sinjar.

Gen Dempsey told the Wall Street Journal that the loss of IS leaders was “disruptive to their planning and command and control”. He added: “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.”

Cyberconvolutions from CBC News:

Hackers posing as Syrian-Canadians may be tied to ISIS

  • Malware aims to expose location of attacker’s target

Hackers suspected of ties to ISIS posed as Syrian-Canadians to try to implant malicious software on a computer of a Syrian citizen media group, an internet watchdog says.

A Citizen Lab report released today says there’s strong evidence that the Islamic jihadist group sent the phishing email in late November, but it’s not conclusive.

“This bears little resemblance to anything we’ve seen from the usual suspects,” said report co-author John Scott-Railton. “That, combined with who they are targeting … gives us pause and makes us think that maybe we’re looking at ISIS malware.”

If ISIS is responsible for the attempted attack on the citizen media group, it could mark an early warning sign that the group is embracing a new tactic in its fight to establish a caliphate.

Another ironic hack, via Nextgov:

48,000 Federal Employees Potentially Affected by Second Background Check Hack

The Office of Personnel Management is alerting more than 48,000 federal employees their personal information may have been exposed following a breach at KeyPoint Government Solutions, which conducts background investigations of federal employees seeking security clearances.

The total number of employees affected is 48,439, according to an email from OPM Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour obtained by Nextgov.

Seymour said OPM worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the incident, “and while we found no conclusive evidence that [personally identifiable information] was taken by the intruder, OPM has elected to conduct these notifications out of an abundance of caution.”

And yet another embarrassing hack, via the Los Angeles Times:

Internet authority ICANN says it was hacked

The Internet authority responsible the Web’s address system has been hacked, compromising employee emails and personal information.

The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, said Tuesday that it fell victim to a “spear phishing” attack in November. The hack involved emails crafted to look as though they came from the organization’s own domain.

Earlier this month, ICANN learned that the stolen employee credentials were used to access other systems aside from email, including the Centralized Zone Data System that grants access to private employee information. Hackers accessed employees’ names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and usernames. The digital thieves also found employee passwords, though that information was encrypted instead of saved as plain text, ICANN said.

And a transition our first after-the-jump, hack-of-the-year stories, via the Associated Press:

Sony hacking fallout puts all companies on alert

Companies across the globe are on high alert to tighten up network security to avoid being the next company brought to its knees by hackers like those that executed the dramatic cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The hack, which a U.S. official has said investigators believe is linked to North Korea, culminated in the cancellation of a Sony film and ultimately could cost the movie studio hundreds of millions of dollars. That the hack included terrorist threats and was focused on causing major corporate damage, rather than on stealing customer information for fraud like in the breaches at Home Depot and Target, indicates a whole new frontier has emerged in cybersecurity. Suddenly every major company could be the target of cyberextortion.

“The Sony breach is a real wake-up call even after the year of mega-breaches we’ve seen,” says Lee Weiner, Boston security firm Rapid7’s senior vice president of products and engineering. “This is a completely different type of data stolen with the aim to harm the company.”

“Movie studios have, by and large, behaved as high-security intellectual property purveyors; prints have been tightly controlled, screeners are watermarked, and bootleggers are prosecuted wherever possible,” says Seth Shapiro, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He said that’s what makes it so surprising that email leaks showed that Sony executives apparently gave out passwords in unencrypted emails and made other security blunders.

After the jump, on to the hack of the year, starting with another film pulled by another studio, a White House declaration, possible responses, a media war victor, potential impacts on the studio system, Sony emails force apologetics, an author enters the game, a plot twist about plot twists, revelations about studio battles with Google, plus curious legal ties, major router hackability revealed, Japanese ransomware debuts, a rebel ceasefire in Colombian and a violent protest in Brazil, complaints of wasted aid in Pakistan, thousands may be headed for Pakistani gallows, while Pakistan asks for help for Washington, and a court bails a major terrorism suspect, Christian fear in Indian as Hindu violence rises, a U.N. call for punitive action against North Korea and a North Korean nuclear count, a South Korean rift complicates air force plans, China clamps down on foreign television, Japan redefines scope of future military actions, and allegations of a curious cabal of upper crust British killer pedophiles. . .   Continue reading

EnviroWatch: Climate, health, pollution, nukes


And food, via the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Climate change could cut world food output 18 percent by 2050

Global warming could cause an 18 percent drop in world food production by 2050, but investments in irrigation and infrastructure, and moving food output to different regions, could reduce the loss, a study published on Thursday said.

Globally, irrigation systems should be expanded by more than 25 percent to cope with changing rainfall patterns, the study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters said.

Where they should be expanded is difficult to model because of competing scenarios on how rainfall will change, so the majority of irrigation investments should be made after 2030, the study said.

“If you don’t carefully plan (where to spend resources), you will get adaptation wrong,” David Leclere, one of the study’s authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Infrastructure and processing chains will need to be built in areas where there was little agriculture before in order to expand production, he said.

Another food threat from the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Tropical deforestation threatens global food production

Tropical deforestation in the southern hemisphere is accelerating global warming and threatening world food production by distorting rainfall patterns across Europe, China and the U.S. Midwest, a study released on Thursday said.

By 2050, deforestation could lead to a 15 percent drop in rainfall in tropical regions including the South American Amazon, Southeast Asia and Central Africa, the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change said.

Much of the logging taking place is to clear land for agriculture. This can cause a vicious cycle, increasing global warming, lowering food production on farms which in turn leads to growers cutting down more trees for farmland, experts say.

“When you deforest the tropics, those regions will experience significant warming and the biggest drying,” Deborah Lawrence, a University of Virginia professor and the study’s lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Coal, the gift that keeps on giving, via the Washington Post:

Dam breaks, tainted wells prompt new look at coal-ash dumps that escaped EPA review

Since the 1970s, utility companies have been allowed to dispose of coal-ash under state laws that vary widely across jurisdictions. The exemption was created by Congress, which, to avoid rules that might discourage the use of coal, blocked the EPA from classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, or even subjecting it to the same national standards that apply to other kinds of solid waste.

That could change as early as Friday as the EPA prepares to issue new rules that will, for the first time, include coal ash in federal guidelines for waste disposal. The long-awaited decision could significantly increase disposal costs for utility companies, depending on whether the EPA decides to classify coal ash as “hazardous” waste, requiring more stringent standards for disposal and cleanup.

Industry officials are bracing for tighter rules while hoping the EPA will opt for something short of a “hazardous” label that they say will hurt companies and raise utility rates. Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, said stricter laws are unnecessary for a waste product that has been deemed harmless enough for use as an additive in cement and tarmac. He accused “anti-coal groups” of promoting a “steady stream of misleading publicity regarding the safety of coal ash.”

But community activists and environmental groups point to a decades-long record of dam breaks, spills and leaks in demanding greater protection for those living near such dumps. Hardly harmless, residue from coal-burning contains significant concentrations of arsenic, mercury and heavy metals that are toxic to humans and wildlife, environmentalists and regulators say.

Fears of a British health crisis from the Independent:

Norovirus closes wards in nine hospital amid fears of winter NHS crisis

Nine hospitals have been forced to close wards because of outbreaks of the norovirus, according to a report.

As the flu season got underway, ITV News reported that five wards had closed to visitors and all other adult wards had restricted visiting hours at Warwick Hospital. Four wards at Southampton General have stopped taking new patients and Weston General in Weston-super-Mare had been closed.

Hull Royal Infirmary, Diana Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby, James Paget Hospital in Great Yarmouth, Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, Warwickshire’s Ellen Badger Hospital and Royal Bournemouth have also been affected.

From McClatchy Washington Bureau, more fruits of neoliberalism:

Most states unprepared to handle infectious disease outbreaks, health group says

Most states are not prepared to handle outbreaks of severe infectious diseases, according to a new report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases” found that half the states and the District of Columbia scored five or lower out of a possible 10 on measures related to the prevention, diagnosis, detection and response to disease outbreaks.

Maryland, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia led all states, each scoring eight out of 10. California, Delaware, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were next, scoring seven out of 10.

Arkansas had the nation’s lowest score with two. It was followed by Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Wyoming, which each scored a three.

Another gift of fuelishness, via Bloomberg News:

Air Pollution Exposure in Pregnancy Linked to Autism in Study

Women who are exposed to high levels of air pollution during their third trimester of pregnancy may be twice as likely to have an autistic child, a study found.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found the risk of autism rises in parallel with exposure to fine particulate matter during pregnancy, with the biggest effect occurring in the final months of gestation. The results appear in the Dec. 18 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.

The findings add to other research suggesting the environment plays a role in the development of autism, a developmental disorder marked by repetitive behaviors and trouble communicating and socializing. The study, which started in 1989 and involved more than 100,000 nurses from across the U.S., will help researchers home in on the causes of autism and potential ways to prevent it, said Marc Weisskopf, a senior study author.

And from the Center for Public Integrity, a very generous giver in a ten-gallon Stetson:

Texas weakens chemical exposure guidelines, opens door for polluters

In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state’s long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world’s most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.

The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation’s largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only “absolutely safe” dose was zero.

It’s “the most irresponsible action I’ve heard of in my life,” said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ’s predecessor agency in the 1970s. “I certainly can’t find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that’s done that.”

The benzene decision was part of Texas’ sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state’s guidelines at the time were already among the nation’s weakest.

A Big Agra GMO win in China, via Shanghai Daily:

Green light for GM crops from US

CHINA has approved the import of a genetically modified corn strain it blocked last year, and has given clearance to biotech soybeans that had been waiting years for clearance in a sign of warmer ties with the United States.

US Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said China had approved imports of American-grown Viptera corn developed by Swiss-based Syngenta, known as MIR 162, as well as shipments of biotech soybeans developed by DuPont Pioneer and Bayer CropScience.

Industry sources and analysts said China’s change of heart was due to a warmer political climate between Beijing and Washington since the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last month, where the two nations announced a joint plan to limit carbon emissions and made breakthroughs on eliminating duties on technology products.

On to Fukushimapocalypse Now!, first with the Japan Times:

3,700 Fukushima evacuees running out of time to claim compensation

Some 3,700 of those forced to flee during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011 have yet to exercise their right to claim compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., a company executive said Thursday.

Tepco has received claims for provisional compensation from some 166,000 evacuees who fled coastal areas around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant because of the triple core meltdown.

Of them, 3,713 had yet to apply for full compensation as of the end of November, Tepco Executive Vice President Yoshiyuki Ishizaki said in an interview.

A bill due for the reactors’ owner, via the Yomiuri Shimbun:

TEPCO’s 1st repayment due for emergency loan

Tokyo Electric Power Co. will soon repay some of the ¥2 trillion in emergency loans it took out just after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, according to sources.

TEPCO will repay a total of ¥150 billion in loans due on Dec. 26 to main creditor banks Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ and Mizuho Bank.

The firm will make the repayment because it hopes to take out fresh loans from the three banks in fiscal 2015 and later to secure enough operating funds.

In a business rationalization report, TEPCO said it needs ¥300 billion in funds in fiscal 2015 and an additional one trillion yen by the end of fiscal 2016, during which the company aims to return to the corporate debt market.

Chart of the day: Call it political fuelishness


From a new report [PDF] from the Pew Research Center, with the GOP ruling both houses of Congress, prepare for some drillin':

BLOG Fuelish