Recently in Environment Category

Pigs, Everywhere

Since March 4th, workers have fished 3,300 5,916 6,601 13,000 (03/18/13) dead, bloated pigs out of a river in Shanghai. Last week there was little information about where they were coming from, how they got there, or what they died from, only general agreement, as Bloomberg put it, that "nothing good comes from a dead-pig tide".

The Huangpu River feeds the drinking water supply for some of the city and although officials have so far assured citizens that the water is safe, and that they're taking water samples regularly, doubts persist.

If Pigs Could Fly

How the pigs got there is still a bit of a mystery. The carcasses are ear-tagged but officials can't decipher the tags, so they don't know the exact situation. Most likely, farmers dumped diseased pigs (some are infected with porcine circovirus) into the river at some upstream province. Despite the gruesome pig panorama, citizens are told not to fear the safety of pigs originating from the suspect provinces.


via Wikicommons.

China produces half the world's pigs, five times what the U.S. produces. Pork is so central to the economy that pig price fluctuations effect the cost of living. This means that the large scale pig deaths over the past several months, albeit only tens of thousands in a pig population of millions, concern not only water drinkers and pork consumers but economists too.

When other food products befall catastrophe, the story may be different. When frosts freeze orange groves in Florida, for instance, producers warn consumers in the Northeast U.S. that orange juice prices might go up, that's it. Pig parts, however, are found in hundreds of products besides rinds and bellies and chops and loins. For instance, eighty percent of the U.S. heparin supply comes from pigs raised on farms in China, according to the director of Pharmacy at Boston Children's Hospital.

A few years ago, an epidemic of blue ear pig disease (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV)) ended up killing so many pigs that producers met the demand for heparin by adulterating the drug with a chemically similar substance. As the crisis unfolded, analysis detected oversulfated chondroitin sulfate that caused hundreds of severe allergic reactions and 175 deaths worldwide.

In the aftermath, journalists investigated the supply chain and found that the FDA had alarmingly little oversight into the production practices on pig farms in China. Since then, the FDA has increased its oversight. However, even last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FDA found contaminated heparin from fourteen more Chinese suppliers. The FDA put them on a watchlist with eight others.

They'd Fly Away?

In light of these investigations, consider that pigs provide material for many human life-saving technologies. A recent study describes the possibility of using porcine small intestine patches for pediatric patient cardiovascular reconstruction. Scientists are experimenting with porcine (and bovine) matrices for things like abdominal wall reconstruction.

Although some medicines, like insulin, are no longer made from pigs, the widespread use of pig parts in medicine often goes unacknowledged. Some religions forbid the use of pigs even for medical treatment, and some people get squeamish about pig body parts, according to designer Christien Meinderstsma in this Ted Talk. One Dutch heart valve company wouldn't send her their valve because they didn't want people associating their life-saving technology with pigs.

In her talk on the book, "Pig 05049", Meinderstsma highlights 185 products made with a pig she followed. A Greek cigarette uses pig parts to make a more "healthy", lung-like filter. Some frozen beef steak is made with beef bits glued together with pig fibrinogen or "meat glue". Some collagen injections for facial rejuvenation come from pigs. Pigs are also used to make soap, train brakes, fine bone china, and bullets (not silver, according to the picture...), and more than one hundred other things. They're amazingly ubiquitous, pigs, and floating in China's rivers too.


Some related posts include Avian Flu In China (2005); Streptococcus suis in China (2005); a note on the heparin adulteration (2008) the H1N1 pandemic - (2009), and here.

Who Moved My Boat? On Climate Change, Storms, and Bail-Outs.

Part II of "Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?"

In a previous post, we contrasted North Carolina's leaders' silencing of climate science in favor of coastal development, to the adaptations of the Inuit, who are dealing with scarcer food, weakening tundra that makes hunting treacherous, and melting moraines crashing through their towns. Of course this climate change narrative is a bit simplistic, so it's informative to look a little more closely at some of the communities involved. Compared to the Inuit, North Carolinians have the resources to ameliorate the harsh consequences of storms, which are becoming increasingly common and ferocious with climate change. But it wasn't always that way.

New Jersey Transit Boat

Boat On The Tracks ( NJ Transit).

In August of 1893, back when storms were referred to by numbers, that year's "Hurricane 2" struck the South Carolina coast. Raking over the barrier islands, it moved on through North Carolina before heading up the East coast. In South Carolina, at least 2,000 people died, more than 30,000 homes were lost, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, displaced, starving, and sick. There was no such thing as "disaster relief", so help was not on the way. The impoverished post-bellum nation couldn't help the Sea Island settlers, mostly poor African-Americans. Finally in October, Clara Barton stepped in with her newly founded Red Cross and began a ten month relief effort -- fledgling compared to what we think of disaster relief today. The economic impact on the islands and coastal region from what's now called the Sea Islands Hurricane lasted decades.

Now, over a century later, economics demands that communities recover more quickly than in Clara Barton's day. Our ability to predict storms, mop-up, and rebuild has vastly improved. Necessarily so, as storm after storm hammers the East Coast, eroding beaches, carving out new water inlets, and smashing man-made structures to bits. We efficiently patch things back up and continue on as we were. Devastated coastal communities assume large-scale aid of the sort that only organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can provide.

Topsail Island, North Carolina

Among the increasing hazards of climate change in the US, scientists predict more storms and rising sea levels. Since the US has 95,000 miles of coastline, their predictions demand attention. However, some businesses and states like North Carolina insist that global warming doesn't exist. They deny rising seas and carbon emissions, then act as if emissions don't need to be curbed, as if storms aren't perilous. They march forward, business as usual. This denial obviously helps the auto and energy industries, and perhaps less obviously, tourism and housing development.

North Carolina has the sixth largest coastline in the US, a boon for development and tourism but a total bust in storms. Barrier islands like Topsail Island are particularly vulnerable. Until the mid-20th century the island was basically uninhabited, used for years to graze herd animals, then as a military missile practice zone before being turned over for private development in the mid-20th century. A burgeoning tourist industry now brags that it's a relaxing island with an exciting past. Supposedly it was named "Topsail Island" because once upon a time the topsails of pirate vessels could be seen from the beaches. But these myths of past excitement probably pale to the future excitement that's in store for Topsail Island.

Since the 1980's, people have accelerated building and rebuilding of homes and businesses despite all evidence that if the storms had their way the island might just wash away. During Hurricane Irene, Topsail Island lost a third of its beach area. While it's a popular tourist destination, it's now also a poster-child for disasters and costly beach redevelopment, and even a field-trip destination for college biology classes studying the results of perennial beach erosion and reconstruction. Beach owners in the most exposed town, North Topsail Beach, lose 2-3 feet of beach per year and scientists have dubbed the town "the most hazardous [community] on the East coast" because of its precarious geography.

Beach Renourishment - Costly...Futile?

As we all know given the recent battles over Superstorm Sandy aid, storms are costly. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo cost the U.S. ~$5.1 billion. Hurricane Floyd cost $4.5 billion, Tropical Storm Irene: $16.6 billion, and Superstorm Sandy is predicted to cost over $50 billion dollars. In 1996 Hurricanes Betsey, Bertha, and Fran made landfall on the North Carolina Coast and did so much damage to Topsail Island that the state considered banning construction, and one senator said that the town of North Topsail Beach should have never been more than a state park. Lucky for residents, perhaps, FEMA produced $14 million dollars of funding for federal projects, $6 million to areas that were technically not supposed to get federal money. In 1997, 217 properties on Topsail Island had been built 2 or more times, at a cost to the federal government of $!0.9 million.1

Keeping sand underneath the East coast communities is increasingly challenging and expensive. North Carolina doesn't use seawalls and jetties, which scientists show excacerbate erosion problems. When beach is lost to erosion, engineers build the ground back up with vegetation, and berms and beach "renourishment" using dredged material or imported sand. The erosion and shifting sands from storms also cause waterways and inlets to "migrate", sometimes by miles.

Topsail Island Overwash

Topsail Island Overwash, Hurricane Fran 1996. (USGS).

So after the power has been restored, the dead counted, the injured hospitalized; after shelter has been found for displaced people, and destroyed roads and homes have been rebuilt, engineers must also reconstruct dunes and beaches, and redredge wayward inlets and waterways.

In November, 2012, the town of North Topsail Beach began to dredge an inlet channel that had migrated and filled-in to the point that the Coast Guard deemed it unsafe for boats. The construction project will also renourish some of the disastrously eroded beaches, where some condominiums are currently being prevented from washing out to sea by huge sandbags. The cost of renourishing about two miles of beach is ~$9 million. The long-term project will take place over the next few decades, funded with over a billion dollars of federal, state and local funding, and a multi-million dollar bond issued by North Topsail Beach.

The "Most Hazardous" Town on The East Coast Implores Congress to Say It's Not So Hazardous

Funding for such large projects is always controversial. Of course if you have a house in the town of North Topsail Beach, say, you want to protect your investment and keep your costs down -- if you live on the beach. But citizens of North Topsail Beach who live inland don't think they should have to pay for projects that will benefit only beach dwellers. North Carolinians who don't live on Topsail Island complain that their tax dollars are going to island towns whose citizens pay low taxes.

Nationally of course, people are increasingly disturbed about the amount of money FEMA spends bailing out storm soaked communities. However, the leaders of the town of North Topsail Beach (NTB) still don't think the government is doing enough.

On their website, the town recently posted a sample letter for residents to send to their congresspeople. The letter urged Congress to pass two bills on in the House of Representatives, H.R. 4311, and one in the Senate, S. 3561, that would overwrite the intent of a decades old Federal Act that minimizes development in vulnerable coastal areas.

The bills refer to a Republican sponsored act authorizing Congress to establish the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (COBRA), signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The aim was to identify uninhabited land that was ecologically vulnerable and prone to damage by natural disasters. The act barred structures built after 1983 from participating in the National Flood Insurance Program. COBRA helps protect potential home buyers from purchasing home that would be destroyed in a storm, and also protects taxpayers from footing the bill for costly recovery costs after inevitable storms destroy vulnerable coastal areas.

Parts of Topsail Island were designated COBRA zones, including most of the town of North Topsail Beach. Despite the designation, the town continued its development. North Topsail Beach now claims that the government "erroneously" designated it environmentally precarious. The proposed laws would free parts of the town from the COBRA designation. Because of "this mistake" the letter complains:

"instead of paying nearly $1,400 on an annual basis for an average home worth $250,000, [homeowners] pay close to $10,000 for coverage in the private market. Tourists considering purchasing or renting vacation property in our Town shy away from doing so as a result of the stigma associated with high mortgage rates and the false belief in a higher flood risk in the area.

Reading the comment threads with titles like "Topsail Beach Erosion" on popular tourist sites, I'm convinced visitors don't harbor "false beliefs", they actually see the erosion. For years, similar U.S. Senate and House bills, all requesting that the town's maps be redrawn, have been proposed. The site gave S.3561 a "1% chance of being enacted", and when the 112th session of Congress concluded, both of these bills died, as they have in previous years. So maybe the soft target of the letter is potential buyers or current homeowners clinging to hope that the erosion is a figment of everyone's imagination?

In the meantime, the very expensive dredging and renourishment projects continue, so if you're interested, there are lots of island properties for sale. Caveat Emptor.

1America's Most Vulnerable Communities edited by Joseph T. Kelley, Orrin H. Pilkey, and J. Andrew G. Cooper (2009) American Geological Society of America (GSA). Boulder, Colorado.


Acronym Required has written on Climate Change before. Here's a sampling of articles:

"FEMA, Storms Ahead?"

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

"NRDC Founder on Why the US Fails to Take Action on Climate Change."

Denial Will Live On During Climate Change, But the River May Not."

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?

Part I: Our Way of Life

When scientists predicted that the sea-level would rise 39 inches along the East Coast by 2100, North Carolina lawmakers promptly drafted legislation instructing state coastal development planners to ignore that science. The legislators said climate change was a "phobia" of scientists that would "quite frankly kill development on the coast". As one lawmaker put it, "nothing proved to me that they can prove those astronomical sea-level rises".

The audacious denial of science caused an uproar from aghast researchers and citizens. So North Carolina lawmakers revised the bill slightly, asking for further study, very slow study, with a report due in 2015. In 2016 they will consider the report, and until then North Carolina towns can act as if there's no tomorrow, as if the seas aren't rising. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue commented that she thought each town should be free to draw from their own science studies. She allowed the new law, AB 819, to pass without her signature.

This year scientists also studied the effects of climate change in two vast Inuit regions, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, and Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador. They published their findings in a 300 page report: "Time For Action To Deal With Climate Change In Nunavik and Nunatsiavut". The report, aimed at Inuit policy makers and citizens, was featured in the region's Nunatsiaq News, where the summary of findings and recommendations filled the entire front page of its online edition.

Inuit Regions Map
Inuit Regions Map (by Statistics, Canada 2007 w/ permission)

The Inuit Way Of Life

The Inuit seem to take a different approach to dealing with climate change than the North Carolinians - for one, they don't doubt it. The report describes how scientists work with Inuit of all ages to exchange knowledge and plan for climate change, although for years, while other nations argued the reality of global warming, the Inuit were busy adapting, because they had to.

They've been living through global warming changes since the 1990s, so the results of climate change are a fact of life. Spring arrives earlier each year, fall later. Berries that the Inuit harvest are being crowded out by other shrubbery. Caribou herds shrink as the once abundant animals migrate north or starve. Glaciers have lost significant mass, and the ice that the Inuit traveled over safely for generations is melting in unexpected places, sometimes killing unsuspecting hunters. The Inuit believe the climate scientists' predictions, that precipitation will increase 10-25% and temperatures will rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius.


For generations, the Inuit hunted and fished - caribou, seal, Arctic Charr, narwhal, and game birds. Children were taught to read and understand the clouds, the snow, the ice floes, the glaciers, and the animals. Through to the mid-20th century, the Inuit were nomadic, as this 1959 piece dryly depicts, and as one man recounts in the film "Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change": "As we were traveling my mother went into labor, and my father quickly built an igloo...that was the way of life".

Their way of life changed in the mid-20th century, when they established permanent communities. They still hunt, know their ice floes and live close to the environment, but they're no longer nomads, building igloos of frozen snow blocks in the winter and erecting tents in the summer. Instead they build homes in towns, often on permafrost. Permafrost was once a sound foundation, but it's now affected by climate change, as residents of Pangnirtung, Nunavut were abruptly reminded one spring.

A river runs through Pangnirtung, and one morning residents awoke to thunderous rushing water that tossed boulders ahead of it, raucously carving channels through the permafrost down to bedrock, causing river banks to cave in, and taking out two bridges that connected the town. As one person described the chaos:

"Every single night there was a new event. There was a new crack opening, stuff collapsing. It was amazing to see, just fascinating. It looked like an earthquake. There were a lot of elders down there, and they were really upset. There is a lot of history in pieces of the river for them. They would clean sealskins there and polar bear skins, and they would remember people being at those places, and those places don't exist anymore. There were elders in tears."

Kids in Pangnirtung wrote about that event, the melting glaciers, the falling bridges, the sewage that had to be dumped into the ocean.... The kids don't wonder why it happened, don't ask whether this particular event is from global warming, they write: "This is what happened in Pangnirtung...because of climate change. We really need to stop what we are doing to this planet."

The Royal We...Who Suck It Up

In the US, climate change seemed to sneak up on us more slowly. Many people live and work inside and only glance occasionally at the weather out their windows. We've always had storms, so it was hard to say whether any one was a harbinger of climate change or not. Hurricane Andrew in 1992? Hurricane Katrina 2005? Irene, 2011? Sandy, 2012? The fires in the West, the floods in the Midwest, the tornadoes in the Southeast?


Mother with Baby Carriage
Cape Dorset (2002) by Ansgar Walk (WikiMedia Commons)

Although we've had plenty of warnings from scientists as well as obvious weather changes and events, the US has been disastrously slow in acknowledging climate change. Maybe this is why the extreme weather of the past few years has seemed abrupt and shocking to citizens as well as to politicians surveying the damage with pathos. When North Carolina was hit by 92 tornadoes one Saturday afternoon in April, 2011, devastating towns and communities, Governor Bev Perdue told the New York Times that she was "nearly in tears touring damaged areas".

Legislators like those who lead North Carolina argue their right to ignore science. They help constituents ignore science too, by facilitating efficient mop-up and rebuilding in the wake of ever more severe disasters. After the tornadoes Governor Perdue assured people via the New York Times that, "she had been in contact with President Obama and anticipated that a federal state of emergency would be declared by week's end"...and had also "met with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)..." Many farmers lost their crops and machinery and buildings and may not have had insurance; many families' lost their homes when tornadoes blew them to bits. But North Carolinians were stoic, Perdue said: "We understand how to face adversity and suck it up".

The Inuit may be in an even more precarious position, sucking-it-up-wise, than North Carolinians. As one Inuit said: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive...." The Inuit cannot control the carbon emissions of Canada and the US, or those of burgeoning emitters like China. They must muster whatever mitigation measures they can, such as those suggested in one government pamphlet: "The Homeowner's Guide to Permafrost".

They can also cajole and plead, as they did at Doha, for reduced carbon emissions and compensation from emitters to help with mitigation. Inuit leader Mary Simon has said: "If we think small, our actions will be small, like decisions made by children. But now, our world has to think like adults. We must act more intelligently. Our world leaders must do the same."


(To Be Continued...)

Tobacco: The U.S. Can't Handle The Truth...

A few years ago, the FDA mandated tobacco companies put the labels on cigarette boxes warning smokers about the deadly health effects of tobacco. The tobacco companies sued, claiming the FDA was "compelling speech", which was unconstitutional. Last year we checked in with the legal wranglings of the case when one District Court judge ruled that the tobacco companies shouldn't have to display the images or print 1-800-QUIT-NOW on cigarette boxes.


Cigarette Warnings
via the Food and Drug Administration.

The battle over graphic picture tobacco warning labels is actually world-wide and decades old. Tobacco companies fought ferociously against the first country that tried to enforce graphic labels in 1986, fashion-forward Iceland. Today, more over 50 countries require text warnings, and a growing number are moving to picture warnings. Australia passed one of the strictest laws, as Stanton Glantz recently described:

"All the cigarette packages are going to have to be the same kind of puke-green color with the name of the company and the variety on standard type on half the pack, and the other half of the pack will be a large graphic warning label."

Graphic Labels: Nails in The Coffin?

The cigarette companies battle against these labels for a reason. Compared to text warnings, the graphic pictures scare the heck out of smokers research shows, especially people with less education.

However, through the court systems, tobacco companies have successfully bogged down governments' attempts at regulation. In Canada, the Supreme Court last year ruled that Imperial Tobacco couldn't draw the government into a class action case. Imperial had argued that the government shared the health costs of smoking since it had allowed Imperial to market "light" cigarettes. The court dismissed their argument. In Scotland, Imperial Tobacco recently challenged the government ban on displays in shops, claiming that the law is "anti-choice". Scotland's' Supreme Court - Lord Hope, Lord Walker, Lady Hale, Lord Kerr and Lord Sumption, are currently hearing arguments in the case.

In the US, tobacco companies recently asked the Supreme Court to hear their First Amendment arguments after another District Court claimed that the FDA rules were constitutional, the opposite of the previous District Court's decision. The tobacco companies have petitioned the court to decide 1) whether the FDA's label mandate violates the First Amendment 2) if the FDA is stepping on companies' free speech rights to promote "modified risk" products, and 3) whether the companies have a First Amendment right to offer free gifts and samples to entice potential smokers. The FDA has until the end of November to respond, and after that the Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case.

Tobacco: A Dilemma?

Some observers speculate whether the Supreme Court will take the case, but authors of a recent New England Journal of Medicine article think the Supreme Court will hear it. The NEJM article reviews the background of the commercial speech doctrine and the speculates various outcomes for the case.1 The authors say commercial speech was first recognized as a lower value speech in the mid-1970's. From there, the court has enabled creep that brings the commercial speech doctrine to its current very controversial status, where it can essentially curb states' abilities to candidly warn consumers about about health risks of things like smoking.

Because of the court's commercial speech doctrine, the authors write, the FDA can best frame their arguments for the cigarette warnings as promoting consumer choice, rather than as protecting public health and discouraging smoking. This not only hobbles the FDA's ability to frame and defend their arguments for public health, the authors write, it gives the cigarette companies the advantage in defending themselves because they can argue that the FDA is not trying to promote consumer choice, rather it's attempting to influence the behavior of smokers by browbeating them.

Faced with the science related to tobacco, the health affects of smoking, and the tax burden of health costs shared by all citizens, tobacco's costly legal protests seem crazy. However, the Supreme Court has often sided with corporations, and has been quite skeptical of government regulation. As well, science and economics don't necessarily win the day over "free speech" in US courts. So altogether the FDA's idea that science derived photos inform consumers in ways that are hard to ignore, these arguments may not win. The Supreme Court hasn't seemed particularly swayed by science arguments or sympathetic to public health arguments.

So if the tobacco companies and courts continue to dither over the FDA's graphic warnings, thereby keeping them off the cigarette boxes, maybe journalists can write lots of stories about the controversy and include lots of the graphics that the smokers are missing out on?

1Ronald Bayer, Ph.D., Lawrence Gostin, J.D., and Daniel Marcus-Toll, M.S.: Repackaging Cigarettes -- Will the Courts Thwart the FDA? November 14, 2012DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1211522

FEMA - Storms Ahead?

Romney Would Send FEMA Back To The States & Private Sector. Wait, Isn't That How FEMA Works Now?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said in 2011 that he'd take anything he could from the Federal Government and "send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better." When the moderator asked if that included disaster management he said "we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral."


People advised everyone to take Romney's comments in context, just as they advised when he told potential donors that he couldn't bothered with 47% of US citizens. So for context, a tornado had just ripped through Joplin, Missouri and Republicans in Congress were delaying federal funds, saying that FEMA didn't have the money. Perhaps, the analysts suggested, Romney was supporting his party's budget conscious ways but deep down inside he supported FEMA?

Congress finally came up with some FEMA money for Joplin, drawing up an aid package and offsetting the expenditures by cutting a $1.5 billion program to promote fuel-efficient vehicles. Now, asked frequently by reporters after Hurricane Sandy what his stance is, Romney doesn't answer, and his campaign confusingly assures people he wouldn't change FEMA.

Yet the numbers (such as they are, since Romney's campaign is elusive about it all) seem to belie his campaign's assurances. Obama would cut the FEMA budget by 3%, $453 million less in 2013 than 2012. Romney's FEMA, on the other hand, could be cut by as much as 40%. What would that mean for citizens?

Hurricane Issac

Hurricane Isaac Photo by NASA

"Send it Back" -- FEMA, The States & Private Sector

Curiously, Romney says of FEMA he'll "send back to the states", and "send it back to the private sector"? Is FEMA a lost pet that long ago wandered away, a flea-bitten, scavenging nuisance? Send it back home to the states - shoo, shoo, go back. Was disaster recovery ever a state enterprise? Even a century ago, the federal government assisted - in a way - during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed the city and killed thousands. Documents show that the mayor authorized "Federal Troops" to "KILL any and all persons engaged in Looting...."

More importantly, although Romney implies that FEMA doesn't currently involve states or the private sector, in fact, FEMA works directly with states and the private sector. Before disaster strikes, FEMA coordinates with states to identify businesses and organizations and to contract with those who work during disasters. During and after the disaster, FEMA remains according to the state's needs. In the Obama administration's FEMA, the states lead, and the private sector does the work - so what, exactly, does Romney want to change?

When a disaster can be predicted, like Hurricane Sandy, states request federal disaster aid ahead of time. These early requests avoid debacles like FEMA's Hurricane Andrew response in Florida in 1992. Under George H.W. Bush, Florida was so stranded that the Miami Herald's headline screamed: "WE NEED HELP!", and one official took to the airways demanding: "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one...They keep saying we're going to get supplies. For God's sake, where are they?" So FEMA prepares ahead of time, coordinating with the states, the private sector, faith-groups and community organizations.

During the 2011 tornadoes in the south, FEMA awarded $13,358,680 to local businesses in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. 90% of that money went to small businesses. Some of these states are the poorest in the nation. If the Romney/Ryan execution of "drown [the government] in the bathtub" works, how will these states, these small businesses, these people, survive disasters?

FEMA: Love It or Hate It, As Politics Demand

During Hurricane Sandy, Republican governor Chris Christy of New Jersey praised President Obama and FEMA mightily, saying: "The President has been outstanding in this", and "[Obama] and his administration have been coordinating with us. It's been wonderful." It wasn't the first time. In 2011 he also appreciated FEMA.

Christie's wasn't some weird fluke of Republican FEMA love. Missouri Representative Billy Long, "Ozark Billy", was voted the "Most Conservative Officeholder" in Missouri by the American Conservative Union. He loudly campaigns that he's "fed up with Obama" and the "liberal agenda". He asks people to help him defeat Obama, kill regulations regulations, 'big government', and the EPA. But when FEMA money came his way after the 2011 tornadoes, he said something different. Then, he raved about FEMA: "On a scale of one to 10, they are a 12...I think they are doing an excellent job."

Janus-faced congressional leaders cut taxes for the wealthy, shrink federal government, deregulate, and cut benefits and salary of firefighters and police. They lavish praise on Obama's FEMA when politically expedient, then run on flimsy one-issue platforms of defeating him. Do they just all go home and laugh big hearty laughs: "LOL...Pick..Mee...LOL...power$$$...LOL"?

Obama promised change once he got elected. Mitt Romney gives us change before the election. He says he's a job "creator" (which handily resonates with both religious people and Rand acolytes), but would slash FEMA's local jobs. He wants the states responsible for FEMA, but FEMA already works so well with the states that Obama's harshest GOP critics flop all over themselves doling out praise. He wants to send FEMA to the private sector, but FEMA already works closely with the private sector - is the private sector.

FEMA, An Agency At The Mercy of Politics

For further clues about a Romney FEMA, we could glance back to history. Thirty years ago, 1979 President Carter established FEMA to centralize the responsibilities of many federal agencies by rolling under one umbrella related disaster preparedness and response departments and functions. Since then, different administrations have used FEMA differently, and it pretty much follows party lines.

When led well, FEMA saves lives and hard hit communities. It's hardly noticed. When used as a political dumping ground by the GOP, citizens suffer. When it fails, the world notices.1 When it fails FEMA gets picked up by politicians as the GOP poster child for "inefficient, wasteful government... justifying further cuts. Citizens suffer more.

For years, the US has been consolidating government functions, cutting costs, and eliminating redundancies. That's business and these actions reflect the core of all multi-million dollar consulting advice, long Romney's bread and butter. Would Romney, who campaigns that America wants a "grown-up" business leader, split FEMA up into 50 little pieces, all with their own redundant leadership, politics, heavy equipment, budgets and levels of experience?

Of course not, you might say, hopefully. Then what? The scope of FEMA's work is easy to underestimate. But FEMA was a bumbling disaster with Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo under George H.W. Bush, a "turkey farm" for political appointees who limo-ed and lunched their way around DC, whispering cold war themes of the pre-Reagan days.

President Clinton completely revamped FEMA by appointing James Lee Witt, the first person to lead the agency who actually had disaster management experience. Witt reorganized FEMA into a responsive, functioning organization, coordinating with states. As California Senator Feinstein remarked, the reorganized FEMA was "like night and day" compared to George H.W. Bush's agency.

But George W. Bush changed that. His appointee Michael Brown, known as "Brownie", headed FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and no reporter failed to point out his gaffes, miscalculations, and ineptitudes, noting his previous short-lived stint as commissioner of an Arabian horse association.2

Can Ozarkian Churches and Good Neighbors Replace FEMA?

FEMA has lots to recommend it. It can respond in a coordinated way to multi-state disasters. States like New York and California pay more taxes than states like Missouri and Alabama, but at least for now, that doesn't mean Missouri residents get the disaster assistance of Laos, whereas New York citizens get the disaster assistance of Monaco. But one could imagine this being different.

How would local politics affect the distribution of aid in a more decentralized FEMA? New Jersey Governor Christie apparently has been in a long standing feud with the Atlantic City mayor. The night of Hurricane Sandy he announced on TV that Atlantic City residents were on their own, because they hadn't evacuated like he told them to. How would this sort of hyper-local politics play out if states were the sole owners of disaster response?

The idea that faith-groups and neighbors can step in in lieu of governments is commonly promoted. This goes for international aid as well as national disaster relief. Despite media assertions, however, good neighbors cannot replace "big government". Indeed, FEMA has for years worked directly with faith-based and community organizations, coordinating disaster planning and reimbursing them for work they do. 3 Because even with faith, Missouri's Ozarkians cannot muster their own tornado recovery.

Shhh....Don't Say It

Like those old homilies about not talking politics at Thanksgiving, politicians like Obama and Romney don't dare talk about climate change. So amidst a chaotic swirl of tornadoes, hurricanes, deaths, and billions of dollars of damages, elected officials instead play Atlantic City games of trading FEMA aid for a fuel-efficient vehicles program.

And then in the midst of denying climate change, we hear from the Republican candidate that "it's immoral" to spend government money on "things" like hurricane disasters? Send it back to the private sector? Such as? There are some great carpenters in Breezy Point and a Comfort Inn a few towns over...good luck with that Mr. JoneSmith? Or...should FEMA activities be turned over to the military? Send it back to 1906?

Romney's comments and his failure to give detail on this issue deserves far more relentless attention. Our government may be in debt. But then maybe we should discuss more publicly the long term costs and benefits of oil-fueled military adventures that consume about a quarter of our national budget, versus, say, our investments into alternative energy? As we ignore climate change the disasters intensify. The longer we don't demand climate change action from our government, the more important FEMA becomes, the more critical government back-up is to our survival as individuals and communities -- therefore the more expensive FEMA becomes. WHY DON'T WE TALK ABOUT THAT?

Spooky times.


1 When the Acquila earthquake struck Italy in 2009, papers congratulated their countrymen for doing such an excellent clean-up job compared to the US during Hurricane Katrina (Italy is hardly the paragon of disaster-preparedness and Acquila still lies in ruins).

2 George W. Bush's first FEMA director was Joseph Allbaugh. After leaving FEMA he
"became a lobbyist for no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq and obtained a $100 million no-bid contract for the Shaw Group to pump water out of New Orleans. Michael Brown now works for an emergency management consulting firm and briefly considered becoming a paid consultant to St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a move that led the New Republic to satirically award him the "Brass Cojones of the Year."

Federal government service is a good launching point for the private sector.

3 Over some church leader objections.

Acronym Required wrote about FEMA in posts during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Let's Just Talk About The Weather

You can look to the Olympics to see records broken, or you can experience everyday excitement records set by 2012 global temperature highs, flooding episodes, Greenland ice melt, weather catastrophe insurance losses, and millions of people displaced by extreme weather and climate change. Everyone's worried about this, despite what you hear - even the media.

Climate Change Media Fail?

The poor besieged media. As newspaper income plunges, papers continue to lay-off local reporters, publishers contract workers who mine US databases while based in the Philippines, and armed robbers attack journalists who still have jobs - even in the US. Now this: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Media Matters, Huffington Post Green, and others accuse the media of ignoring the link between climate change and weather catastrophes. Said Media Matters:

Life of Pi by Neil BabraIllustration by Neil Babra.
Used with permission.

"The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change..."

Huffington Post Green wrote:

"The media just might be starting to see the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather...Given the extreme weather we've been seeing lately, it's becoming (finally) clear to many journalists that we have a trend in our weather patterns"

It's true that many meteorologists don't believe human activity causes climate change. Perhaps it's a job-securing stance, since many work for large energy interests, although in 2010, three-quarters of meteorologists polled said they hesitate to talk of climate change because they fear "audience backlash".

Scientist Backlash

Also, let's not forget, scientists recently berated reporters who linked weather with climate change. And it was just 2005, when scientists were insisting people saying "climate change", not "global warming", because saying "global warming" could lead people to think that every time a snowstorm blew through there was no global warming. Reporters generally went along with this reasoning, which in the best case, added confusion and nuance in the face of tremendous anti-warming propaganda, and in any case, looked mightily like "doubt". Nevertheless, responsible reporters would stress after every hurricane, flood, or heat wave that no one event could be attributed "climate change". In July, 2010, for instance, Time wrote:

"Just as the record-breaking snowstorms of this past winter on East Coast didn't disprove climate change, a record-breaking heat wave doesn't seal the deal either. Weather and climate aren't the same thing. To use a World Cup analogy (which allows me to link to more Lego football, this time in German), it's as if the players on the soccer pitch represent the weather, and climate is the team manager."

If sports comparisons didn't click with you, a HuffPo reporter came up this:

"...think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology."

Pick your analogy. As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground summed it up when critiquing Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth": "I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future."

This is still the message, and it may seem clear as a cool autumn morning to you and me, but perhaps broadcasters, in their nightly frenzy of hair spraying, parka donning, and witness interviewing, view it as an unnecessary cluster of crazy-making detail and nuance. 30 second spots depend on very cut-and-dried events. Show yellow tape and police carrying evidence-bags. Say murder. Show smoke and flames. Say fire. Show devastating weather. Say global warming. No, say climate change. No, say it isn't necessarily climate change, but as scientists explain...

Worry For the Animals

So could we imagine this is why so many news shows default to saying "heat wave" while they turn the cameras on - zoo animals? For the past few years news shows have produced thousands of stories and pictures of tigers and sloths, elephants and porcupines cooling off in the heat -- cutely eating popsicles, playing in pools, and being attentively hosed down by zookeepers. Zoos make the incessant heat a selling point:



I suppose trying to get in cheaper by saying "global warming" would ruin the spirit of it. As the climate changes, one can find instructional videos on how to make "tiger popsicles" - frozen treats from various ingredients - real blood, real chicks, Gatorade, and water. All of this, plus more. Reporters who could focus our attention on impending calamities instead spin magical bedtime stories. As the Weather Channel reported recently:

"At the Houston Zoo a snow day offered heat relief for animals for the second summer in a row. TXU Energy provided the man-made snow while zoo keepers provided the fun by building snowmen for the elephants..."


Redefining Nonfiction

Where to turn for science? While snowmen for the elephants passes as news, Discovery Communications, "the world's #1 nonfiction media company", recently re-aired an Animal Planet show about mermaids so convincing in its nonfictioness that the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first fielded a barrage "is it true?" phone calls, then felt compelled to issue a press release asserting that mermaids weren't real.

In response, Discovery Channel bloggers either defended the show as masterful theater "like the Blair Witch Project"; or baited readers: "The real question is, what do you believe?" Readers ate it up:

"I totally think this is real. not the magical mermaids we hear about from drunk sailors but the evolved kind. i am a christian and dont believe in the whole evolution thing, but what we have here is fact..."[sic]

The comment could be that of a child who won't let go of Santa (or someone aping a child), but theirs is an all-ages fantasy-reality mix-up. When adults experience derechos, or see walls of flame like nothing firemen have ever witnessed, they exclaim, "just like a movie!" When people hear about global cooling, or explorers "seeing mermaids" they want to own that "fact".

At Least This is Where we Focus our Despair

This summer's extreme weather hints that we're losing our cavalier climate wager. It's not only scientists who see the tangible repercussions of wantonly shoveling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Frequently, people show open concern about climate change. More people scorned Animal Planet's "Mermaids, Body Found", than declared undying faith in mermaid evolution. Recently, even some industry paid denialist-researchers seemed compelled to acknowledge long documented anthropogenic warming.

Perhaps we're collectively realizing that although the need for action on climate change may be a tough pill to swallow, there's no escape. Blood popsicles aside, there's not much to see at the zoo on very hot days. Zookeepers say the heat makes the animals "tired in the afternoon". Polar bears and sea lions slip into pools, while other animals are "allowed to return to their 'backstage bedrooms' to cool off".

Hopefully, although we fret over every poll reporting people's unexplainable trust of meteorologists, the same polls show that more people trust scientists - 74% - than any other source.

Overall, it seems that people are eeking away from climate denialism, which is good, because in the end, climate doesn't care whether we *choose* to believe physics and chemistry. Sea level still rises when North Carolina politicians outlaw it. Oceans continue to heat up when those same politicians 'compromise' with a moratorium on current science that local headlines call "a blend of science". So escape, as you will be invited to, to prince and princess fairy tales, to lands inhabited by unicorns, mermaids, and talking tigers, or to soothing climate tall tales. But remember, that science, wondrous as it is, doesn't "blend" with fairy tales like a scoop of protein powder in a mango ice cream milkshake.



Thanks to Neil Babra, illustrator, writer, etc. for letting us use his illustration of "Life of Pi".

We read Yann Martel's magical book "The Life of Pi", on a train in India several years ago over a couple of sleepless nights. The movie, by director Ang Lee, will be released in November/December, 2012. The studio recently posted previews online.

We wrote about TXU in "TXU-Greenmail?"

We wrote about the hypocrisy of city officials who after a disaster denounce people who move into disaster prone areas, but before a disaster prevent precautionary measures like building moratoriums - for economic growth reasons, in FEMA and Disaster

We wrote about climate change awareness and communication in "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster?"; "Climate Change, Fueling the Debate", and many others.

We wrote about science TV programming in "Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon"; and animals portrayed in media in Mongooses and Snakes - Combat Training; and "March On Penguins", and others.

NIMBY-ing the Keystone XL Pipeline

"God help us if this becomes like baby seals", said a University of Alberta energy economist after research about the extent of pollution downstream from the Athabasca Tar Sands became public a couple of years ago. Protests decrying the Keystone XL pipeline with its associated tar sands may not have reached "baby seals" fervor, but the plan to pump crude oil from Alberta to Texas certainly hasn't raised the popularity of Alberta and its oil extraction industry.

Baby-Sealing the Pipeline, If Not The Tar Sands

The extended pipeline would route through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies millions of people drinking and agriculture water. Nebraskans are especially apoplectic about the prospect of the pipeline with all its hazards running through their lands.KeystoneXLUSDeptState.jpg They worry about how 91 predicted leaks in the next 50 years will endanger drinking water.

Meanwhile, the company is urging the US to approve laxer standards to allow them to pump more oil at higher pressure through a thinner steel pipeline. TransCanada has promised the safety of the pipeline running over the aquifer and backed that up with bonds.

Of course people have challenged TransCanada's promises, but in corroboration, the US State Department reviews of the project had also been reassuring. That is, until this week, when the agency announced an independent investigation of the pipeline following revelations that the contractor hired by State to do environmental studies and public relations listed TransCanada as a client.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for its part, issued a scathing review of the pipeline project, criticizing projected greenhouse gas emissions, the history of Keystone pipeline spills, probable wetlands destruction, migratory bird disruption, and the impacts the pipeline could have on poor and indigenous populations.

Obama: Not In My Backyard (At Least Not Until After The Election)

Striking against the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and the pipeline, the continued investment in oil energy technologies, and the related environmental affronts, protestors had noisily decamped to Washington DC over the last few months, letting their opinions be known as they marched around the White House and the EPA.

The total of all this -- the thousand turning up to hold hands in a giant circle round President Obama's home, the uncovering of conflicting interests, and the affected state governments discontents built to a grand crescendo until finally the White House announced it needed more time to study the situation.

The administration effectively put the decision off until after the election. (OK, I know, I Obama built my reputation on community organization, but enough for now...) The White House protestors went home to declare success.

Lobbying So Hard It's "Not Lobbying"

It's not for lack of lobbying that the pipeline was postponed. TransCanada and friends did just about all they could do. They spent millions, wrote editorials in places like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and got good support from entities like the American Petroleum Institute, not to mention economists, journalists and citizens on all sides of the political spectrum who impressed talking points like jobs, energy, international cooperation, and opportunity.

The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, so new to the job that an internet search results shows her predecessor as Premier, will visit Washington D.C. next week. "Not to lobby", she says, rather she'll explain the economic situation of her oil dependent province and try to improve Alberta's public image. The previous Premier was a big lobbyist for both the tar sands and the pipeline, as depicted in "Ed Stelmach's Clumsy American Romance". British Columbia's The Tyee scoffed at the duplicity of the full page "get out the facts" ad former Premier Stelmach posted in the Washington Post, and winced over the $55,800 of tax payers' dollars he spent on it after the Post rejected his editorial. Between this and visuals of the province as a giant tar sand pit, the new Premier is wasting no time trying to remake Alberta's image in order to sell some oil.

Who Will Love The Pipeline In Their Backyard?

In announcing the postponement, the State Department said it wanted to look at "alternate routes" for the pipeline. While protestors had been promising to stop the pipeline, the Governor of Nebraska was also busy taking his state's cause to Washington. He's not opposed to the pipeline, he said, explaining why he was pushing to get the pipeline rerouted, just didn't want it in that particular part of his state.

This delay that the Obama Administration just served to TransCanada is exactly what corporations do to everyone else when they're trying to keep business the same. One delay at a time, it is actually an end game, and the oil companies play it well. And it turns out they're not happy when someone else is doing the delaying. TransCanada has not been responsive to requests for it to voluntarily change its route. A company spokesperson had warned The Guardian: "You can't just erase a line on a map and draw one somewhere else", and said the move would put the whole project in doubt.

That's doubtful, given how much oil and money is on the table. As Nebraska and grassroots efforts claim a coup, TransCanada will accelerate its lobbying, of course. And where will the pipeline end up? If they keep the current siting, it runs not only through the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills and a Nebraska seismic zone, it also crosses through Oklahoma's seismic zone with its recent 5.6 earthquake (and 36 aftershocks in the past week). Would that be good? But what state wants the pipeline in their backyard?

Whatever the new plan, however positive the delay, I'm not sure the protestors can necessarily claim victory quite yet.


Acronym Required wrote about the Alberta Tar Sands in Gas Pipeline: Open Season Coming to Alaska; Higher Pollution From Alberta Tar Sands, and others.

The Four Dog Defense

It's a well known strategy they say. But how well known is it if the world's biggest encyclopedia doesn't even have an entry? Anyway, it goes like this. Say you're the owner of a dog who's just bitten someone. If you're a chuff, churl or cretin -- or even your average defensive citizen -- you deny it via the so called "Four Dog Defense". Here's how one lawyer explained it to the St. Petersburg Times in 1997 1:

  1. First of all, I don't have a dog.
  2. And if I had a dog, it doesn't bite.
  3. And if I had a dog and it did bite, then it didn't bite you.
  4. And if I had a dog and it did bite, and it bit you, then you provoked the dog."

The St. Petersburg Times article wasn't actually about a dog, but about the landmark tobacco cases. And the tobacco industry played it something like this, as you may know (I'm ad-libbing here):

  1. Smoking definitely doesn't cause cancer, there's no evidence it causes cancer.
  2. There's no consensus on the evidence; smoking may cause cancer but second hand smoke definitely doesn't.
  3. Mice may get cancer but mice are not humans, cigarettes are not additive.
  4. People choose to smoke -- and who are we to impose on people's constitutional rights? - etc.

Four Dogs Launched a Thousand Ways

"Four Dog Defense" might sound more like a Kung Fu movie to you, but since you've now been introduced, you'll see it often. Some people describe the Four Dog Defense as a trial lawyer's adage, but it's even more common than that. The tobacco industry, as in the above example, used it for decades to successfully deflect charges that cigarettes cause cancer. Even today, despite volumes of documents in the form of the tobacco papers, the same companies today mount the same defense.

You might also be familiar with this strategy not only because of tobacco, but asbestos, lead, arsenic, or any number of chemicals or "benign" products (sugar, alcohol, etc.) currently on the market.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) used the example of the "Four Dog Defense" to frame their recent investigation: "The Delay Game: How the Chemical Industry Ducks Regulation of the Most Toxic Substances". The report compellingly describes tactics the industries used to stall regulation,focusing on three chemicals, trichloroethylene (TCE), formaldehyde, and styrene. The three have been on the market for decades despite proof they cause morbidity and mortality.

The NRDC describes how vested industries spent millions of dollars stalling with tactics like demands on the EPA conduct new science reviews. Industries request "independent" assessments and hire "independent" scientists to do favorable studies. They then dispatch lobbyists to "influence" politicians and the EPA. Thus, toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, lead, atrazine, and TCE can stay on the market for however long it takes to do the "new" assessment, as the EPA gets stalled from acting on well established science.

Of course taxpayers pay for all of this, every move that industry makes to stall the EPA - demanding studies, suing, producing biased studies, and publicizing contrarian views.Circularly and ironically, taxpayers who already paid for the research trying to assure that we live in a healthy environment, then pay for defense when industry and lobbyists attack that very science. The taxpayers pay and pay again with money and health, for these attacks on science and the EPA (that the Tea Party and GOP so dearly want to abolish).

The TCE Story

This four dog defense strategy has kept trichloroethylene (TCE) on the market for decades. TCE is a solvent used for metal degreasing. It has industrial uses, like cleaning airplane parts, but is also found in household items such as paint removers, glues, correction fluid, electronic equipment cleaners, rug cleaners, and adhesives. TCE is linked with leukemia, cancers, developmental defects, and problems with the male reproductive system, the immune system, liver, kidney and nervous systems.

TCE is also found in hundreds of Super Fund sites, places like like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and military bases. Most of us live close to one of these sites, or we might. When a new housing development gets built in the vicinity of some high stature physics lab in an expensive suburb, for instance, TCE can leach from the soil into water supplies, or evaporate into the air. And then what happens if a homeowner or their children get sick? The four dog defense continues. The effects of TCE on human health were detailed in Jonathan Harr's 1996 non-fiction book A Civil Action.

A Civil Action

As Harr recounted, in the late 1970's people began to die in Woburn, Massachusetts, in what public health officials identified as a leukemia cluster. Three companies, including W.R. Grace and a tannery owned by Beatrice Foods, dumped TCE onto land and it leached into the water supply. During discovery before the trial, companies' defense lawyers deposed the plaintiffs, grilling them on the details of their daily lives. As Harr describes in his book, the lawyers produced exhaustive inventories of products used in each plaintiff's house, what they ate, drank, cleaned with...

"five hundred brand-name household products -- cleaning agents and detergents, rug shampoos, cosmetics, nail-polish removers, insect repellents, paints, lawn fertilizers, cold remedies, cough syrups, herbal teas, coffee, even peanut butter."

The goal-oriented lawyers are relentless, and you can see the four-dog defense in play:

"Do you eat peanut butter?" one of Facher's young associates asked Anne Anderson.
"No," said Anne.
"Did you ever eat peanut butter?"
"I guess everybody living has probably tried it," replied Anne.
"Do your kids eat peanut butter?"
"Well, the same jar has been sitting there an awfully long time, so I guess we don't eat much"
"What kind is it, plain or chunky?"
"Plain, smooth," said Anne."
"You made your children peanut butter sandwiches?"
"They ate some, when they were small"
"When you say, 'some,' could you quantify that?" One or two sandwiches a week for the children?"

How does this apply to the chemical on trial and the deaths and illnesses that the communty was experiencing, you ask? Peanut butter can contain aflatoxin, a carcinogen. By cataloguing the everyday products that the plaintiffs used, then pointing to possible carcinogens that they contained, the lawyers could throw doubt of the cause of the TCE related illnesses. Clearly Anne hardly ever ate peanut butter. But here, the lawyer throws doubt on that. As Harr writes, Jan Schlichtmann, lawyer for the plaintiffs, knows that the defendant's lawyers are trying to dilute the evidence in order to develop uncertainty about the origin of the cancers. When at 5:00PM, he requests that the defense lawyers to end their deposition, they ignore him and continue their questioning.

"Do you eat bacon?...(Bacon contains dimethylnitrosamine, a carcinogen.) How often? How many slices? Do you fry it or bake it? Do you have Teflon pans (Teflon is made of a resin containing acrylonitrile, a carcinogen.) How often do you use them? Do you chew sugarless gum? (Saccharin, a carcinogen in mice.) How often? Do you pump your own gas?..."

It continues with each plaintiff, over the next three weeks -- do you bathe, shower, wear deodorant, own a cats, have plastic shower curtains, drink beer, smoke? Each activity or product contains certain carcinogens, and therefore passes on certain risks...

While the pre-trial "discovery" of "A Civil Action" drags on, people continue drinking TCE polluted water and breath TCE polluted air.

"Roland Gamache was dying of leukemia by the time his second deposition began. Neither he nor his wife could admit this to each other. But the lawyers all knew. In early October, Gamache did not have strength enough to get out of bed...."

And while these leukemia victims answer inquiries by lawyers working on behalf of TCE dumpers, somewhere else in the world, in another room, at another polished bird's eye maple conference table, lawyers for a different chemical or product question different plaintiffs about their possible exposure to solvents -- have you ever glued anything (glues contain can TCE)? Walked by the old Naval base in the next block?

In the end the Woburn case didn't repair the TCE victims, nor did it motivate universal action on TCE. But law schools use the book as a case study to instruct future lawyers prosecuting (as well as defending) the makers of toxic chemicals. As you can imagine then, with this sort of defense fully proven to work, people injured from environmental toxicants have a difficult time getting remedy from the courts.

The Doggy-Dog World of Politicians

Given the tenacity and success of the four dog defense, it was against great odds that after decades years of stalling, not only by industry and lawyers, but by politicians, White House administrations, and the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, the EPA released its final IRIS assessment of TCE last week.

The EPA's last assessment of TCE came in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. In 2001 the EPA calculated that based on research to that date, TCE was 5-65 times as toxic as previously thought, especially to children. It can be found in 761 Superfund sites. Since the Department of Defense and Department of Energy would be responsible for cleaning up many of the sites, the agencies fought vigorously to prevent EPA action. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reports that DOD action against the rule cost taxpayers a million dollars.

The EPA's path to updating the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) is tortuous, likewise for the the EPA's completion of the IRIS assessments for the backlog of chemicals with suspected or proven health affects. The agency struggles to overcome a failed strategy of depending on industry to produce safety profiles of chemicals, a method of oversight that hasn't adequately safeguarded our health. (Acronym Required started reporting this here in 2005, decades into the battle 2). But progress gets perpetually hindered - as you can see, industry mounts gargantuan hurdles against the EPA.

Even once people are somewhat convinced that a chemical such as TCE is toxic, lobbyists for industry deploy the four dog defense. This is long after the media loses interest, long after the public tires of hearing about it, long after the environmental groups start in on their next action item, and long after most politicians drop the issue (now that they're not getting calls from their constituents).

As we speak, politicians that we (you) voted for, "working in our interest" actively fight against the EPA's IRIS assessments and against EPA moves to strengthen TSCA. Their most successful claim against regulating chemicals that cause the loss of life and impede people's ability to work? That the "stringent" rules will "cost jobs". Politicians are often lawyers first after all, so they know the four dog defense perhaps better than any of us.


1 "Can This Man Tame Tobacco?" David Barstow St. Petersburg Times April 7, 1997

2 Acronym Required wrote about TSCA in of posts a couple of posts about Teflon in 2005; in a few posts on Europe's REACH, for instance The EU on Chemicals: More Strife Across the Pond?; a here and in many posts about bisphenol-A.

Secret Geoengineering? Says Who?

A recent Financial Times article reported on a £1.6 million geoengineering trial launched by SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection For Climate Engineering) at a British Science Festival. In "Trial Seeks to Hose Down Warming Climate", Clive Cookson describes how the company aimed to test the feasibility of cooling the planet by creating atmospheric conditions that simulate volcanic activity. Beyond the trial:

"A full-scale global cooling system would cost more than £5bn and take two decades to install, said Hugh Hunt of Cambridge university, another team member. It would require 10 to 20 gigantic balloons, each the size of Wembley stadium, attached to ships distributed in the world's oceans and pumping 10m tonnes a year of material into the stratosphere.""

Geoengineering - How Far Have We Really Come?

Interesting enough. We often hear of plans for geoengineering. Certainly weather modification has been around for so long that when a Texas licensing board in charge of approving projects convened recently, one member suggested that the technology was so routine the licensing board should disband. Although we know generally about cloud seeding and futuristic geoengineering, we don't often hear about experiments with some of the more sophisticated climate technologies, which makes the FT article interesting.

But also interesting, was a letter to the editor in response to the article, published by the FT a couple of days later (Sept. 15). In it, the President of an American aerospace company wrote that the "trial" reported by FT was old news. He explained that injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere has "been in full swing at it for nearly a decade...", and continued "Dozens of aerospace, defence and technical companies like ours have been advising into the initiative for many years. He explained:

"...[a] series of tests to create a polymerised and ionised mixture of certain metals, including aluminium, barium, thorium and selenium, among other contents, was perfected and tested in US facilities. A joint public-private operation, initially called "Cloverleaf", was operationalised and subsequently supported by US state and federal weather modification legislature.

Throughout the continental US, dozens of tanker and other aircraft are daily applying thousands of gallons of aerosol nano-particulates that serve several objectives, including the purported ability to reflect UV radiation. Similar operations are being conducted in Canada and parts of Europe.[emphasis ours]

What the actual secondary effects of this operation are, including human health impacts, are currently unknown or undisclosed. The Bristol university team may be wise to "hose down" those facts as well. In the meantime, anthropogenic climate impact is in this regard, quite real indeed."


Before the Financial Times boldly printed this editorial, people firmly relegated "Cloverleaf Operations" to conspiracy theory territory. True, thousands of YouTube videos devote bazillions of hours to documenting "chemtrails" streaked across blue skies -- often accompanied by music of the producer's choosing, making them no less boring.

And true, hosts of crackling talk radio shows tell audiences that their guests will "risk death" if they divulge a huge secret government chemical spraying operation, and then of course their guest divulges the secret.

A search for "chemtrails" on YouTube actually turns up 29,200 results. I have to say, I had no idea this was as big as it is -- have you heard of this chemtrail thing? It's easy to ignore, unless, say, as I have experienced, one or more of your previously rational friends goes through some weird mid-life crisis, and with testosterone flagging (my theory), veers off bizarrely denouncing the rational in favor of numerology, Mad Hatter utterings, and chemtrails. How else would you know, unless you read the Financial Times editorial section?

Fact or Fiction?

Of course some people -- the subset who espouse chemtrails and read the Financial Times editorials -- were elated: "PROOF!", they crowed on their blogs. But try to find one other mention of such a program in any other respected publication -- one whose mission isn't to divulge "scary secrets your government's hiding from you". Given this, the Financial Times editorial seems like a rather casual airing of the news -- and it is news.

It must be true, you say, it's the Financial Times! Many people attest that the FT and its sister publication The Economist do an above respectable job covering science. I really like both publications, but they both publish quite a few "science" articles that are more or less press releases for some company's pie in the sky technology that you've never heard of and will never hear of again. Yes, they have some in depth coverage of science, and sometimes feature British science establishment luminaries like Paul Nurse, but frankly I think their coverage of economics, yachts, and watches is better. The original article on the water aerosol trial was sort of in this in the sky technology vein. But the theme got way more interesting with the editorial.

Existent or Not Existent?

The editorial was written by Mr. Matt Andersson, who signed as the CEO of a Chicago company called Indigo Aerospace. Indigo Aerospace is not listed in Hoover's, so it's hard to guess how much money he makes "advising into the initiative". Or maybe he didn't really mean in his letter that his company was running geoengineering programs but more literally that companies "like his" were. Or maybe his company does advise such initiatives.

Being curious, I easily learned that Indigo Aerospace used to be incorporated in Illinois, where they reportedly consulted to Booz Allen Hamilton, known for its military and government business. But as of May, 2011, Illinois lists the Indigo Aerospace Inc. as "involuntarily dissolved". So then is the corporate entity for which he signed as CEO not in existence anymore? This unfortunately throws doubt on his whole Cloverleaf assertion (at least to us). But why be judgmental? FT wasn't.

But we unfortunately don't know if the FT editorial is credible. If we were the FT editorial team we would do a bit more checking into this story -- really. Now we can only wonder: Do governments drastically change weather patterns, ruin sunsets, and subject us to chemical experimentation, and is this so ho-hum that we only read about it on conspiracy theorist sites, on Ron Paul 2012's blog, and in the editorial section of the Financial Times? It's potentially very interesting news people, more please. Or is it a conspiracy theory, as contended by every state agency, military organization, scientist, urban legend site, and news publication -- except for the FT? Mildly interesting but worthwhile noting. What do you wager?

Hurricane Irene Disaster Management

Just Like 1908?

After Hurricane Irene, some people joked that the media sees hurricanes as a grand opportunity to dress up in the newest outdoor gear and brace against the howling wind, downed trees, and rain driving sideways (although sometimes pranksters steal the show.) Hurricanes have all the right elements for media profiteering too - drama, death, destruction and lots of "human interest". But to build drama, you need to build up the storm. On Friday night, August 25th, we linked to these four news stories in successive Tweets:

  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1903 (Published August 26, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1908 (Published August 24, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1938 (Published August 26, 2011 10:28 p.m. EDT) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1985 (Published August 26, 2011 1:23AM) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired

Not only can't forecasters predict with 100% accuracy the power or path of a storm, but certainly, as we showed, newspaper reporters can't. The media can't necessarily be faulted though, after all a hurricane is a moving target. In fact, as long as everyone tunes in, the media actually plays an helpful role public safety role, that is by creating more drama on television then any one person can witness outside, over-the-top media coverage can actually aid public safety officials.

The list of East Coast storms throughout history is extensive, but reporters plucked somewhat random mix of historical events out of the hundreds available: The so called Vagabond Hurricane of 1903, produced 65mph winds in Central Park; the deadly New England Hurricane of 1938, was a Category 3 at landfall; and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 struck as a Category 2 hurricane. It's unclear what storm in 1908 the Lehigh Valley Morning Call reporter was talking about, since none of the storms that year amounted to much, and on August 24th 2011, when the Morning Call published, most reporters were comparing Irene to Hurricane Katrina, not some random storm that blew out to sea in the Caribbean. Maybe the reporter hadn't had their morning coffee.

But there you have it, taken together, it's clear that storms can go many different ways and we don't have the technical or intuitive abilities to predict them exactly accurately, or at least to the degree that audiences seem to be demanding after the event.

That Healthy Cry, The Complainer - Alive and Well

When Irene actually hit, the hurricane created lots of flooding and destruction not to be trifled with. But as the New York Times reported after the storm, some New Yorkers were peeved at the pre-storm hype. New Yorkers expressed anger at the cops on bullhorns telling people to go inside, anger at the storm itself for not living up to its potential, and of course anger with Mayor Bloomberg. One person complained Bloomberg made people spend too much money: "The tuna fish and the other food, O.K., we're going to eat it. I don't need all this water and batteries, though."

But lets compare this outcome with the great bungling of Katrina in 2005, to see how things can easily go the other way. At least 1,836 people died in Katrina and property damage was estimated to be $81 billion 2005 USD.

FEMA took most of the fall for the Hurricane Katrina management disaster, along with FEMA administrator Michael Brown ,who appeared utterly useless despite fervent support from George W. Bush. As we wrote at the time in "FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?", FEMA had failed US citizens in multiple hurricanes during the administration of George H.W. Bush in the 1980's, and had been expertly revived and made useful during the Bill Clinton administration under the leadership of James E. Witt. Then George W. Bush decimated the revived FEMA, using it as his father had. As the House Appropriations Committee reported in 1992, FEMA had been used as a "political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm', if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment". (Washington Post July 31)

So given the recent history of Katrina, and the debacles of several state and city governments in last winter's multiple blizzards, it seems inane that so many people who lived through those disasters now fault Bloomberg as "the boy who cried wolf". But then people might complain no matter what, and given the somewhat unpredictable path of storms, I think everyone would agree that it's better to be alive complaining, than dead and swept out to sea because of lack of government warning.

Assuring Future Disasters are Worse

Of course we don't know how the government would have fared in a worse disaster. And while people complain about the lack of a bigger hurricane, FEMA is currently hindered from helping with Irene. Why? Apparently, a FEMA funding bill is being held up in the Senate while politicians with idiosyncratic proclivities indulge their hypocritical "family values" by meticulously delineating all the organizations that can't be paid with FEMA money.

To our detriment, we ignore larger issues while we complain. FEMA's role takes a role not only during and after a hurricane, but in adequately preparing people ahead of time, as we wrote in "FEMA and Disaster Preparedness". Neither FEMA nor state or local governments adequately helped prepare for Katrina, as we detailed in: "Disaster Preparedness - Can We?". Although states and cities didn't play as large a role in the the federal government failings as G.W. Bush would later say, rewriting of history, their role is important.

Of course, disaster preparedness means not only motivating citizens to buy supplies and stay inside, not only mobilizing a deft response, but shoring up infrastructure ahead of time. In the wake of Katrina, we all heard about the failure of governments to build adequate New Orlean's levees, an issue Acronym Required wrote about in "Levees - Our Blunder". However before Katrina, few people realized just how flagrantly officials ignored warnings about the weak levees. When the hurricane breached the walls, politicians acted surprised, that surprise masking the blunt unwillingness of politicians and US citizens to support and fund infrastructure.

We wrote about more widespread infrastructure failings in 2007, in "Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall". But infrastructure is easy to ignore. Just as vociferously as citizens complain about the hype preceding Hurricane Irene1, they remain stunningly silent on the lack of infrastructure preparedness. In fact there's loud clamoring to dismantle the very agencies that assure our safety. Obama has tried in some ways to address the infrastructure problem, not without criticism.

In the case of the New Orleans levees, the New Orlean's Times-Picayune reports that although $10 billion has been spent upgrading the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers is giving them a failing grade. The report says that the refurbished levees might stand a 100 year event, but a larger event will result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. This was exactly the criticism of the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


1 Here's an interesting analysis of the hype-factor of news relating to Hurricane Irene. The author uses a quantity of publications analysis to argue is that the storm was not hyped.

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