Blogs

Two Black Seas: Oil Spills Updates

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 6:39 PM EST

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What do San Francisco Bay and the Black Sea have in common these days? Black waters fouled by crumbling ships, possibly bad seamanship, single-hulled tankers, and what always seems to be chronically inadequate first responders.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that the spill in San Francisco Bay has wafted north to foul the oyster beds in Point Reyes National Seashore, shutting down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which produces more than 80 percent of Marin County's oyster crop. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports the bar pilot responsible for bringing the Cosco Busan into the bay claims the ship suffered from an inexperienced crew and faulty radar. Meanwhile, the Marin Independent Journal reports that frustrated residents of the seaside town of Bolinas have taken matters into their own hands, rescuing birds and scooping up fist-sized blobs of oil with colanders, laundry baskets and fishing nets:

"Ultimately, if they're not going to send help, we're going to have to do it ourselves," said Bolinas resident Hermione Healy, who with her sister Krishna fished for oil that she described as "looking like pieces of asphalt floating by."

And once again Google maps are bringing the disaster closer to home, wherever you are, including this one from KCBS:


View Larger Map

Halfway around the world, the Strait of Kerch, connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is reeling from the effects of up to 10 ships sunk in a monster storm Sunday.

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Looking north up the narrow Kerch Strait dividing The Black Sea from the Sea of Azov.

The Volganeft-139 tanker was carrying about 1.3 million gallons of fuel oil when the storm sundered it, losing at least half its load so far. The AP reports the ship was constructed for river use and was unfit to endure severe weather at sea. So far, more than 30,000 birds—some of the thousands migrating south from Siberia at this time of year—plus countless fish have been killed in an what officials are calling an ecological catastrophe. The Moscow Times reports that a freighter carrying 2,000 tons of sulphur sank nearby at nearly the same time:

"We hope that in the water sulphur will not form any substances dangerous to humans," Mitvol [deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's environmental watchdog] said. Several hours later, another freighter carrying sulphur sank off Kavkaz, Interfax reported… The same storm, which is expected to rage for up to three days, also sank a freighter with scrap metal off Sevastopol… The hull of [another] oil tanker Volganeft-123 cracked after being hit by high waves, but it was afloat and its oil products were not leaking.

Let's face reality. Oil, once spilled, is bloody hard to unspill, no matter the circumstances. Get ready for talk about double-hulled tankers to resurface. Get ready for nothing to come of it. Again.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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The USDA's E. coli Loophole

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 3:54 PM EST

3ec1.jpgWhat do you do with meat that's contaminated with E. coli bacteria? Slap a "cook-only" label on and sell that shit (pun definitely intended), says the USDA.

The Chicago Tribune reports on a little known "E. Coli loophole:" If the deadly bacteria is found in meat during processing, companies can still sell the meat if they label it as "cook-only." The reasoning seems sound, since cooking kills the germs, but inspectors say the practice is more dangerous than it appears:

...some USDA inspectors say the "cook only" practice means that higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the "cook only" practice is part of the reason for this year's sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

E. coli has been making headlines a whole lot lately. First there was the spinach scare; then the Topps recall; and just a few weeks ago, the Cargill recall. There's no evidence that the cook-only loophole has to do with any of this, but it sure doesn't make hamburgers sound any more appetizing.

Iranian-American Scholar Fears War Within Months - Can He Help Stop It?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 2:43 PM EST

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Here's how high Trita Parsi thinks the stakes are getting on the Iran question: "In the next couple of months, we may end up in a military conflict between these countries," the Iranian-American scholar said in San Francisco last week, referring to the United States, Israel, and Iran. Parsi, who supports diplomacy and thinks it has a fair shot, believes this type of conflict "would be an absolute shame," not to mention what a war between these nations would actually mean. For any attack to effectively reverse Iran's nuclear capability, Parsi said, "you would have to kill 6,000 Iranian nuclear scientists."

Prez Candidates: Schools? What Schools?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 2:10 PM EST

With big issues like the war and Iran hounding '08 presidential candidates, have domestic schooling issues gone completely off their collective radar?

Education has never been the sexiest of topics, but as Education Week points out, the next president needs to hone in on a few dry, but important, issues: the future of No Child Left Behind, the expansion of prekindergarten programs, and how much federal dollars should be spent on charter schools or private school choice. An interactive chart in the same article gives the low-down on where all the red and blue candidates stand on the issues.

The education think tank Education Sector argues that candidates should focus on improved recruitment and compensation for teachers, and opening new schools in low-income areas.

And here's one more candidate-by-candidate comparison on issues like school vouchers and social promotion. Just because the candidates aren't talking about it, doesn't mean we can't.

Little Steven Goes to Washington...and Wants To See Laura Bush

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 1:33 PM EST

Little Steven wants to chat with Laura Bush.

That's what Steven Van Zandt--a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, the actor who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, and the host of the syndicated radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage--told me on Monday after a press conference in which he teamed up with the National Association for Music Education to promote music in primary education. At the event, Van Zandt announced his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation is creating a music appreciation curriculum for middle and high schools that will cover the history of rock and roll.

Van Zandt is no fan of the Bush administration. He has long identified with progressive causes. His 1984 album, Voice of America was loaded with rough anti-Reagan sentiment. In 1985, he pulled together dozen of top recording artists--Bob Dylan, U2, Run DMC, Springsteen--for the antiapartheid anthem, "Sun City." And in 2004, Van Zandt (with Springsteen and the rest of the band) was part of the Vote for Change tour that hit swing states to encourage people to, well, vote for change--that is, to vote against George W. Bush.

But now Van Zandt is pushing an issue that he says "transcends politics." At the press event, he was joined by John Mahlmann, the executive director of the National Association for Music Education, who noted that student access to music education has dropped about 20 percent in recent years--thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act. Mahlmann also said that students' "contact time" with music and all the arts has fallen 40 percent. The No Child Left Behind law, Mahlmann claimed, has caused schools to obsess over testing for math and reading and that "pushes out other areas of the curriculum."

IPOA Smackdown: DynCorp vs. Blackwater

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 12:39 PM EST

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The knives have come out at the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA). Times have been tough for members of the private military industry trade group since IPOA member company, Blackwater USA, was implicated in a series of controversial shootings in a Baghdad traffic circle on September 16, which killed 17 Iraqis and wounded 24 others. Three weeks after the shootings, Blackwater withdrew its membership from the IPOA, apparently after receiving word that the group was preparing to launch an investigation of the company's conduct. Doug Brooks, IPOA's founder and president, has done his best to deflect criticism and shield his member companies from unwanted attention. But according to reporter Joe Neff of the Raleigh News & Observer, anger with Blackwater (if not for its conduct in Iraq, then for the unwelcome spotlight it has shone on the entire private military industry) is clearly on the rise among the firm's former IPOA brethren.

In a recent teleconference with investors and financial analysts, DynCorp president and CEO Herb Lanese went to great lengths to distance his company from Blackwater. Only 2 percent of DynCorp's revenues come from security work, Lanese said. "So, when you compare us to Blackwater, 2 percent of our revenue is on the same basis of Blackwater," he continued. "Unfortunately, it's very visible work that tends to attract a disproportionate amount of attention that I believe unfairly distorts the image of DynCorp... I do want you to know that in this narrow space in which we compete with Blackwater, we believe we are a very different company."

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Dear Hillary: Success Trumps Sisterhood Every Time

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 11:40 AM EST

Conventional wisdom suggests that Hillary Clinton has all but locked up the gender primary. She dominates the female voting bloc, a sign that women are actually energized about her historic candidacy. But there's one group of women that she hasn't yet won over: professional and executive women who make more than $75,000 a year. These women support Clinton far less than their lower-income counterparts, and they are slightly more likely to vote for Giuliani in the presidential election, reports the Wall Street Journal today.

Despite having much in common with Clinton, these women are demonstrating that old adage about how feminism's biggest achievement is allowing women to emulate the worst in men (see the rise in women's smoking and incarceration rates, for instance). Really, it's no surprise that when women achieve power and wealth, they start to care more about capital gains taxes than children's health insurance programs. Apparently, sisterhood is a casualty of climbing the corporate ladder.

HMO Pays Staffers to Drop Sick People

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 11:10 AM EST

Virtually all the Democrats running for president have endorsed health care proposals that maintain a major role for private insurance companies. Much of their rhetoric suggests that if we could just get everyone health insurance, then all will be well. But the debate continues to ignore the horror stories like the one reported in the L.A. Times Friday.

A private insurer paid $20,000 in bonuses to an underwriter for dropping coverage for sick people, including a hairdresser who was half way through chemo treatments for cancer. She was left with $200,000 in medical bills as a result. Meanwhile, the company, Health Net, saved $35 million by cutting off 1,600 people who had made a major medical claim. Built into the system were performance bonuses for employees who dropped the most and the sickest patients. The widespread practice suggests that Americans need a lot more than an insurance card to guarantee access to medical care when they most need it.

Finally, Cable a la Carte?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 10:34 AM EST

I have long suspected that my husband and I may be the only people in D.C. who don't subscribe to cable TV (sorry, David). For years we have resisted, largely because 1) cable is expensive and controlled by monopolies and 2) the only reason we want it is so that we can watch The Wire and New York Giants games that aren't broadcast in our area on regular TV. We don't want to pay hundreds of dollars a year for cable when we wouldn't watch 99 percent of its offerings.

This all might change, however, if the newly energized chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gets his way. Republican Kevin J. Martin is pushing once again to restrict the monopoly power of giant cable companies, whose rates have soared far faster than inflation in recent years. (Comcast haters take note: Martin's work would put a huge hitch in that company's expansion plans.) Among the other measures that Martin is championing, though, is what every cable consumer has long desired: the ability to pick her own channels, without having to pay for all the Home Shopping Network additions forced into the standard packages, the so called "a la carte menu."

The FCC's changes are based on a law that kicks in when 70 percent of the marketplace has cable, which it does. Naturally, the big cable companies hate the idea, but it should be a boon for consumers. Indeed, the measure might not improve my New York Giants' watching (we'd need Direct TV's NFL Sunday Ticket for that), but we might actually get to watch The Wire in real-time instead of waiting months for it to make its way to Netflix.

Obama Attacks and Nobody Notices

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 1:35 AM EST

clinton_obama_profile.jpg Here is my final thought on the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner that I liveblogged on Saturday night: Barack Obama finally went on the attack against Hillary Clinton and it didn't seem to matter.

Clinton unveiled "Turn Up the Heat" as a new campaign slogan, but it was Obama who was committed to putting his chief rival through the fire, as he had been promising to do for many weeks. A few days prior to the speech, Obama told the press that Clinton was running a "textbook" campaign. Saturday he said, "The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do in this election. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us, just won't do." Triangulating and polls, of course, are the Clintons' forte.

On Saturday night the senator from Illinois said, "When I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I support that Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders we don't like." In the span of one long sentence, Obama attacked the frontrunner on Iraq and on Iran, and compared her foreign policy philosophy to Bush's and Cheney's.