2010 - %3, October

Honeybee Collapse (Partly) Solved!

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

And now for some genuinely good news. It appears that we've finally figured out whether it's a virus or a fungus that's reponsible for the collapse of honeybee colonies over the past few years. Answer: it's both.

Researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.

....Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

....Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae....The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face....The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

So there you have it. Academic researchers teamed up with Army software designed to identify biological agents on the battlefield to figure out what was going on. Now all that's left is to figure out just how this virus/fungus combo works and whether there's any way to fight it.

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Today's Grim Employment Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Do I have to do a post about today's employment report? I do? Fine: it sucks. Private sector job growth was anemic, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in May, and shows no signs of picking up. Public sector job growth, thanks to state and local layoffs, was negative, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in June. As a result, total job growth was tiny, far too small even to keep up with population growth. At the rate things are going right now, unemployment is going to stay near double digits for a very, very long time.

Too negative, you say? You want some good news, you say? Here it is:

While job creation remains scarce, there could be a silver lining. Expectations are growing that the Federal Reserve will try to stimulate the economy by stepping up its purchases of government bonds. The gloomy jobs report could give the Fed more incentive to act.

Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at wealth management firm Glenmede, said "by not being stronger, (the jobs report) gives them the window of opportunity to take action."

Any other good news? Well, the stock market broke 11000 and the teen apparel sector posted strong growth as part of "brisk" back-to-school sales. So buck up, folks. Prosperity is right around the corner.

The Ghost of Congress Future

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:39 AM EDT

"GoolsbeeGate" is a look at things to come if Republicans take over the House in November. I can't wait. It sounds like a worthy successor to the Clinton Christmas card investigation. 

NJ Democrats Behind Fake Tea Party Candidate

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

Democratic operatives close to Rep. John Adler say that the New Jersey congressman's campaign recruited candidate purportedly representing the "New Jersey Tea Party" as third-party spoiler. The Courier Post reports:

Congressman John Adler's campaign and the Camden County Democratic Committee recruited "NJ Tea Party'' candidate Peter DeStefano to confuse conservative voters and hurt Adler's Republican challenger this fall, Democratic operatives say.

"The goal was to take 5 percent of (Republican Jon) Runyan's vote,'' said a Democrat with direct knowledge of the Adler campaign and CCDC operations…Adler, who is in a knife-fight with Runyan in the conservative-leaning 3rd district, is aware of the DeStefano plan, Democrats said.

Questions about DeStefano first surfaced over the summer, when it became apparent that local tea party activists had never heard of him before he announced his candidacy. This isn't the first time that Democrats have tried to use "Tea Party" candidates as spoilers this election cycle. In Michigan, the state Supreme Court invalidated a "Tea Party" Party that Democrats had set up to back third-party candidates in scores of races across the state.

Republicans have a long history of such shenanigans, typically propping up the Green Party in recent election cycles. In Arizona, a Republican operative was particularly brazen in recruiting three homeless people to run for state office. And in Texas, Republicans spent a half-million dollars in an effort to put the Texas Green Party on the ballot in the state race—backed by sketchy operatives who also tried to help Ralph Nader in the 2004 race.

Such dirty tricks obviously have a chance of backfiring, so the Democrats really shouldn't be in a rush to match the GOP in resorting to such tactics. And it looks particularly bad when the candidate himself seems to be complicit.

Kentucky Groups Sue for Clean Water Act Enforcement

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:15 AM EDT

A coalition of environmental and citizen groups is filing suit against three mining companies in Kentucky for violations of the Clean Water Act, after an investigation into state records found the companies willfully, and regularly, ignoring pollution limits at or near mining sites.

After digging through records at the state's Division of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, the groups say they found more than 20,000 violations for just these three firms—ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal. The companies regularly noted that they had exceeded pollution limits in their self-reported quarterly filings, but they also often failed to submit reports or falsified monitoring data. In one case the groups cite, the data on manganese levels at one test site was 40 times the legal limit. Overexposure to the element has toxic effects and can impair motor skills and cognitive function.

The groups say they are filing suit because the state office has not enforced the law. Donna Lisenby, who works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, described literally blowing the dust off stacks of reports from the companies that did not appear to have been actually reviewed by anyone in the state office. Or at least, they were not reviewed thoroughly; she also described reports that appeared to have the same data copied and pasted from previous months, and reports that were dated before the testing was actually conducted. "Unless coal companies have invented a time machine, it's just not possible to submit test results for August and September that were taken in July," she said.

The records were obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance jointly filed the notice of intent to sue on Thursday, though they must wait 60 days before moving forward with the actual suit. The goal, the groups said, is to push the companies to comply with the law, and for state officials to actually enforce that law. The groups estimate that the companies would have been subject to $740 million in fines had the law been enforced.

"Our state officials have closed their eyes to an obviously serious problem," said Ted Withrow, a member of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth. "These are not small exceedances—some are over 40 times the daily maximum. This should have been a red flag."

Franken Says: No Foreign Money, Thank You

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 10:16 AM EDT

Hot on the heels of his letter to the Federal Election Commission, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) hosted a conference call on Thursday to discuss his request for an investigation into allegations that the US Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to pay for attack ads against progressive candidates running for office.

Franken's request is based on a recent report from the progressive blog ThinkProgress. The Chamber is a 501(c)(6) organization, a status that allows it to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors. It has committed a whopping $75 million towards ads attacking progressives running for office, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Virginia Democrat Rep. Tom Perriello. The Chamber also runs a number of foreign chapters, known as Business Councils or "AmChams," that represent American businesses with overseas interests.

But the group has also ramped up an aggressive campaign to raise cash from foreign companies controlled by foreign governments, who send money either directly to the Chamber or to their local AmChams. Campaign finance laws prevent foreign corporations from getting involved in American elections. When the money comes into the Chamber's coffers, ThinkProgress alleges, it is "commingled to the Chamber's 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads."

With ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Faiz Shakir and researcher Lee Fang also on the line, Franken insisted that there's enough reasonable doubt about how the pro-business lobbying group spends the membership dues it collects from foreign affiliates to warrant a thorough investigation. He was careful to point out, though, that the Chamber may not have done anything illegal.

"Let's be honest here: money is money. It's fungible," he said. "And when the Bahrain Petroleum Company sends the chamber $10,000, the $10,000 in American money the Chamber was going to use for office furniture can now go to a new attack ad on Barbara Boxer for her stand on clean energy."

But Franken also intends to hold the FEC's feet to the fire, and convince the commission to review its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend money on elections through special election committees formed by American citizens.

"Congress has got to act here by passing the DISCLOSE Act," he said, referring to the proposed law requiring funders of attack ads to identify themselves, and "close all loopholes" that allow US-based companies under foreign ownership to spend on elections.

The Chamber's spin department has been on overdrive ever since ThinkProgress' report was posted. Shakir said that it has issued statements to Politico and the Washington Post, among others, and has published a number of blog posts on its website looking "to sow some confusion amongst reporters." The basic facts, he says, show that the Chamber has funneled some $300,000 in foreign funds into election spending.

American City Business Journal's Keith Kent-Hoover pointed out that neither ThinkProgress nor the Senator have the "smoking gun" to support their allegations.

"If they're giving money to the same 501(c)(6), and that 501(c)(6) is spending money on ads, and money is fungible, it would be logical to assume that that money is being spent because it's all part of the same pool," Franken responded. The Chamber's inability to explain how it segregates foreign money from election spending, he added, merits an investigation.

Watch some clips of MoveOn.org's rally outside the Chamber of Commerce:

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Greasing the Political Pipes, TransCananda-Style

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 9:38 AM EDT

In Nebraska this week, the state's governor and attorney general quietly returned sizable campaign donations from TransCanada, the company looking to build a massive pipeline clear across the state. The donations to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning not only looked bad, since the company is seeking approval to build a portion of its 1,980-mile pipeline across the state, but could also be illegal, since TransCanada is, as the name suggests, a foreign corporation.

Heineman and Bruning each accepted $2,500 for their re-election campaigns, which they returned earlier this week after the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission raised concerns about the legality of the donations. The Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. "Since state elected officials were the recipients of these contributions and federal election laws are involved," said Ken Winston, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, "the investigation needs to be conducted by federal officials."

FEC laws bar foreign companies "from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly."

The company insists that the donations were on the up-and-up; it has an office in Omaha and is incorporated in Delaware. "The contributions were legal," Jeff Rauh, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "The contributions were returned out of an abundance of caution."

But the Nebraska watchdog reports that the donations drew attention because they listed incomplete and inaccurate addresses, and gave the street address of the company's Alberta office.

Even if it is technically legal, it certainly highlights TransCanada's desire to grease the works in the state. While the decision on whether TransCanada can build the pipeline will ultimately come from the Department of State, state elected officials will likely weigh in on eminent domain law and the safety precautions the company will need to take.

This is just the latest controversy over the proposed pipeline, which would cross Nebraska and five other states as it carries oil from Alberta to Houston. In July, the company sent threatening letters to landowners despite the fact that its massive pipeline project has not been approved at the federal level. Heineman has largely avoided the subject of the pipeline in public remarks, saying it's a "federal regulatory issue" and not something the state government should be involved in. So much for that.

I Was a Teenage Folk Hero's Victim

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

For the first summer in half a decade, Kara Webber didn't have to worry about Colton Harris-Moore crashing a stolen car into the propane tank behind the convenience store she works at. Or emptying out the ATM after-hours with a debit card he'd filched from a neighbor. Or breaking into her home for a quick bite to eat—while she was in the living room. And that, on balance, is a good thing: "He's locked up; we're happy," she says.

Kara explains to me how Colton used to break into her store late at night, then she takes a deep breath: "I mean, kid's an idiot."

Well, sort of. By now you've probably heard about the escapades of Colton, aka "The Barefoot Burglar," aka "the kid who stole all those planes." Raised by his mother in a trailer on Camano, a wooded island about an hour north of Seattle, he graduated from petty theft, to swiping cars, to, eventually and most dramatically, stealing and crash-landing private airplanes. Note the plural. Colton did this five times, at least, the last of which brought him to the Bahamas this summer, and from there, to a federal holding facility outside Seattle.

White House Pushes Back on Spill Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The White House is pushing back against the draft reports the National Oil Spill Commission released Wednesday on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that included scathing criticism of the administration's handling of the disaster. The reports' harshest criticism was directed toward the administration's handling of information about the size of the spill and the extent of the damage.

"This was an unprecedented environmental disaster met with an unprecedented federal response which prevented any of the worst-case scenarios from coming to fruition," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. "When we had information, we gave it to the public."

He also refuted the report's claim that the Office of Management and Budget blocked another federal agency from releasing estimates about the worst-case scenario for the spill. "No information was altered. No information was withheld. And nothing in the report had anything to do with the robust response," said Gibbs.

Gibbs defended the report's criticism of White House Energy and Climate Adviser Carol Browner for misrepresenting a document outlining where the oil in the Gulf went. "I think it is fair to say that Carol probably did hundreds of hours of interviews and may have misspoke once, which is a pretty darn good track record and one that we made sure was accurate certainly just a few hours later," said Gibbs. In fact, the report lists multiple media appearances in which Browner made the similar claims about the oil being "gone."

Gibbs also maintained that the White House believed the report "represented the fact that there was very good news, that oil had biodegraded, that oil had been skimmed, that oil had been burned, that the very worst-case scenarios that many people thought we would be dealing with never came to fruition, largely because of that federal response." The spill commission's report actually notes that the so-called oil budget didn't actually look at the amount of oil that had biodegraded, and criticized this as one of the "important shortcomings" in the report that the administration "obscured" its public roll out.

Gibbs did acknowledge that the response could have been improved, however. "There isn't anybody in this building or anybody who worked on this that would say we did everything perfectly," said Gibbs.

Simon Robson's "Coalition of the Willing"

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Can you survey the entire cultural and economic history of the 20th century's last half in one 16-minute film? That's director Simon Robson's short term goal for the video "Coalition of the Willing," now up for an animation award at Saturday's Vimeo Festival in New York. His long term goal is even more ambitious: Unite people around the world in "an internet-based swarm offensive aimed at triggering a 21st century culture shift." But although Robson may be trying to incite utopia, he self-identifies as a cynic. "It sounds bleak, but as we say at the beginning of the film, industry is ruled by profit, and governments by growth." Fed up with leaders' unwillingness (or inability) to enact climate change policy, Robson and his writing partner, Tim Rayner, started toying with the idea that leaders weren't going to do anything at all, and that collective power modeled after the social revolutions of the past would have to do instead. An invocation, in the form of a script, emerged. To illustrate the message of the film, Robson employed stunning visuals by 25 different animators. The resulting patchwork of contrasting artistic styles, animated by a diverse panoply of materials—from clay to fruit to ink—effectively paints the film's collaborative calling.

After "Coalition" was released in June, it garnered attention from the likes of MTV Europe, the Guardian's environmental page, and even Ashton Kutcher (who tweeted about the film, much to Robson's joy). It also spawned an organization, CoalitionoftheWilling.org. The organization's latest project is a flash mob development party, meant to inspire people to submit ideas for "a new generation of internet platforms for the climate crisis."

Mother Jones spoke with Robson recently on the intersection of environment, art, and technology.