2012 - %3, July

BP Spill Workers Say Dispersant Made Them Sick

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

The 1.8 million gallons of dispersant that BP and federal responders spread on the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010 are already coming back to haunt them. FuelFix.com, a Houston Chronicle spinoff devoted to covering energy, reports today that the company that manufactures Corexit, the chemical sprayed on the surface of the Gulf and at the wellhead to disperse the oil in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, is trying to get out of a proposed settlement with plaintiffs who say they have health problems resulting from the spill and cleanup.

Corexit manufacturer Nalco wants the US district judge handling the case in New Orleans to exempt it from any liability in the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought against BP and other companies involved in the disaster on behalf of more than 10,000 plaintiffs. In March, the plaintiffs and BP reached a settlement agreement that is expected to cost $7.8 billion and would cover both economic loss and medical claims, and would also establish a program to monitor the health of affected individuals. The judge is now deciding whether to approve the agreement, but Nalco says that not only should it not be included the companies that are asked to pay up in this case, but it should be excluded from any future cases:

The spill responders contend that the federal Clean Water Act provides them immunity from liability for actions taken at the government’s direction.
"Nalco provided Corexit at the express request of the federal on-site coordinators," Nalco attorneys wrote in the dismissal motion filed in May. "Nalco supplied a product that was and had been listed on the federal government's list of approved dispersants for decades and that the government repeatedly approved for use during the response."

This is a compelling argument, because it is true: Corexit was listed as an approved dispersant, and it was what BP decided to use on the Gulf. The problem, though, is something we've covered here before: The federal government doesn't consider the human or environmental effects of the chemicals when approving them for the list. Companies like Nalco don't even have to disclose what kinds of chemicals are in their product in order to get them approved, thanks to the extremely outdated and industry-friendly chemical regulation laws in this country. Current chemical regulation laws actually makes it really difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to do more than give these chemicals a rubber stamp.

Meanwhile, chemicals used in the dispersant can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as other health problems. Studies since the spill have found that the dispersants are sticking around longer than people expected and can be absorbed through the skin. In the weeks and months after the spill, many cleanup workers and nearby residents complained of ill health effects like nausea and rashes they believed were caused by the chemicals. So is Nalco liable for supplying the chemicals, or BP for buying them, or the federal government, which was supposed to be overseeing the clean up work?

If Nalco is granted an exclusion in the lawsuit, it would leave the plaintiffs who believe they are sick because of exposure to the chemicals in a tough spot: they can sign onto the settlement now, or try again to sue Nalco later. Neither option is great, according to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs:

"We are recommending the medical settlement program for most of our clients, even though it leaves Nalco off the hook," [Beaumont-based lawyer Brent] Coon said. "The reality is, most people exposed to these kinds of toxins don’t develop a disease for many years. For most plaintiffs that were exposed, it is premature to sue, and the medical monitoring program at least develops a mechanism to measure how they were impacted."
But Louisiana-based lawyer Daniel Becnel says he is encouraging the 3,500 cleanup workers he represents to fight their cases in court.
"I have hundreds of people that are horribly sick," Becnel said.

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Cat-Lady Parasite May Be Linked to Suicide

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 1:45 PM EDT

A new study suggests a link between infection with a cat-borne parasite and the risk of a suicide attempt—a creepy-sounding finding that actually fits with previous research on the pathogen, toxoplasma gondii. When rodents infected with t. gondii smell cat urine, they’re aroused rather than frightened, so they don’t run away—and then they get eaten.

That’s the parasite's brilliantly evolved strategy to gain entry to the gut of a cat or other feline—the only place where it can complete its reproductive cycle, although it can survive inside many other species. In fact, eating contaminated and undercooked meat, not cleaning cat litter, is the main route through which Americans get infected, according to studies.

The Amazing Power of Fed Announcements to Buoy the Stock Market

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 1:39 PM EDT

Riskier investments generally have higher returns. That's why, over the long term, stocks have higher returns than government bonds. But how much higher should those returns be? There's a problem here. No matter how you figure it, historical returns on stocks seem to be a lot higher than they should be. This is called the "equity premium puzzle."

Today, a pair of economists at the New York Fed, David Lucca and Emanuel Moench, introduce a new study of theirs this way:

In this post, which draws on our recent New York Fed staff report, we deepen the puzzle further.

Great! Let's make everything even weirder! But by God, that's exactly what they do. They examined stock market returns over the past two decades and discovered that virtually all of the excess return occurs in a series of 24-hour periods eight times a year. Take away those 24-hour periods, and stock market returns are about what you'd expect them to be.

So what are these 24-hour periods? They're the periods from noon the day before Federal Reserve announcements until 2:15 on the day of the announcement. During those periods, stocks rise an average of about 50 basis points. That's the red line in the chart on the right. During every other three-day period, stocks do nothing on average. That's the black line at the bottom of the chart.

What does this mean in aggregate? Since 1994, the S&P 500 has risen from about 400 to 1300. If you remove the three-day periods surrounding FOMC announcements, it's barely risen at all.

Does this mean that FOMC announcements are being leaked? Probably not. If that were the case, stocks would go both up and down, depending on the news, and then they'd regain their old level after the leak-receivers had taken their profits. But that's not what happens. Stocks go up, and only up, and then they stay up. What's more, the authors report that this effect occurs only for stocks, not for any other kinds of assets.

So this is just plain weird, and the authors have no explanation. For some reason, the mere expectation of Fed news drives traders into a bullish frenzy.

But not for long. If this effect is for real, I assume it will be arbitraged away instantly by people with much faster computers than you and me. There's no easy money to be made here for us retail schmoes.

Mitt Romney Should Get Used to Hearing "Swiss Bank Account" a Lot

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

Bob Somerby says he "cringed a bit" when Maryland governor Martin O'Malley went to town on Mitt Romney's Swiss bank account during last Sunday's chat shows. But he cringed even more yesterday when he heard Ed Schultz frame the issue like this in a question to O'Malley: "What do you think? Is it unpatriotic to have money overseas after getting the fruits of the land here in America and being successful?"

Like Bob, I'd just as soon not hear liberals questioning other people's patriotism. Last refuge of scoundrels and all that. But politically speaking, there's a bigger sin here: it's just dumb. When you say "Swiss bank account," nobody's thoughts turn naturally to patriotism or its lack. It doesn't even compute. The problem everyone associates with Swiss bank accounts is much simpler: they're for rich people trying to hide dodgy money from the tax man in dodgy ways.

Stick with what works, Ed! Romney is rich. Romney puts his money in tax havens. What's he hiding? That's the ticket.

But wait. Should we cringe at that too? I guess we high-minded types might. But in the real world of politics this really doesn't seem very cringeworthy. Hell, Republicans went after Romney's personal finances during the primaries. They knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for when they nominated the guy. It would be a pretty lame campaign that decided it was too pious to take advantage of a meatball like this sailing right over the plate.

In any case, I guess I'm really more interested in Romney's $102 million IRA. Granted, that doesn't have the immediate resonance of "Swiss bank account," but it raises some excellent, Bain-related-tax-dodginess questions. Nicholas Shaxson explains:

Mysteries also arise when one looks at Romney’s individual retirement account at Bain Capital. When Romney was there, from 1984 to 1999, taxpayers were allowed to put just $2,000 per year into an I.R.A., and $30,000 annually into a different kind of plan he may have used. Given these annual contribution ceilings, how can his I.R.A. possibly contain up to $102 million, as his financial disclosures now suggest?

Shaxson suggests a couple of different ways this could have happened, neither of them likely to make Romney look good. But Romney better come up with something to explain how this happened. I doubt very much that the Obama campaign — or its not-so-pious super PAC — is going to let this meatball sail by either without taking a great big cut at it.

BREAKING: "Repeal and Replace" Just a Big Scam

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

You should probably be sitting down before you read this. Ready?

Congressional Republicans, who once promised to "repeal and replace" President Obama's healthcare law, for now have all but given up pushing alternatives to the sweeping legislation the president signed in 2010.

....As the House prepares to take its 33rd vote to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act, senior Republicans say they will not try to move a replacement plan until 2013 at the earliest....At the same time, GOP lawmakers are rejecting the notion that any replacement legislation should expand health coverage as much as the current law.

....Republican lawmakers say they have been clear about their broad principles for healthcare, including controlling costs, giving patients more choices and limiting government involvement....But Republican leaders have not brought any of these proposals to a vote.

That has shielded the party's ideas from close scrutiny by independent analysts, a politically risky process that could highlight legislation's costs and its impact on consumers and others. Such scrutiny proved embarrassing for House Republicans in 2009, when they proposed a detailed alternative to the healthcare legislation that Democrats were developing at the time.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded the GOP proposal would have left more than 50 million Americans without health insurance and reduced costs for healthy people while raising them for the sick. Similar study of the House Republicans' 2011 budget plan indicated that a proposal to make Medicare beneficiaries shop for commercial insurance with a government voucher would leave seniors paying thousands of dollars more for their healthcare.

Who could have known that "repeal and replace" was just a scam? It's shocking. Likewise, who could have known that even the vague Republican guidelines for healthcare reform don't actually do much of anything to reform healthcare once they're put into a form concrete enough to score?

But do voters care? I doubt it: this is one of those things that everyone already accepts without ever talking about it. Your average Joe, to the extent he even knows anything about this at all, understands perfectly well that "repeal and replace" is just political schtick, and all that's going to happen if Republicans win is repeal. For the conservative base, of course, that's fine. And for the broad middle it's just something to shrug their shoulders at. Thanks to crappy marketing from Democrats, those folks in the middle probably don't think Obamacare really benefits them in the first place, and thanks to brilliant marketing from Republicans they probably do think it will raise their taxes. Yay politics!

NYPD Spokesman Pwned in ProPublica's Comments

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 10:43 AM EDT
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

ProPublica's Justin Elliott published a piece Tuesday questioning the New York Police Department's claim to have foiled 14 serious terrorist plots since the 9/11 attacks—a claim that numerous media outlets have repeated without verifying. "The list includes two and perhaps three clear-cut terrorist plots, including a failed attempt to bomb Times Square by a Pakistani-American in 2010 that the NYPD did not stop," Elliott writes. He continues:

Of the 11 other cases, there are three in which government informants played a significant or dominant role (by, for example, providing money and fake bombs to future defendants); four cases whose credibility or seriousness has been questioned by law enforcement officials, including episodes in which skeptical federal officials declined to bring charges; and another four cases in which an idea for a plot was abandoned or not pursued beyond discussion.

The NYPD didn't particularly like Elliott pointing out that they had inflated their record. So a NYPD spokesperson, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, decided to weigh in down in the comment section, to rather hilarious results:

 

Browne did not post any further comments. 

So the lesson here is, Google before you gripe. Also a good idea: Making sure you have your facts right before writing a glowing profile of the NYPD commissioner based on the bogus statistic that "14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly's watch," and claiming that record is "hard to argue with."

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The Battle for Marriage Equality Is Officially On in Maryland

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 9:57 AM EDT
The daughter of a Maryland state senator adds her signature to the legislation extending certain rights short of marriage to same-sex couples in the state.

The Maryland Board of Elections officially certified on Tuesday that opponents of the state's recently passed same-sex marriage law have enough signatures to put the matter to a referendum. That means voters will decide in November whether Maryland's same-sex couples have the right to get married. 

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland exceeded the number of required signatures by an order of magnitude. According to Maryland law, it would have taken about 56,000 signatures to put the law to referendum. Marriage equality opponents put forth more than 160,000, only about six thousand of which have been invalidated so far. Now both pro- and anti-same-sex marriage groups will be able to set up ballot committees whose funding won't be released to voters until October, shortly before Marylanders vote on the law.

For once, the National Organization for Marriage, America's main anti-marriage equality group, may be operating at a disadvantage. Black Marylanders once supported banning gay marriage, but that changed after President Barack Obama endorsed marriage equality. While earlier polls showed more than 50 percent of black voters opposed to same-sex marriage, the Democratic-leaning polling firm Public Policy Polling found in May that a majority of black voters now support same-sex marriage rights. And even before black voters flipped, polls showed that Marylanders overall opposed banning gay marriage.

Maryland's marriage equality law isn't set to take effect into 2013. Wade Kach, a Maryland Republican delegate who supported the marriage equality bill, nevertheless added an amendment to the bill ensuring no marriages would take place before marriage equality opponents could contest it via referendum. Kach was concerned about the recent federal court ruling that found California's Proposition 8, the ballot iniative that stripped Californian same-sex couples of their marriage rights, unconstitutional in part because it took rights away that had already been given. This way, if Marylanders ban same-sex marriage, marriage rights advocates won't be able to use that same argument in court because no same-sex couples will have been able to get married yet. 

Marriage equality opponents have reasons to be confident. After all, they've never lost a referendum. On the other hand, it's looking very possible that Maryland will be one of the first states to buck the trend.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 11, 2012

Wed Jul. 11, 2012 9:51 AM EDT

 

Soldiers from the Canadian Army, Princess Patricia's Light Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, and a US Marine move in as a fireteam to clear a roof top during a Marine Operations on Urban Terrain exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows. Approximately 2,200 personnel from nine nations are participating in RIMPAC 2012 as part of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 3, Combined Force Land Component Command. The CFLCC is conducting amphibious and land-based operations in order to enhance multinational and joint interoperability. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tyler Main.

How the NY Times Went Too Far in Slamming Big Organic

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In a much-discussed feature that led the Sunday New York Times business section, Stephanie Strom reignites the long-simmering debate about whether the organic label has been essentially bought out and drained of meaning by gigantic corporations. She paraphrases Michael Potter, founder and CEO of one of the last independently owned organic companies, Eden Foods, like this: "He calls the certified-organic label a fraud and refuses to put it on Eden's products."

A fraud, huh? Strom's story raises many important points that need to be thought through and debated. But it misses a key one: The organic label, for all the untoward influence of Big Food players like dairy giant Dean Foods, still means something. If you buy food labeled organic, you can be reasonably sure it was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without genetically modified seeds, without (in the case of dairy, meat, and eggs) antibiotics and other dodgy pharmaceuticals, and on farms required to have a plan for crop rotation and (quoting straight from federal organic code) to "manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content." (For a primer on why I find the latter bit so impressive, go here.) Even the most processed certified-organic item on the supermarket shelf contains raw plant and/or animal material that was raised in ways fundamentally different than nonorganic fare.

5 Surprising Ingredients Allowed in Organic Food

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Sunday's New York Times piece on the corporatization of organics (which I commented on here) got me to thinking: What are the weirdest additives the USDA allows in food labeled "organic"? Here are five.

1. Carrageenan
Made from seaweed and used as a thickener and stabilizer for certain dairy products like cottage cheese and yogurt, carrageenan is probably the most controversial organic additive. Joanne K. Tobacman, an associate professor of medicine at University of Illinois-Chicago, claims that carrageenan causes intestinal inflammation, and she petitioned the USDA not to approve it for organic food. The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute notes that according to USDA organic code, nonorganic ingredients like carrageenan can only be introduced into certified-organic food when they are deemed "essential" to the manufacture of a given product. The group argues that carrageenan should not have been deemed essential, because some organic dairy companies don't use it at all, proving it can be done without. For example, Horizon and Whole foods 365 use it in their cottage cheeses, while Organic Valley and Nancy's don't.

2. Synthetic DHA (a fatty acid)
This omega-3 fatty acid supplement, derived from algae in some dairy products, is made by Martek Biosciences Corp., a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM. Its critics (including me) argue it's a dubious addition to organics because it's not essential to producing any product. You don't need it to produce milk; you only need it to produce milk that contains synthetic DHA. According to Cornucopia, Martek's DHA is is derived from a strain of algae generated through "induced mutations with the use of radiation and/or harsh chemicals."

3. Acidified sodium chlorite
This synthetic chemical, used as a disinfecting wash for poultry and other meats, hasn't been connected to any health problems. It's made by chemical giant Dupont.

4. Tetrasodium pyrophosphate
A mixture of phosphoric acid with sodium carbonate, this compound is used is soy-based meat alternatives. "It promotes binding of proteins to water, binding the soy particles together, and is used for the same purpose in chicken nuggets and imitation crab and lobster products," writes Simon Quellen Field, author of Why There's Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: The Chemistry of Household Ingredients. 

5. Ethylene
This fossil fuel derivative is used to speed ripening of tropical fruit and "degreen" citrus. While its use in food doesn't harm people, using fossil fuels sure does.