2012 - %3, October

Did BP Oil Kill This Whale?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Two and a half years have passed since the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are still open questions about the extent of the damage the gusher caused. BP and the federal government are discussing a settlement, though the exact amount of money BP will have to pay up is still unclear.

But take, for example, some information that Greenpeace recently received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than two years ago seeking evidence of the spill's impact on endangered species. The latest batch of photos and documents the group received focuses on a dead sperm whale that researchers on the ship Pisces found about 77 miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon on June 2010. (The group had previously received a batch of photos of oiled sea turtles.)

The dead whale was documented in a press release on June 16, 2010, but the Greenpeace FOIA also turned up a number of photos of the bloated, burnt whale that appeared to have been floating in the water for at least a few days before it was found.

Greenpeace

The photos are pretty grim; it's hard to even tell it's a whale until you notice the protruding jaw bone. It doesn't appear that photos of it were widely circulated at the time, though at least one National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) photo did appear online, and a school teacher aboard the research ship also posted some of her own photos of the body. Several of the emails released in the FOIA response state that people aboard the ship were told not to post photos. "I just spoke to the command center in Houma and they have asked that you all not post the photos to anyone as they are part of an official investigation," says one email sent from a NOAA staffer to others on the ship, asking that they refrain from posting until they get permission from the Joint Information Center.

What's unclear is whether they ever determined what killed the whale, which was described as "sub-adult." It was already pretty decomposed when they found it. The press release noted that it was "impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death," but said that they collected skin swabs, blubber, and skin samples for analysis.

But there weren't any follow-up reports on what those tests found. The official tally of animals affected by the spill on the NOAA website says that there were two dead sperm whales found in the months after the spill; it's unclear whether the whale in the photographs is included in that figure. [NOAA had not responded to questions by the time this went to press, but I have added an update below.)

Greenpeace wants to know what happened to the whale. "They never published them or made an explanation," said Kert Davies, the group's research director. "They took samples, swabs, but we never saw the lab results … What happened to it? How many times does a whale just die?"

Greenpeace

Hal Whitehead, a biologist and sperm whale expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, told Mother Jones that most whales live a long time—as long as 80 years—and typically die of natural causes. The population of the endangered sperm whales was dense in the Gulf at last tally, but still relatively small—between 1,400 and 1,660. "They appeared to be doing well before the spill," said Whitehead.

But the sperm whale population was still vulnerable, and there was a lot of fear at the time that even a few deaths could severely impact the their long-term survival. Biologists also note that only some of the dead bodies are actually found and tallied; there are likely more that are never found.

While this is a photo of just one dead whale, it does speak to the larger questions of just how much the Gulf spill cost—in dollars, but also in things that are hard to measure, like the loss of endangered species.

UPDATE: NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said Wednesday morning that the agency did conduct tests on the whale samples, but "because the animal was so badly decomposed the cause of death could not be determined." The whale was, however, included in the tally of bodies collected after the oil spill. He also said that in telling people on the boat not to publish photos, they were following the protocol for the federal response team on reporting new findings "so that the information could be cataloged and verified as part of the the investigation against BP."

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Do Bayer's Pesticides Make Worker Bees Lazy?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT
Must. Avoid. Corn.

Corn prices remain quite high, driven up by the summer's prolonged drought. And since the United States is by far the globe's largest corn producer, prices will likely stay high until the next bumper crop in the Midwest replenishes global corn reserves. To take advantage of high prices, US farmers will likely plant a whole lot of corn in spring 2013—at least as much as they did in 2012, which marked a 75-year high in corn acreage. And that could be bad news for bees, commercial honey-producing ones and wild bumblebees alike, both of which have experienced severe declines in recent years.

What does the health of bees have to do with the corn crop? A growing weight of evidence links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on nearly the entire US corn crop, to declining bee health. In March, I looked at three studies that had just been released, two of them published in the prestigious journal Science, making the link. Those papers came on the heels of a damning one from Purdue University researchers (which I discussed here). And now comes yet another, this one (abstract; I have the full study but can't upload it because of copyright issues) published by UK researchers in another prestigious publication, the British journal Nature.

Are California's Pot Farms Bad for the Planet?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT
Medicinal weed farms as seen from a helicopter over Humboldt County, California.

It's been dubbed the California Green Rush, but the explosive proliferation of pot farms to meet the sky-rocketing demand for medical marijuana is having some repercussions that are far from green. Local government officials and researchers in Humboldt and Mendocino counties say farmers are engaging in reckless forest clearing, illegal diversion of streams, and use of pesticides and fertilizers that are polluting the waterways and killing wildlife.

But county officials and local regulatory agencies are caught in a catch-22: The farming of marijuana—for medicinal use or otherwise—remains illegal under federal law. Any regulation instituted by these agencies is, in effect, legitimizing the cultivation of a federally controlled substance, and the US Department of Justice has warned local officials that they could face individual prosecution if they continue to validate the farms.

Mark Lovelace, a Humboldt County supervisor, says the DOJ's policy is actually abetting the weed farmers, allowing them to get away with unchecked land development.

"This is not about marijuana, good or bad. This is just about the reality that this one industry, due to prohibition, has been essentially granted immunity from regulation," Lovelace says. "That's the unintended consequence of federal prohibition."

Road building, land grading, filling and diversion of streams, the use of herbicides, pesticides, and rodenticides—things that would normally be regulated in any other legal industry—are going unmonitored because the DOJ says the regulations aren't allowed, Lovelace explains.

23 Ballot Measures to Keep an Eye On

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

On November 6, Americans will vote on at least 174 ballot measures in 38 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, weighing in on everything from legalizing marijuana to abolishing the death penalty. Here's a look at some of the most prominent issues being decided:

Banning Same-Sex Marriage
Maryland and Washington passed bills earlier this year legalizing same-sex marriage. But gay marriage opponents, led by groups like the National Organization for Marriage, are backing referendums in both states that would prevent the laws from being enacted. Marriage equality supporters have outraised their rivals $10.5 million to $1.8 million in Washington and $3.2 million to $835,000 in Maryland (including $250,000 apiece from libertarian hedge fund manager Paul Singer and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pledged an additional $500,000 to boost marriage equality supporters in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington). Meanwhile, Maine may be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote; supporters there have outraised marriage foes $3.4 million to $430,000. In all three states, same-sex marriage leads in the polls. In Minnesota, the campaign to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is being outraised by $5.5 million and is trailing in the polls

Legalizing Pot
Medical marijuana is legal in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, but in November all three states have the chance to legalize it for recreational use. A pro-pot measure leads narrowly in Colorado, where a total of $3.7 million has been raised on both sides and pot supporters have outspent their foes by a 4-1 margin. The DC-based Marijuana Policy Project has contributed $1.2 million to the legalization effort, and Progressive Insurance chair Peter Lewis has given $875,000. The Florida-based Save Our Society From Drugs has given $210,000 to the opposition; the Colorado-based Focus on the Family is also a prominent foe. Legalization appears to be headed for defeat in Oregon but enjoys a wide lead in Washington, where legalization supporters have outraised their opponents by $3 million. Meanwhile, Arkansas and Massachusetts voters will decide whether to legalize medical marijuana.

Restricting Abortion
In Florida, voters have the opportunity to amend their state constitution to outlaw public funding for abortion with exceptions for federal requirements and to save the life of the mother. Current polls show a tight race. Opponents of the measure have raised more than $2.4 million, half of it from Planned Parenthood groups. That's more than 10 times what supporters have taken in.

Requiring Voter ID
Voters won't have to produce IDs at polling stations in Minnesota, but they will be voting on whether they'll have to in the future. Amendment 2 would enshrine a voter ID requirement into the state constitution. The amendment's main opponent, the AARP-backed Our Vote Our Future, has outraised its supporters $183,000 to $135,000. The main group leading the voter ID charge is ProtectMyVote.com, a front group run by the social-conservative Minnesota Majority, which also supports the state's anti-gay marriage amendment. Support for the voter ID amendment has waned significantly, but it still maintains a clear advantage.

Fighting Money in Politics
After Citizens United invalidated their state's century-old campaign finance restrictions, citizens in Montana responded with a ballot initiative that would demand that state officials enact a policy rejecting corporate personhood. The initiative polls well and its supporters have raised more than $100,000 (including more than $95,000 from the campaign finance reform group Common Cause). But its critics question its constitutionality since the Supreme Court already struck down the state's challenge to Citizens United earlier this year. In California, Proposition 32 would ban corporations and unions from spending employee paycheck deductions on politics. Yet because corporations rarely spend paycheck deductions on politics, Democrats have decried the plan as one-sided attack on organized labor. Prop. 32's opponents have raised more than $58 million, nearly all of it from unions; supporters have raised more than $45 million. Colorado's Amendment 65, supported by reform groups including Common Cause, Public Citizen, and People for the American Way, would urge the state's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to mitigate the impact of Citizens United.

Killing the Death Penalty
California's
proposition-deluged voters will also vote on Proposition 34, which would abolish the state's death penalty and commute at least 725 inmates' sentences to life without parole. (No inmates have been executed since 2006, when a federal judge placed a hold on lethal injection in the state.) Supporters of the proposition have dwarfed their opponents' fundraising efforts, $5.6 million to $245,000. Donors include Chicago investor Nicholas Pritzker (whose wife Susan sits on Mother Jones' board of directors), a fund run by New York billionaire Charles Feeney, and a number of Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley execs. Still, Prop. 34 appears to be headed toward defeat, thanks in part to an emotional ad campaign that features stories of death rows inmates' victims. The campaign's supported by several district attorneys, law enforcement officers, and the father of the girl whose kidnap and murder nearly two decades ago led to California's death penalty. However, Prop. 36, another criminal justice measure that would revoke part of the state's three-strikes law, is polling very well.

Protesting Obamacare
In 2010, citizens of Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma signaled their distaste for Obamacare by voting to defy the bill's insurance mandate (a similar measure failed in Colorado). This year, Alabama, Florida, Montana, and Wyoming are voting on related protest initiatives. There hasn't been a great deal of spending related to the measures, and if any pass they would likely have no effect because they would violate federal law. Missouri is also taking another stab at Obamacare; this time voters will decide whether to prohibit the governor from setting up insurance exchanges without approval from voters or the legislature.

Protecting Collective Bargaining
Voters in Michigan will have the chance to protect the collective bargaining rights through Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment that would prevent a potential effort akin to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recent victory for a right-to-work law. Protect Our Jobs, a labor coalition supporting the measure, has raised more than $8 million, more than a quarter of which has poured in from out-of-state unions. An opposing group called Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution, supported by business groups, has raised just $345,000 as of the end of September, $130,000 of it from the state's Chamber of Commerce. Last year, a similar measure passed in Ohio. Supporters of that measure raised more than $30 million, giving them a 4-1 cash advantage.

Ending Hostile Takeovers
In 2011, Michigan Republicans enacted a controversial emergency-manager law that gives a governor-appointed official unprecedented control over the budgets of economically devastated cities. Proposal 1, which has become increasingly popular as support for the emergency-manager law wanes but still faces an uphill battle, would repeal the law. Spending on the proposal has been modest; most of it has come from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has donated $166,000 toward legal costs and the initial petition to get the measure on the ballot.

Reclaiming the Grand Canyon?
State sovereignty advocates are at it again in Arizona. Proposition 120 declares the state's "sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries," prompting Salon to ask if the state is attempting to wrest control of the Grand Canyon from the federal government. The measure was placed on the ballot by Republican lawmakers asserting the tea party mantra of states' rights. No one's polled voters on Prop. 120, but it has environmental activists spooked that it could endanger federal environmental protections. A group called Stop the Legislature's Land Grab, sponsored by the Sierra Club, has raised at least $3,425 to oppose the measure.

How Strong Is the American Navy?

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 11:55 PM EDT

Mitt Romney says the American Navy is smaller than it was in 1916. In a naive ship-counting sense, where big ships and small ships all carry the same weight, that might be true. But what really matters is relative strength: how powerful is the U.S. Navy compared to all the rest of the navies of the world? Over at the Monkey Cage, Brian Crisher and Mark Souva summarize a dataset they created earlier this year that estimates the naval power of various countries from 1865 through 2011. The chart on the right is taken from their data.

So how are we doing? In 1916, America controlled about 11 percent of the world's naval power. In 2010, we controlled about 50 percent. We may have fewer ships than we did during World War I, but we carry a way bigger stick than we did back then. Measured in the only way that makes sense, American naval strength today is greater than it's ever been in history.

Meet the Snake Oil Salesman of the Voter Fraud Wars

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 8:00 PM EDT

In my piece a few months ago about the Republican push for voter ID laws ("The Dog That Voted"), I hung my narrative largely around Thor Hearne, the little-known Republican lawyer who founded the American Center for Voting Rights in 2005 and spent the next two years barnstorming the country with grim tales of voter fraud and stolen elections. Then, having tilled the field, he disappeared, leaving others to finish up the task of passing voter ID laws all over the country.

But if Hearne was the policy entrepreneur who got it all started, Hans von Spakovsky is the ubiquitous snake oil salesman who's become the most persistent foot soldier in the voter fraud wars. In the New Yorker this week, Jane Mayer profiles the man who has become the most famous and brazen purveyor of voter fraud whoppers in the country. Here she is on the issue of people casting ballots under a false name:

Von Spakovsky offered me the names of two experts who, he said, would confirm that voter-impersonation fraud posed a significant peril: Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, at American University, and Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. Pastor, von Spakovsky noted, had spoken to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about being a victim of election fraud: voting in Georgia, he discovered that someone else had already voted under his name.

When I reached Pastor, he clarified what had happened to him. “I think they just mistakenly checked my name when my son voted—it was just a mistake.” He added, “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.” Pastor believes that, compared with other democracies, America is “somewhere near the bottom in election administration,” and thinks that voter I.D.s make sense—but only if they are free and easily available to all, which, he points out, is not what Republican legislatures have proposed. Sabato, who supports the use of voter I.D.s under the same basic conditions, says of the voter-impersonation question, “One fraudulent vote is one too many, but my sense is that it’s relatively rare today.”

This is typical von Spakovsky. He routinely throws out incendiary charges, apparently hoping that either no one will check up on them or that no one will care once they eventually hear the real story. Rick Hasen wrote about his encounters with von Spakovsky in some detail in The Voting Wars, and he talked to Mayer for her piece:

Hasen, who calls von Spakovsky a leading member of “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad,” told me that he respects many other conservative advocates in his area of expertise, but dismisses scholars who allege widespread voter-impersonation fraud. “I see them as foot soldiers in the Republican army,” he says. “It’s just a way to excite the base. They are hucksters. They’re providing fake scholarly support. They’re not playing fairly with the facts. And I think they know it.”

To repeat a point I've made before: there's only one kind of fraud that voter ID laws can stop: impersonation fraud, where someone tries to vote under a false name. Even in theory, ID laws can't stop ballot box stuffing or registration fraud or machine tampering or any other kind of vote fraud. They can only stop impersonation fraud.

And impersonation fraud just doesn't exist. No politician would be insane enough to try it on a broad enough scale to throw an election, and virtually no individuals are insane enough to risk a felony just for the sake of casting a single vote:

Hasen says that, while researching “The Voting Wars,” he “tried to find a single case” since 1980 when “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.” He couldn’t find one. News21, an investigative-journalism group, has reported that voter impersonation at the polls is a “virtually non-existent” problem. After conducting an exhaustive analysis of election-crime prosecutions since 2000, it identified only seven convictions for impersonation fraud. None of those cases involved conspiracy.

Photo ID laws are a scam. Republicans loudly deny that their real purpose is to suppress the vote among blacks, students, and the poor — all of whom have lower than average rates of possessing photo ID — but what other motivation is left? They have no impact on voter fraud and everyone knows it.

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Climate Scientist Sues Over Blog Posts Comparing Him to a Child Molester

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 6:37 PM EDT

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann announced on Tuesday that he has filed suit against the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute over blog posts that compared him to a convicted child molester.

The suit accuses the blogs of making "false and defamatory statements" about Mann and his research, which have long been the subject of attacks from climate deniers (see our previous coverage here, here, and here, just to get started). Mann was the lead author on the paper that included the "hockey stick" chart that showed the spike in global temperatures in the industrial age. He was also one of the scientists whose emails were stolen and released on the internet in the "Climategate" incident, and despite numerous exonerations, continues to be the No. 1 target of deniers.  In July, NRO and CEI published posts calling Mann "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science."

From a posting announcing the suit on Mann's Facebook page:

Despite their knowledge of the results of these many investigations, the defendants have nevertheless accused Dr. Mann of academic fraud and have maliciously attacked his personal reputation with the knowingly false comparison to a child molester. The conduct of the defendants is outrageous, and Dr. Mann will be seeking judgment for both compensatory and punitive damages.

In an email to Mother Jones, Mann said that the suit is his way of "fighting back against the dishonest efforts by industry front groups and their hired guns to smear and discredit me and other climate scientists simply because of the inconvenient nature of our conclusions."

Meet the US Army's Soldier of the Year, a Nepalese Immigrant

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 5:57 PM EDT
Sgt. Saral Shrestha accepts his Soldier of the Year award

The US Army named its soldier of the year on Monday. He's a special forces-connected sergeant, an officer-in-training, an Afghanistan vet... and a recent immigrant to the United States from Nepal.

Sgt. Saral Shrestha, a native of Kathmandu, came to America in 2007 and enlisted in the Army in 2009; according to his parents, he came on a student visa but was granted US citizenship in an Army naturalization ceremony. He currently serves as a power-generator technician with the 3rd Special Forces Group, supporting their missions overseas, and reportedly tore up the stiff competition for the service's coveted prize. 

"The competition included urban warfare simulations, board interviews, physical fitness tests, written exams, and battle drills simulating what soldiers would encounter in combat," the local Ft. Bragg newspaper reports. That probably wasn't hard for Shrestha, who'd already deployed to the Afghan war zone and plans to take an officer's commission after he finishes a master's degree. (As motivation, Shrestha cited his great grandfather, who served in the British Army during World War II. "I heard his stories when I was growing up and I guess that inspired me to some extent," he told the Republica, a Nepali daily newspaper.)

Antibiotic-Resistant Bug Shows Up in Wild Animals

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 2:54 PM EDT
Two wild cottontail rabbits tested positive for MRSA.

A deadly, antibiotic-resistant species of bacteria, once seen only among hospital patients but now spreading widely outside healthcare settings, has been detected among wild animals with little or no human contact, according to a new study. The findings raise the ominous prospect that people could face the risk of exposure not only from fellow humans but also from animals they encounter on hikes or other outdoor excursions.

MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, can cause deep skin ulcers. In recent years, it has become something of a poster-bacterium for the alarming problem of antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 18,000 people die annually from MRSA infections, although improved hospital infection control measures in recent years appear to have helped to reduce transmission rates. (A good thing, since a recent study found that drug-resistant infections resulted were significantly more costly to treat than those that respond to antibiotics.) 

Climate Deniers To Release Rip-Off Report

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 2:36 PM EDT

Back in June 2009, the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) released a detailed 188-page report, "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," showing how climate change would affect different regions of the country. The USGCRP is at work on its next assessment right now, which is due out in 2013. But this week a climate-change-denying think tank is trying to muddy the water by releasing what it calls an "addendum" to the USGCRP report.

The Cato Institute, a "free-market" minded think-tank based in DC, plans to release its own "Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" report. In addition to the title, the report's cover looks like the USGCRP report:

The Daily ClimateThe Daily Climate

The Daily Climate flagged the fake report on Monday, noting that the addendum "matches the layout and design of the original, published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Cover art, 'key message' sections, table of contents are all virtually identical, down to the chapter heads, fonts and footnotes."

While the real USGCRP report had grim predictions for many regions of the US, the Cato report claims that "observed impacts of climate change have little national significance." A draft version of the Cato report is posted online. It lists noted climate contrarian and Cato senior fellow Pat Michaels as the editor in chief.

Rick Piltz, who was a senior associate with the USGCRP for ten years before leaving amid Bush-era censorship in 2005, also covered the Cato draft on his blog, Climate Science Watch:

Because of its misleading design and layout throughout, the Cato report can be characterized as a counterfeit, having nothing to do with the USGCRP or the authors of the original report. It was not subjected to the extensive review process that characterized the 2009 report, and its key findings are neither consistent with the original assessment nor with the analysis developed by the great majority of qualified scientists.

UPDATE: Eleven members of the Federal Advisory Committee that wrote the 2009 USGCRP report have released a statement condemning the Cato report as "deceptive and misleading."