West, Texas reels after fertilizer plant explosion.
It didn't take long in the aftermath of April's explosion in West, Texas, for the problems with the fertilizer industry to come into focus. Inspections are virtually nonexistent; regulatory agencies don't talk to each other; and there's no such thing as a buffer zone when it comes to constructing plants and storage facilities in populated areas.
Lost in the fallout, though, is a damning fact: Fertilizer doesn't have to be explosive. Pure ammonium nitrate like the kind that caused the West disaster is already banned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Colombia, the Philippines, and China, due to its explosive risk; Australia's largest fertilizer manufacturer discontinued the use of the compound after it was used in the 2002 Bali hotel bombing. And the Department of Defense has pressured fertilizer manufacturers overseas to neutralize their own products, warning that anything less constitutes a threat to American personnel. But in the United States, with the backing of the chemical industry, explosive ammonium nitrate has held onto a small but powerful share of the market as the fertilizer of choice for citrus growers.
It wasn't for lack of opportunity. In the late 1960s, a chemist from Kansas, Charles Saffer, and an explosives engineer, Samuel Porter, began working in their spare-time to develop an antidote to the kind of destructive devices Porter had witnessed while stationed in Somalia with the US military. Porter and Saffer secured a patent for noncombustible fertilizer that involves diluting ammonium nitrate with diammonium phosphate. Because diammonium phosphate is itself used as fertilizer, the new compound was—in theory—still an effective agricultural compound. The duo enlisted a partner, Robert Colbert, and found a lawyer: a young Louisiana attorney named Billy Tauzin.
Starting March 1, federal programs and their state and local beneficiaries began grappling with $85.4 billion in cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Some programs have been spared—Congress voted to restore tuition assistance for members of the armed services and, just last week, restored funding to the Federal Aviation Administration to forestall flight-delaying furloughs. But for the most part, the cuts have remained intact. Six weeks in, we took a look at how sequestration is has impacted 50 states, from canceled festivals to shuttered Head Start programs to massive layoffs.
Birmingham: North Albama public defenders office furloughing 11 of 15 employees.
Huntsville: Huntsville Housing Authority, which provides heating, plumbing, and financial assistance, to serve 300 fewer people.
Jefferson County: Head Start program closing for 10 weeks, affecting 276 kids. Fifteen staffers will be furloughed.
Last week, Congress took quick and decisive action to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration that had been cut as part of sequestration. The move, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, comes as welcome news to America's frequent fliers. The long-term unemployed, on the other hand, are still totally screwed.
On Monday, New Hampshire residents receiving new emergency unemployment benefits—designed to assist people who have been without work for more than 26 weeks—will see their checks shrink by about 17 percent due to sequestration cuts. (Per the Associated Press, between 150 and 180 New Hampshire residents apply for emergency unemployment benefits every week.) Also laying down the sequestration hammer on the long-term unemployed on Monday: Utah, which will cut its benefits by 12.8 percent. The move is expected to impact roughly 4,000 citizens, according to the Deseret News. Alabama's 12.8-percent cuts (affecting about 16,500 people) and Rhode Island's 12.2-percent cut (affecting about 8,000 people) both go into effect this week as well.
As tough as these cuts are, they only get steeper the longer states wait. States that wait to make cuts will have a shorter period of time in which to enact them. As the National Journalexplains, "If California waits until June 30 to reduce the checks, for instance, it will have to cut benefits by 22.2 percent between then and Sept. 30 in order to meet the sequester's requirements."
This could be averted if Congress restored full funding for the emergency unemployment benefits program. But don't expect Congress to act fast this time—people on emergency unemployment assistance generally don't fly business class.
On Monday, three days after Boston police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit general manager Erik Martin issued an apology. It had not been the best of weeks for his online community. Law enforcement officials had explained that one of their motivations for releasing surveillance camera footage of the Tsarnaev brothers was to put an end to the wild speculation on sites like Reddit, where anyone with a backpack was being floated as a possible suspect. Redditors never came close to identifying the Tsarnaevs, instead casting their suspicions on a missing Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi. (Tripathi was found dead in the Providence River on Thursday morning.)
Martin was contrite. "[S]ome of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties," he wrote, referring to a smaller sub-community, or subreddit, on his site that was devoted to catching the Boston bombers. "The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened."
Redditors have, for years, worked to use the resources of crowds as a force for good. There's an entire subreddit dedicated to Redditors ordering pizzas for families and raising money for surgeries. But Boston represents a reality check. Can Reddit harness its greatest asset—the tireless brainstorming of millions—while reining in the speculative impulse that makes the site tick? And even if Reddit could solve crimes, would it be worth it?
Since mid-March, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed marriage equality in a YouTube video, 11 Democratic senators have formalized their "evolution" on the issue in a series of interviews, statements, Facebook posts, and Tumblr entries. Only three Democratic senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—have yet to officially come out in support of gay marriage.
While the Senate holdouts hail from states that voted for Mitt Romney last fall, their 18 counterparts in the House come mostly from districts that President Obama won in 2012—in some cases overwhelmingly—even though the majority hail from red states. Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), David Scott (D-Ga.), and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) all represent heavily black districts in the Deep South that Obama won by 30 points or more.
Richmond is a particularly interesting case. Although he told the Hill's Cameron Joseph that he is a "proponent of equal rights," he did not explicitly endorse marriage equality. Meanwhile, his New Orleans district, where 76 percent of voters cast for Obama, includes one of the largest gay communities in the South and is home to the annual LGBT "Southern Decadence" festival. In a statement provided to Mother Jones, Richmond said he supported equal rights, but did not respond specifically to the question of marriage:
I am a firm proponent of equal rights and support efforts to end prejudice against all human beings. A person's decision concerning who they commit their life to should be respected regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference. Our collective goal as Americans should be to strive to treat all people with decency and fairness.
Here's the breakdown of the Democratic holdouts, and how Obama fared in their districts last fall.
Correction: Costa formally endorsed marriage equality on April 18, before this story was published.