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Yet Another Oil Train Disaster

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 4:17 PM EDT
Railroad oil tankers

Another day, another oil train derailment. Early Saturday morning, a Canadian National Railway train carrying Alberta crude derailed outside the tiny town of Gogama in northern Ontario. Thirty-eight cars came off the tracks, and five of them splashed into the Mattagami River system. The accident caused a massive fire and leaked oil into waterways used by locals—including a nearby indigenous community—for drinking and fishing. No one was injured, but according to CN Railway's Twitter feed, fire fighters were still suppressing fires earlier today. People in the area, including members of the Mattagami First Nation, have been complaining of respiratory issues from the smoke.

This oil train derailment was the second in three days in Canada and the fifth in three weeks in North America. An oil train derailed last week near Galena, Illinois. The oil boom in Canada and the United States has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of these trains, and derailments now appear to be the new normal.

After the 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, many pointed to old, unsafe DOT-111 tanker models as a main reason for the disaster and others like it. But at least four of the five recent incidents have involved newer, and theoretically safer, CPC-1232 models.

Environmental and safety advocates say oil-by-rail needs even more stringent safety measures, but they have been slow coming. The US government reportedly balked at creating national standards to limit the amount of potentially explosive gas in tankers carrying oil from North Dakota. And the White House Office of Management and Budget has said it will need until May to finalize rules proposed by the Department of Transportation last summer that would slow down crude-by-rail deliveries and require tankers to have insulated steel shells. The CPC-1232 tankers that derailed in Galena did not have these shells. I asked the Canadian National Railway Company if the tankers involved in Saturday's derailment had these shells. The company didn't directly answer that question. In an email, it stated: "The tank cars involved were CPC 1232 tank cars. The exact specifications will be information gathered as part of the ongoing investigation."

Below are Twitter pictures of Saturday's derailment in northern Ontario.

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Once Again, Obamacare Is Turning Out To Be Cheaper Than Expected

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 1:57 PM EDT

Here's some good news: the latest report from the CBO has reduced its estimate of the cost of Obamacare. This is due partly to a slight decrease in the number of people CBO expects to be covered, but mostly due a lower estimate of the cost of insurance premiums. Thanks to this, federal subsidies are estimated at $209 billion less over a ten-year period, and the cost of CHIP and Medicaid is estimated at $73 billion less. However, there are also reductions in expected revenues from Obamacare's excise tax, so the net reduction amounts to $142 billion over ten years. The table below tells the story.

Sarah Kliff has more details here. As she notes, this isn't the first time CBO has reduced its estimate of how much Obamacare will cost: "The CBO is projecting the federal government will spend $600 billion less on health care than the agency expected in 2010, when it wasn't counting even a dollar of the spending in Obamacare. That's simply an amazing fact." Yep.

Report: Florida Banned State Workers From Saying "Climate Change"

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 11:17 AM EDT
The aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming," according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).

The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as "unwritten," to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.

"I'm not a scientist," he said in one appearance last May.

Scott's office did not comment on Sunday, when contacted by the Guardian. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: "There's no policy on this."

The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to "climate change" came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.

"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change', 'global warming' or 'sustainability,'" the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. "That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel."

"We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change' or even 'sea-level rise,'" said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. "Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.'"

According to the employees' accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.

The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an "imminent threat of increased inland flooding" in Florida due to climate change and called the state "uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise."

Yes, Education Matters. But It's Not the Answer to Growing Income Inequality.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 10:55 AM EDT

David Brooks has a bit of an odd column today:

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

....Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

I don't quite get who Brooks is arguing against here. Larry Summers is the obvious target, but Summers has been clear that he thinks education is important, both individually and for the economy as a whole. He just doesn't think that improved education is likely to have much impact on growing income inequality, which is driven by other factors.

But Brooks never even pretends to address this. I don't think there are any prominent Democrats arguing that education isn't important. Pretty much all of them are on board with good early-childhood education and better community colleges, among other things. That will help individuals and make the American economy stronger.

But will it rein in growing income inequality? As long as inequality is driven primarily by the gains of the top 1 percent—which it is—then it won't. To address that particular problem, we have to look elsewhere.

White Men Are Overdosing on Heroin at a Record Rate

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:20 AM EDT

A decades-long surge in heroin use has left behind a trail of overdose victims. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week found that the number of heroin overdoses quadrupled from 1,842 in 2000 to 8,257 in 2013—with a significant boost among people between the ages of 18 and 44, particularly white men.

Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist who studies drug overdoses at the CDC's Injury Center, says that both the growing availability of heroin nationwide and the shift among prescription drug users to heroin use may have contributed to the dramatic rise in deaths. "Thirty years ago, people snorting heroin never used OxyContin or Vicodin before" using heroin, says Paulozzi, who did not contribute to the CDC report. But now the drug's abusers start with prescription drugs, he says, turning these meds into gateway drugs. A National Survey on Drug Use and Health study found that heroin abuse was 19 times higher among people who had previously abused pain relievers. 

The increase in overdoses follows a federal crackdown on prescription painkillers, beginning toward the end of the Clinton era and lasting through the Bush administration, that resulted in a rash of arrests for illegal use during the mid-2000s. While the rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin appears to have leveled off, heroin overdoses have risen 348 percent. Most of the deaths occurred after 2010. That year, a new tamper-resistant form of Oxy hit the market, making it less potent and harder to abuse. 

The rate of heroin deaths accelerated among people between the ages of 18 and 24, from 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 3.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. For people between 25 and 44 years old, the rate jumped from 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2013. Among young and middle-aged white people, that death rate reached 7.0 per 100,000 by 2013.

The CDC report also highlighted the stark gender and regional disparities among those who overdose. Deaths among men from heroin overdoses were four times higher than those among women between 2000 and 2013. While heroin overdoses increased throughout the country, the greatest number occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. In those regions, particularly near cities, the Justice Department observed the illicit drug as a rising threat—especially given the reported spike in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid some 30 times more potent than heroin.

According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department predicted the emerging trend in 2002: "As initiatives taken to curb the abuse of OxyContin are successfully implemented, abusers of OxyContin…also may begin to use heroin, especially if it is readily available, pure, and relatively inexpensive." A flood of heroin from Mexico, the world's third-largest opium producer, also factored into the drug's availability in the United States. In 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 2,196 kilograms of powder and black tar at the US-Mexico border, a nearly 160 percent bump from 2009.

John Coltrane for Experts

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The John Coltrane Quintet Featuring Eric Dolphy
So Many Things: The European Tour 1961
Acrobat

So many "things" indeed! This intriguing four-disc collection of concert performances from November 1961 features six different renditions of the standard "My Favorite Things, each running 20 to 29 minutes, along with more compact versions of "Blue Train," "I Want to Talk About You." and other Coltrane favorites. These previously bootlegged concerts were taken from radio broadcasts and suffer slightly from thin sound, but are more than listenable. If So Many Things isn't for beginners, it's great extra-credit listening: With multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy briefly in the lineup, Coltrane was pushing his tenor and soprano sax chops into new territory, leaving behind traditional melodies and song structures in a restless search for fresh ideas and approaches—a quest he would continue until his death in 1967. The harsher extremes of his final years are yet to be reached, and there's a mesmerizing, meditative quality to the music throughout that's dreamy, yet subtly urgent.

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Sunday Hummingbird Blogging

| Sun Mar. 8, 2015 5:31 PM EDT

I'm feeling just energetic enough today to actually eat lunch (hooray!) and take a picture of the baby hummingbirds in our backyard. They sit there all day with their beaks stuck in the air waiting for mama to come home and deposit something yummy.

Hummingbirds must be pretty stubborn critters. Last year's crop of hummingbird eggs never hatched because the nest was on a thin branch that blew away during the first decent storm of the year. So what happened? This year's nest is in exactly the same spot as it was last year. I guess mama is lucky that we've had pretty mild weather this year.

50 Years Ago Today, "Bloody Sunday" Catalyzed The Civil Rights Movement. Are We Backsliding?

| Sat Mar. 7, 2015 6:55 AM EST

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" assault in Alabama, where on March 7, 1965, police violently assaulted hundreds of demonstrators attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the fatal police shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Hurling clubs and tear-gas cannisters, state and local police viciously attacked more than 500 people that day. Images and footage capturing the violence shocked the nation and left an indelible mark on the civil rights movement. The march forced a new level of public awareness of the struggles shouldered by civil rights activists and African Americans, and is credited for helping pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

AP
AP

James "Spider" Martin, who died in 2003, was a young photographer at the Birmingham News assigned to cover the march. NPR recently broadcast an interview he did in 1987 about the day's brutal events.

"He walks over to me and, blow! Hits me right here in the back of the head," Martin said upon recalling a moment when a police officer approached him. "I still got a dent in my head and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees and I'm like seeing stars and there's tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt and he looks straight in my eyes and he just dropped me and said, 'Scuse me. Thought you was a nigger.'"

President Obama and many other dignitaries are scheduled to visit Selma this weekend to commemorate the anniversary. On Friday, Obama called the work of civil rights activists an "unfinished project." The president's comment came in the wake of numerous high profile deaths of black men at the hands of police, and just days after a federal investigation cleared former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August, of possible civil rights violations. At the same time, the Justice Department released a federal report detailing years of rampant racial discrimination, including disproportionate arrests of African Americans, carried out by the Ferguson Police Department.

Brown's death and the failure of a grand jury to indict Wilson sparked a firestorm of debate over policing policies, with violent protests demanding police reform and that Wilson be prosecuted breaking out across the country. Many say the aggressive display of force by police officials towards non-violent demonstrators in Ferguson mirrored the events in Selma nearly fifty years prior.

AP/Charlie Riedel
 

Also at the forefront of this weekend's "Bloody Sunday" anniversary is the Supreme Court's recent gutting of the pivotal Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal authority before attempting to alter local voting laws. In 2013, the court voted 5-4 to strike down a crucial tenet of the landmark legislation. The decision ultimately allowed states, including North Carolina and Texas, to enact strict voter ID laws without automatic Justice Department review. Many say such laws make it increasingly difficult for minorities to cast ballots.

"It is perversely ironic to commemorate the past without demonstrating the courage of that past in the present," NAACP president Cornell Brooks told The Atlantic's Russell Berman last week. "In other words we can't really give gold medals to those who marched from Selma to Montgomery without giving a committee vote to the legislation that protects the right to vote today."

Donald Trump Keeps Finding Bold, New Ways to Disgust Me

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 6:03 PM EST

Here is a tweet.

Here is our year-long investigation into what those poor elephants were experiencing.

Draw from these two things whatever conclusions you may.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 3:40 PM EST

Today's catblogging is special. As usual, the lighting in our living room is pretty bad, but nonetheless, this is your first glimpse of the commenter known as Inkblot's Aunt—aka my sister Karen. She's been wonderful about helping us out as Marian and I both recover from our various medical problems, and on Wednesday she came over and stayed with me all evening when I was feeling especially bad. You can see her reward in the photo: Hilbert finally decided she was part of the family and plonked down in her arms for a nice hour-long snooze.

By the way, when I head off to stage 2 of my chemotherapy, Karen will be catsitting for several weeks. This means she'll be responsible for using her iPad to capture catblogging photos each week. Depending on how I feel during stage 2, I'll post them as I get them. In any case, be nice to her in comments. Sometime in the next month or two, catblogging will depend on her.