The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday gave the green light to a new mountaintop removal coal mining permit in West Virginia, after last year calling for a time-out on new permits for the controversial mining process that requires blasting the tops off mountains to reach the coal seams inside.

The approval of Patriot Coal Corp.'s permit to proceed was a huge disappointment to local activists and environmental groups who hoped the Obama administration would approach mountaintop removal (MTR) with more attention to the environmental and health impacts, as it promised last year. And now, just days after the EPA approved this new project, a team of scientists has published a scathing new peer-reviewed study on the impacts of mountaintop removal in the journal Science that makes the case for why MTR should be put on hold indefinitely.

The study, the most comprehensive analysis of studies on mountaintop removal to date, documents both the environmental devastation the process brings to sites in Appalachia and the human health impacts in surrounding communities. The report's twelve authors, representing a wide range of scientific backgrounds from public health to ecosystem studies, recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers put a hold on all new mountaintop mining permits until further studies and recommendations for impact mitigation can be conducted.

"The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion one can reach is that mountaintop mining has to be stopped," said lead author Margaret Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Maryland, at an event unveiling the report on Thursday. Palmer called the evidence of the harmful impacts "strong and irrefutable," and noted that there is no indication that mitigation efforts are successful in reversing the damage.

The public health implications are among the most startling findings in the report. Lower birth weights and higher rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease are found in areas where mining is heaviest. Michael Hendryx, director of the Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University and a co-author of the report, said studies have found an average of 11,000 more premature deaths per 100,000 residents in the counties with the most mining.

Via Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic, a report by Bloomberg turns up some grisly facts about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's tenure at his former employer, the New York Fed—namely, how the New York Fed told AIG to keep mum about its swaps deals with other banks that would benefit if AIG got bailed out.

According to emails obtained by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the New York Fed cut from a draft of an AIG regulatory filing mention that banks like Goldman Sachs and Societe Generale had swaps agreements with AIG and would benefit from AIG's rescue via a "backdoor bailout"—a troubling omission at a time when AIG's fate was up in the air and full disclosure was critical. Bloomberg quotes Issa as saying, "It appears that the New York Fed deliberately pressured AIG to restrict and delay the disclosure of important information." Taxpayers, he added, "deserve full and complete disclosure under our nation's securities laws, not the withholding of politically inconvenient information."

Indiviglio uses the latest revelation in the AIG counterparty saga to not only insist that the overly opaque Fed doesn't deserve any more authority (as I did yesterday), but to even question Geithner's position as Treasury Secretary. Without a doubt, that Geithner's New York Fed tried to cover up AIG's exposure is embarassing at the very least; it's also more broadly indicative of the Fed's belief that it can get away with almost anything behind closed doors. Is that the kind of regulator, as some have proposed, that should be tasked with overseeing financial institutions and markets?

Flickr/eye2eye (Creative Commons).Flickr/eye2eye (Creative Commons).Over at Digby's place, tristero highlights this section of my post on Uganda's proposed "Kill the Gays" law:

...it's been hard for [Andrew] Sullivan to find examples of the National Review or the Weekly Standard or the American Conservative or Commentary denouncing the Ugandan law. The writers at those magazines may disagree with Sullivan on a lot of things, but I suspect they think it's pretty obvious to most Americans that executing gay people is wrong.

But not all conservatives think executing gay people is wrong, tristero says:

I doubt - except when I'm in a particularly unforgiving mood - that any American evangelical directly told anyone in Uganda to sponsor a "kill the gays" law. But the concept is far more common among American christianists than Nick Baumann realizes, and I have no doubt that the language those evangelicals did, in fact, use in Uganda, made capital punishment for homosexual behavior sound like a reasonable idea....

There's a larger point here: Christianists, and the modern GOP, are far more radical than many people, no matter how well-meaning and intelligent, realize. Buffoons they certainly are, but they are very, very powerful buffoons. The Ugandan law is a direct outgrowth of radical American christianism and its high-level reach within our national politics.

There are a lot of good points in there, and the whole post is worth a read. Part of what I was trying to get at in my post is that one reason conservative writers might be reluctant to make detailed arguments against the Ugandan law is that doing so would force them to confront the more unpleasant parts of their coalition. It's not good politics (or particularly pleasant) to be seen associating with people who need to be convinced that gays shouldn't be executed or that slavery is bad. The reason that most people don't realize how radical some "Christianists" are is that smart politicians keep their most controversial views and associations close to the vest. It's not good politics if you're known to be associated with an organization whose members (according to Jeff Sharlet) were supposedly behind the Ugandan "kill the gays" bill. In other words, there's a reason that the Family is a secret organization.

Kevin is traveling today.

My mom always said fast-food joints serve crap, and now there's proof: A study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology revealed there is actual fecal matter lurking in fast food soda. Microbiologists from Virginia found that 48% of sodas tested at 30 fast food restaurants contained coliform bacteria, which is typically fecal in origin. What's worse is that most of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant. From the study:

These findings suggest that soda fountain machines may harbor persistent communities of potentially pathogenic microorganisms which may contribute to episodic gastric distress in the general population and could pose a more significant health risk to immunocompromised individuals.

Not to worry. Surely the poor, minorities, and children who are targeted by (and who statistically frequent) fast food chains most often will have no problem tackling high medical costs associated with recovering from fast food-borne pathogens. Right?

h/t Tom Laskawy's Beyond Green blog

The Associated Press today put out a laudatory piece on Warden Burl Cain’s program of Christian education at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The article, which was picked up by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and dozens of other publications, is sure to advance Cain’s reputation as a great prison reformer.

The AP piece depicts Angola as a onetime den of violence and despair that has been transformed by Cain into a safe and orderly community where “everyone has a job” and where “students crowd into classrooms to study toward a college degree.” The prison’s bloody past, Cain tells the AP, was “all because of a lack of hope”–a situation the warden has treated with the dual remedy of education and redemption, in part through a degree program in Christian Ministry.  

There’s another side to this story, of course, and it’s a whole lot grimmer than the AP piece would suggest. More than 90 percent of the 5,200 men Angola will die there, thanks to the states harsh sentencing policies. Much of the work on the 18,000-acre former slave plantation consists of backbreaking labor in the cotton, corn, and soybean fields, presided over by armed guards on horseback. Some inmates do not work at all because they are kept in isolation in their cells, in the prison’s notorious Camp J disciplinary unit or in long-term solitary confinement. (Among Angola’s most widely known prisoners are former Black Panthers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, members of the Angola 3, who have been in solitary for more than 37 years.)

An inmate’s fate at Angola depends upon how he measures up to the warden’s standards, which are rooted firmly in his personal religious dogma. Cain believes that there is only one path toward rehabilitation, and it runs through Christian redemption. (According to Herman Wallace, Cain has at least once offered to release him from solitary if he renounced his political beliefs and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.)

Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).Richard Blumenthal | Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).Sen. Chris Dodd announced his retirement on Wednesday. Later that day, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, announced he would run for Dodd's seat. Democrats are psyched because they know they have a better chance to hold on to the seat with the very popular Blumenthal on the ticket as opposed to the unpopular and scandal-tainted Dodd. But who is this Dick Blumenthal? And why is he so popular?

Back in 2000, David Plotz wrote a great piece for Slate about Blumenthal, who was about to enter his second decade as Connecticut's attorney general:

Blumenthal was supposed to be "the Jewish Kennedy." Now the 54-year-old finds himself in the autumn of his career fighting for Joe Lieberman's sloppy seconds. Blumenthal is blessed with every political virtue except recklessness and luck. His résumé makes Gore's look like a high-school dropout's....

What Lieberman had begun [as Connecticut attorney general before him], Blumenthal perfected. He turned consumer advocacy into high art and helped lead the nationwide trend of AG activism. According to Yale legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, Reagan-era deregulation and congressional gridlock left a power vacuum, especially in antitrust law and consumer protection. AGs, always trolling for power and press, rushed to fill it. Blumenthal proved a master. Ambitious, independent, and fiercely committed to progressive activism, he was creative in finding causes related (however tenuously) to the well-being of Connecticut. He joined the anti-tobacco posse early then led the AGs as they piled on the Justice Department's Microsoft suit. Blumenthal spearheaded the national campaign against deceptive sweepstakes mailings and has taken a prominent role in negotiating with gun manufacturers.

In 2007, Mother Jones' own Stephanie Mencimer wrote about Blumenthal's No. 1 foes: big business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

[T]he Competitive Enterprise Institute issued a "study" on the nation's "Top Ten Worst State Attorneys General." CEI has been heavily funded by tobacco, auto, and utility companies and has been active in fighting off attempts to mitigate global warming. Public enemy No. 1 for CEI is Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.

In all this is a clue to Blumenthal's popularity. He's visible—he's always in the news, taking on "bad guys" and suing corporate villains. And he has a job in which it's really easy to be on the side of "the people."

I grew up in Connecticut. When people had a problem with a company, they seemed just as likely to go straight to the AG's office as they were to call the Better Business Bureau or their state representative. And when you complain to the AG's office about a problem and they end up doing something about it, you remember it. Blumenthal has two decades worth of individuals who his office helped, and two decades worth of suing companies like Countrywide that were the focus of populist rage. Those companies hate him for it, of course, but ordinary people tend to like him—a lot.

This is part of why liberals shouldn't shed too many tears for Dodd. Blumenthal's a better candidate, but he also has a chance to eventually become a better senator. He doesn't have Dodd's ties to Washington or Wall Street. He has all the right enemies. And he has lots of experience fighting the same interests that Dodd was seen as too cozy with. Blumenthal pioneered the concept of the modern state AG—Eliot Spitzer (first AG, then governor of New York) and Sheldon Whitehouse (first AG, then senator from Rhode Island) were just following in his footsteps. Now it's finally Blumenthal's turn.

Kevin is traveling today.

Over at Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has published a list of 17 "polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb global warming." Topping his list is a rather unconventional choice: Obama advisor and Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett. Dickinson points out that Buffett has poo-pooed the climate bill as a "huge tax" that would mean "very poor people are going to pay a lot more for their electricity." Moreover, he's poured money into some of America's dirtiest companies, recently purchasing 1.28 million shares of ExxonMobil and buying the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad--the nation's top hauler of coal--for $26 billion, his largest purchase ever. "As a savvy investor," Dickinson writes, "Buffett would only buy a coal-shipping railroad if he felt certain that Congress would fail to crack down on coal pollution."

Dickinson's list of 17 "climate killers" is a good read for anyone who wants to get up to speed on the right wing's hit squad. And for a more targeted rundown of people who are pusing climate change skepticism, check out our Dirty Dozen of Climate Change Denial.

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)The real-life version of ex-TNR editor Chuck Lane (as opposed to the Shattered Glass version most of us are more familiar with) seems to have a habit of feuding with liberals. Last month he accused his fellow Washington Post writer Ezra Klein of promoting a "venomous smear" of Joe Lieberman, and a minor blogwar ensued. Now Lane's getting on liberals' nerves by hyping a study (also pimped by Fox News) that says the minimum wage kills jobs. The study is by longtime minimum wage opponent, and, as ThinkProgress notes, "almost all of the economic research on the subject shows that the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment," but Lane doesn't mention that. (He also doesn't mention Paul Krugman's detailed explanation of why reducing minimum wages could be counterproductive during a recession.) Here's the point, from DougJ at Balloon Juice:

The point here is not that Lane is an asshole for suggesting we lower minimum wage. Nor is to cast aspersion on the work of David Neumark, the economist whose work he cites.

The point here is that Neumark is an economist, who (rightly or wrongly) has made a career of criticizing minimum wage laws (his conclusions, based on my skim, are not simplistic). It’s simply nuts to hold up his work as the consensus of the entire field, especially since critics of Lane’s original article held up a large body of work by various authors who hold different positions on the issue.

I'm going to go to a somewhat unlikely source to try to resolve this dispute: The Economist. Even the libertarians from the other side of the pond acknowledged (paywall), in 2006, that the Democrats' plan to raise the minimum wage would probably not have significant negative effects on employment. They referred to Lane's source, Neumark, as "perhaps the leading sceptic about the minimum wage." But they also offered a suggestion I think a lot of people will be able to get behind:

[A] better tool exists for helping the working poor: the earned-income tax credit (EITC). This tax subsidy, a "negative income tax" that tops up the earnings of the low-paid, was introduced in the 1970s and has been expanded four times since.

Lane should do more to acknowlege that Neumark's research does not represent the consensus of economists. But there's room to work towards a resolution here: like The Economist, Lane supports increasing the EITC. That's great, because while economists do disagree (despite Lane's protestations) about the economic impact of increasing the minimum wage, they largely agree that increasing and broadening the EITC is a better option. Can't we all just get along?

Kevin is traveling today.

Thanks to the underwear bomber scare, Obama and the airline industry are tightening air security. Could that soon include the use of head belts, microwave bomb detonation chambers, and detention center lounges?

So ponders satirist Mark Fiore in the cartoon below:

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced what may be the biggest news for a long time on air pollution: the agency is significantly tightening the rules on smog. The move might prevent thousands of deaths each year, but polluters are already up in arms.

The proposed rule is a reversal of one of the Bush administration's most controversial environmental moves, one that has been on the top of the list of improvements that environmental and public health experts sought from the Obama team.

The new proposed rule would require that smog, also known as ground-level ozone, be limited to at a level between 60 and 70 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. This is a significant update from the Bush administration rules proposed in March 2008 that, against the advice of EPA experts, set the upper limit at 75 parts per billion. Up to 186 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy levels of smog today because of this weaker standard, said Janice Nolen, director of national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association.