Blogs

Supreme Court Overturns Exxon Valdez Verdict

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 10:59 AM EDT

Exxon today has proven the benefits of the endless appeal. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the $5 billion punitive damage award handed down by an Alaska jury in 1994 for its role in the massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, Exxon today landed a major victory at the Supreme Court. In a 5-3 ruling, with Alito sitting out, the court overturned a lower court decision that had reduced the verdict to $2.5 billion, and sent the case back saying that the punitive damage award was excessive and should not exceed about $500 million, the same as the compensatory damages.

The decision strikes yet another blow against what is essentially the capital punishment of the civil justice system, in a long-running campaign by Exxon and other big companies to try to abolish these sorts of awards entirely. Punitive damages are the extra damages added to a jury verdict to punish especially egregious conduct by a civil defendant. As the former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely once wrote, punitive damage awards aren't given out for innocent mistakes, but are generally reserved for "really stupid defendants, really mean defendants, and really stupid defendants who could have caused a great deal of harm by their actions but who actually caused minimal harm." Punitive damages put the real teeth in the legal system, and serve as an ad-hoc form of regulation by standing as a potential deterrent to all sorts of egregious behavior. That, of course, is why business really hates them.

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Everglades Wins Big

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 10:07 PM EDT

333px-Historic_Everglades_Regions.jpg The state of Florida has pledged to buy up sugarcane farms to help restore the flow of the Everglades. For a bargain $1.75 billion, US Sugar will relinquish 300 square miles of its holdings south of Lake Okeechobee over the next six years.

Great news for the people of Florida, as well as for birds, alligators, crocodiles, and manatees. The agreement comes between Republican Governor Charlie Crist and US Sugar, reports the Miami Herald. It's at least partially the result of the South Florida Water Management District board voting seven months ago against the practice of backpumping (pdf) dirty farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee, which then flows south into the Everglades.

That vote was the result of a 2007 court victory by Earthjustice, when a federal judge ruled that backpumping violated the Clean Water Act.

The buy-out of US Sugar will not end the Everglades' troubles. Another 500 square miles of sugarcane farms owned by other companies remain in production. Yet the deal marks a revival of the Everglades restoration effort, the largest of its kind in the world, aimed at undoing flood-control projects that have been killing the Everglades for decades.


Does Your City Toke or Do Blow?

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 6:17 PM EDT

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In the quest to discover your neighbors' vices, the only data more valuable than Google search records might be the records you leave in your toilet. In cities around the world, scientists have begun to measure concentrations of illegal drugs at sewage treatment plants, hoping to get a sense of what people are sending down the pipes. Results so far indicate that Vegas-goers do more meth than some of their midwestern counterparts, Angelenos outdo the Old World in cocaine use, Londoners fancy heroin more than Italians, and everybody smokes a whole lotta pot.

Clearly, the most obvious place for this information is an online quiz site: "If your city were an illegal drug, which one would it be?" Beyond that, the real-life applications aren't yet clear. Environmentalists are interested in the potential consequences of so many chemicals in the pipes—who wants to find out that, in addition to being filled with prescription drugs, their drinking water is also laced with coke? And no city wants to broadcast that its citizenry is, uh, high (San Diego has already refused researchers access to its sewage). The scientists who conducted the European study (.pdf) think it will be most useful as a real-time data collection tool, not to mention a vast improvement over just asking people how many drugs they do—the study notes that the concentration of cocaine in Milan's sewage suggests that actual use is more than double the reported rate.

Such information could certainly help law enforcement and public health officials improve their approach to combating drug use, but it's easy to see how things could get out of hand. What happens when the DEA shows up at your door with a warrant and a urine sample you didn't know you were giving? You laugh, but the scientist who pioneered this idea believes it would be possible to analyze sewge at the level of "a community, a street, even a house." In that way, studying poop is like studying Google searches— you'll probably find out more about your neighbors than you wanted, or needed, to know.

Photo from Flickr user PabloBM.

Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Denies He's a Homophobe

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 5:20 PM EDT

mojo-photo-joshhomme.jpgJosh Homme has issued a statement denying he's homophobic after an expletive-laden rant he unleashed on a concertgoer which included anti-gay slurs hit the intertubes. During a performance last week at the Norwegian Wood festival, something got thrown at the stage which hit Homme, who was reportedly already grumpy after a three-day bout with the flu. He singled out the assailant in the audience and unleashed a blistering tirade of insults that's truly awe-inspiring in scope; unfortunately, the rant included multiple mentions of "faggot" as well as references to, er, forced homosexual activities. Close your office door and feel the power of this totally, totally not safe for work clip of Homme unleashed, after the jump:

Condors Rescued From Wildfire

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 4:43 PM EDT

400px-Condor_in_flight.JPG Eight endangered California Condors were evacuated by helicopter from their holding pens after the Gallery Fire (now part of the Basin Fire Complex) cut off the road into their facility. Seven of the rescued birds are less than a year old, and the eighth condor is their mentor.

The Herald of Monterey County reports that a three-person crew from the Ventana Wildlife Society was flown in by the Coast Guard, walked a mile from the drop point to the condors, and brought the birds back in carriers. After their helo flight, the condors were driven to Pinnacles National Monument.

Meanwhile, the National Interagency Fire Center reported yesterday that 1,080 new fires ignited in California over the weekend. You can see from their site how enormous the problem is. Some fires are actually complexes of 150-plus fires. Most are still zero percent contained.

Cooler weather is helping along the coast but let's face it, some of these fires are going to be burning for a long time. Maybe until snow falls.

The smoke blanketing northern California is moving east.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

What to Listen To Instead of Sigur Ros

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 4:36 PM EDT

mojo-photo-sigurrosmeo.jpgYour terribly-named DJ correspondent has made no secret of his distaste for Sigur Ros, the Icelandic combo known for dreamy, epic balladry sung in a mystical made-up language called "Hopelandic." The band releases their fifth studio album today, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, ("With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly"), and while it earned a respectable 7.5 from Pitchfork for tempering the falsetto silliness with a "tangle of acoustic guitars," unfortunately, to my ears, they just end up sounding like Dave Matthews: lead single "Gobbldigook" has a hippie-dippy strum-strum dopiness that's only confirmed by its nudey video (possibly NSFW), which you can watch after the jump.

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US Retaliates for Martha Stewart Snub By Refusing Visa to Boy George

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 2:35 PM EDT

mojo-photo-marthaboy.jpgOkay, I have absolutely no evidence that there is any connection between these two events, but how awesome would it be if there were? Imagine: an escalating war of visa denials, forcing our two nations' greatest instructional homemakers and '80s pop stars to remain trapped within their borders. Sorry, Adam Ant; turn around, Rachel Ray; no thanks, Feargal Sharkey; some other time, uh, Robin Miller. The U.S., deprived of the sweetly androgynous British singers of yesteryear, makes Ryan Adams tie bows in his hair and put on an oversized "Frankie Say Relax" T-shirt, and in the U.K., dinner parties hang in the balance until Helen Mirren is dragged into the BBC and forced to instruct a hapless populace on proper construction-paper craft techniques. Finally, a peace deal is brokered at the so-called Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) Accords, but not before thousands are injured by rubber cement mishaps and Foreigner records.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah: Boy George has been denied a visa to enter the U.S. for a summer tour, scheduled to begin July 11, due to his current legal problems involving a Norwegian escort who accused the singer of false imprisonment and assault. And who hasn't been there. The case is still pending, with a trial date set for November. A spokesperson for George said the singer was "astounded" by the decision and that he was hoping to "repay his American fans' loyalty." Now, if he wants to come clean up our streets again, that would be okay.

Scientist on Warming: "We're Toast"

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 2:03 PM EDT

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning the US government about global warming for 20 years. Now the CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gotten so high that "we're toast if we don't get on a very different path," he told Congress yesterday.

When Hansen first testified to Congress about global warming, it was 1988 and a heat wave was sweeping across the East Coast. That year was the hottest year on record for DC, but fourteen of the 20 subsequent years have been even hotter. By his estimations, the Arctic will be completely ice-free by the summer of 2018. "The Arctic is the first tipping point and it's occuring exactly the way we said it would," he told senators. "This is the last chance."

GAO: U.S. Lacks Post-"Surge" Plan For Iraq

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:50 PM EDT

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Violence in Iraq has fallen precipitously since January 2007, when the Bush Administration upped U.S. troop presence there. Combined with other fortuitous developments like the Mahdi Army's ceasefire and fragile alliances of convenience with Sunni tribesmen, the U.S. "surge" strategy has reduced the average number of enemy attacks by 70 percent, from 180 per day in June 2007 to 50 per day last February. But, says the GAO in a report released today (.pdf), improved security has not yielded significant progress toward other reconstruction goals. And now that U.S. forces are beginning to draw down, the Bush Administration has yet to formulate a comprehensive post-surge plan.

The old strategy—dubbed "The New Way Forward" by the White House—outlined a series of political and economic reconstruction goals for Iraq, all scheduled to be achieved by the end of 2007. But, so the thinking was, security first had to be improved, starting with turning the Iraqi Army into a self-sustaining force that could eventually take over for U.S. troops. The results have been mixed: the number of Iraqi units "in the lead" during combat operations has risen to 70 percent, says the Pentagon. But it likewise admits that just 10 percent are capable of mounting operations without U.S. assistance, primarily for lack of logistical capability and proper training and leadership. As of last month, just 9 of 18 Iraqi provinces had taken "lead responsibility" for their own security, according to the GAO report.

Energy and Health Care Industries Lobby Hard in Advance of Next Administration

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:24 PM EDT

The two areas where we can expect the next administration to usher in massive shifts in domestic policy are health care and climate change. This would definitely be true under an Obama Administration, and could well be true under a McCain one as well. The health care and energy industries aren't stupid; anticipating upcoming movement on their respective issues, they've put their lobbying efforts in hyperdrive to try and direct that movement.

CQ Politics charts the number of lobbying registrations filed in the first quarter of 2008 for each sector, and they come up with this:

Energy: 278 registered lobbyists
Transportation: 85
Manufacturing: 79
Non-profits: 67
State or local gov't: 43
Agriculture: 28
Business and retail: 27
Real estate and construction: 25
Finance: 20
Organized labor: 16

Energy's new dominance knocks health care out of the top dog position. The pharmaceutical industry had a banner 2007, writes the Center for Public Integrity, putting together a record $168 million lobbying effort, according to a CPI analysis of federal lobbying data. Adds CPI, "the effort raised the amount spent by drug interests on federal lobbying in the past decade to more than $1 billion."

Top spenders within the sector in 2007: