Mojo - January 2010

Blowing Up Mountains: Not a Great Idea

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 6:25 PM EST

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Geithner's Other AIG Rescue

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 5:42 PM EST

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?

God and Man at Angola Prison

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 4:38 PM EST

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.)

Warren Buffett: Climate Killer?

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 3:28 PM EST

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.

Fiore Cartoon: 100% Safe Airlines

Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:17 PM EST

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:

GOP Populists: Stealing a Page From the Progressive Playbook

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 1:39 PM EST

In his piece "Thank You, Wall Street. May We Have Another?" published online this morning, David Corn notes that "populist fury aimed at the one-time masters of the universe has yet to materialize in any targeted manner." Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who must have read David's article when the magazine hit newsstands late last month, is trying to change that.

Paul Ryan, Grand Old PopulistPaul Ryan, Grand Old PopulistRyan recently wrote a piece for Forbes with the provocative title "Down With Big Business." In a column hammering Wall Street and the financial industry—many of whom are, oddly enough, Ryan's biggest donors—the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee addresses most of the points David suggests are inhibiting a "mass movement demanding fundamental change," including the confusion and fear many feel as a result of the dire economic situation Wall Street malfeasance has gotten us into. However, the reforms Ryan advocates to mobilize the masses and save the economy will seem strange to all but his lobbyists friends: more deregulation.

"If this sounds twisted and counter-intuitive, that's because it is," writes Thomas Frank, the token liberal on Wall Street Journal editorial page, in a column about Ryan. Warning of the return of Reagan Revolution-styled GOP populism, Frank remarks, "This is an argument that might have sounded good in 1979 but for it to make sense today one has to disregard the wreckage all around us courtesy of three decades of regulatory rollback." But it's an argument that very well might work. "Democrats, for their part, will find it difficult to respond in kind, especially after having spent their first year delivering regal gifts to the insurance industry and dithering over the urgent matter of new financial regulation," Frank notes.

The Tea Partiers, town hall protesters, and dismal political approval ratings all attest to the anger coursing through out the American electorate. Ryan is attempting to rally the rightwing and the swing voters behind his impassioned-if-incoherent financial reform plan. If the Democratic majority is to last long past the 2010 midterms, they will have to come up with a more compelling response to public outrage than "don't blame us." Progressives should follow Ryan's lead and take a look at David's story.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Ditching the Death Penalty

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 1:07 PM EST

Good news: The legitimacy of the death penalty was served a major blow this week. The brains behind the modern capital justice system renounced it as a failure, according to Adam Liptak's column in Monday's New York Times. The American Law Institute which is comprised of 4,000 judges, lawyers, and law professors outlined the reasons why the system it created in 1962, which has resulted in the executions of more than 1,100 people in the U.S., is fatally flawed. But don't expect to see state sanctioned killing end next week. "Capital Punishment is going to be around for awhile," Roger S. Clark, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., says in Liptak's piece. "What [the institute's findings] does is pull the plug on the whole intellectual underpinnings for it." So the question remains: When will legislation catch up with the facts? Here's a break down of some news coverage from MoJo and beyond that bolster the ALI's reported reasons for ditching the death penalty, and why the justice system should follow suit:

It's exorbitantly expensive: See James Ridgeway's The Death Penalty's Big Tab for a rundown of the monetary incentive to end a practice that doesn't even deter crime.

Defense lawyers are underpaid and incompetent: See Celia Perry's Dying for a Lawyer which examines the lack of effective legal representation for death row inmates in Alabama.   

It risks executing innocent people: In Texas, 11 innocent people have been released from death row so far. In Georgia, five innocent people have been released, but probably the most infamous exoneration involved Illinois' Anthony Porter who, after 16 years on death row, walked out of prison 48 hours before his scheduled execution thanks to Northwestern journalism students who proved his innocence. Texas' Cameron Todd Mitchell wasn't as fortunate. A forensic group proved he was innocent of setting a house fire that killed his children five years after his execution, David Grann reported

Capital punishment is racist: Ten years ago, MOJO covered Amnesty International's findings on racial disparities rife in the imposition of capital punishment. Amnesty stated, "Racial discrimination, while more subtle than in the past, continues to play an equally deadly role in the U.S. legal system. Of the 500 prisoners executed between 1977 and the end of 1998, more than 81 percent were convicted of the murder of a white, even though blacks and whites are the victims of homicide in almost equal numbers nationwide." The report also found that a disproportionate number of death sentences were handed out to poor people.

Feel free to add to my list by including links to other death penalty reports from news services or human rights organizations in the comments section below.


 

Sarah Palin Meets Frozen Gore

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 12:11 PM EST

A two-ton ice sculpture of Al Gore has been erected in front of a liquor store in Fairbanks, Alaska, as an homage to climate change skepticism. Via Treehugger, we learn that this will be the second giant frozen Gore head displayed in the state; the first, displayed last year at this time, even drew a visit from Sarah Palin.

While Palin's public embrace of Frozen Gore and climate change denialism isn't unexpected, it is fun to take a look at her evolution on the issue over the past few years, from tepid skeptic to full-blown denier. A brief history:

During her 2006 campaign for governor: "I will not pretend to have all the answers." She also cautioned against "overreaction" on climate change. Later, a spokesperson told a reporter, "She's not totally convinced one way or the other. Science will tell us. ... She thinks the jury's still out."

August 29, 2008: "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location ... I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."

September 11, 2008: "Show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect, or no effect, on climate change."

October 2, 2008: "There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet." She added, "I don't want to argue about the causes."

And finally, her op-ed in the Washington Post last month: The op-ed focuses on how climate change has been "politicized" – but of course, not by her. Here acknowledges "the impact of changing weather patterns" in her state, but implys that they are "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and "we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes." Thus, she concludes, "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs."

The kicker to this most recent story on Frozen Gore and Palin, though, is the final paragraph in the Associated Press piece on the sculpture:

Climate change scientists say Alaska has warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 50 years. The average temperature for 2009 was 27.8 degrees in Fairbanks, about one degree warmer than normal, said Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Well, guess it doesn't matter as much now that she's not looking to be elected in-state. The lofty goal of seeking national office as a Republican basically requires one to shed any realism on climate.

More photos of Frozen Gore here.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 7, 2010

Thu Jan. 7, 2010 7:37 AM EST

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba—A soldier stands guard in a tower at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay on December 31, 2009. (US Army photo by Spc. Cody Black.)

Need To Read: January 7, 2010

Thu Jan. 7, 2010 7:23 AM EST

Today's must reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow Mother Jones on twitter! You can check out what we are tweeting and follow the staff of @MotherJones with one click.