The Other Burn Pits

Beth Hawkins has an article in the latest issue of Mother Jones (it's also in the front-page slider today) about American soldiers who believe they have been sickened by the fumes from military "burn pits," which are exactly as unpleasant as you might suspect:

In the past 17 months, more than 500 veterans have contacted Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a national nonprofit serving vets, to report illnesses they blame on the burn pits. Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors—many of the burn pits are operated by companies like former Halliburton subsidiary KBR—have dumped hundreds of tons of refuse into giant open-air trenches, doused the piles with fuel, and left them to burn. The trash includes plastic, metal, asbestos, batteries, tires, unexploded ordnance, medical waste, even entire trucks. (The military now operates several actual incinerators and has made efforts to create recycling programs, but the majority of war-zone trash is still burned in pits.)

What Beth doesn't mention in her story is that the military's use of burn pits has a long and fascinating backstory.

Have you ever heard of Area 51? The Groom Lake facility—real-life "Area 51"—is in a region in Nevada where the military tests futuristic aircraft. Secret bases produce a lot of secret trash. For years, the base disposed of most of it in giant burn pits. Last year, Mother Jones' Dave Gilson reviewed Blank Spots on the Map, a book by artist/geographer Trevor Paglen. In it, Paglen tells the story of a lawsuit brought by workers who claim they were sickened by the burn pit fumes at Groom Lake:

Air Force officers at Groom Lake ordered workers to dig trenches the size of football fields, throw the secret trash into the pits, douse the concoction with jet fuel, and light it on fire. Waste from other secret projects started arriving. On Mondays and Wednesdays, trucks hauling classified detritus from projects based in Southern California made their way to Groom Lake, driving past the dormitories and down a road toward the base of Papoose Mountain. In lieu of shipping manifests, when they had paperwork at all, the drivers submitted documents covered with an indecipherable haze of code names. With each arriving convoy, the workers reignited the toxic fires. The London Fog enveloped the base. Walter Kasza, his friend Robert Frost, and many others worked in the thick of it.

When Frost died from a kidney illness his doctors said was related to the industrial toxins found in his body, his wife, Helen, wanted to file a wrongful death suit against his employer, the Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company (REECO). She eventually found a Washington-based watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight to investigate. The case found its way iuto the hands of Georgtown law professor Jonathan Turley. Other workers at the site who'd developed similarly bizarre illnesses joined the class-action suit.

The military, of course, argued that the base "did not exist," and asserted the so-called "state secrets privilege"—which works as a sort of get-out-of-court-free-card for the government—to prevent the case from moving forward. All the efforts of Turley—who you may have seen on MSNBC—and POGO, a respected good-government group, were in vain. The judge, Philip Pro, had to dismiss the case, writing that "the defendants' assertion of the military and state secrets privilege prevented the plaintiffs from providing detailed photographic evidence, sealed affidavits, and information in other exhibits." The Supreme Court later turned down an appeal. You can look all this up. The case is called Kasza v. Browner—most of the plaintiffs were anonymous for security reasons, but since Kasza died during the trial, his name was attached to the case.

As the health care debate crawls toward the finish line, labor unions have issued a rallying cry to help Democrats make the final push to pass the bill. But the labor movement is still divided over whether to support the bill—a split that could ultimately hold back Democratic efforts to sell the legislation to the public. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has expressed support for health reform and participated in big pro-reform rallies last week, and  some of its local affliates will soon unleash ads targeting still-wavering "Stupak Democrats." But the massive union hasn't formally endorsed the health care effort, because some of its members "are still irked" about the bill, as the Wall Street Journal reports today:

Amid deep divisions among its member unions, the AFL-CIO officially remains uncommitted..."We are opposing this bill with every last breath in us," said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers President Thomas Buffenbarger, who sits on the AFL-CIO's executive council and represents 670,000 members. He stressed that the union could live with the more liberal bill previously passed by the House, but that it didn't like aspects of the Senate bill that the House is now being asked to adopt with some changes.

Meanwhile, while some of the AFL-CIO's member unions are attacking the bill, other labor giants are throwing all their weight behind it. AFSCME, which represents public employees, has threatened to "take out" Democrats who vote against health care reform. And the SEIU is already running ads against Rep. Mike McMahon in upstate New York for his opposition to the bill, with SEIU President Andy Stern vocally backing the White House's plan in recent days.

On Monday, progressive blogger Jane Hamsher, who has been leading the left-wing opposition to the health care reform bill, issued a statement defending Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) for having stood against the legislation, which she has assailed for containing no public option, for restricting access to health insurance plans covering abortion, and for incorporating sweetheart deals for Big Pharma and the insurance industry. Hamsher blasted liberals who were calling on Kucinich to switch and support the measure and derided MoveOn and unions for pressuring Kucinich and other Dems to rescue the bill. She repeated what she had said on a radio show:

I find it odd that when it’s down to Joe Lieberman’s one vote, everybody shrugs their shoulders and says "oh well, we just have to write the bill Joe wants, because what can you do, one vote."  And when it’s Dennis Kucinich’s one vote, which  represents what 80% of the American people want, it’s "lets crush Dennis Kucinich so we can give Joe Lieberman everything he wants." Somehow the argument keeps switching so that the corrupt deal that the White House negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies gets passed no matter what.

Her statement ended with a plea to forward campaign donations to Kucinich "to send a message that the progressive left hasn’t become a completely incoherent tool of corporate America."

Two days later, Kucinich—after spending Monday with President Obama on a trip to Cleveland—declared he would change his position and vote for the legislation. Given that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has little, if any, margin for the vote on this bill, Kucinich's move was a big gain for her and the White House. "I have doubts about the bill. This is not the bill I wanted to support," said Kucinich, who has been a supporter of a Canadian-style single-payer health care system. But he added that he hoped passage of the measure would move the country "in the direction of comprehensive health care reform." Moments after Kucinich's announcements, cable news pundits were wondering if his switch would lead to other liberal opponents flipping—and falling into line.

Kucinich's decision was a blow to the progressive opposition. It will place those foes in a weaker spot politically—and bolster liberal activists who are pushing hard for the bill despite its limitations. This decision will also help define the political career of this seven-term House member who has twice run for president as a no-holds-barred progressive champion. Whether his move to help pass Obama's health care legislation renders him a hero or a sellout for progressives will depend on the beholder. There's no word yet from Hamsher.

There's a Wall Street war on the horizon. So says best-selling author Michael Lewis, who's making the rounds promoting his new book The Big Short, an autopsy of the financial meltdown and, even more, a narrative of the handful of traders who saw the subprime meltdown looming, shorted that troubled industry (i.e., bet against it—big time), and made billions.

Lewis, in an interview with Reuters, said he anticipates a "collision" within the Senate banking committee's financial reform negotiations, led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), on the issue of whether to bust up big banks like Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. "To put it in the crudest possible way, these firms have to be smaller and less profitable," Lewis said. "If they were regulated properly and the rules of their game were sane, it would be less profitable to be a trader at a big Wall Street firm...It is really a war over money."

Lewis is almost certainly right. When the Senate banking committee begins marking up Dodd's financial reform bill next week, one of the most contentious issues in Dodd's new bill, released Monday, is the intent to prevent big, supermarket banks from gambling with their own funds for their own gain (also known as "proprietary trading") and to block them from investing in other financial casinos like hedge funds and private equity funds. Conservatives don't like the proprietary trading language at all, saying it's unwelcome government meddling in the markets. Liberals have cried foul because they believe Dodd kneecapped the ban by requiring a six-month review period before taking any action. What's for certain is the prop trading ban will divide the banking committee in the coming weeks, and it'll take a fight for Dodd and his liberal allies to keep the ban in the bill.

And for that we're thankful.

Last week we heard that Mother Jones is once again nominated for the 'best of' award for national magazines of our size (Garden & Gun, Martha Stewart Weddings: it's on). The week before that we got two online national nominations for best blog (Kevin Drum) and best online news reporting (our intrepid reporters on the Copenhagen/climate beat). Plus we heard that our own Kate Sheppard, "the Meryl Streep of climate blogging," is up for TreeHugger's best Twitter Feed (follow her @kate_sheppard) and The Blue Marble is up for best green political blog (vote for them both, here). And around that same time we got word that seven illustrations from 2009 issues of MoJo are being honored by various distinguished outfits.

Now, just yesterday, we got more good news: that we're nominated in eight categories in the best of the west awards, including, our Sept/Oct issue for best political issue of the year, reporter Anna Lenzer's investigation into Fiji Water, staff reporter Josh Harkinson's coverage of the US Chamber of Commerce (his latest Chamber scoop came this week), Kevin yet again, and four well-deserved nominations for the visual arts (sneak peeks after the jump).

And to ice the horn-tooting cake, our new human rights reporter Mac McClelland (author of the recently released For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question, which you can read an excerpt of here) is up for best local news voice in the "New Faces in SF Media" contest. It's super easy to weigh in, you can just tweet your vote to #inforumsf (Twitter-phobes can use old-fashioned email).

Okay! Thanks for all your support, dear readers. Now back to our regularly scheduled (awards-worthy) programming.


US Army Soldiers walk through a local market in Ebnkathwer, Iraq, on Mar. 3, 2010. Photo via the US Army photo by Spc. Advin Illa-Medina.

On Tuesday, tea partiers and other activists who came to Capitol Hill to protest the health care bill were armed with the usual array of signs demanding that Congress "Kill the Bill," comparing Obamacare to socialism and the usual rhetoric. But many of them were also toting a slick, hefty tome called, "Shattered Lives: 100 Victims of Government Health Care" that was being distributed at the rallies by the National Center for Public Policy Research. The report features an introduction by talk show host Mark Levin, the author of Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, and is essentially a compilation of media health care horror stories--everywhere but in the U.S., which, of course, could provide tomes worth of material about the failures of the private health care system.

The "Shattered Lives" stories come from Great Britain, Japan, Russia and South Africa, and read together, they do offer up some pretty horrible details about national health care. There's the British six-year-old whose brain tumor went undiagnosed for years because the National Health Service insisted in giving him painkillers for his headaches but not a brain scan. There's one about the guy who ended up pulling his own tooth with a rusty pair of plyers because he couldn't find a dentist.

It's a gripping read, and the production values suggest that someone put up a big chunk of money to produce and distribute it to tea party activists far and wide. (Rally participants on Tuesday got free bound copies that cost $14.95 on Amazon.) There's reason to be suspicious. After all, NCPPR isn't just any public policy group. You might recall that not only has it done stealth research for tobacco companies, but it was also one of the nonprofit groups accused of helping the disgraced uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff pimp his clients in exchange for big donations. The report doesn't say who paid for the work, but it has all the hallmarks of the usual corporate suspects. 

The US Chamber of Commerce, in its battle to defeat a new consumer protection agency and other "burdensome" financial reforms, is aiming a multimillion-dollar ad campaign at influential senators tasked with shaping the Senate's financial overhaul. In a press conference with reporters today, David Hirschmann, president and CEO of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said his organization planned to spend $3 million on ad campaigns to push its financial reform message, which mainly consists of defeating a consumer agency. That money will be focused in Tennessee, Montana, South Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, and Arkansas.

Why those six states? Well, they just so happen to be the homes of six crucial—and mostly undecided—lawmakers with a hand in deciding the fate of the Senate's Wall Street overhaul. Five of them sit on the powerful banking committee tasked with writing new financial reforms:

  • Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was the GOP's lead negotiator on financial reform until late last week. No doubt he'll continue to figure largely into the Senate's negotiations;
  • Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has staked out a liberal position on financial reform, but has fielded intense criticism for backing Senate Democrats' financial reform efforts like a consumer protection agency;
  • Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is the second-ranking Democrat on the banking committee, but, as a centrist, is seen as less likely to rally alongside Sen. Chris Dodd's Wall St. overhaul. It doesn't help that Citigroup, one of the world's largest banks, has major operations in Johnson's home state;
  • Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) hasn't taken much of a stand during the Senate's financial reform talks—which means he's more likely to be swayed by constitutients' concerns about a new consumer agency;
  • Mark Warner (D-Va.) has played a leading role in crafting a bipartisan solution with Corker on ending too big to fail banks and creating a bank "resolution," or euthanization, process. Warner's state, however, is hardly a liberal hotbed in lockstep behind the idea of a consumer agency;

The final senator, Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), isn't on the banking committee. She is, however, the chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, which will help craft future regulation of derivatives. Lincoln, who's facing a tough reelection battle this fall, could use derivatives reform as a way to curry favor with big business in her state. (Businesses who use derivatives for risk management or hedging purposes—known as "end users"—want an exemption from derivatives regulation; if Lincoln delivered that exemption, she'd score points and potential campaign cash with the business community.)

The Chamber has already spent more than $3 million on ads and other messaging efforts to influence Wall Street reform. With this new focused push, keep your eye on these six senators to see whether the Chamber's efforts pay off.


Reporters mobbed House majority leader Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) media briefing today, firing off question after question about "deem-and-pass," a parliamentary maneuver Dems may use to vote on the Senate health care bill and a package of "fixes" simultaneously. Republicans and the press have described the procedure as allowing Democrats to pass health care reform without voting on it—as I left Hoyer's briefing, the chyron on MSNBC read "No Votes Needed?"—but that's misleading.

In any case, "real Americans" don't care about "process" issues like deem-and-pass, Hoyer argued. "In the final analysis, what is interesting to the American public is what we do for them," Hoyer said. He defended deem-and-pass as "consistent with the rules" and "consistent with former practice," and he's right on that front: Republicans set new records for using the procedure when they last controlled the House. That makes the GOP "hypocritical at best" for criticizing Democrats on this front, Hoyer said.

But the criticism of the maneuver isn't coming just from Republicans. Left-leaning commentators—including The New Republic's Jon Chait, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, and our own Kevin Drum—have also slammed the idea, mostly because they believe it's bad politics for the Dems. Interestingly, Hoyer left open the possibility of using a different procedure to pass the bill. He interrupted himself in the middle of defending "deem and pass" to clarify that his caucus hasn't settled on using it. "We haven't decided on a process at this point in time," he said. "That's being debated, what process we want to pursue." Indeed.

The terms "torture" and "solitary confinement" have surfaced over and over again in articles and commentaries about Tilikum, the captive killer whale who drowned his trainer at Florida's SeaWorld last month. For the most part, the authors of these pieces have sought mercy for Tilikum. While the six-ton orca had been implicated in two previous human deaths, they argue, Tilikum's torturous life in capitivity rendered his behavior understandable, however horrific its results may have been.  

Many of Tilikum's defenders highlight the rare intelligence and sensitivity of orcas and other dolphin species. And by way of mitigating circumstances, they point to his tragic youth, in which he was forcibly ripped from his family and community, and to the lonely and restricted life he has lived ever since, released from isolation in his tank only to perform or to breed.  

While the FAQ section on SeaWorld's web site, called "Ask Shamu," emphasizes that the theme park often "rescue[s] sick, orphaned, or injured animals," Tilikum's history is far less benign. In the Harrisburg Patriot News, Karen Steinrock wrote: 

Tilikum’s idyllic life came to an abrupt halt in November 1983 at the age of 2, when he was snatched from his mother and siblings off the coast of Iceland—a traumatic experience for any young orca. For the next 28 years, he learned to perform tricks for food in a confined "ocean" measured in feet instead of fathoms, circling endlessly with an artificial family... Holding a highly social creature in solitary confinement for decades and asking him to perform repetitious stunts in unnatural surroundings seems cruel. 

One of the more compelling opinions of the SeaWorld tragedy came from Psychology Today contributing writer Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D. She specializes in human-animal relationships and trauma recovery… Bradshaw believes after suffering a violent and premature separation from his mother, Tilikum’s diagnosis conforms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "Tilikum suffered shock and relational trauma from the capture, disrupted development and chronic stress during imprisonment for three decades,” she writes.