Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Make-Believe Reform
Polluting Pentagon Plans
South of the Border Bullying

HEALTH
Make-Believe Reforms

Earlier this week, as President Bush unveiled his long-anticipated new Medicare plan, it was difficult to find any takers in either Washington or pundit-land, even among conservatives.

Robert Goldberg notes in the Washington Times that the President’s proposal to offer seniors a choice between the existing Medicare program or taking cash benefits for private plans has alienated both parties, which were expecting more subtle changes to the system. (In fact, Goldberg calls the plan “the most dramatic domestic policy initiative since the introduction of Medicare in 1965.”) Republicans, who generally seek expanded coverage for prescription drugs, have, by-and-large, “abandoned” the president on the issue, suggests Goldberg, who berates the GOP for its myopia:

“Republicans have failed to think through any portion of the president’s plan, from the issue of access to new medicines to the growing problem of rampant entitlements. The sellout of the President has been so rapid and so complete it is breathtaking. Faced with a situation where their president needed backing, the Republicans didn’t even toss him a bone.”

In a generous frame of mind, the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times finds the proposal to be an improvement over previous plans, but still lacking in savoir-faire.

“The best thing that can be said for President Bush’s latest effort to reform Medicare is that it isn’t quite as bad as the earlier version. This time the president at least promises a vague prescription drug benefit for retirees who stick with the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program. But he would force recipients into private managed-care plans to receive adequate help with prescription drugs. That approach failed in the past and it deserves to fail again.”

The plan, argues the Times, “would still leave many retirees with a significant financial burden.” It adds that the president “seems to be in denial about the popularity of traditional Medicare coverage, which currently serves more than 80 percent of retirees.”

Pulling nary a punch, Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect calls these reforms “bogus” and contends that the plan’s true goal is not to improve Medicare but to strip it of its efficacy in order to replace it:

“What the administration really wants is to privatize Medicare. This means that seniors would be herded into HMOs. The federal government’s annual contribution would be capped. If you couldn’t afford decent HMO coverage (if there is such a thing), too bad.

This strategy neatly serves two conservative purposes. First, privatize everything possible. Second, cut federal social outlays, the better to finance tax cuts for upper brackets.

Unfortunately for Bush, Medicare is justifiably popular. Despite all the Republican blather about “choice,” the one health plan for older Americans that provides completely free choice of primary-care doctors, specialists, hospitals and treatments is, of course, good old conventional Medicare. As even the doddering know from bitter experience, it is HMOs that restrict choice.”

What’s more, argues Kuttner, the president is attempting to use hype about Medicare’s lack of prescription drug coverage “to manipulate seniors into “choosing” HMOs, using Medicare reform as the bait.”

The editors of the Chicago Tribune, however, heartily disagree and are quite convinced of the proposal’s soundness. They call it a “strong plan” that would help move seniors

“from the lumbering command-and-control system of the current Medicare–which is projected to go bankrupt–into private, managed-care programs modeled after the insurance offered to federal employees.”

While calling for a massive “overhaul” of Medicare, the Tribune simultaneously advocates the switching over to private HMOs. (“Overhaul,” perhaps then, is code for “dismantling.”) Still, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for Bush’s plan without solid Republican backing, and “some influential Republicans clearly aren’t sold on Bush’s vision.”

ENVIRONMENT
Polluting Pentagon Plans

The Pentagon is requesting a soldierly bow-out from the nation’s most prominent environmental laws, reasoning that preparations for war require “unfettered training and readiness activities,” without the burden of environmental regulation. Eric Planin of the Washington Post reports that the 2004 Defense Authorization bill jettisons crucial aspects of the Clean Air Act, The Superfund Law, The Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. If passed, the bill could exempt the military from tenants of the Clean Air Act for three years, relax hazardous waste clean-up, and even allow state officials relief from federal air quality standards in the case of “a sudden influx of jet fighters, tanks and other military hardware that added to the overall air pollution.”

Similar efforts to relax regulations were made by the Pentagon last year, but were defeated in the Senate, reports John Stanton of Congress Daily. This year’s efforts left many politicians angered by what they see as the administration’s attempts to capitalize on wartime anxiety. According to Stanton, National Environmental Trust President Phil Clapp accused the administration of “blatantly exploiting the war to exempt military bases all over the country from environmental laws designed to protect public health.” Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI) quipped, “[U]sing the threat of 9/11 and al Qaeda to get unprecedented environmental immunity is despicable.”

Republicans, confident in their new strategy of environmental newspeak (as reported by Jennifer Lee in the New York Times), counter that the plan is nothing more than a “common sense” compromise of environmental values and national defense.

But that professed “sensibility” doesn’t stop at perforating the prevention of pollution. Julian Borger of the London Guardian reveals that another piece in the Defense Department’s budget proposal seeks to nix a Congressional ban on the development of “mini-nukes,” or warheads weighing under five kilotons. While Pentagon officials assert that reviving research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons would help “deter or respond to new or emerging threats,” critics fear that lifting the ban would end the moratorium nuclear testing, and could even lead to a new arms race.

POLITICS
South of the Border Bullying

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has employed a variety of methods to coerce or buy the support of United Nations member states for its rush to war. To secure Mexico’s vote, however, the White House has taken its strong-arm tactics one step further. As Michael Tomasky writes in The American Prospect, Washington has commenced “a whispering campaign designed to incite anti-Mexican sentiment or action in the United States.”

At the end of February, an anonymous American diplomat suggested to The Economist that Mexican-Americans might be placed in internment camps if Mexico voted against the war resolution. One such comment, Tomasky notes, can be dismissed as the work of a loose cannon. But Bush did little to dispel those fears last week, when he threatened vaguely that Mexican intransigence on an Iraqi invasion might prompt the sort of popular backlash that gave birth to “freedom fries.” As Tomasky observes, demonizing the French is one thing; demonizing a huge proportion of the American populace is another.

“Is the president of the United States suggesting here that, if Mexico votes ‘no’ at the Security Council meeting next week, it will be entirely understandable for Americans to initiate a backlash against Mexicans in their midst? That category ‘Americans,’ of course, includes nearly 22 million Mexicans in the United States, a considerable majority of them legal citizens. Is there to be a backlash against these Americans by other Americans?

Is a democratically elected leader (well, almost) implying that a backlash against some of his own constituents just might somehow be proper? Or maybe he ‘just’ means against illegals along the border. Or perhaps he ‘only’ means that Americans should boycott Mexican products, which, since 90 percent of Mexico’s exports come to the United States, would pretty much kill off the whole Mexican economy. Nothing much shocks me from this administration anymore, but this may be a new low. And, given the contentious history of U.S.-Mexican relations on immigration and identity questions, it’s playing with fire.”

The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman reads the situation the same way — as an unprecedented case of bullying, despite strenuous White House denials. He, too, notes the dangers of stirring up anti-Mexican feelings across the US.

“I could talk about the foolishness of such blatant bullying — or about the incredible risks, in a multiethnic, multiracial society, of even hinting that one might encourage a backlash against Hispanics. And yes, I mean Hispanics, not Mexicans: once feelings are running high, do you really think people will politely ask a brown-skinned guy with an accent whether he is a citizen or, if not, which country he comes from?”

Clear-Cutting to Safety
A Legal Liability Landmark
Spain’s Grim Healing Process

ENVIRONMENT
Clear-Cutting to Safety

A year’s worth of review has left a Clinton-era plan to protect 11.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada National Forest ransacked by what conservationists complain is an increasingly pro-logging Forest Service. A report released by a Bush-appointed Forest Service team has deemed the original Sierra Nevada Framework “too restrictive to allow effective and economical fire control,” reports Lisa M. Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News. In its alleged response to the threat of wildfires, the new plan would quadruple the amount of logging allowed in the area. According to Mike Taugher of the Contra Costa Times, the revisions also allow logging of old-growth trees up to 30 inches in diameter — a drastic increase from the Framework’s original cap of younger, 12-inch timber.

The use of logging as prevention of wildfires has opened the door to commmercial loggers’ abuse of protected areas in the past, as Mother Jones’ Dan Oko and Ilan Kayatsky reported last August. While Taugher reports the Service’s reassurance that the new plan is “a solid, common-sense approach to address the growing threat of catastrophic fires,” Matt Bivens of The Nation reveals that the allowed cutting could fill over 3,000 logging trucks per year.

Hoping to thrust a stick in the spokes of this administration’s designs to ravage the woodlands, environmentalists are revamping an effort to protect the habitat of the California Spotted Owl. A ruling last month declared that the owl need not be protected by the Endangered Species Act. In light of the report’s release, the Sierra Nevada Protection Campaign will argue that the owl’s habitat is more threatened than ever, reports Stuart Leavenworth of the Sacramento Bee. The overlap of logging interests, endangered species proponents, fire safety concerns and conservation efforts are likely to lead to “a legal train wreck,” says the Campaign’s Craig Thomas. The report still pends approval by the Regional Forester and a 90-day public comment period.

HEALTH
A Legal Liability Landmark

On Monday, the Supreme Court dealt the Bush administration’s drive to limit employees’ ability to sue for work-related illnesses a small but significant blow. By a five-to-four margin, Reuters reports, the Court ruled that six West Virginia railroad workers poisoned by asbestos could collect money for their fear of developing cancer down the line.

While the decision doesn’t affect the Court’s previous ruling — which prohibited workers exposed to but not sickened by asbestos from suing — it is a setback to big corporations and to the White House, which sided with the railroad, Norfolk Southern, against the workers. Currently, the workers suffer from a sometimes-deadly lung disease, asbestosis, which also makes them more susceptible to cancer.

Of course, asbestos litigation is just one front in the White House’s ongoing war against lawyers, Tova Andrea Wang opines in The American Prospect. As Wang sees it, the White House’s unswerving hostility to such suits stems less from concern over “frivolous lawsuits” than to blind obedience to its corporate friends.

“Our legal system, both civil and criminal, has always been based on the concept of an adversarial structure. Both parties in a dispute are entitled to vigorous representation in telling their sides of the story. This approach has worked well for more than 200 years in the United States (and in Britain for many years before that).

Yet one could be forgiven these days for assuming that Bush and the Republicans believe this system doesn’t work at all. Perhaps the conservative mistrust of lawyers stems from a suspicion that lawyers, and especially trial lawyers, are distorting something far more important than our justice system: our profit-making system.”

FOREIGN NEWS
Spain’s Grim Healing Process

Sixty-five years after volunteers poured into Spain from all over the world in order to fight Generalissimo Franco and the rising specter of fascism, a new school of international volunteers is being recruited for a grisly follow-up: to exhume mass-graves borne of Franco’s prolific firing squads. Giles Tremlett reports in the London Guardian that Spanish “historical memory” groups and Service Civil International, a European NGO, are co-organizing a series of “summer camps” for the purpose of digging up thousands of the forgotten bodies. The effort, writes Tremlett, is part of a larger “campaign to draw back a curtain of silence which has shrouded some of the darker aspects of the Franco period.”

Recalling last summer’s digging efforts, camp leader Mariano Lopez notes that,

“Some people did the digging while others were sent off to talk to the old people in the villages to ask them about the civil war.

“They were amazed to see that, even after 27 years of democracy, many people were still too scared to talk about it.”

War Stumping
Halfpint Hostages?
A Minnesotan’s Lott Moment

POLITICS
War Stumping

The White House’s war planning has significantly drowned out Democratic Presidential hopefuls’ campaign measures, with voters showing more interest in candidates’ war stances than their strategies on topics like unemployment and budget deficits. As Glen Johnson of the Boston Globe reports, at recent campaign events in Iowa, Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards and Richard Gephardt — all of whom support Bush’s war initiative — faced a distraught anti-war constituency.

Anti-war candidates, however, will have varying responses if and when war does break out — and the ambiguity of these stances may threaten their already shaky bases of support. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dennis Kucinich plan to carry-on their critiques of the current administration’s Iraq policy, the Associated Press reports. But other professed anti-war candidates are less staunch about their views. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean “was not sure how he would behave as a candidate if war broke out,” writes Johnson. And candidate John Kerry, a Vietnam Vet, said, “I won’t speak a word without measuring how it’ll sound to the guys doing the fighting when they’re listening to their radios in the desert.”

The troops abroad are a major focus for the candidates, who walk a fine line between lambasting Republican war-mongering and being seen as unpatriotic. And then, of course, there’s one Democratic strategist’s idea that “Politics at a time of war is perceived by Americans as obnoxious and arrogant,” relays Joseph Curl of the Washington Times. According to Curl, Republican party advisers have encouraged Bush to keep mum about all things political, “a strategy that will place the president above the political fray in the early months of the 2004 presidential-election cycle and leave Democrats with only one another to debate.”

In the meantime, Democrats are left struggling to define their wartime politics and holding off from making important policy announcements lest they be diminished by news from the front. And political pundits continue to chastise the mainstream media’s interest in domestic affairs and the coming election, as the Associated Press notes.

“Democratic consultant Dane Strother said that during the initial phases of the conflict, ‘there’s nothing [candidates] can do short of enlisting in the Army to get any press anyway.'”

LAW AND JUSTICE
Halfpint Hostages?

The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed made headlines around the world last week, with the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind being snatched from his bed in Pakistan and shipped off to a US military prison in Afghanistan.

As it turns out, though, while Mohammed was settling into his cell at Bagram Air Force Base, the CIA was taking his sons, aged seven and nine, into custody as well. Held by Pakistani authorities since last fall, the boys have now been transferred to a secret location in America, where the CIA is interrogating them and using them to force their father to talk, Olga Craig of London’s Daily Telegraph reports. As one CIA official puts it, Mohammed’s children are a valuable tool in the war on terror:

“‘His sons are important to him. The promise of their release and their return to Pakistan may be the psychological lever we need to break him.'”

Though the CIA insists the boys are being given “the best of care,” the pundits at TalkLeft are horrified that Washington is holding Mohammed’s children hostage — no matter what his crime.

” … what Mohammed is really being told is that something awful will befall his sons if he doesn’t cooperate. Legal? Probably. It’s also morally bankrupt. But let’s leave the father out of this for the moment. Our concern is the kids.

We didn’t realize that enemy combatant status was hereditary. A lawyer and a guardian ad litem should be appointed for these kids immediately. The kids should be returned home without delay to whatever family they have left. This is taking ‘sins of the father’ to an unprecedented and unconscionable level.”

POLITICS
A Minnesotan’s Lott Moment

Already under harsh scrutiny for doubting that homosexuals were persecuted during the Holocaust, Minnesota House Rep. Arlon Lindner is now being accused of racism, the Minnesota Star Tribune‘s Conrad deFiebre reports. After introducing his bill to strip gay and lesbians of rights in Minnesota, Lindner said it would save America from becoming “another African continent.”

African American representatives lashed out at Lindner, a six-term Republican, who said he drafted the bill in response to constituents’ concerns of “homosexuality being promoted in the schools.”

Critics, however, were unimpressed by Lindner’s defense. “It seems like every time this gentleman says something, he digs himself a deeper hole and embarrasses this state more,” said Minnesota House Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis.

Even though Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum acknowledges that Lindner’s comments were “inappropirate and wrong,” he said he will not remove Lindner. “In a free society, we do have certain First Amendment rights,” Sviggum said.

An Abortion Showdown
Mahmoud Abbas: Savior or Symbol?
Houston’s DNA Debacle

POLITICS
An Abortion Showdown

Republicans in Congress have won the first round in the fight over what abortion rights advocates are calling their most significant legislative challenge in years. Voting along party lines, the House defeated a Democratic amendment that would have increased the availability of contraceptives, provided prenatal care to low-income mothers, and encouraged health care providers to educate rape victims about the morning after pill. The amendment, authored by Representatives Patty Murray (D-WA) and Harry Reid (D-NV), was a last-ditch effort to derail the Republican anti-abortion bill that is on its way through the Senate and onto the GOP-controlled House. The measure, for which President Bush has already voiced his approval, would ban a practice of abortion known by medical professionals as dilation and extraction. The bill’s backers, of course, refer to the procedure by the emotionally-charged term ‘partial birth abortion.’

The rejection of the amendment angered abortion rights proponents like Murray and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who already fear that the language of the Republican bill is so broad that “it would also cover the most common form of second trimester abortion,” reports Judy Holland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who wrote the GOP bill, spearheaded arguments against the amendment, citing the cost to provide insurance to low-income pregnant women at $1 billion. Still, Santorum vowed that “Republicans [will] address the issue later this spring when they write a budget,” writes David Espo of the Associated Press.

Opponents of Santorum’s bill decry its text as discriminatory to women, and warn that if passed it will end up in court. The editorial board of Newsday cites a 2000 Nebraska law that rejected a similar measure because it provided no exception in cases where the health of the mother was concerned, and warns that Santorum’s bill, despite its convoluted language, lacks the same clause:

“A Democratic amendment would carve out such an exception. But the bill sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum would finesse the issue. It would ban the procedure except when necessary to preserve the life of the mother, but then include findings that the procedure is never medically necessary to preserve a woman’s health. The result, if signed into law, would be an absolute ban.”

FOREIGN NEWS
Mahmoud Abbas: Savior or Symbol?

As the Palestinian Authority gears up for the expected accession of Arafat-appointed Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s first ever Prime Minister, most observers are welcoming the new balance of power, while a few skeptics call the shift entirely symbolic.

Finding considerable hope for all sides in Abbas’ leadership, Walid M. Sadi suggests in the Jordan Times that Abbas is a moderate with terrific integrity whose potential lies in a solid reputation within both Israeli and Palestinian camps. Abbas has denounced suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, writes Sadi, and has

“come to the bitter conclusion that the “militarisation” of the more than two-year-old Palestinian Intifada has removed the Palestinian people further away from their national aspirations and led to the virtual reoccupation of much of the Palestinian towns and villages.”

Such views help toward legitimizing his leadership in the eyes of Israelis, as well as internationally, Sadi suggests. At present, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unwilling to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, effectively keeping the conflict at status quo or worse.

Additionally, the editors of the Chicago Tribune argue that Abbas could be an important move toward reforming the ill-perceived Palestinian government. He will help level out “open dissent within [Arafat’s own] ranks,” among “both the party faithful and rank-and-file Palestinians [who are] sick and tired of Arafat’s corruption, cronyism and ineffective leadership.”

“It’s a potentially significant sharing of power, although it doesn’t push Arafat into the background–or out of the picture–where he belongs.

Early reports indicate Arafat will stay involved in the PLO’s security efforts and peace negotiations–factors that bode ill for restarting the stalled peace initiative.”

The Tribune also observes that Abbas has publicly declared that “he would not accept anything other than an “empowered” prime ministership with real authority to reform the Palestinian Authority.”

Alternately, the editorial board of the New York Daily News represents a far more conservative and skeptical view, calling the new position “nothing but a sham.” “The real power – all of it,” contends the News, “remains with Yasser Arafat.”

“Arafat retains control over security and laws: He can veto any legislation he pleases. Things in the Palestinian Authority will continue as always – with Arafat in charge of everybody and everything. He’s not about to delegate one bit of control to new leadership.

The Palestinians need a leader – a strong and independent hand to run the Palestinian Authority and rout out the endemic corruption and terrorism Arafat has promoted. Israel needs a partner for peace. Neither side needs an Arafat puppet.”

LAW & JUSTICE
Houston’s DNA Debacle

Josiah Sutton fell victim to what might be the worst police crime lab in the nation.

Wrongfully convicted four years ago for rape, Sutton gained his freedom yesterday after being exonerated by DNA retesting, the Houston Chronicle‘s Roma Khanna and Steve McVicker report. Sutton’s release, however, may be just the first in a long line of reversals, as the investigation grows into the now-disgraced Houston police lab that bungled his case. Indeed, as the London Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman writes, inspections have revealed that contamination and falsification of evidence were routine at the lab, as the inquiry’s chairman lamented:

“‘When lab technicians aren’t wearing surgical gloves, when they’re throwing evidence from several cases on the same table without marking them, when there’s moisture, leaks and mould — anyone with any sense can see the warning signs.'”

The revelations cast doubt on about 524 convictions — all in a county that has executed more people than any other in the nation, and more than any other state apart from Virginia, Burkeman writes.

“‘Given that we send so many people to death row, the prospect that many of this crime lab’s results may be inaccurate is horrifying,’ Bob Wicoff, Sutton’s lawyer, said. ‘The lab provided important evidence in thousands of cases, and if the first case they retest comes back with a different result — well, maybe it’s a coincidence, but maybe it isn’t.'”

Of course, none of this is news to Attorney General John Ashcroft — and none of it appears to bother him. Even as DNA testing calls into question convictions all across the country — the Houston lab is by no means the only one under scrutiny — and the Governor of Illinois empties his death row, Ashcroft remains blissfully untroubled. Summing up the history of capital punishment in the Ashcroft era, Joseph Rosenbloom writes in The American Prospect that the Attorney General is pursuing “ a policy of full speed ahead,” and doubters be damned.

“‘Everywhere there is questioning about seeking death and imposing the penalty,’ says Dick Burr, a Houston defense lawyer who consults in federal capital cases. ‘You have Ashcroft going against the tide of the times.'”

Balkan Ghosts
Who Cares About Bad Meat?
A Slow Burn on Weapons

FOREIGN NEWS
Balkan Ghosts

When Serbia’s reformist Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was gunned down in Belgrade earlier this week, citizens mourned the death of a politician who stood up to the gangsters and ultranationalists that hold sway over much of the country. For many commentators, too, Djindjic’s assassination prompted new worries about his troubled country’s uncertain future, along with meditations on its violent recent past.

As the editors of the London Times see it, Djindjic’s murder was, in some ways, an inevitable result of the lawless reign of Slobodan Milosevic — whom Djindjic helped oust in 2000.

“Throughout the wars of the 1990s, Mr Milosevic’s use of criminals and gangsters to ensure his control of the police and security apparatus so strengthened the links that by the end of his rule it was hard to separate them.

Serbia is now paying the price for a culture that has been dominated for years by vendettas and repression, and for a ruined economy that has impoverished an entire nation and left many destitute and desperate. Not only Belgrade now fears for the future: Serbia’s neighbours and the West are bracing themselves for prolonged uncertainty, a bitter power struggle and the possible outbreak of street violence as rival factions seek to assert their influence.”

The editorial board of Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, meanwhile, views the killing as a cautionary tale for all would-be nation builders — particularly the White House, which may soon be confronted with a similar post-war situation in Iraq.

“Djindjic’s assassination proves that this reconstruction is far from complete, which means the U.S. and European commitment to Serbia’s future has not yet been fulfilled. It also proves that nation-building is a dangerous, lengthy and uncertain business. That is something the Bush administration needs to remember as it prepares for the possibility of war and nation-building elsewhere, in another country presided over by a power-mad dictator.”

The pundits at Tapped, however, note that the Bush administration has long been intent on pulling out of the Balkans, and America’s lack of interest is at least partly to blame for Serbia’s escalating chaos.

“Another thing that happens when gangsterism and lawlessness run wild in the Balkans is, as we learned today, that the recently-elected president of post-Milosevic Serbia gets assassinated for trying to reform his country. This is not a trivial concern. As several bloggers have already pointed out, a similar event — the assasination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian terrorist — launched World War I.

The sad truth is, the administration’s neocon-led hawks now seem to view cleaning up in the Balkans — to say nothing of rebuilding Afghanistan — as a distraction from their broader effort to remake the Middle East.”

HEALTH
Who Cares About Bad Meat?

Apparently intent on demonstrating its undying loyalty to the meat industry, the White House will oppose any upcoming legislation that would force meat companies to reveal which stores carry recalled — and potentially contaminated — meat. According to Emily Gersema of the Associated Press, Elsa A. Murano, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, announced enigmatically that such knowledge wouldn’t help consumers anyhow, as meat is routinely sold to places other than restaurants and grocery stores.

Murano’s statement comes as lawmakers, such as Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), consider legislation to prevent further food-poisoning outbreaks, Gersema reports. DeLauro hasn’t been afraid to suggest that a law telling consumers where bad meat is sold would protect the public. ”This is not about a company’s bottom line,” suggests DeLauro. ”This is about the public’s safety.”

As it now stands, the USDA obtains lists of those businesses which purchase meat before announcing any recalls, but the department is barred from publicizing those lists, as they are considered “proprietary trade information.” The logically-challenged Murano observes that, if those lists are made public, distributors will be less cooperative in delivering them to the USDA.

Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute (which has more information on the issue) head Carol Tucker Foreman remarks that,

”If even one person took action based on having the information and therefore avoided getting sick, it would be worth having that information available…I think that USDA has decided once again to protect its political contributors in the meat industry, rather than to protect public health.”

ENVIRONMENT
A Chemical Weapons Slow Burn

Numerous emergency shut-downs and stack releases at a Utah chemical weapons incinerator, along with skepticism over the safety of incineration plans for facilities in Oregon, Alabama, and Arkansas, have prompted a coalition of activists nationwide to sue the Army in a US District Court. The coalition, comprised of environmental, veteran, and civil rights organizations nationwide, accuses the Army of neglecting to consider alternatives to incineration — a trangression that violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), reports William McCall of the Associated Press.

The Army claims that incineration is the safest method of disposal, but has notably scrapped its incineration plans at four demilitarization plants around the country in favor of neutralization, a process that involves simple chemical reactions instead of burning, reports Brent Israelsen of the Salt Lake Tribune. According to the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the organization spearheading the lawsuit, the numerous breakdowns and safety hazards at the Utah plant have prompted at least four high-up whistleblowers to leak information about the Utah incinerator to activist groups — and several have sued the facility regarding health and safety hazards.

The plaintiffs base their case on findings by Utah-based Families Against Incinerator Risk (FAIR) that the Utah facility has undergone over 500 permit modifications, and cite NEPA’s limitation on the number of modifications allowed and requirement that a supplemental study be performed if a facility exceeds that limitation. They argue that new facilities in Oregon, Alabama, and Arkansas would undergo the same trial-and-error phase that has leaked nerve agent, exposed workers, and caused numerous shut-downs in Utah. The weapons in question contain GB and VX gas, which debilitate the nervous system, and the blistering agent mustard gas, which, appropriately, blisters the skin and interior respiratory tract when inhaled, reports Israelsen.

The suit is aptly-timed for the plaintiffs, who not only stand to benefit from the Bush administration’s own stance on the need for safe destruction of chemical weapons, but also from the fact that the Utah facility is at least three years behind schedule, and has been closed since July due to a worker’s exposure to residual GB agent, according to Israelsen.