Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Souring Florida
School Lunch Scandal

ENVIRONMENT
Souring Florida

Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s move to relax landmark environmental protections for the Florida Everglades has led to accusations that brother Bush is a mere puppet of the sugar industry. Florida citizens, environmentalists, and lawmakers are outraged by plans to alter the Everglades Forever Act, which was passed in 1994 to restore the water-starved region, reports Victor Hull of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Federal Judge William Hoeveler, who oversaw the agreement to restore the unique ecosystem, has called a hearing for federal and state officials to review Gov. Bush’s proposal, which could delay the Everglades’ restoration up to 20 years, the St. Petersburg Times’ Craig Pittman reports. A heavy influx of phosphorous deposits from sugar refining waste has led to the disruption of the region’s natural balance, and a stagnant swamp now exists where the famed River of Grass once flourished. Cattails and other absorbent plants have displaced the sawgrass that allowed clean water to flow through one of the world’s best-known wetlands.

Judge Hoeveler and several federal Congressmen have warned that the proposed delays would jeopardize the act’s designation of $8 billion in federal and state funds to protect the region. As the act reads now, the phosphorous content must be cut to 10 parts per billion (down from 300 ppb) by 2006. The sugar industry and state legislators claim that proposals for a 10 to 20 year delay would help avoid lawsuits. But disillusioned environmental groups and Native American tribes are already threatening to sue the state’s legislature over what was once lauded as an exemplary cooperation between regulators, industry and environmentalists. As the plans to block the region’s clean-up evolve, the tenuous alliances appear to be weakening, and Gov. Bush’s Congress is unapologetic about its plans. As Pittman reports:

“‘I think the judge is misinformed,’ said state Sen. Al Lawson, the Tallahassee Democrat sponsoring the Everglades bill in the upper house. He accused environmentalists of giving the judge bad information and stirring up controversy just so they could ‘make money.'”

Environmentalists contend that it’s just another case of the sugar industry caught with its hand in the cookie jar. Hull reports:

“[T}he Everglades Coalition’s Shannon Estenoz said the state has already lost in terms of its image.

‘If you’re sitting in Washington and looking at Florida, you see that any time sugar gets its back against the wall, all it has to do is march to Tallahassee and the state will buckle,’ she said. ‘At some point, you have to put your foot down.'”

HEALTH
School Lunch Scandal

In late 2001, a pipe burst in a St. Louis warehouse, and tons of food destined for Illinois schools were contaminated with ammonia. State officials and the USDA were on the case, however, and the food was quarantined.

The story should have ended there, but it didn’t. Somehow, nearly 4,000 cases of the tainted lunches shipped out anyway, and no one told the schools. As a result, the Associated Press reports, schools were still serving the ammonia-doused meals almost a year later — and kids were still getting sick. Worse yet, some state officials knew all about it but did nothing. First reported by the Chicago Tribune, the revelations have launched a slew of investigations, as well as a war of words between bureaucrats frantically trying to shift the blame. Safety advocates and parents, meanwhile, are disgusted at the official callousness that allowed the situation to get so far out of control.

“‘How could they care so little about the kids that they would just look the other way and serve them any old food?’ said Lavonne Buell, whose 12-year-old daughter vomited after eating the chicken.” Politicizing the Courts
New Delhi’s New Water Deal

POLITICS
Politicizing the Courts

President Bush’s plan to pack the courts with conservative judges is cause for serious concern over the survival of legislation protecting civil liberties, women’s rights, and the rights of the disabled. Apprehensive about losing 50 years of hard-earned civil rights law, Democrats are using filibusters and other tactics to delay final confirmations, but they cannot withstand the Republican tsunami. With 51 Republican senators and an administration pushing the judicial nominations as mainstream politics, Republicans are in the position of strength. They are calling the Democrats’ stalling revenge, or “payback,” for Republican rejections of former President Clinton’s nominations.

The Associated Press reports that the Senate has approved the nomination for Jeffrey Sutton of Ohio. Democrats are critical of Sutton’s attempts to limit federal civil rights and strip state employees and the elderly of disability protections.

Feminist groups such as Ms. Magazine and the National Organization for Women describe Bush’s female nominees as “Scalia in a skirt.” Charles Hurt from the Washington Times reports that Democrats believe judicial nominees such as Carolyn Kuhl, a California state Judge, lack sensitivity towards women. In recent meetings with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Kuhl tried to explain away a judgement to override Roe v. Wade as eagerness to perform well as a “very young staffer”. Her explanations haven’t convinced the editors of the New York Times, though:

“Judge Kuhl’s many shifts are suspect because of their timing. It is also clear, given this administration’s track record, that she was chosen precisely because of the actions she now seeks to distance herself from. The White House can tell from her record that she shares its conservative agenda, including opposition to abortion rights and skepticism about civil rights. It is unlikely that when she spoke with the administration she was as quick to renounce her past as she was before the Senate.”

The current debacle over nominees like Sutton and Kuhl is a symptom of the increasingly political nature of judicial appointments. The courts risk becoming like a boat that lists to whatever political side is in power.

ENVIRONMENT
New Delhi’s New Water Deal

New Delhi, one of the world’s biggest cities, is also facing one of the world’s biggest water shortages. With a population that increases by half-a-million each year, the Indian capital is rapidly exhausting its underground sources of water.

Now, the Washington Post‘s John Lancaster reports, a solution may have arrived — in the form of an ancient, eco-friendly practice. Resurrecting a millennia-old tradition, the city now collects rainwater — which falls mainly during the monsoon season — and funnels it into the soil, replenishing depleted aquifers hundreds of feet beneath the ground. Pilot projects have proven hugely successful and, as Lancaster puts it, have generated an “almost messianic following” among those who have tested the new-old methods.

“Among the converts is Krishan Saigal, a former official at a U.N.-funded environmental agency who introduced rainwater harvesting to affluent Panchshila Park, where he heads the residents’ association. The project has been so successful that the water table has risen three feet in less than a year, allowing the residents’ club to fill its swimming pool from its own well; previously it relied on municipal water at a cost of about $1,700 a year.

‘We recovered the cost of the system in one year,’ he said. ‘It’s just amazing. I would never have believed it, but it works.'”

Big Energy on the Rez?
Nigeria’s Blood for Oil

ENVIRONMENT
Big Energy on the Rez?

While the fight to open up Alaska’s arctic refuge to oil drilling may still be raging, Republican lawmakers have already trained their sights on a new target. This time, they’re going after Indian land.

As the Denver Post‘s Mike Soraghan reports, Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is pushing to eliminate federal environmental oversight on energy projects in tribal territories. The only Native American in the Senate, Campbell is a loyal friend of the energy industry — in recent years, oil and gas companies have contributed more than $150,000 to his campaign coffers — and he is a senior member of the Senate’s powerful energy committee. Not surprisingly, environmental groups have condemned Campbells’ scheme. And as Soraghan points out, even the plan’s supposed beneficiaries — the tribes — have come out against it.

“[S]ome of the tribes Campbell said he’s trying to help don’t seem eager for that kind of freedom from regulation. They said they worry that the federal government will give up its traditional ‘trust responsibility’ to ensure that tribes aren’t taken advantage of.

“You’re putting a lot of responsibility on the tribes without a guarantee that they have the resources to handle that responsibility,” said Robert Gough, a Denver attorney and secretary for the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy.”

FOREIGN NEWS
Nigeria’s Blood for Oil

A hostage crisis on an offshore drilling ship in Nigeria has led Shell Oil and the Nigerian Navy to increase security to the company’s other FPSOs (floating, storage, and offloading vessels). Four oil rigs off the country’s coast are currently occupied by Nigerian strikers, demanding that Shell provide more local employment. According to Rory Carroll and Owen Bowcott of the London Guardian, there are 97 expatriates aboard the ships as hostages.

Shell claims it has further evidence that another floating oil station, the Sea Eagle, is under threat. The Lagos Vanguard reports that in addition to increased naval security around the vessel, the country Nigeria has deployed two refitted World War II patrol boats donated by the Pentagon to protect Nigeria’s oil industry. Shell has also placed full-page advertisements in popular Nigerian newspapers warning potential saboteurs that it has taken “stern security measures” to counter threats to the Sea Eagle. The country ranks fifth in the world in oil exportation, and, according to the BBC News, oil generates 90% of Nigeria’s revenues. Inland, Nigeria’s oil has spawned a different kind of crisis. Though the country’s economy relies heavily on its oil exports, Nigerian citizens often wait for days to fill their gas tanks, Davan Maharaj of the LA Times reports. The problem has spawned a well-organized and widely-used illegal market for gasoline — consumers will sometimes pay 10 times the legal rate to avoid waiting in line. Maharaj reports that an ambulance driver, who planned to leave his emergency vehicle in the line overnight, remarked,”If we don’t have gas, we can’t take sick people to the hospital.”

Gas shortages have also sparked violence in the region. When confronted by two drivers who demanded he wait in line with other motorists, a policeman killed the men, and was susequently beaten to death by enraged onlookers. The president, Olusegun Obasanjo, had promised that his administration would eliminate the weeklong lines that were common to the country under military rule. Much to the public’s chagrin (and potential benefit of oil companies), Obsanjo has proposed raising gas prices as a solution to shortages, because, Maharaj reports, “gasoline in neighboring Benin, Togo and Ghana can fetch up to three times the controlled price in Nigeria, marketers have been motivated to smuggle fuel to those countries.” The average Nigerian earns less than $1 each day. At the pump, gas goes for eighty cents per gallon — or up to $8 on the black market.

Northrop Grumbling
Moussaoui’s Methodical Madness

GLOBAL ECONOMY
Northrop Grumbling

When Ronald Sugar, the CEO of defense contractor Northrop Grumman, appeared on PBS‘s Nightly Business Report this week, he looked a little defensive. His company posted sales of 5.9 billion dollars this year, up from 3.9 billion last year, and a reporter asked him if he thought the country was spending too much on defense and thereby risking higher deficits. He replied,

“I think if you look at the fraction of the national budget being spent on defense as a percentage of the budget, as a percentage of gross domestic product, it’s probably at one of the lowest levels it’s been in the last 50 years. It is significantly less than the amount of money spent on most other social programs in the government. We’re dealing with about three percent GDP, so it has been as high as four or five percent and at times during World War II, it was almost 50 percent. So, by any measure, defense is a bargain for this nation; we’re not dealing with numbers which are significant.”

Just for the record, according to the White House web site, the president’s proposed budget gives the defense department 4.2 percent of GDP, not three percent. But that’s nitpicking, right? After all, “it is significantly less than the amount spent on most other social programs in the government.” Well, actually it’s not. If you think of “Education” as a social program, the president’s plan supplies a little less than 62 billion, or less than one-fifth of the 379.6 billion it spends on defense. Some bargain.

What Ronald Sugar also forgot to mention is that as contracts have been divvied up, defense contractor CEO pay has also been on the rise: Sugar’s pay rose from 7.3 million dollars in 2000 to 9.2 million in 2002. The CEO of Lockheed Martin, the number one defense contractor, raised his pay from 5.8 million in 2000 to 25.3 million in 2002. They are not alone. Forbes reports that median pay for CEOs at U.S. defense contractors climbed 79 percent from 2001 to 2002, while overall pay for CEOs increased only 6 percent.

It’s a good thing those defense spending numbers aren’t significant. Otherwise we might have to worry about where all that tax money went.

LAW AND JUSTICE
Moussaoui’s Methodical Madness

All but forgotten amid the fog of war, the run-up to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui slogs on. As with many of the government’s Sept. 11-related terror trials, things aren’t going so well for Ashcroft and Co.

Surprisingly, the so-called “20th hijacker” has won a number of skirmishes with prosecutors, even though he is representing himself and appears to be getting crazier by the day (his motions bear titles like “Motion to Know How the United Satan is Lying to Murder Me By Legal Means”). As the Associated Press reports, Moussaoui argues that he should be given access to other Al Qaeda suspects in US custody, whose testimony can shed light on his links to them and to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The government opposes Moussaoui’s wishes, and refuses to let him see information many deem crucial to his defense. So far, despite Moussaoui’s erratic behavior, Judge Leonie Brinkema has consistently ruled for him and against government arguments for secrecy. Disturbed by the Justice Department’s stonewalling, a consortium of media outlets has filed suit. In its brief, the group — which includes the Times, the Post and most of the major networks — charges government lawyers with using “ sleight of hand” to keep court proceedings secret, according to CNN.

All of which leaves the legal pundits at Talk Left wondering if the government’s secrecy stems from a simple lack of evidence.

“If the Government doesn’t have the goods to tie Moussaoui to Sept. 11 after all this time, they ought to acknowledge it and let him plead to a non-capital offense. We suspect, however, that Ashcroft couldn’t stand the loss of face that would entail — to be beaten by a pro-se member of Al Qaeda with no legal training and for whom English is a second or third language. This case is indeed a farce, but it’s a farce of the Government’s making.”

Meanwhile, another government terror trial has fallen apart. Omar Shishani, a Detroit-area Chechen whom the Attorney General had accused of working with Al Qaeda, pled guilty last week to possession of counterfeit checks. Despite initial allegations, the Washington Post‘s Robert E. Pierre reports, federal investigators never found evidence linking Shishani to terrorists.

“‘He is not a terrorist,’ said Shishani’s attorney, Corbett O’Meara. ‘It is symptomatic of our nation’s hysteria that he was ever branded a terrorist. This was garden-variety financial fraud.'”