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The Roadway's Edge

“Black Boxes” Could Solve Crash Mysteries

December 27th 2010

Transportation Topics - Munfordville KY crash

Munfordville, Kentucky: Joel Gingerich hadn’t planned to join his fiancée and her family on a road trip to Iowa for a wedding. But at the last minute, before the sun rose on the morning of March 26, 2010, he hopped into the 15-passenger Dodge van. It was a decision that would cost him his life.

Gingerich, fiancée Rachel Esh and her family, all members of a close-knit Mennonite community, were just minutes into the journey when an 80-foot-long, 38-ton Freightliner tractor-trailer lost control on the other side of a wide, grassy median. The truck trampled over two sets of steel barrier cables, hit the Mennonites’ van, ricocheted off a rock wall and burst into flames. Eleven died in the crash on Interstate 65 south of Louisville in southern Kentucky, including Gingerich, Esh and seven members of her family. The truck driver from Alabama was burned so badly that state troopers couldn’t make out his flesh from the metal of his rig. Read more ..


The Water's Edge

Restricting Boaters a Hard Sell in Many States

December 21st 2010

Transportation Topics - boats in marina

Lake Pleasant, Arizona. Seventeen years ago, federal officials urged all states to require boater education courses and life jackets for children.

Today, 13 states still don’t require boaters to learn how to drive a boat before they hit the water. And two states—Virginia and Wisconsin—don’t require children to wear life jackets on boats, despite more than a decade of pressure from the nation’s top transportation safety agency.

In 2008, there were more than 4,700 recreational boating accidents leading to 709 fatalities in the U.S., according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. Only highways claimed more lives than the nation’s waterways. “It’s a very serious issue, and it’s one we can impact,” said Bill Gossard, safety advocate specialist for the NTSB. “We have a better shot saving lives here than other places.” Read more ..


The Roadway's Edge

Companies Skirt Safety Rules—and Keep Driving

December 21st 2010

Transportation Topics - Multi-vehicle highway crash

In just two years, more than 1,000 trucking companies and 20 bus companies that had been shut down for safety violations reopened under new names, according to a recent Government Accounting Office report.

The practice, referred to as “reincarnating,” is one of the ways bus and truck companies skirt rules designed to keep roadways safe.

Reincarnation is relatively simple to do but hard to detect, government officials say. Motor carriers that have been ordered out of business or face fines go online, fill out a form and pay a small fee. The U.S. Department of Transportation issues them a new registration number as if they are a new business.

“All they have to do is click on a name, put in a credit card, and you pop up with a new number,” said Nancy O’Liddy, a lobbyist for Transportation Intermediaries Association, a trucking industry group. Read more ..


Looting the Seas

The Bluefin's Corporate Food Chain

December 21st 2010

Economy - Bluefin tuna in a Tokyo Market
A slab of bluefin at Tsukiji market, Tokyo.

Mount Fuji rises across the bay from the 16th century port of Shimizu—a sight fit for a post card.

The town has seen better days—its businesses shuttered, fishing boats driven into bankruptcy, and the only department store closed. But the city’s core business—marine and overland trade—has assured its survival. Shimizu is the primary port of landing for tuna in Japan. Hundreds of tons of tuna arrive here daily from all over the world, but none has the allure of the giant Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish that once caught is nurtured for months at sea ranches in the Mediterranean to increase its fat content—and its yen value. Once considered a low-class dish, today the Atlantic bluefin is favored by sushi eaters across Japan. A single large fish can fetch more than $100,000 at market. Read more ..


The Rocky Recovery

Wall Street Quietly Creates a New Way to Profit from Homeowner Distress

December 13th 2010

Economy - Tax Auction

When Florida retiree Gladys Walker fell behind in paying taxes on her modest Pompano Beach home, she had no idea one of America’s biggest banks and a major Wall Street hedge fund engaged in frenzied bidding for the right to collect her debt—all $768.25 of it.

“I just couldn’t come up with the money,” said Walker, 67, a former hotel worker who makes do on a monthly Social Security check.

Barely more than a year after a taxpayer bailout of major financial institutions, Bank of America and the hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group, spotted a fresh money-making opportunity—collecting the tax debts of tens of thousands of people like Walker. The bank and hedge fund can add interest charges and fees, and they bundled the debts as securities for investors. Read more ..


Looting the Seas

Diving into the Tuna Ranching Industry

December 13th 2010

Economy - Bluefin tuna
Bluefin Tuna “Ranch” Enclosure

In the final days of 1996, the air was cold and seas rough around the southern Spanish port of Cartagena. A boat belonging to the Tuna Graso sea “ranch”—a joint venture between Japan’s Mitsui & Co. and Spain’s Ricardo Fuentes & Sons—had just pulled aboard a huge 300-kilo bluefin tuna from one of its underwater pens. That single fish was worth $17,000 to the company, and would fetch far more at auction in Tokyo.

The days of supplying fresh bluefin tuna just a few months a year were over. The introduction of fattening ranches, or farms, meant the Japanese could have high-quality bluefin for their sashimi year-round. Tuna captured at sea could now be transferred into cages and fattened for months in underwater coastal cages until Japanese buyers were ready to deal. Read more ..


The Water's Edge

Boating Industry Resists Safety Systems

December 13th 2010

Transportation Topics - SI Ferry wreck
NTSB photo of Staten Island Ferry

Like most accidents, it wasn’t just one thing that went wrong when a barge rammed into a tour boat on the Delaware River in July, killing two.

First, the engine malfunctioned on the duck boat, an amphibious craft popular with tourists visiting Philadelphia. The boat’s master turned off the engine, dropped anchor and waited for help. Then a towboat guiding a 250-foot barge down the river failed to change course, even as it bore down on the duck boat anchored in the channel.

The master of the duck boat radioed the towboat to change course, but there was no response. He told accident investigators he picked up an air horn in a last-minute attempt to get attention but the horn didn’t work. Read more ..


The Roadway's Edge

States Resist Highway Safety Measures

December 6th 2010

Transportation Topics - Church bus after crash

When an airplane crashes, people notice and want to know what went wrong. But when people die on American highways—as nearly 100 do on average every day—less attention is paid, even by the nation’s top safety investigators.

Fewer than one-fourth of all investigations undertaken by the National Transportation Safety Board target highways, even though more people die on the roads than in any other kind of transportation accidents, according to an analysis. When the NTSB does recommend ways to reduce the carnage on American roadways, it can take years before anything is done. Read more ..


Iran in Latin America

The Growing Influence of Iran on Latin America's 'New Left' Governments

December 6th 2010

Latin American Topics - Ahmadinejad and Chavez
Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

As concern grows in Washington over the potential threat that Iran poses to the United States and its allies, scant attention has been given to the Islamic Republic’s expanding influence in Latin America. In the past year, a number of events revealed Iran’s increasing links to the region, most of which have been economic in nature, although political gambits have also proved important. While Iran’s increased involvement in Latin America may have the potential to present a threat to U.S. security, such threats may be overstated and not a justified concern.

Despite what those seeking to demonize the Latin American left would have the U.S. public believe, the security implications of an Iranian presence in the region may well be minimal. Rather, the relationship is more likely to challenge Washington’s ability to exert itself abroad. Read more ..


The Coal Hazard

Government and Utilities Conspire in Coal-Ash Poison

November 29th 2010

Energy / Environment - Kingston Plant Spill

Stand before the pond known here in southwestern Pennsylvania as Little Blue Run, and you’ll see nothing that resembles its bucolic-sounding name.

The one-time stream is now an industrial pond, filled with arsenic-laced waste from a coal-fired power plant. The pond spans nearly 1,000 acres of rolling, rural landscape in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along the Ohio River. Millions of tons of coal ash have landed in the 35-year-old dump, looming over some 50,000 people in southeastern Ohio, held back by a 400-foot-tall dam, that federal regulators have deemed a “high hazard” to human life if it ever let loose.

Here in tiny Greene Township, where the pond consumes more than 10 percent of the total land, Little Blue Run seems a wasteland. Read more ..


The Edge of Litigation

Banks, Investors, and Hedge Funds Seek Lucrative Opportunities in Lawsuit Lending

November 29th 2010

Investigation - Lawyer Jared Woodfill
Attorney Jared Woodfill

Large banks, hedge funds and private investors hungry for new and lucrative opportunities are bankrolling other people’s lawsuits, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into medical malpractice claims, divorce battles and class actions against corporations — all in the hope of sharing in the potential winnings.

The loans are propelling large and prominent cases. Lenders including Counsel Financial, a Buffalo company financed by Citigroup, provided $35 million for the lawsuits brought by ground zero workers that were settled tentatively in June for $712.5 million. The lenders earned about $11 million. Read more ..


The Lobbying Edge

The Tobacco Lobby Goes Global

November 29th 2010

Economy - Child Smoking
A young girl, the daughter of farmers, smoking in Cambodia.
Credit: Jim Holmes/WHO

Multinational tobacco companies for years have been battered by politicians and lawyers in the United States and other developed nations like Australia and France. The global reputation of tobacco executives ranks near the bottom in public standing surveys. Market growth in the developed world has flattened out or declined. In the United States, the number of men who smoke dropped from 52 percent in 1965 to half that today. It appears to be so bad for the industry that one consulting group said selling tobacco represents “the worst operating environment in the world.”

No wonder. The industry’s product is the world’s single-largest preventable cause of death. Between 2005 and 2030, tobacco-related illnesses will claim as many as 176 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization Read more ..


Corruption in the Americas

Drug Trafficking and Money Laundering Depend on Latin America’s Tax Havens

November 22nd 2010

Economy - Tax Haven Protesters

Benjamin Franklin once stated, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” However, with battalions of highly paid “tax professionals” searching for ways around tax legislation for multi-national corporations (MNCs) and wealthy individuals, taxes are not as inevitable as Franklin envisaged. In Latin America, taxation-related problems are rampant, especially in the Caribbean, where many islands are considered offshore financial centers (OFCs) by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Along with facilitating tax evasion and money laundering, the use of tax havens for legal tax avoidance is contributing to poverty in much of Latin America. Read more ..


Looting the Seas

A Mediterranean Feeding Frenzy on Blue Fin

November 22nd 2010

Environment Topics - Tuna at Market

Cobblestone walkways line the quiet canals of Sète, a French community of 40,000 nestled along the Mediterranean about 85 miles west of Marseille. It is a picturesque place, bounded on one side by Mount Saint Clair and the other by the clear turquoise water of the sea. But there is more to this seemingly sleepy tourist town.

Anchored in the harbor are dozens of multimillion-euro fishing boats—vessels that comprise the world’s most productive tuna fishing fleet, with 36 vessels targeting the prized, and increasingly at risk, Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. Fed by ravenous demand in Japan, Mediterranean fishing fleets—led by those in Sète—have fished out as much as 75 percent of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin. Half of the stock, say scientists, has disappeared during the past decade. Read more ..


Confronting the Farhud

When Arabs Massacred Jews Because they Sat While Praying

November 15th 2010

Book Covers - Farhud book

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is drawn from his just released book, The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust (Dialog 2010). Buy it here

As Israelis and Palestinians struggle with a twenty-first century peace process, the world must face the forgotten history that was so pivotal in determining the present crisis. In many ways, a turning point was the day Arabs massacred Jews because they dared to sit at the Wailing Wall while praying. This simple act of prayer was so unacceptable to Arabs that it helped launch a worldwide crisis of hate that provoked a global Islamic jihad, forged an Arab-Nazi alliance during the Holocaust, and still echoes today.

The year was 1929. Jewish Palestine was still being settled by torrents of eastern European refugees. The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included the provision for a Jewish Homeland. The Balfour Declaration, widely endorsed by many nations, was a matter of international law. But the Arabs in Palestine refused to co-exist with Jews in any way except as second-class dhimmis.

Islam had been at war with the Jewish people since its defining inception in 627 when Mohammad exterminated the Jews of Mecca and launched the Islamic Conquest that swept north and subsumed Syria-Palestina. For centuries, Jews and Christians in Arab lands were allowed to exist as dhimmis, second-class citizens with limited religious rights. These restrictions were enforced by the Turks who, until World War I, ruled the geographically undetermined region known as Palestine, which included Jerusalem.

When the Ottoman Empire fell, after World War I ended in 1918, the British were obligated by the Mandate to maintain the Turkish status quo at the Wailing Wall. Read more ..


The Rail’s Edge

Local Transit Systems Plagued by Accidents, Weak Oversight

November 15th 2010

Transportation Topics - DC metro wreck #2
DC Metro Red Line Collision, 2009

If you’re boarding a plane, cruise ship, ferry or Amtrak train, a federal government agency is watching out for your safety.

But if you’re a passenger on one of the nation’s 48 subways and light-rail train systems, there is no single authority with the power to set and enforce safety measures.

Rail systems like the Metro in Washington, D.C., New York City’s subways and the “L” in Chicago are governed by a patchwork of state agencies and committees, some more watchful than others.

In some states, the groups set up to oversee light rail have so little power as to be almost completely ineffective, according to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). They include the Tri-State Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., and the Regional Transportation Authority in Chicago as well as the Texas, Utah and Wisconsin departments of transportation. Read more ..


Looting the Seas

The Black Market in Bluefin

November 8th 2010

Energy / Environment - nets for catching bluefin

Along the Mediterranean coast of France, in the city of Montpellier, prosecutors are quietly putting on trial an ancient French tradition—the fishing and trading of the majestic Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, a sushi delicacy sold in restaurants from New York to Tokyo. The still-secret proceedings accuse some of France’s most prominent fishing masters of illegally catching several hundred tons of the prized bluefin, a fish so severely plundered in the Mediterranean that this year it was proposed for listing as an endangered species alongside pandas.

Bluefin tuna is one of the sea’s most valuable species, a highly migratory fish that can weigh more than 500 kilograms and live 40 years. One large fish can fetch more than $100,000 in Japan, which consumes around 80 percent of the global bluefin catch. The widely hunted bluefin has also become a bellwether, the latest threatened species in a feeding frenzy that has seen the disappearance of as much as 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish. Read more ..


Medicare on Edge

Powerful Medical Insiders Make Determinations on Medicare

November 8th 2010

Science - Physician and stethoscope

Early this month, a group of 29 doctors gathered in a modern conference room at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, a few blocks from Lake Shore Drive. Over the course of four days, the little-known group composed mostly of specialists made a series of decisions crucial to the massive government entitlement program known as Medicare—issuing recommendations for precisely how Medicare should value more than 200 different medical procedures. Read more ..


The Electoral Edge

Americans for Job Security: How a Shadow Group Hustles for Funds

November 1st 2010

Economy - Dollar Bills

Long-time GOP operative David Carney is hardly a household name like Karl Rove. But among Republican strategists and fundraisers in Washington D.C., Texas, and other states, Carney is well-known as an aggressive and controversial figure who periodically operates under the radar. Those qualities are also hallmarks of Americans for Job Security (AJS)—a shadowy advocacy group that Carney, who is in his early 50s, founded in 1997. The group has poured almost $9 million dollars into negative ads this year to help Congressional candidates, putting it in the top tier of GOP-allied groups attracting big donors who want to remain secret. Read more ..


Edge on Politics

How Political In-Action Committees Spend Your Money

October 26th 2010

Economy - Money Money Money

Jay Peters is a psychology instructor at a Durham, North Carolina, community college who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to conservative, Republican, and Libertarian causes over the past two decades. One repeated recipient of his generosity has been a political action committee (or PAC) founded and chaired by former presidential candidate Alan Keyes: Black America’s PAC (BAMPAC, for short). Peters made three contributions to the Washington-based group, expecting that his donations would be used to help elect conservatives to federal office.

BAMPAC had other ideas. Out of more than $2 million spent since the beginning of 2007, just $13,500 of money controlled by BAMPAC has gone to federal candidate contributions, with another $9,325 for state and local candidate donations. Combined, that amounts to a mere 1.14 percent of overall spending. Over the same period, the PAC’s president received almost $200,000 in salary payments—about 10 percent of the group’s spending. And almost all of the rest went to fundraising expenses and other overhead. Read more ..


The Edge of Safety

Sleep and Fatigue Endanger All Travel

October 18th 2010

Health/Medicine - airplanes shadows

Accidents happen in a matter of seconds.

An airplane pilot takes a moment too long to react in an emergency. A trucker who has been on the road all day wanders across the median. A train engineer is lulled to sleep by the isolation and monotony of the job and misses a signal.

It’s impossible to say how many accidents are caused by operators who are just too tired to do their jobs, in part because fatigue can’t be measured like the level of alcohol in a person’s system. But fatigue is frequently cited by investigators as a factor in accidents in the air, on the water and on railways and highways. Read more ..


Edge on Financial Crisis

Foreclosure Mills: The Story of America's Foreclosure Shenanigans

October 11th 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

The news about the nation’s foreclosure scandal has been coming fast and furious, driven by tales of backdated documents, false affidavits and “rocket dockets” that push families into the street.

A former employee with one of the nation’s largest lenders testifies that he signed off on 400 foreclosure documents a day without reading them or verifying the information in them was correct.

Ex-employees of a law firm that serves as a “foreclosure mill” for major lenders describe a workplace where speed—not accuracy or justice—trumps all. “Somebody would get a 76-day foreclosure,” one recalled, “and then someone else would say, ‘Oh, I can beat that!’”

Shocking stuff. But surprising? Not for anyone who’s been tracking the recent history of the mortgage machine. Just about every corner of the America’s mortgage industry has been blemished by significant levels of fraud over the past decade. Read more ..


Travel on the Edge

Travel Safety Recommendations Ignored for Years

October 4th 2010

Disaster - USAir ditch in Hudson

Americans are exposed every day to risks in highway, air, rail and water travel that could be reduced if federal regulatory agencies and states moved faster to carry out recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents and proposes ways to prevent them.

More than 710 people have died over the past 30 years in plane crashes in which ice built up on the wings of aircraft while the Federal Aviation Administration considered NTSB recommendations to reduce icing dangers. Read more ..


Lehman on the Edge

Lehman Brothers and Government Regulation: It Was the Least they Could Do

September 27th 2010

Crime Topics - Richard Fuld
Former Lehman CEO Richard Fuld

On September 1, former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld Jr. testified about the failure of his Wall Street firm, painting himself and his company as victims of “uncontrollable market forces” and unsympathetic government banking officials.

Afterward, The New York Times said the seemingly “tragic and solitary figure” had gained a “fairly sympathetic hearing” from the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission as he gave his version of the chaotic days before Lehman’s massive bankruptcy filing on Sept. 15, 2008 — two years ago. Read more ..


Edge on Terror

Electromagnetic Pulse Attack Debated--But Looms as Real Threat

September 13th 2010

Military - EMP

Over the past decade there has been an ongoing debate over the threat posed by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to modern civilization. This debate has been the most heated perhaps in the United States, where the commission appointed by Congress to assess the threat to the United States warned of the dangers posed by EMP in reports released in 2004 and 2008. The commission also called for a national commitment to address the EMP threat by hardening the national infrastructure.

There is little doubt that efforts by the United States to harden infrastructure against EMP — and its ability to manage critical infrastructure manually in the event of an EMP attack — have been eroded in recent decades as the Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear conflict with Russia lessened. This is also true of the U.S. military, which has spent little time contemplating such scenarios in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Read more ..


The Bear is Back

Back in the USSR

September 13th 2010

Russian Topics - Heads on Pikes in Russian Youth Camp

Credit: Anti-Fascist Committee of Finland/Dr. Johan Backman

A row of wooden stakes with puppet heads stood planted in a forest camp attended by 20,000 young Russians this summer. Mounted above the heads was a large red slogan in Russian, declaring “We are not glad to see you here.”

On the puppets: photographs of Western political figures, including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and five judges of the European Court for Human Rights, as well as members of the Estonian Parliament and an assortment of Russian opposition leaders. Sitting atop each head was a cap bearing a Nazi swastika.

This rather odd form of installation art appeared at the Kremlin-backed All Russia Youth Innovative Forum, staged from July 1 to 28 along Seliger Lake in central Russia, about 235 miles from Moscow. Read more ..


The War in Afghanistan

The Struggle to Monitor Iraqi and Afghani Subcontractors

September 6th 2010

Afghan Topics - Brit with Afghani Soldier

To win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Iraq, military experts want U.S. companies to contract with local firms for a variety of tasks like trucking, feeding troops, and providing security. The U.S. government’s “Afghan First” and “Iraqi First” initiatives increasingly seek to rely on local contractors, often through subcontracts, in part to stimulate their local economies. But a host of investigations underscore the perils in the murky world of subcontracting with foreign firms, and the difficulties in making sure taxpayer dollars are well spent. Read more ..


Edge on the Immigration Crisis

Mexico Faces a Moment of Truth over its Deadly Treatment of Latin American Immigrants

August 30th 2010

Latin American Topics - Tamaulipas Mexico massacre

If Arizona's SB 1070 law, underlined by the continuing deaths of migrants in the inhospitable, blazing desert of the Southwestern state, dramatizes the crisis of US immigration policy, then the mass murder of 72 Central and South American migrants in the northern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas last week showcases a similar and widening crisis in Mexico.

The San Fernando Massacre, which occurred August 22 in a rural area about 90 miles south of the US border, was widely condemned by human rights advocates as the horrific culmination of years of corruption and neglect on the part of Mexican immigration and law enforcement officials who are often accused of collaborating with human traffickers for extortion and other purposes. Read more ..


Toxic Edge

Government and Capitalist Alliance Makes Russia an Asbestos Behemoth

August 30th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

In the aptly named city of Asbest, in the Ural Mountains 900 miles (1500 km) northeast of Moscow, the dominance of Russia’s asbestos industry — the world’s largest — is on clear display. Just east of the city is the massive open-pit Uralasbest mine. At seven miles (11 km) long and 1-½ miles (2.5 km) wide, it is nearly half the size of Manhattan — and more than a thousand feet (300 meters) deep. Nearly half a million metric tons of asbestos are gouged from the mine each year.

Seventy thousand people live in Asbest, once known as “the dying city” for its extraordinary rates of lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. But Uralasbest does not appear to have suffered any loss of status. It and other Russian asbestos producers operate with the swagger that comes from unwavering government support. Controversy bypasses them, perhaps in no small measure because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is their ally. Nothing, it seems, is allowed to interfere with an industry that employs 400,000 people and, along with its counterpart in neighboring Kazakhstan, generates at least $800 million a year. Read more ..


The Mortgage Meltdown

Some Foreclosure Rescue Scams Involve Lawyers, Mortgage Pros

August 23rd 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

Desperate U.S. homeowners facing foreclosure are being duped by con artists. The scammers employ a variety of schemes such as a “forensic mortgage loan audit” that promises to find errors in loan origination terms that will help the homeowner negotiate a loan modification or even cancel the loan, according to the Government Accountability Office. Many of the rescue schemes use telemarketing techniques and operate across state lines, making it difficult for local or state officials to prosecute. Some schemes were organized by former mortgage industry professionals or use the names of attorneys to add credibility or help them skirt state laws. California, for example, prohibits companies from charging advance fees but exempts licensed attorneys.

Other mortgage rescue schemes highlighted by the GAO:

  • Offers to negotiate new mortgage terms on behalf of a distressed homeowner for an up-front fee averaging around $3,000, then providing little or no help.
  • Convincing homeowners to transfer the deed of their home to save it from foreclosure. The scam artist, who promises to sell it back to the homeowner in the future, then has control of the property and can make money by either taking out a second loan on the home or selling it to someone else.
Read more ..

The Nuclear Edge

What Would Happen in an All-Out Nuclear War?

August 16th 2010

Military - Atomic Mushroom Cloud

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945, dropped another on Nagasaki. Since then, neither the United States nor any other nation has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. The threat of nuclear war, however, has been omnipresent, and many scholars, government officials, and civilians discussed and thought about scenarios for a possible nuclear war during the Cold War.

The U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published The Effects of War in 1979, which predicted the horrendous effects of a nuclear strike between the Soviet Union and the United States. Of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists, but the threat of a “limited” nuclear war breaking out somewhere in the world remains, between India and Pakistan for example. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Brazil's Lone Heroine Fights for Rights of Asbestos Workers

August 9th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

Inching along at rush hour in her battered black Chevrolet Corsa, Fernanda Giannasi joked about the pariah status she’s attained with the Brazilian asbestos industry. “I have no name,” she said. “I’m just ‘That woman.’”

No wonder. Giannasi, an inspector with the federal Ministry of Labor and Employment, has been trying to shut down the industry for the past quarter-century. She says that white asbestos — mined in the central Brazilian state of Goiás, turned into cement and other domestic products and increasingly sent abroad — has taken countless lives and will take countless more unless it is banned nationwide. The idea that it can be used safely, she says, is “a fiction.” Read more ..


A Toxic Edge

India’s Wide Use of Asbestos Brings Dire Warnings

August 2nd 2010

Health/Medicine - Asbestos - Bangladesh

Every day, the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea bring misery to Alang, the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in western India’s Gujarat state. An estimated 55,000 workers, unmindful of the lethal effects of asbestos-laden material in the vessels, slave for long hours and, in the process, are exposed to deadly fibers. The Indian government is aware of the risks but loath to interfere: The men need jobs, and the Indian economy, among the world’s fastest-growing, needs secondary steel from the beached vessels. “Reclamation and recycling,” says Pravin Nagarsheth, president of the Iron Steel Scrap and Ship Breakers Association of India (ISSAI), “is a highly lucrative business.”

One hundred-twenty miles (two hundred kilometers) north of Alang, workers at hundreds of dusty asbestos factories in the city of Ahmedabad face similar hazards in the name of economic development: lung cancer, asbestosis, and a rapacious malignancy, usually found in the chest cavity, called mesothelioma. In this case the end product is asbestos sheet, widely used in construction. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Exporting an Epidemic: A Global Asbestos Crisis

July 26th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

In Osasco, Brazil, an industrial city on the western flank of Sao Paulo, the past is buried beneath a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam's Club at the intersection of Avenida MariaCampos and Avenida dos Autonomistas. Here the Eternit asbestos cement factory was shuttered in 1993 and demolished in 1995 after 54 years of operation. Here three generations of workers—pouring asbestos into giant mixers with cement, cellulose and water, emptying bags, cleaning machinery—were immersed in fiber-rich white dust, setting themselves up for diseases that would debilitate many of them in retirement and kill some of them in an excruciating fashion. Scores have died since the mid-1990s, at least 10 of mesothelioma, a rare malignancy that eats into the chest wall and dispatches its victims swiftly. Aldo Vincentin succumbed at age 66 in July 2008, only three months after his diagnosis. “They knew about the dangers of the materials and they didn’t protect my husband,” his widow, Giselia Gomes Vincentin, says of Eternit. “I think many people will still die.” Read more ..


Travel Safe

The Shifting Landscape of Passport Fraud

July 26th 2010

Crime Topics - Passport Fraud

The recent case involving the arrest and deportation of the Russian intelligence network in the United States has once again raised the subject of document fraud in general and passport fraud in particular. The FBI’s investigation into the group of Russian operatives discovered that several of the suspects had assumed fraudulent identities and had obtained genuine passports (and other identity documents) in their assumed names. One of the suspects assumed the identity of a Canadian by the name of Christopher Robert Mestos, who died in childhood. The suspect was arrested in Cyprus but fled after posting bail; his true identity remains unknown. Three other members of the group also assumed Canadian identities, with Andrey Bezrukov posing as Donald Heathfield, Elena Vavilova as Tracey Foley and Natalia Pereverzeva as Patricia Mills.

Passport fraud is a topic that surfaces with some frequency in relation to espionage cases. (The Israelis used passport fraud during the January 2010 operation to assassinate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas militant commander.) Passport fraud is also frequently committed by individuals involved in crimes such as narcotics smuggling and arms trafficking, as well as by militants involved in terrorist plots. Because of the frequency with which passport fraud is used in these types of activities — and due to the importance that curtailing passport fraud can have in combating espionage, terrorism and crime — we thought it a topic worth discussing this week in greater detail. Read more ..


The Urban Poor

Legal Aid Societies under Investigation as they Help the Poor and Help Themselves

July 19th 2010

Social Topics - baltimore povery art
Baltimore blight

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tony West hailed Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau with a rousing speech a few weeks ago that equated the nonprofit group with great American poverty fighters like Adlai Stevenson, Thurgood Marshall, and Clarence Darrow.

The Maryland group is “an institution where the overriding charge is to do not what is popular, or partisan, or political, but to do what is right,” the Justice Department’s top civil attorney boasted May 20 at an annual awards celebration in which the group rented out a red-bricked banquet hall inside Baltimore’s Camden Yard’s baseball stadium.

Unbeknownst to West at that moment, though, prosecutors inside his own department were preparing a criminal case exposing how Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau failed for more than a decade to catch one of its top executives, who is accused of systematically defrauding the federally funded program.

Six days after West’s speech, Legal Aid Bureau’s former chief financial officer was charged in U.S. District Court in Baltimore with stealing, along with an accomplice, more than $1 million in federal, state and private monies that were supposed to help the poor get legal help but were instead spent on such things as personal junkets to Atlantic City for gambling and prostitutes, officials said. Read more ..


Travel Safe

Security Features for e-Passports Assembled in High-Risk Locations

June 21st 2010

Travel - Passport

Last month, a gunman opened fire on an insurance building in the ancient Thai city of Ayutthaya, piercing the glass windows of the People’s Alliance for Democracy headquarters with 11 millimeter caliber bullets.

A few weeks earlier, bombs made from powerful plastic explosives were detonated near transmission towers in the same city in an unsuccessful effort by terrorists to darken the manufacturing district. The violent episodes hardly registered in the United States. Few Americans have heard of Ayutthaya, after all, or know of a reason to pay attention to it.

But there is a reason, one directly connected to America’s security. The key electronic components for millions of American e-Passports, the crown jewel of a new U.S. border security system, have been put together inside a little-known factory in Ayutthaya for the past four years. Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

Five Lobbyists for Each Member of Congress on Financial Reforms

May 24th 2010

Economy - Financial reform now protest

More than 850 banks, hedge funds, companies, associations, and other organizations hired 3,000-plus lobbyists to work on the reform bills, according to an examination of lobbying disclosure data for all of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. However, public outrage over Wall Street’s role in the 2007-09 financial meltdown blunted industry attempts to win loopholes in the measure now before the U.S. Senate.

Most of the big players in American business lobbying were active as regulatory reform proposals worked their way through Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce deployed 85 lobbyists, including 49 hired from outside lobbying firms. Among financial services groups, the Securities Industry and Financial Market Association employed 54 lobbyists, including 37 from outside firms. The American Bankers Association deployed 53 lobbyists, the Business Roundtable 42, and the Mortgage Bankers Association 29, according to Center data.

In the financial services industry, some 175 companies and groups—ranging from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to CME Group Inc. to the Private Equity Council—hired lobbyists to try to weaken or eliminate reform proposals aimed at banks and the capital markets. A distant second was the energy and utilities sector, with 91 companies and organizations, followed by manufacturing with 66 firms. Read more ..


The BP Spill

Training Exercises Showed Gaps in Government Preparedness Before BP Oil Spill

May 17th 2010

Energy / Environment - Oil Spill Cleanup Crew

Over the last eight years, the U.S. government has conducted four major drills to prepare for a massive oil spill, the results of which foreshadowed many of the weaknesses in coordination, communication, expertise, and technology that have plagued the federal response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to interviews and after-action reports, the training exercises conducted in 2002, 2004, 2007, and just this past March caused federal officials to express concern about a host of issues. Most prominent among them:

  • coordination and communication between the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, especially involving the process for naming a National Incident Commander (NIC) to take charge of the crisis;
  • a slow or inaccurate flow of information from the industry, particularly caused by companies' desire to protect proprietary information and officials' tendency to exclude industry representatives from the government's command center; and
  • a lack of expertise and modern technology for closing a spewing oil well leak and containing a slick through controlled burns and dispersants.

Since then, the government has faced questions about why it took so long to declare the spill an emergency, why it didn’t use Pentagon planes sooner to spray dispersants and why it lacked a ready supply of specialized booms to contain and burn the growing oil slick. Read more ..


The Edge of Oil

OSHA Says 97% of Worst Industry Violations Found at BP Refineries

May 17th 2010

Energy / Environment - BP Refinery Explosion
BP's Renegade Refinery after Explosion

Two refineries owned by oil giant BP account for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows. Most of BP’s citations were classified as “egregious willful” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reflect alleged violations of a rule designed to prevent catastrophic events at refineries.

BP is battling a massive oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico after an April 20 platform blast that killed 11 workers. But the firm has been under intense OSHA scrutiny since its refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded in March 2005, killing 15 workers. While continuing its probe in Texas City, OSHA launched a nationwide refinery inspection program in June 2007 in response to a series of fires, explosions, and chemical releases throughout the industry. Read more ..



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