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Turkish Official Says Twitter Will Help Remove ‘Malicious Content’

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 2:16pm

An election poster of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul before last month’s local elections. March 2014.

CREDIT: AP

Turkey’s communications minister said on Thursday that Twitter agreed to help the government remove unwanted content from the social media network.

Days before local elections late last month, the Turkish government blocked Twitter and YouTube after users posted audio purporting to be high level Turkish officials — including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — engaging in corrupt activities. While Turkey’s highest court ordered the government to lift the Twitter ban, YouTube is still blocked.

After Twitter executives met with Turkish officials this week, Turkey’s Communications Minister Lütfi Elvan released a statement claiming that they “reached a consensus to ‘neutralize’ malicious content that is the object of court decisions by pixelating.”

While it’s not entirely clear whether this agreement applies to content going forward — Twitter declined to comment when asked by ThinkProgress — Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president of global public policy, told the Wall Street Journal that any future decisions on whether to blur content will be made based solely on Twitter’s internal polices or local court orders.

“When we suspend or withhold accounts we do (so) in response to user complaints or court orders—not in response to government requests. Suspensions are for violations of our own rules, and…some of the court orders related to content that violated our own rules,” Crowell said.

“During the meeting, the opening of a liaison office in Turkey to ensure closer coordination, as well as the conferring of authority for ‘super tagging’ to Turkey’s telecommunication directorate [TİB] was discussed. But Twitter executives said they would not immediately decide on these issues and could reconvene after assessing it in a meeting at their headquarters,” Elvan said in the statement, according to Hurriyet.

But Crowell told the New York Times that at this point in time, Twitter has already decided against opening an office in Turkey. “Obviously, turning off our service does not add to the attractiveness of making an investment, and the climate for investment for a company like ours has to include a certain understanding about service continuity,” he said.

Erdogan has called Twitter a “menace to society,” and his administration is apparently looking to use taxation in its next battle with the social media giant. “Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are international companies established for profit,” Erdogan said last weekend, according to the Times. “Twitter is at the same time a tax evader. We will go after it.”

The post Turkish Official Says Twitter Will Help Remove ‘Malicious Content’ appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

After Dry Winter In California, Preparations Begin For Harsh Wildfire Season

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 2:07pm

National Forest Service crew members work to restore terrain that was bulldozed for a firebreak in the battle against Rim Fire near Tuolumne City, California in September, 2013

CREDIT: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

It’s been a long, dry winter for California, with record-low snowpack and ideal wildfire conditions to show for it. At the beginning of the month, during the time when snowpack usually peaks, the state snow survey showed it to be at 32 percent of average, one of the lowest years on record. In some areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains — where snowpack provides crucial water supply over the summer — nearly half the snowpack has melted in just the past week due to soaring temperatures according to reporting done by Andrew Freedman at Mashable.

And with the latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook released on Thursday showing the drought persisting or intensifying throughout the state until August, precipitation figures will continue to trend negatively. One area where figures will grow is wildfires, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is already warning that it will be a long and challenging fire season. And its not like its been easy so far — between January 1 and April 5, Cal Fire responded to approximately 900 wildfires, around triple the average for that period.

With that in mind, Cal Fire hired nearly 100 additional seasonal firefighters to be stationed in the north and middle part of the state starting this week.

“Over the last several months we have seen an unseasonable number of wildfires across Northern California,” Chief Doug Wenham, Cal Fire northern region chief, said in a statement last week. “Our weather forecast continues to show an increased potential in Northern California for large wildfires.”

This is all part of a long-term trend in the state as the region becomes more arid as climate change models have predicted.

“Over half of the state’s largest wildfires have occurred in just the past decade,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “We are seeing longer summers and hotter summers. And so this year with the drought, stressed vegetation, with the grass and brush being drier than it ever has been, the likelihood of large and damaging wildfires is even higher.”

While California is a leader in efforts to mitigate climate change, and has a nascent cap-and-trade program as well as a goal of achieving one-third renewable energy by the end of the decade, a new study shows there are many ways to improve forest fire mitigation in the state as well.

Conducted by scientists at the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service, the study found that forest management can substantially reduce costs associated with fighting and cleaning up fires as well as reducing their size and intensity by over half. It says this can be achieved in two steps. First, by thinning undergrowth to prevent fire from being carried into the canopy, and second, using prescribed burns to clear the underbrush.

“By having frequent low-severity fires the underbrush and small trees cleared out, and the risk of these kinds of destructive megafires was much lower,” David Edelson, the Sierra Nevada Project Director at the Nature Conservancy and a primary author on the report, told KQED Science about the history of the state. “Currently, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. When there’s a huge fire, we take the money away from the pots that are used to reduce wildfire risk. We are in a negative feedback loop, and we’ve gotta stop doing that.”

A combination of inadequate budgets and a century of fire suppression has left forests teeming with tinder, according to the study. Some forests have as much as ten times the number of trees they had historically. But as the mindset of the forest service changes from suppression to mitigation, this could change.

“We’re carrying these forests that are incredibly vulnerable forward into climate change,” Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at University of California, Berkeley, told KQED Science. “It’s a disaster really.”

In his 2015 budget, President Obama calls for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. It is designed to avoid making the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior drain fire prevention budgets to pay for big wildfires.

A shorter prescribed-burn season due to climate change is not the only challenge to reducing the toll of these fires, however. Many residential areas encroach on forests, making it harder to employ controlled burns.

The post After Dry Winter In California, Preparations Begin For Harsh Wildfire Season appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Virginia High Court Rules Deniers Have No Right To Climate Scientists’ Emails

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 1:54pm

Two years ago, VA Circuit Judge Paul Sheridan ruled that the University of Virginia (UVA) doesn’t have to release the private emails of climate scientists like Michael Mann to the anti-science American Tradition Institute (ATI).

Now, the Virginia Supreme Court has unanimously upheld Sheridan’s finding in favor of UVA. Prof. Mann, one of the country’s most distinguished climate scientists, writes on his Facebook page, “This is a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists explains the legal finding in detail here. They sum it up this way: “The Court’s decision signals to scientists at public universities that the pursuit of scientific knowledge will be protected in Virginia, no matter how their research results might be received.”

Significantly, the VA Supreme Court found that the legal justifications for exemption from disclosure in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act include preventing “impairment of free thought and expression.” As the UCS notes:

It’s a big deal that the Court recognized the fact that excessive disclosure can have a significant chilling effect on researchers’ ability to communicate frankly with each other…. [D]emanding private email correspondence among scientists is the 21st Century equivalent to eavesdropping on conversations around the water cooler. All of us need safe space to develop ideas and open them up to scrutiny so that we can make them better.

The high court quotes at length a brief submitted by UVA Provost John Simon: “For faculty at public institutions such as the University of Virginia, compelled disclosure of their unpublished thoughts, data, and personal scholarly communications would mean a fundamental disruption of the norms and expectations which have enabled research to flourish at the great public institutions for over a century.”

The anti-science crowd knows that they can’t win on the science, as I’ve said many times. Indeed they apparently have written off smart people entirely. But like someone addicted to cigarettes, they have been trying to reproduce the high from the massive Climategate exercise in smoke blowing.

To do that, the deniers need fresh emails to dazzle the gullible so they won’t see the climate change that is all around them.

How extreme is ATI? Three years ago they were singled out for criticism by the traditionally staid American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS Board issued a statement on “Personal Attacks on Climate Scientists” that said, “We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public.” The accompanying AAAS news release made clear the Board was talking about ATI.

Anyone who wishes can help climate scientists in their quest to provide humanity the information we need to save ourselves by supporting the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

The post Virginia High Court Rules Deniers Have No Right To Climate Scientists’ Emails appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Why Some People Sign Up For Obamacare And Don’t Pay Their Premiums

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:59pm

CREDIT: AP

President Obama announced that 8 million people signed up for Obamacare on Thursday, just as critics of the law try to downplay the validity of numbers ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. In fact, with every public release of data, conservatives have pressed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to offer more specifics on on just how many of the newly enrolled were actually uninsured and what percentage of beneficiaries paid for their insurance premiums.

Those numbers are still uncertain, though the nation’s largest health insurers report that “15 to 20 percent of its new customers aren’t paying their first premium, which means, as the National Journal’s Sam Baker notes, that “they’re not actually covered.”

Is it concerning that so many people have signed up for insurance without coughing up a dime? Ken Jacobs, who heads the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley, doesn’t think so. He argues that the transient nature of the individual market means that some number of people will sign up for insurance and never use it.

“I expect some share of people who enrolled in September, November, December to have income changes or changes in life situation that would affect coverage needs,” he said adding that between one-third and one-half of those who enrolled, “especially in the early part, would have had a life transition, did not need coverage by the time that coverage starts.” Others may have had administrative problems in processing payments or had some change of heart about the insurance product.

The bottom line is that the market experiences fluctuations as people get a job that provides employer-based coverage and choose to leave the exchanges or get married and become dependents on their souse’s insurance. Open enrollment only captures part of the story, Jacobs explained, adding that “people who are coming in are coming in, but some people are leaving.” The labor center just published a study estimating that more than 40 percent of beneficiaries will leave the California exchanges by the following January.

Experience in Massachusetts, which enacted similar reforms in 2006, confirms this tend. “Among individuals, there is a significant increase in the number of individual subscribers in force for one year or less; this represents people ‘jumping’ into and out of coverage” a Massachusetts state report found. Though other factors were present in the Massachusetts market that are not at issue elsewhere in the nation, the churn of individual and small group subscribers is telling. In 2008, 107,343 individual subscribers enrolled, but just 62,282 remained active.

The post Why Some People Sign Up For Obamacare And Don’t Pay Their Premiums appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

BREAKING: Obamacare Enrollment Hits 8 Million

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:43pm

CREDIT: Department of Health and Human Services

President Obama announced on Thursday that 8 million people have signed up for plans through Obamacare’s new insurance exchanges. Although March 31 was originally the final deadline to enroll in Obamacare, administration officials extended the open enrollment period until April 15 to accommodate the people who may have struggled to complete their applications due to technological issues.

Just over two weeks ago, the administration announced that Obamacare enrollment had reached 7.1 million — surpassing expectations after HealthCare.gov’s rocky rollout in October. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) originally projected seven million enrollments, and revised that figure down to six million after persistent website glitches plagued the exchange websites in the fall. But sign-ups picked up steam as the deadline neared. The 8 million figure includes 3.7 million sign-ups between March 1 and April 15.

“This thing is working,” Obama said.

The administration has not yet released more detailed data about the people who have signed up for new plans, so it’s unclear how many were previously uninsured and how many have paid their first premium. Even without further numbers from the White House, however, several recent outside reports suggest that the health reform law is on solid footing.

Polling from Gallup released this week found that Obamacare may be having an even bigger impact on the uninsurance rate than initially expected, suggesting that about 12 million previously uninsured Americans have gained coverage since the fall. That places the uninsurance rate at its lowest point since 2008. According to Gallup’s estimations, about half of the Americans who have gained insurance for the first time this year say they got their coverage through Obamacare’s marketplaces. Other people gaining coverage could have gotten it through the expansion of the Medicaid program, or by signing up directly with an insurer.

And despite concerns that Obamacare wouldn’t be able to recover from HealthCare.gov’s disastrous rollout, several major insurers say they’re optimistic about the law, and eager to continue offering plans on the new marketplaces during the next open enrollment period. Insurance companies like UnitedHealth Group, Kaiser Permanente, Molina Healthcare, and Wellmark are interested in maintaining their presences on the state-level exchanges, and some are considering expanding, according to Politico.

Although there have been some ominous predictions that Obamacare will cause health insurance premiums to skyrocket, the statisticians working with insurers to project next year’s insurance premium rates report that there won’t be double digit hikes. While there will likely be variation in individual costs, officials from the Society of Actuaries expect mostly modest premium increases, saying “the double-rate increases we’ve been hearing are probably exaggerated.”

Some of the concerns over rising premiums stemmed from the assumption that there won’t be enough young and healthy people in the exchanges to balance out the older and sicker enrollees. But those fears may be unfounded. Obama announced on Thursday that 35 percent of enrollees are under the age of 35, and 28 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34. Since previous estimates had skewed older, that indicates a rush of younger people signed up at the last minute. Those numbers fall in line with the experience that Massachusetts has when it enacted similar health care reforms in 2006. Young people gradually signed up over time, and by the end of the enrollment period, about 28 percent of Massachusetts enrollees were between the ages of 19 and 34.

However, not everyone is equally sharing in the gains under Obamacare’s coverage expansion. The president noted that, thanks to Republican governors’ continued resistance to the optional Medicaid expansion, an estimated 5.7 million low-income people will remain uninsured in 2016.

The post BREAKING: Obamacare Enrollment Hits 8 Million appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Communities Find That Oil Trains Are A Disaster Waiting To Happen

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:12pm

In this Dec. 30, 2013, file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bruce Crummy

When a freight train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed and exploded in the middle of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people and destroying half of the downtown, no one knew it’d mark the start of a new era of train disasters, or that so little would be done to keep more from happening.

Less than a year and 10 oil train derailments later, it’s largely luck that has prevented another deadly disaster. Trains carrying crude travel through an unknown number of American cities on a daily basis, endangering countless residents, and safety efforts move slowly and with industry opposition. And Wednesday, the freight rail industry revealed that mandatory safety technology to prevent derailments and collisions will only be installed on 20 percent of tracks on deadline at the end of 2015.

Examples of inaction on rail safety are plentiful. Firefighters say they aren’t trained to deal with derailments or explosions. Trains travel in secret, in one instance passing through a town for over a year before residents had any say. Thin-shelled railcars continue to carry crude oil even after their contribution to multiple fiery derailments, and new railcar safety standards still aren’t final. And the Bakken crude oil that’s driving the need for train shipments was only discovered to be especially flammable after several explosions and fires had occurred.

The pace of oil drilling at North Dakota’s Bakken formation has created new need for sending oil by rail. Drilling companies are developing oil sources at a breakneck speed, meaning there’s no time to address worker safety or the wasteful flaring of a third of natural gas produced as a byproduct. A haphazard approach toward preventing disastrous crashes is just another consequence of prizing speed above all, despite the fact that the oil has been underground for millions of years, and isn’t going anywhere on its own.

Transporting oil by rail is a fairly new issue, which can obscure the fact that dramatic accidents shot up right with the volume of oil transported. As recently as 2010, only about 30,000 carloads of crude oil originated in the United States. By 2012 that number was 233,819 carloads, and 2013 saw 407,642. In the entire period from 1975 to 2012, railroads only spilled 800,000 gallons of crude. The Casselton, North Dakota spill alone spilled about 400,000.

But there’s hope, as communities take matters into their own hands, opposing hazardous oil-by-rail terminals even as industry officials throw a fit. An attempt to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal in Vancouver, Washington has come up against significant opposition from the city council over concerns for the safety of the city’s 165,000 residents. The terminal could take in 131 million barrels of oil a year, in the form of four trains a day, and Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., the companies behind the terminal, are scrambling to push it through. The Port of Portland already said no to oil train terminals over safety concerns. And Californian communities are having some success in stopping efforts to bring oil-laden trains through major population centers like Berkeley and Oakland.

Meanwhile, the rail industry is counting on further oil train gains in 2014 to offset declining coal and container traffic and make 2014 a good year. And as CSX Corp. Chairman, President, and CEO Michael Ward warned the industry publication Progressive Railroading, “excessive” safety regulations related to oil train explosions could put a damper on things.

Prior to 2013, derailments that resulted in explosions or fires typically involved ethanol, and they were uncommon. If the country is going to reduce the likelihood of a disaster caused by moving oil by rail, it will be led by communities fighting to protect themselves.

Of course, pipelines are a dangerous way to transport oil as well. Fiery pipeline explosions can leave people without heat and level homes. Even when they aren’t so dramatic, leaks are commonplace, and can leak huge amounts of oil before they are discovered — if they are discovered at all. To keep warming limited to two degrees celsius, most of it is going to need to stay in the only safe place for it: buried deep underground.

The post Communities Find That Oil Trains Are A Disaster Waiting To Happen appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

General Mills: If You Like Cheerios On Facebook, You’re Not Allowed To Sue Us

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 11:00am

Using brands coupons or even liking them on Facebook can mean that customers can’t sue companies for false advertising or mislabeling.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Joe Giblin

Don’t be so quick to “like” your favorite snack on Facebook or you could be giving up more than you bargained for. General Mills just released a new policy that makes it so customers who do “like” their products also give up their right to take the company to court if there’s a problem with it.

The change, first reported by The New York Times Thursday, comes just as the mega food corporation behind Cheerios and Fruit Roll-Ups fights several class-action lawsuits challenging its misleading product labels and advertisements as healthy or natural.

The new legal policy signals a new tactic by companies to keep out of court by using consumers’ social media habits against them. Getting any sort of “benefit” from the company — downloading coupons, engaging with General Mills’ social media accounts or entering a sweepstakes — means customers forfeit their right to file a lawsuit a big lawsuit even for health reasons. Instead, they have to first informally haggle with a company representative to resolve their complaints, after which the case goes to a private arbitrator or small claims court if a deal can’t be reached. The only way customers can get out of the new terms is by emailing General Mills’ legal team and completely removing any online association with the brands — un-liking every post, Facebook page or un-registering from any email lists. Customers could have easily missed General Mills’ new online policy, mainly because most users agree to new privacy and legal terms without reading them fully.

General Mills and the food industry overall have seen a deluge of lawsuits involving everything from false advertising to overblown health benefits. The company is currently fending off several class action lawsuits over its use of genetically modified ingredients in its Nature Valley granola bars that tout a “100% natural” label. General Mills also paid out $8.5 million in settlements for a dispute involving its use of a thickening ingredient in its Yoplait Greek Yogurt, which was criticized as making the product technically not yogurt.

The company has come under a lot of fire in the past for targeting its products to children and misleadingly promoting junk food as somewhat healthy snacks to parents. But food corporations, including General Mills, have a huge influence in Washington. The industry has spent almost $200 million in lobbying since 2009. The result has been fewer mandatory regulations and a growing reliance on more self-regulatory guidelines, such as the proposed voluntary rules General Mills, Kellogg and other companies drafted with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, fast food restaurant chains Panda Express, and Taco Bell, have similarly struggled with misleading advertising practices aimed at shifting the focus on obesity epidemic from their products.

The post General Mills: If You Like Cheerios On Facebook, You’re Not Allowed To Sue Us appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Lawyer Who Defended Prop 8 Before Supreme Court Reveals Daughter Is Gay And Getting Married

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:46am

Attorney Charles J. Cooper

CREDIT: AP

“It is reasonable to be very concerned that redefining marriage…as a genderless institution, could well lead, over time, to harms to that institution and to the interests that society has always has always used that institution to address.”

Those are the words of Charles Cooper, the California defense attorney hired to defend California’s anti-marriage Proposition 8 law before the United States Supreme Court last year.

One year later, Cooper’s position appears to have evolved. According to a new book from New York Times journalist Jo Becker, midway through Proposition 8′s long battle in state and federal appellate courts, he learned that his stepdaughter was gay and planning to marry in her home state of Massachusetts. The engagement was announced right on the heels of the Supreme Court granting the Proposition 8 case a writ of certiorari in December 2012.

The Washington Post published a statement from Cooper:

“My family is typical of families all across America. We love each other; we stand up for each other; and we pray for, and rejoice in, each other’s happiness. My daughter Ashley’s path in life has led her to happiness with a lovely young woman named Casey, and our family and Casey’s family are looking forward to celebrating their marriage in just a few weeks.

He added: “As Becker reports in her book, I told Ashley that what matters most is that I love her and she loves me.”

Cooper said that he and his daughter discussed the delicate situation months before deliberations began before the Supreme Court, and left it up to her if she wanted to go public with the revelation during the proceedings. She erred on the side of privacy, while he continued to defend the law in court.

The news shines fresh light on the oral arguments made by Cooper in March of 2013 before the court. He explained to Justice Kagan that the defense’s position on same-sex marriage was essentially that because it couldn’t result in procreation, it shouldn’t be allowed.

The post Lawyer Who Defended Prop 8 Before Supreme Court Reveals Daughter Is Gay And Getting Married appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

New Hampshire Falls One Vote Short Of Repealing The Death Penalty

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:17am

CREDIT: Shutterstock

New Hampshire came close to becoming the 20th state to ban the death penalty on Thursday, falling just one vote short in the Republican-controlled state Senate. The House passed the measure in March with overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle, and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) said she would sign it if it passed the Senate. After the 12-12 tie vote, the Granite State remains the last in New England with the death penalty intact.

New Hampshire has just one inmate on death row, 34-year-old Michael Addison, who was convicted in 2009 of killing a police officer. The slain officer’s partner, John Breckinridge, penned an op-ed this year expressing regret over how he had publicly pushed for the death penalty for Addison and calling for a repeal.

The death penalty has largely fallen out of favor across the country, with most executions concentrated in just 2 percent of counties in the US. Most recently, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) suspended the death penalty because he felt there were too many flaws in the system to assure that justice was being served. Indeed, studies show death sentences are often racially skewed. The vast majority of executions for interracial murder involve a black perpetrator and white victim, while the killers of minority victims rarely receive the death penalty.

Another reason for the steadily declining use of death sentences is simply a practical concern; capital punishment tends to be exorbitantly expensive, and lethal drugs are increasingly difficult to procure. The states that continue to execute people are experimenting with questionable alternatives like unapproved drugs or firing squads.

The post New Hampshire Falls One Vote Short Of Repealing The Death Penalty appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Fossil Fuel Industry Has Skin — And Money — In The Texas Governor’s Race

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:12am

CREDIT: AP Images

What do Texas Democratic candidate for governor Wendy Davis and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson have in common? They both wanted to limit hydraulic fracturing in their neighborhoods in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — but for very different reasons. During her time on the Fort Worth City Council, Davis oversaw the early days of the fracking boom and worked with residents and industry to shape the local ordinances, limit noise, keep drilling a safe distance from homes, and set up inspection duties now imitated throughout the country. Tillerson, whose day job is to promote oil and gas development and stave off regulatory oversight, didn’t want his $5 million property value to be harmed.

Where does Texas State Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor Greg Abbott fit into all of this? He received large sums of money from oil and gas companies shortly after Davis announced her intention to run for governor last fall.

According to analysis by the Burnt Orange Report, several Texas oil companies gave large sums to the Republican Governors’ Association last October, with ConocoPhillips giving $50,000, Valero PAC giving $15,000, and Texas Oceanic Petroleum giving $25,000. While these sums of money alone will not swing the election, they are indicative of the broader scope of both candidates’ dealings with the booming fossil fuel industry in Texas, where more than 800 drilling rigs comprise almost half the total number in the U.S., and nearly a quarter worldwide, according to a Baker Hughes Rig Count from late 2013.

Abbott has always been a lapdog for the oil and gas industry. It only takes a quick glance at his campaign contributions to understand that he’ll dance with the ones who bought him.

“Abbott has always been a lapdog for the oil and gas industry,” Sharon Wilson, a spokesperson for Earthworks and author of the popular Blue Daze: Drilling Reform blog, told ThinkProgress in an email. “It only takes a quick glance at his campaign contributions to understand that he’ll dance with the ones who bought him.”

Wilson said that Davis, for her part, has written a number of common sense bills that would protect private property and help lessen impacts to the families who have to live with unconventional oil and gas development while still allowing development to take place. Not many of those bills where allowed out of committee though. As the Burnt Orange Report points out, oil and gas companies spread the wealth around Texas at the state level, barring a Democratic party registration.

Both Davis and Abbott declined to be interviewed for a recent New York Times’ article on their oil and gas records. Davis submitted a statement saying her record shows that “we promoted the industry while making sure drilling in urban areas was safe and respected individual property rights and communities.”

Kinnan Golemon, an oil company lobbyist who dealt with Davis’s Senate office, told the New York Times that Davis “developed an understanding of the industry and some of its wants and needs” and that “she never closed us out from having meaningful discussions.”

Matt Hirsch, the campaign’s spokesman for Abbott, came to a different conclusion, saying Davis’s “record makes it clear she has more in common with radical environmentalists than the people of Texas.”

As Texas Attorney General, Gregg Abbott has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 17 times and the Obama administration at least 25 times. Last year, Abbott was quoted telling a tea party group that on a typical workday, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

Abbott’s campaign has not yet released detailed oil and gas proposals, but his history of environmental lawsuits indicate that fossil fuel interests are rarely out of sight or mind. Hirsh even told the New York Times that Abbott’s legal record shows that he would have the industry’s best interests at heart.

Davis has been taking on good ole boys in Texas like Rex Tillerson and Gregg Abbott for her entire political career. While her rise in popularity was centered around her stance on women’s rights and abortion, she’s also helped citizens fight for clean water and against contaminating chemicals used in the process of hydraulic fracturing. In 2011, she filed a bill the would’ve required companies drilling for natural gas to include a “tracer” fluid that would “protect the gas drilling industry from false claims of groundwater contamination in the same manner that DNA evidence is used to prove (guilty) or exonerate defendants in criminal court cases.”

Innocent until proven guilty; Davis did attend Harvard Law School. Abbott, on the other hand, knows the EPA is guilty to start with.

According to Amy Silverstein in the Dallas Observer, when oil and gas companies in Davis’s Fort Worth area became more aggressive around 2005 council members initially went along with their demands. A couple years later it became clear the situation was getting out of hand, and Davis started having second thoughts about the city’s approach to urban drilling. At a meeting, she said “I’m not an anti- gas-well person. The dialogue gets characterized: If you express concerns, you’re against it.”

“As much as I like Wendy Davis, she was not a good advocate for my side,” Don Young, a Fort Worth local who started an early anti-fracking group, FwCanDo, told the Dallas Observer. “She was better than others but not tough enough. Still I’m a supporter, even though I don’t expect her to be anti-fracking or -drilling.”

The post Fossil Fuel Industry Has Skin — And Money — In The Texas Governor’s Race appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

The Imaginary Rule That Keeps Obama’s Judges From Being Confirmed

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:00am

The United States Senate is a labyrinth of arcane rules, obscure precedents, and traditions that were invented for an era when senators rode horses and buggies to Washington. There’s a rule that can force the clerk to spend hours reading a 767-page amendment aloud. There’s a another one that lets the minority leader order all committee work to shut down after 2pm. Indeed, even something as basic as a judicial confirmation is drawn out and complex. To confirm a circuit judge, the Senate has to vote on that judge, wait 30 hours, and then vote for her again.

And even if someone masters the Senate’s many rules and traditions, they will still encounter roadblocks that are written nowhere in the Senate’s standing rules and that have very little grounding in its history. One of these is a practice that gives each senator the right to veto anyone named to a federal judgeship in their state. Because of this veto, Republican senators can make extortionate demands from President Obama. And they can back those demands up by threatening to hold every judicial vacancy in their state open until Obama leaves office.

Armed with this veto, Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson pressured President Obama into nominating a largely Republican slate of nominees to several judgeships in Georgia (one of these nominees cast votes in favor of the Confederate flag, marriage discrimination and anti-abortion groups while he was a state lawmaker). Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) vetoed a judge because she once made a statement the National Rifle Association disagreed with. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is currently blocking a nominee that he personally recommended to the White House.

This veto exists largely because the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee says that it exists. That chair, currently Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has control over the proceedings in their committee. And Leahy has suggested each senator’s power to veto nominees from their home state is one of their rights as a senator. As Leahy put it in 2012, “I have steadfastly protected the rights of the minority. I have done so despite criticism from Democrats. I have only proceeded with judicial nominations supported by both home state Senators.”

Senator Leahy’s office also shared with us several reasons why they believe it would be a mistake to end this veto. They note that Democrats may want to veto a Republican president’s nominees as well. They warn that eliminating this veto would infuriate Republicans and cause them to block nominees through other means, and they cite confirmation statistics indicating that Leahy has been successful in getting many nominees confirmed despite the fact that some nominees are vetoed.

Yet, while Leahy has the power to keep this veto in place as long as he chairs the Judiciary Committee, he will not do so forever. And a close examination of the history of this practice reveals that only one of his predecessors followed the single-senator veto practice that Leahy supports. If a Republican takes the White House in 2016, and another Republican assumes the gavel in the Senate Judiciary Committee, there will be nothing preventing that new Judiciary chair from eliminating the single-senator veto. Indeed, if Leahy’s successor does eliminate the veto, they will do little more than roll back an unusual practice that did not exist for most of the Senate’s history.

Blue Slips

The single-senator veto rule is rooted in a Senate tradition known as the “blue slip.” As Leahy wrote in an op-ed defending his use of this rule, “[a] blue slip is a piece of paper that the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman uses to solicit views of home state senators when someone is nominated to be a judge in their state.” The significance of this piece of paper has varied greatly, however, throughout the committee’s history. Under Leahy, if a single senator returns a blue slip indicating that they oppose a nominee — or, potentially, if they do not return the blue slip at all — then the Judiciary Committee will not hold a confirmation hearing on that nominee. The nomination effectively died. For nearly all of the blue slip’s history, however, senators did not have this power.

The origins of the blue slip are a bit hazy. Some accounts place it in 1917, while others claim it originated a few years earlier. According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), however, blue slips served a largely advisory role for most of their early history. Until 1956, “[i]f a Senator objected to his/her home-state nominee, the committee would report the nominee adversely to the Senate, where the contesting Senator would have the option of stating his/her objections to the nominee before the Senate would vote on confirmation.” Thus, nominees who received a negative blue slip would still receive an up or down vote by the full Senate.

George Washington University political scientists Forrest Maltzman and Sarah Binder offer one explanation for why this blue slip came into being. In 1913, Democrats took control of the Senate after many years in the political wilderness. Yet they also took control over a Senate throttled by even more choke points than the Senate faces today. Among other things, the Senate lacked a cloture rule permitting filibusters to be broken, so it was very important for the Senate leadership to identify which nominees were likely to face opposition lest the entire body become paralyzed by endless filibustering. Blue slips, according to Maltzman and Binder, “appear to have had high information value for the committee chairman.” It was “devised to be an early warning system, not an absolute veto.”

It should be noted that, while the blue slip did not prevent nominees from receiving a vote in its early years, a negative blue slip often had the practical effect of preventing a nominee from being confirmed. Few senators from, say, Iowa, have much of a stake in who sits on a district court in Maine. So if Maine’s senators objected to a nominee, other senators would often honor that objection as a courtesy to a colleague that they may need to support one of their pet projects someday. Nevertheless, prior to 1956 that judgement was left to each individual senator.

Eastland and Earl Warren

The first Senate Judiciary chair to implement a single-senator veto — and the only one until Leahy — was Senator James Eastland (D-MS). A Mississippi plantation owner, Eastland believed that “the Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period.” He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than two decades, a period that saw the death of Jim Crow and the enactment of two of America’s most important civil rights laws. Yet these bills only became law because Eastland’s Senate colleagues found ways to make an end run around him.

There’s no smoking gun document revealing exactly why Eastland transformed the blue slip into a single-senator veto shortly after taking over the Judiciary Committee — or at least, none of the scholars ThinkProgress spoke with were able to point us to such a document. Nevertheless, there is an obvious explanation for why Eastland wanted to give a veto power to himself and his fellow Southern senators. As Villanova Law Professor Tuan Samahon writes, “[w]hen segregationist ‘Dixiecrat’ Senator John Eastland chaired the Judiciary Committee, he endowed the blue slip with veto power to, among other things, keep Mississippi’s federal judicial bench free of sympathizers with Brown v. Board of Education.”

In 1954, two years before Eastland became Judiciary chair, the Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in Brown. One year later, however, the Court handed down a follow up decision announcing that desegregation must only proceed with “all deliberate speed.” More significantly for Eastland’s purposes, the justices also largely delegated the task of implementing Brown to local federal trial judges. “[C]ourts will have to consider whether the action of school authorities constitutes good faith implementation of the governing constitutional principles,” the Supreme Court explained in what is often referred to as Brown II. “Because of their proximity to local conditions and the possible need for further hearings, the courts which originally heard these cases can best perform this judicial appraisal.”

All of a sudden, it mattered a great deal who sat on federal district courts in the segregated South. With white Southerners gearing up for massive, widespread resistance to the Brown decision, the question of whether a particular school district became integrated could hinge upon which judge was assigned to supervise that district’s desegregation effort. And Eastland’s rule permitted Southern senators to veto any judge they feared might be sympathetic to ending Jim Crow.

An unpublished paper co-authored by Ohio State Political Science Professor Janet Box-Steffensmeier, graduate student Charles Campisano and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts’ Kevin Scott, offers another reason why Eastland may have wished to give Southern senators a veto shortly after Brown II was decided. Although senatorial courtesy often sufficed to prevent the Senate from confirming nominees that home-state senators objected to in the pre-Eastland years, Brown changed that political calculus. “[S]enators from other parts of the country could not afford politically to vote against a nominee just because he was not a segregationist,” Box-Steffenmeier and her co-authors write. “Hence, the only way southern senators could defeat a nominee was at the committee level.” And the surest way to defeat a nominee at the committee level was to refuse to give them a confirmation hearing altogether.

After Eastland

In 1978, Eastland retired, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) became chair of the Judiciary Committee. Almost immediately, Kennedy abandoned the single-senator veto. As chair, Kennedy announced that “[i]f the blue slip is not returned within a reasonable time, rather than letting the nomination die I will place before the committee a motion to determine whether it wishes to proceed to a hearing on the nomination notwithstanding the absence of the blue slip.”

When Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), a senator with a well-known segregationist history of his own, became Judiciary Chair in 1981, he announced that he would effectively give home-state senators seven days to object to a nominee, permitting them a veto if they objected in that narrow time frame, but adding that “if we do not hear within the seven days, we assume . . . there is no objection.” In practice, however, Thurmond did not always follow this rule. In 1983, for example, the Senate confirmed Judge John Vukasin to a federal district court in California, despite the fact that California Sen. Alan Cranston (D) objected to the nominee.

To be sure, there is a great deal of nuance to how different chairs viewed the blue slip once Eastland left the Senate. In mid-1989, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) released a public letter announcing that “one negative blue slip would be ‘a significant factor to be weighed’ but would ‘not preclude consideration’ of a nominee ‘unless the Administration has not consulted with both home state Senators.’” If both home-state senators objected to a nominee, by contrast, the Biden Rule provided that the nominee would not receive a hearing. In 2003, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) implemented a policy that “[a] return of a negative blue slip by one or both home-state Senators does not prevent the committee from moving forward with the nomination — provided that the Administration has engaged in pre-nomination consultation with both of the home-state Senators” (Democrats accused Hatch, with justification, of applying one standard to President Clinton’s nominees and another, more favorable one to President Bush’s). Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who chaired the committee from 2005-2007, allowed a single senator to veto a federal trial judge, but not a more powerful court of appeals nominee.

Leahy has returned to the strict enforcement of the blue slip last seen when Eastland was chair. Today, this does not mean that senators are actively blocking judges who oppose segregation, but it does have profound implications for several other areas of the law — most significantly abortion rights. The reason why lower court judges wielded so much authority over desegregation in the immediate wake of Brown is because Brown II effectively delegated the power to oversee integration to those judges. Similar things could be said about the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an important abortion case which held that states may regulate abortions so long as those laws do not impose an “undue burden” on the right to choose.

As ThinkProgress explained last year, this standard is so vague that it gives federal district and circuit court judges tremendous discretion to decide the scope of abortion rights within their jurisdiction. Rigid adherence to a strong blue slip rule, moreover, will ensure that the states most likely to elect lawmakers who are hostile to abortion rights will also be the states that are least likely to have pro-choice judges — or, as we previously wrote, when you “[c]ombine the blue slip’s ability to move red state courts to the right with Casey‘s vague standard, [] that means that the states that are most likely to enact restrictive abortion laws are also the states that are least likely to have judges willing to overturn those laws.”

The Case for the Single-Senator Veto

Leahy’s office offered several justifications for their interpretation of the blue slip policy. They said that past chairs have played fast and loose with the blue slip, while Leahy has at least been consistent in allowing a single-senator veto in all cases. They warned that Republicans will retaliate if Leahy adopts a less rigid blue slip policy, as they retaliated shortly after Senate Democrats eliminated the GOP’s ability to filibuster most nominees by using other tactics to halt confirmations. And they emphasized the fact that more judges have been confirmed under President Obama than were confirmed by this point in George W. Bush’s presidency.

A central justification for the single-senator veto, however, is that it is of use to Republicans and Democrats. Leahy spokesperson Jessica Brady listed several Bush nominees — James Rogan, Carolyn Kuhl, Henry Saad, Terrance Boyle, Gene Pratter and Claude Allen — who were held up by blue slip problems. Kuhl, for example, sided with a doctor when she was a California trial judge who invited a drug company salesman to watch a woman’s breast exam. According to Kuhl, the woman did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” during her breast exam because she did not explicitly object to the drug salesman’s presence.

But in the 2002 election, Democrats lost their majority in the Senate and Hatch became judiciary chair. Hatch did not honor Feinstein and Boxer’s blue slips. — he gave Kuhl a committee hearing anyway. Though Kuhl was eventually defeated on the floor by a Democratic filibuster, the fact that she was not ultimately confirmed had little to do with the blue slip.

There is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about this rule. Eastland and his fellow segregationists wielded it to thwart Brown. Modern day Republicans can wield it to thwart Roe, or to force President Obama to nominate Republicans as the price of confirming Democrats. But there’s nothing preventing a Democratic Senator from also turning the Eastland’s rule against a Republican president.

Except that, if four years from now the United States is looking at President Rand Paul and Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, the question of whether Chairman Grassley honors the single-senator veto will not be up to anyone other than Grassley himself. Given the fact that nearly every single senator who chaired the Judiciary Committee in the past has not honored this practice, there is little reason to believe that Grassley will support a single-senator veto.

The post The Imaginary Rule That Keeps Obama’s Judges From Being Confirmed appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Western Re-Run: Nevada Rancher Versus The Feds

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:57am

CREDIT: AP Photo/Toby Brusseau

In the West, we’ve seen this Cliven Bundy movie before. And with every re-run, the worn out story line of the heroic independent rancher standing up to the dictatorial federal government gets more tiresome.

Bundy, for those who have been paying attention to more important news, is the southern Nevada rancher who, after two decades of refusing to pay the ridiculously modest fees for grazing his cattle on federal land, provoked an armed standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management when the agency’s employees came to confiscate Bundy’s cows. His stand attracted hundreds of self-described militiamen and other fringe-dwellers who couldn’t resist the siren call of what was portrayed as an honest-to-God western range war.

The notion of a range war is irresistible. It’s like an intravenous injection of the cowboy mythology that runs so deep in American history and which continues to distort our public lands policies to this day. Google “Cliven Bundy and range war” and you get close to a quarter million hits.

Google “Wayne Hage and range war” and you get almost 6.5 million hits. Some of them lead to stories I wrote in the 1990’s when I covered public lands issues for the Washington Post and Hage, another Nevada rancher, was in a long-running cattle battle with U.S. Forest Service and maniacally playing the range war card.

One of those stories began like this: “Cattleman Wayne Hage — rhymes with rage — is one angry cowboy.” Other than the rhyme, you could substitute Cliven Bundy for Wayne Hage and have pretty much the same story.

Hage ranched near the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, and leased grazing allotments on about three-quarters of a million acres of public land in the forest. He sparred over and over again with the Forest Service during the 1980s over his treatment of that federal land. The agency eventually canceled some of his permits and confiscated and sold more than 100 of his cows.

Hage then filed a lawsuit claiming compensation of $28 million for what he termed an unlawful taking of his property by the federal government which he said included his rights to water and forage on public land. Hage died in 2006, but his lawsuit lived on until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit put an end to it and overturned an earlier $4.2 million judgment in Hage’s favor by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

As all of this legal tussling was going on, Hage wrote a book, “Storm Over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands.” One memorable line from the book: “Range War! Here and now!” was one I couldn’t resist putting in my story, too.

As High Country News reported in a chronology of the Hage case, he inspired other lawsuits and the Nevada ranchers who filed them all lost. Among them was Cliff Gardner from Elko County who fought all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after the Forest Service revoked his grazing permit for abusing public land. Likewise Cliven Bundy, who was first ordered by a federal court to remove his cows from federal lands in 1998.

Some of the particulars of all these range war cases differ, but the basics are the same: ranchers who stubbornly insist the federal government doesn’t have the authority to tell them what they can do on public lands, that someone else — the state or the ranchers themselves — actually owns those lands.

This notion has been thoroughly discredited over and over again in the courts. The simple fact is, the hundreds of millions of acres managed by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are owned by the public and how they are used is determined by laws approved by Congress and carried out by the agencies.

When renegade ranchers don’t play by the rules — and the federal agencies have gotten better about requiring more environmentally sound grazing practices after decades of damaging ones — those ranchers get punished. It’s called the rule of law.

It’s not like the deal is so bad for public lands ranchers, either. Right now they are paying $1.35 a month for each cow/calf combination eating our grass. By comparison, the average grazing fee on private land in the West is $16.80 a month, according to the Congressional Research Service, and ranges between $2.28 and $150 on state lands in the region.

The federal lands grazing program is like supercharged food stamps for bovines. And it is massively subsidized. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2005, the program brought in $21 million in fees paid by ranchers, but cost $144 million to run.

If Cliven Bundy had paid his grazing fees, it would have narrowed that gap. But not by much.

The post Western Re-Run: Nevada Rancher Versus The Feds appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Anti-Immigration Group Uses Earth Day To Recycle Argument That Immigrants Destroy Environment

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:47am

The Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) ad features a child who inquires about California’s environmental decline.

CREDIT: Youtube.com

An immigration-restrictionist group is using Earth Day to blame immigrants for three of California’s most vexing environmental issues: increased car usage, increased population, and water shortage. According to a television ad released by the organization California for Population Stabilization (CAPS) on Wednesday, the ongoing environmental degradation in the state is a result of immigrant-driven population growth.

In the ad, a petrified child asks a series of question, while harrowing statistics pop up beside him: “If Californians are having fewer children, why are there so many cars?”; “If Californians are having fewer children, why isn’t there enough water”; and “If Californians are having fewer children, where are all the people coming from?”

Watch it.

The accompanying press statement also released Wednesday claimed that “the link between population growth and environmental degradation has been made in countless scientific studies. More people means more cars, trucks and buses on our roads and more air pollution. More parking lots and high rise condominiums mean less green spaces. More chemicals, trash and runoff cascading down super sewers into our streams, lakes and oceans means more damage to California’s biodiversity hot spots; and more people means more pressure on declining water supplies.”

Jo Wideman, Executive Director of Californians for Population Stabilization added, “Part of the solution to reversing California’s environmental decline, while not politically correct or convenient, is certainly simple. If we slow mass immigration, we can slow population growth and save some California for tomorrow.”

Population growth is a worldwide problem that contributes to environmental degradation. But the net world population is not affected by whether immigrants migrate to California or even to other states. With increased new vehicle purchases and new homes construction, California certainly is a disproportionate contributor to world carbon emissions. But as a May 2013 U.S. Energy Information Administration report found, California comes in fourth to last as a state “with relatively low per capita carbon dioxide emission rate.”

Migration to California from other states and countries has been “greatly reduced” in recent times, according to a 2013 University of Southern California study. The study found declining migration and falling birthrates coincided with “unprecedented growth expected among retirees” and that “about 90 percent of the state’s children are native born Californians,” but that children under the age of 18 have declined in number with growth sharply slowing.

Although the CAPS ad reported that there are 30 million vehicles on California roadways, recent immigrants are less likely to own cars and when they do, drive less than native-born Americans, according to a November 2013 study. Immigrants are also “twice as likely to commute by transit and one-and-a-half times as likely to carpool when they arrive in the country — and they remain more likely to use those modes 15 years later,” according to The Atlantic Cities.

CAPS is as much of a fan of monopolizing on holidays to drive a wedge between minorities as it is of renewing the argument that immigrants are responsible for ecological degradation. In 2008, the organization released an Earth Day ad stating that immigrants “produce four times more carbon emissions in the U.S. than in their home countries.” But as the immigration advocacy group Center for New Community pointed out, “the wealthiest one percent produce ten times more carbon emissions than the average working American.”

Immigrants and other people of color are the ones who mostly bear the brunt of climate change. According to a 2012 Sierra Club survey, 43 percent of Latino voters say that they live or work near a toxic site like a refinery, a coal-fired power plant, an incinerator, an agricultural field, a major highway, or a factory.

The post Anti-Immigration Group Uses Earth Day To Recycle Argument That Immigrants Destroy Environment appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

A Year After The Deadly West, Texas Explosion, No New Regulations

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:45am

The aftermath of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion

CREDIT: AP

A year after a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, no new regulations have even been filed, let alone passed, according to the Texas Tribune. It quotes State Rep. Joe Pickett (D) confirming that “there were none.”

On the evening of April 17, 2013, something started a fire in a seed room at West Fertilizer Co., and eventually 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded with the power of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. Authorities have still not determined the cause of the fire, nor have they determined if regulatory agencies failed to prevent the accident.

But it is clear that while the plant touched many different agencies, there was no single one in charge of regulating the chemicals it had stored, nor were they required to coordinate with each other. At the federal level, the plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985, and the last time it had fined the company was for $30 for a serious violation for storing anhydrous ammonia. It was last inspected by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2011, when it was issued a $10,100 fine for missing placards, transporting anhydrous ammonia in non-specification tanks, and “not having a security plan,” although the plant took corrective action and paid a lower fine. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a $2,300 fine in 2006 for its failure to have a risk management plan that met federal standards, but its report claimed that the plant posed no fire or explosive risk. Although fertilizer facilities are required to report to the Department of Homeless Security (DHS) if they have more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, and West Fertilizer had 270 tons, it failed to do so.

At the state level, the plant did submit a report to the Texas Department of State Health Services, reporting 100,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia and 18,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, although the information wasn’t shared with DHS and just serves as a notification to be used by first responders and the community to plan for emergencies. A 2006 complaint of an ammonia smell triggered an investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), but after it cited the company for failing to get an air quality permit, it didn’t return. While the Office of Texas State Chemist monitors hazardous materials and works on preparedness planning, it only cited the company over labeling and product purity concerns. The state’s Agriculture Department has said it isn’t tasked with regulating fertilizer facilities. State Department of Public Safety officials have testified that the responsibility for ensuring the safe storage of hazardous materials falls to local officials and fire marshals, but while West has a volunteer fire department, it doesn’t have a marshal.

This leaky patchwork of oversight allowed the plant to store high volumes of dangerous chemicals while reportedly going without sprinklers or fire walls. The company is facing federal fines of $118,300 for two dozen serious safety violations, including its lack of an emergency response plan, although the cost of the explosion’s property damage alone is estimated at $100 million.

It may not be surprising that even in the face of this lack of oversight, Texas lawmakers have been reluctant to pass new regulations. Before the explosion, legislators had recommended weakening environmental laws and had already cut the TCEQ’s budget by $305 million, the agency with the longest reach of any to oversee fertilizer plants. The cut reduced its full-time staff by 235. In the wake of the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the calls for increased regulation were “premature” and that he was comfortable with the current level of oversight in the state.

While Rep. Joe Pickett told the Tribune that he foresees regulations coming, he also noted that the climate in his state is not favorable.

Meanwhile, the town is considering building another fertilizer plant. And the state has reported that 14,000 facilities in Texas have extremely hazardous materials, with at least 44 that have 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive materials — West Fertilizer had 540,000 pounds.

The post A Year After The Deadly West, Texas Explosion, No New Regulations appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Someone Is Ordering Eastern Ukraine’s Jews To ‘Register’

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:38am

The flyer allegedly handed out to Ukrainian Jewish community members

CREDIT: The Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism

A flyer distributed in the eastern Ukrainian city Donestk is telling the city’s Jewish community that they need to “register” with the separatist government, but the head of the self-appointed new leadership in the region has denied involvement.

In a set of flyers handed out to Jewish Ukrainians leaving synagogue on Monday, members of the community over the age of 16 were allegedly ordered to register at the government’s main building, which is currently being occupied by pro-Russian gunmen and protesters. Additionally, they would be forced to pay a registration fee of $50 and list all pieces of property, including real estate and vehicles. “Evasion of registration will result in citizenship revoke and you will be forced outside the country with a confiscation of property,” a translation of the flyer reads.

The original report from Novosti Donbassa said that the leaflet was passed out by “three unidentified men wearing balaclavas and carrying the flag of the Russian Federation” with the aim of causing a conflict, then “to blame the attack on separatists.” The flyers were distributed in the name of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” the title that the pro-Russian separatists in the region have given themselves. They also bear the signature of Denis Pushilin, who has been referred to in reports from the region as the “people’s governor.”

In an interview with Ukrainian press, Pushilin confirmed that the flyers, marked with the emblem of his organization, were really distributed in Donetsk. But unlike various English translations, in the original interview with Ukrainian media, Pushilin not only rejected the content of the flyers, but also denied that his organization was behind their printing. “Some idiots yesterday were giving out these flyers in targeted areas,” he said, claiming that he had never himself used the “people’s governor” title the flyer bestows on him. Pushilin did not suggest who else may have been handing out the anti-Semetic flyers, but went on to criticize the original site for posting it online.

Regardless of who printed and distributed them, the Jewish community was less than thrilled by the presence of the flyers. “The Jewish-Ukrainian leadership supports Ukraine’s new government, but it’s hard to tell whether the leaflet is valid or simply a provocation,” Alex Tenzer, a Kiev native and one of the directors of the National Association of Immigrants from the Former USSR in Israel, told Israeli news site Ynet when asked about the flyer’s origin. “Anyway, the material is very anti-Semitic and reminds me of the kind of material distributed by the Nazis in WWII.”

The Russian government has for months now argued that members of the protest movement that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was composed of facists and neo-Nazis, pointing to the far-right wing Right Sector as evidence. Kyiv’s interim government has denied this charge as propaganda from Russia, insisting that charges of antisemitism and bias against Russian speakers was a fabrication. A United Nations report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, released on Tuesday, appears to back the Kyiv government’s assertions.

After noting two instances of attacks on Jewish communities, the report concludes that “when interviewed by an impartial and reliable source representative of the various Jewish communities in Ukraine, it appears that these communities do not feel threatened, as confirmed also by the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Ukraine, publicly in a letter to the President of the Russian Federation on 5 March 2014.” Likewise, the report judges that violations of the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine are “neither widespread nor systemic.”

The full version of the flyer can be seen below:

CREDIT: The Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitims

The post Someone Is Ordering Eastern Ukraine’s Jews To ‘Register’ appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Two Homeless People Freeze To Death Just Miles From The White House

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:29am

A homeless man rests on a bench in Washington, D.C.

CREDIT: Shawn Davis

Just a couple miles from where lawmakers set the course on everything from taxes to the availability of housing vouchers for low-income Americans, two homeless people were found dead Wednesday morning, with hypothermia being cited as the likely cause.

Washington D.C. had made an effort to try to protect its homeless residents from dangerous weather this year, with new innovations such as “warming buses,,” city buses that were parked across the city with the heat on for those in need. The buses were quite popular; hundreds of homeless people could be found on board when temperatures dropped, in part because shelters in D.C. have been overflowing.

However, when temperatures turned unseasonably cold on Tuesday, many were caught off guard. Though city officials had issued a hypothermia alert, which requires the city to provide shelter for any homeless resident who wants it, some homeless people decide not to seek it. Their reasons for doing so can vary, from not knowing an alert is in place, to an aversion to crowded shelters, to the fact that many have nowhere to store their possessions.

Two such homeless men, who likely spent Tuesday night outside instead of in a shelter, were found on Wednesday morning off of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Their names have not been released, nor has the medical examiner determined how either man died, but hypothermia is viewed as the most likely cause. According to the Washington Post, many homeless people “had discarded their winter-survival clothes after the warm weekend, confident that spring had finally arrived.”

Though just an inconvenience for many, cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous for those with no shelter. Indeed, life-threatening hypothermia can set in even at temperatures well above freezing. Dozens of homeless people have died this winter from exposure to the elements, from New York to Chicago to California.

“It’s so unfortunate,” Tom Murphy, Director of Communications at Miriam’s Kitchen, a local non-profit dedicated to ending chronic homelessness, told ThinkProgress. “We as a community have to ask some hard questions about whether this is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation.” He went on to note that society is “much more attuned to think of homelessness as a crisis when it’s cold outside, but the truth is that these individuals face on an ongoing danger and vulnerability from so much more than simply the elements.”

(HT: @gzornick)

The post Two Homeless People Freeze To Death Just Miles From The White House appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Why Air Pollution Is A Racial Issue

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 8:45am

CREDIT: Shutterstock

A study produced by the University of Minnesota concluded that race is a determining factor in who is most affected by air pollution. Specifically, non-white people breathe air that is substantially more polluted than the air that white people breathe.

According to Julian Marshall, who led the University’s research, race outweighed income in regards to who is most affected by poor air quality. When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breath air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles.

“We were quite surprised to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” Marshall told the Minnesota Post. “Especially the fact that this difference is throughout the U.S., even in cities and states in the Midwest.”

Some other evidence has also pointed to disproportionately high levels of air pollution in low-income and non-white communities. A 2012 study conducted by Yale University researchers revealed that “potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc” exist in locations with high concentrations of people of color, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Unfortunately, people of color contribute the least amount of air pollutants, despite being the most heavily impacted by them.

Even outside of communities of color, the consequences of air pollution are widespread. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that 7 million people die from air pollution every year, globally. As such, air quality constitutes the great environmental health risk worldwide, and contributes to a number of longer-term health problems. Dirty air is linked to asthma, kidney damage, heart disease, and cancer. Drawing on data from 2009 to 2011, State of the Air concluded that 42 percent of people living in the U.S., alone, reside in areas with “pollution levels [that] are too often dangerous to breath.”

Air pollution is not the only health issue that race factors into, as public health is riddled with racial implications on a broader level. Racial bias plays a role in doctor-patient interactions, and some groups, namely African-Americans, live with chronic diseases stemming from racial discrimination.

The post Why Air Pollution Is A Racial Issue appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

New York Rep.: Buffalo Bills Stadium Talks Should Be Open To The Public

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 8:39am

CREDIT: AP

The city of Buffalo and the state of New York have formed a working group to help plan for a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, a dilemma that has gotten more urgent in recent weeks. Long-time Bills owner Ralph Wilson died in March, meaning the franchise will likely be sold to new owners (two possible candidates: Donald Trump and Bon Jovi). To keep those new owners from moving the team to a new city, be it Toronto or Los Angeles or anywhere else, the city will likely have to replace the 41-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The New Stadium Working Group includes members of the Bills franchise, the State of New York, and Erie County, and it was formed earlier this year to assess options for either building a new stadium in Buffalo or upgrading the existing venue (the stadium is already undergoing previously-approved renovations this offseason). This week, New York state assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, who represents Buffalo, said that he wants to ensure that the public will have a seat at the table in future stadium discussions. Kearns thinks the meetings should be subject to state open records laws and even if they are not, he is preparing legislation that would require public access to the working group’s meetings, the Buffalo News reports:

Kearns, who on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seeking public access to the groups’ meeting, is now taking his efforts a step further. He said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to require the Erie County Stadium Corp. and the New Stadium Working Group to conduct its meetings in public. [...]

Kearns acknowledges the working group meetings may technically be conducted behind closed doors. But he argues that the public should have access because $95 million in state and county funds are already committed to improving the team’s current home in Orchard Park.

Working group officials don’t want this to happen, obviously, in part because they say that some meetings are already public and others involve sensitive information like potential sites for a new stadium. Divulging that to the public could “could lead to land speculation and possibly hike prices,” one of the officials told the News. And then there is the point raised by ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio, who noted that the “local urgency” of the situation “could be enough to ensure that, one way or another, the meetings will proceed in secrecy so that a plan can be formed and executed in the most efficient and effective way possible,” as if continuing to play in Ralph Wilson Stadium rather than running to whatever city will bilk its taxpayers to hand the franchise hundreds of millions of dollars is no option at all.

Giving taxpayers a seat at the table in Buffalo’s stadium talks probably wouldn’t change much. The Bills are wildly popular, and the public would almost surely bend over backward to give them a new stadium if it meant keeping the team from moving somewhere else. So what reason is there to deny the public a seat at the table, especially if stadium deals are as good for taxpayers and cities as stadium proponents often say they are? The reason, most likely, is that letting the public into these debates introduces the possibility that the process won’t go as smoothly as possible, that stadium proponents might lose, or at least not get the most favorable deal possible. That’s why politicians and teams and working groups like these often do whatever they can to keep the public from having a say. Even in Buffalo, a place that would do almost anything to keep the Bills, it’s much easier to get a deal done without having to worry about the voices or concerns of the people who’ll ultimately pick up the tab for a new stadium.

The post New York Rep.: Buffalo Bills Stadium Talks Should Be Open To The Public appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Feminist Activists Are Selling A New Line Of ‘Consent Condoms’ To Tackle Rape Culture

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 8:21am

A new line of “consent condoms”

CREDIT: Say It With A Condom

In order to incorporate messages about consent into hook-up culture, a feminist group is launching a new line of condoms that “promote the usage of proper language when engaging in any intimate activity.” The condoms are packaged with sayings like “Consent is hot; assault is not,” “My dress does not mean yes,” and “Consent is asking every time.”

The group that developed the condoms, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, has a long history of using creative campaigns to get people taking about consent. In 2012, the group played a widely publicized prank on Victoria’s Secret, creating a fake site that suggested the company was launching a new line of lingerie with slogans about consent. Last fall, it carried out a similar prank on Playboy Magazine, developing another fake campaign that suggested the company was promoting consent on college campuses. Most recently, FORCE erected a temporary monument to rape survivors on the National Mall.

After people found out that the “consent panties” at Victoria’s Secret weren’t real, a lot of them were disappointed. In an interview with ThinkProgress last fall, the activists behind FORCE noted that they got a flood of messages from people who wanted to buy them.

Now, FORCE is following through and creating a real product for sale. Although it’s not lingerie, the new condoms display the same kind of messages about ensuring consensual sexual activity. The group partnered with Say It With A Condom, a company that designs custom condom packaging, to produce a line of five condoms. Twenty five percent of the profits will be donated back to FORCE.

“The goal here is to upset rape culture by making a conversation about consent an essential, sexy part of any hook-up,” Benjamin Sherman, the founder of Say It With A Condom, explained in a statement. “We knew FORCE was the right partner for this campaign because we have the same end goals. We’re both trying to encourage consent in unique, fun ways that are just crazy enough to make a real difference.”

Rebecca Nagle, one of the co-directors of FORCE, added that condoms are a good vehicle for this message because sexual partners need to be thinking about prevention more broadly.

“Condom use was promoted for sexually active people in response to the AIDS epidemic in the 90s in order to prevent the transmission of HIV. Today, communication needs to be promoted among sexually active people in response to the epidemic of rape, assault and sexual violence in order to prevent unwanted sexual experiences,” she noted. “Just like pausing to put on a condom prevents STIs, pausing to check in with your partner prevents unwanted sexual experiences.”

Even though FORCE isn’t producing any panties of its own, the group’s activism in this space did inspire a college student to develop a line of consent-themed underwear. Amulya Sanagavarapu, a college senior in Canada, successfully raised $25,000 to make her designs into reality. The panties display messages like, “Ask me what I like” and “Only yes means yes.”

One of the biggest criticisms Sanagavarapu received in response to her campaign — and one that will probably be deployed against FORCE’s condoms, too — is that messages to prevent rape are useless once a woman is down to her underwear. The attitude is essentially, well, if you’ve gotten that far, how could it be rape? But the whole point of promoting what activists call “a culture of consent” is that sexual partners need to be engaged in an ongoing conversation, every step of the way. Learning to proactively navigate sexual boundaries isn’t currently ingrained in our culture, and many kids grow up without a basic understanding of what consent is. That’s what these campaigns are looking to change.

The post Feminist Activists Are Selling A New Line Of ‘Consent Condoms’ To Tackle Rape Culture appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Florida Voter Confronts GOP Representative On His Repeated Efforts To Repeal Obamacare

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 8:11am

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) at a Tampa town hall meeting.

CREDIT: Scott Keyes

TAMPA, Florida — A Florida voter had harsh words for Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) at a town hall Tuesday, admonishing the congressman for his repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare and its bevy of benefits. Ross conceded that his party should have worked to offer an alternative health reform policy to preserve benefits for newly insured Americans.

Noting that Ross and the Republican Party have now voted more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare, the constituent took the Florida GOPer to task. “Why do you think it is so good to deny seniors on Part D to make them pay more, about $4,000 more for medicine, and people with pre-existing conditions get denied insurance, have 26-year-olds have a harder time getting insurance because they can’t get on their parents’?” the voter asked. “Why do you think those are good ideas?”

Despite voting to roll back such protections, Ross said he doesn’t actually think doing so is a good idea. He went on to chastise his own party for not offering any replacement health care bill. “I think one of the most unfortunate things my party did the last three years was not offer an alternative to health care,” Ross said, calling the move “absurd.”

CONSTITUENT: You’ve voted to repeal it approximately 50 times. Had zero votes on a replacement. So my question is, why do you think it is so good to deny seniors on Part D to make them pay more, about $4,000 more for medicine, and people with pre-existing conditions get denied insurance, have 26-year-olds have a harder time getting insurance because they can’t get on their parents’? Why do you think those are good ideas?

ROSS: I don’t. I think one of the most unfortunate things my party did the last three years was not offer an alternative to health care. I’ve always felt that way. I think it’s absurd when I tell people that this isn’t what you should do, but I don’t have an alternative for you.

Watch it:

Now that Obamacare is fully implemented, it’s leading to falling uninsurance rates, lower premiums, and more preventative care, particularly for women. The number of Americans enrolling in Obamacare’s health care exchange has exceeded expectations and topped seven million.

House Republicans have repeatedly promised to unveil an Obamacare replacement plan that will preserve the most popular benefits in the law. But it’s been difficult for the party to unite around one health policy plan, and the legislation keeps getting delayed. Ross isn’t alone in his frustration. Even Fox News has demanded to know why the GOP hasn’t released an alternative yet.

Earlier this month, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) admitted that even if Republicans do eventually put forth an Obamacare alternative, they will not be able to preserve the law’s most popular aspects if they repeal it as a whole.

The post Florida Voter Confronts GOP Representative On His Repeated Efforts To Repeal Obamacare appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

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