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Tracking Pharma Gifts to Doctors

Reprinted with permission from Megan Tady, "Tracking Pharma Gifts to Doctors," The American Prospect Online: August 09, 2007. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.

While it's no secret that pharmaceutical companies lavish gifts on doctors -- everything from free notepads and pens to meals to the more extravagant paid trips or seminars -- most patients are in the dark about who, exactly, is courting their physicians. But Congress may be finally acknowledging this relationship, one important step toward creating a national gift registry so patients can track the perks Big Pharma is giving to their doctors.

In June, the nonprofit government watchdog Public Citizen testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging in favor of federal legislation that would require drug companies to disclose payments to doctors. But the group urged lawmakers, before jumping on the proposal, to examine a Petri dish of existing disclosure laws. Although four states and the District of Columbia already have disclosure laws on the books, the group says they are "inadequate" and do not give patients a clear picture of how money is changing hands.

The pharmaceutical industry spent an estimated $25.3 billion peddling prescription drugs in 2003, and much of that money went to physicians in the form of free samples, meals, conference fees, air fares, and continuing medical education activities. The only reins on Big Pharma's giveaway are voluntary regulations set by the American Medical Association (AMA) and adopted by the trade association Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The AMA's ethical guidelines, which are supposed to "prevent inappropriate gift-giving practices," only sanction gifts valued at $100 or less.

The pharmaceutical industry is adamant that these gifts have no influence on which drugs physicians prescribe to their patients. But a growing body of evidence shows that drug companies' generosity may in fact be guiding the pen across the prescription pad.

"The drug industry doesn't spend $20 or $30 billion a year on advertising prescription drugs unless they believe it has an impact on doctors prescribing," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "You would probably like to know whether your doctor is getting no money, some money, a lot of money, or a huge amount of money, because it's going to influence what that doctor decides for you."

Public Citizen says a federal disclosure law would give patients the ability to track their doctors' financial ties to drug companies. "We need a strong, uniform national law that requires every state [to have] these kinds of disclosures," Wolfe said. "State laws are better than nothing, but filled with problems."

In March, Wolfe (along with three other physicians and one medical student) published a paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that analyzed Vermont's and Minnesota's publicly available disclosures of payments made to doctors from 2002 to 2004. The researchers concluded that both states' laws failed "to provide the public with easy access to information about these payments," and were "insufficient for revealing the true patterns of payments."

In Vermont, patients can obtain an annual summary report detailing how much money drug companies have given to health-care providers, and the form and purpose of the payment. The report does not, however, list recipients by name, but rather uses generic terms, such as "family practice" or "oncology." Patients cannot search for their specific doctor, nor is the information available in an online database.

Vermont's reporting requirements have also been criticized for allowing pharmaceutical companies to claim a "trade secret" exemption, which protects them from disclosing many of their payments to doctors. Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill defended Vermont's report, saying it "does an analysis that we think gives the public a pretty complete picture of what is going on, although it doesn't name names."

Brill also said there were holes in the JAMA article, which she said "never discussed the reason for the trade secret exemption." Brill said Vermont's laws protecting trade secrets are broadly written, and the legislature feared drug companies would legally challenge the disclosure law if the trade secret exemption was not extended to them. "We would not like to see the [disclosure] law struck down, or be stuck in limbo, while this trade secret issue is being litigated," Brill said.

The JAMA authors recommended that disclosure statements be made available online, but Brill countered that in Vermont, "it was never envisioned that there was going to be a website where people could have access to data. That takes money; that takes time."

In Minnesota, researchers found that payment data was never compiled into a report or a database, and that to obtain the records, they had to physically travel to the state's Board of Pharmacy's office and make photocopies themselves. Since then, the documents have been digitally scanned and are available online. Unlike in Vermont, the vast majority of the disclosure statements do contain doctors' names. But Cody Wiberg, the board's director, said that patients wanting to find information about their doctors "may have to do a little work" because the documents have not been indexed by the doctor's last name. "Admittedly, it's not searchable," Wiberg said. "You actually have to go through document by document, and there are thousands of documents."

Wiberg said the state's poor showing in the JAMA article can be attributed to a lack of money and clear direction from the legislature. The board plans to hire additional clerical staff and expects to create a searchable database in the coming year, according to Wiberg.

During the Senate hearing last month, Public Citizen also offered analysis of disclosure laws in two other states, Maine and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia. Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, testified, "Although these statutes are undoubtedly intended to increase the transparency of the physician-pharmaceutical company relationship, it is clear that all fall well short of their aspirations."

And while these laws are falling short, the vast majority of states have no disclosure laws at all.

"One of the standards for [deciding if] it's appropriate to take a gift from a company is asking, 'What would my patients think if they knew out about this?'" Wolfe said. "Since most doctors don't even have to face the prospect of their patients finding out about it, they can evade that test. And none of them should be able to evade that test."

Wolfe said a federal disclosure law would offer patients better protection. "Ideally, patients should be able to go to some central, national, online database, put in the name of their doctor, and get all the gifts the doctor has gotten from all of these companies," he said. "We are nowhere near that yet. Slowly, it might happen at a state level, but ideally it should happen at a federal level so you can have the same requirements affecting doctors in Maine or Massachusetts or Montana or California."

Following Public Citizen's testimony, Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin said they intended to push for a national registry. McCaskill's press office would not give details about any forthcoming legislation, but said the senator has "moved in the direction of a national disclosure registry for gifts to physicians."

''If it becomes a public record, it will have a cleansing effect on what I think is an insidious practice,'' McCaskill told the Miami Herald in July.

To avoid the same pitfalls as the state laws, Wolfe said Congress has to "be serious" about creating legislation that does not shield drug companies and doctors. But with lawmakers remaining mum about it, it is too early to tell if possible legislation will have any teeth.

But even as Public Citizen is advocating for a national disclosure law, it admits that such measures are simply a Band-Aid for a more systemic problem -- that pharmaceutical companies are allowed to give gifts to doctors in the first place. As Lurie told the Special Committee on Aging, "Payment disclosure laws are a first step toward addressing the problem, but they are not the only method or even necessarily the most effective one."

This article is available on The American Prospect website. © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

Why Are Some Environmental Groups Caving to Industry?

As someone who once sunk a shrimp boat as an act of civil disobedience, Diane Wilson was disappointed when two big environmental groups opted for a less-than risky alternative to blocking a new coal-burning power plant that's poised to blaze in her community of Calhoun County, Texas.

If she had the time and resources, Wilson, a fourth generation fisherman and leader of the lonely environmental group Calhoun County Resource Watch, says she would have tried to "stop [the plant] dead in its tracks."

Instead, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition in Texas and the national watchdog organization Public Citizen ended their opposition to the plant this month. The groups agreed to drop their permit challenge of the 303-megawatt coal plant in exchange for NuCoastal Power Corporation's commitment to offset 100 percent of its mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. The proposed plant, which will burn petroleum coke, will be located in Point Comfort, Texas.

Although Wilson is frustrated, she told me she had "no hard feelings" toward the environmental groups, saying only theirs was a "different strategy."

But Wilson is being generous. It seems like our increasingly dull-toothed environmental organizations are suffering from another case of capitulation.

The massive plan for coal plant expansion in the United States just as climate change barrels forth with ferocity is as ridiculous and dangerous as a triple-bypass patient eating another Whopper. Equally treacherous is the doctor who orders the burger, or in this case, the environmental groups who give a nod to the coal plant.

Texas is not a painless place to rein in polluting industries, and battles fought in court can be insanely expensive, with victories far from guaranteed. I'm not suggesting that stopping mighty coal is another easy day in the office. But giving coal the green light should never be done, even on the hardest terrain. No new coal means no new coal, regardless of the corporations' concessions.

In this case, the concessions seem grand. NuCoastal has agreed to offset 100 percent of its mercury reductions by reducing emissions by 80 percent and purchasing mercury emissions credits. The corporation has also promised to offset 100 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions through a variety of credible-sounding avenues: funding energy efficiency programs, shutting down a comparable source of emissions, building wind turbines, or investing in carbon sequestration equipment.

"I've been told that this is a good thing," Wilson says.

But good things don't always come in suavely wrapped packages. "Offsets" and "emissions credits" are just pretty terms for a dirty reality: NuCoastal's coal plant will still be polluting, and the people of Calhoun County will still be suffering. It looks like Calhoun County's Lavaca Bay has been greenwashed.

Kevin Smith, a researcher for UK's Carbon Trade Watch, says, "The fact is, with the magnitude of the threat of climate change, you can't be doing one kind of climate-friendly project in order to justify fossil fuel emissions elsewhere."

Seems like that's straight out of chapter one of an environmentalist's primer. So why are so many groups using a strategy written by corporate polluters? I realize that environmentalists, often backed into a corner, have few cards to play. But when will compromises like offsets get tossed out of the deck?

Brianna Cayo Cotter, communications manager of the Rainforest Action Network, is as strict as a schoolmarm when it comes to coal. She told me in an email, "There should absolutely be an immediate and binding moratorium on coal expansion. Even one coal plant is too many and if the proposed 150 coal-plant-expansion plan (which is just for the U.S.) were to become actualized, we would be in a point of no return climate wise. The greenhouse gas emissions would be staggering at a moment where everyone is saying our only chance at this point is huge emissions reductions. There cannot be anymore coal development."

Besides allowing polluters to wriggle off the hook with ease, offsets are harmful because they send a message that the community housing the coal plant isn't worth much. It's all well and good that NuCoastal may curtail emissions elsewhere, or trade mercury emissions credits, but that does nothing to safeguard the community where the actual power plant belches out toxins.

Of course, Calhoun County's currency depreciates even further given that over 16 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 40 percent of residents are of Latino origin, according to the 2000 Census, and that the County is already the site of a Superfund.

The SEED Coalition has admitted the dangers of this power plant. On their website, the Coalition predicts ominous results, saying that "emissions from this plant would risk human health and adversely impact fish and wildlife" and that "there would be risks of spills in the bay." The group also says, "Burning Pet Coke is still experimental."

Not much changes just because NuCoastal is offsetting emissions. Perhaps a few of these risks are minimized, but the effects of mercury and carbon dioxide are still present, even if there's less of it.

In a press release earlier this month, Karen Hadden, executive director of the SEED Coalition, said, "Exposure to mercury, a toxic heavy metal, can lead to neurological damage, and children are especially at risk. NuCoastal deserves credit for reducing its mercury emissions significantly."

Credit for "reducing" emissions of a toxin that harms children's brain function, while still releasing it into the air? We might as well applaud the Bush administration for deploying smart bombs that supposedly "reduce" the number of civilians killed in air strikes.

And it's the applause that's disconcerting. Rather than admitting defeat--because a new coal plant, no matter the scrubber, is a loss--Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition's language about the agreement sounds as if it was some sort of gain for the environmental movement.

The chipper press release from the groups announcing the NuCoastal agreement says, "Environmentalists applaud offsets of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions," and that the agreement is "precedent-setting."

This press release might as well have been written by Tony Snow for the way it obfuscates the truth about the situation. We need honesty from our leading environmental groups if we really plan to go toe-to-toe with Big Coal, not some letter from camp telling Mom everything's fine despite a daily beating from a bully.

If we are to make any real effort at minimizing climate change, the default, mainstream approach from environmentalists has to be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, not burning them with an asterisk. But as long as our leading environmental groups continue touting offsets and emissions reductions like they're viable solutions to our predicament, we'll never move to a truly sustainable way of living.

In the same press release, Hadden said, "I don't know of any other utility that has made this mercury commitment, and hopefully others will follow NuCoastal's lead."

Actually, let's hope not.

A Big Win Against Corporate Control of Water

Bill Lokyo never expected to find himself embroiled in a six-year battle over water with a multinational corporation and city officials in Stockton, Calif.

"We all thought this would only be a one-year fight," Lokyo says.

But Lokyo and the group Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton (CCOS) felt compelled to challenge a rushed deal that turned the city's publicly owned water system into a for-profit venture. This month, their perseverance paid off when the city finally sent privatization packing.

"We believed that we were right," Lokyo says. "And when you believe that, you just can't stop."

In 2003, against the wishes of many Stockton residents, the city signed a 20-year contract with the company OMI-Thames to manage its wastewater, water and stormwater system. The CCOS, joined by the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County, filed a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act to halt the project until it allowed for public participation. Judges twice ruled in favor of the groups, and on July 17, city officials voted to rescind their appeal and dissolve what Food and Water Watch, a group that challenges corporate control of water resources, has called the "most notorious water privatization deal in the United States."

As Loyko and fellow members of CCOS celebrate, water watchdogs mark another tally for citizens fighting to keep or regain local control of their water.

"It's both symbolic for the anti-water privatization movement, and it's a real victory for the citizens' groups of Stockton -- it means that the ordeal of water privatization is over for the city of 270,000 people," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch.

More than 80 percent of Americans fill their glasses with water owned and managed by public utilities -- a market for growth that has CEOs rubbing their hands. Across the United States, multinational corporations are swooping into towns and cities with promises of a more efficient and economical water system if they would just turn over their taps.

But for many municipalities, it is a raw deal. Privatization often results in exorbitant water rates, poor service, little accountability, a disregard for public safety and destruction of the environment. City officials in Atlanta, for instance, cancelled their contract with Suez four years into privatizing their water system after residents experienced routine boil orders, water shortages and rate hikes.

"People get at a very basic level that they don't want a really important public service like water to be privatized," Hauter says. "They don't want the customer call center to be 1,000 miles away. They don't want their water rates going up. Privatizations are succeeded with environmental disasters, as [companies] try to cut corners and they don't fix the leakages."

Two hours from Stockton, residents in Felton, Calif., have been trying to pry their pipes out of a corporation's grip since 2002. Cal-Am, owned by the multinational giant RWE, raised water rates by 44 percent and is pushing for another increase that would raise rates by a total of over 100 percent.

The citizens' group Felton Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) is spearheading a campaign to buy back the water system in the belief that a "locally-owned, locally-managed water system could offer much lower rates, better service and protection of our natural resources." Cal-Am has refused to sell, and the group is now trying to use eminent domain to take over the system.

Jim Graham, a member of Felton FLOW, says he was "ecstatic" to learn that neighbors in Stockton succeeded in ousting OMI.

"Their hard work and perseverance over the years has been an inspiration to us and we're glad to see it paid off for them," Graham wrote in an email. "We're confident that we'll prevail, too, and will be inviting Stockton folks over for a big town celebration when it happens."

California isn't the only state where citizens are fighting a tug-of-water with corporations and the city officials who approve the deals. Residents in Lexington, Ky., have been organizing to regain control of their water from RWE, and the city of Indianapolis is investigating the company Veolia Water for mismanaging its water supply.

But public control of water isn't problem-free. Public utilities are struggling financially to maintain and modernize water systems, and water infrastructure is deteriorating across the nation. A 2005 report card issued by the American Society for Engineers gave the United States a "D-" for drinking water infrastructure, warning, "America faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging facilities and comply with safe drinking water regulations." An estimate by the coalition Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) puts the funding shortfall at $23 billion per year.

Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents more than 300 public utilities, says the lack of funding puts the health of water at risk. "The consequences of not addressing the [funding] gap are serious and maybe even non-reversible," he says.

But while billions are needed to restore and protect America's drinking water, the Bush Administration has repeatedly cut federal funding to address the problem. Bush's 2008 budget actually provides incentives for the privatization of water utilities, rather than increase funding to the public sector.

With little help from the government, some flailing municipalities are looking to public-private partnerships to keep them from drowning.

"Some [municipalities] say, 'Gee, maybe we should privatize and turn our facilities over to the private sector. Maybe they'll do a better job and we wouldn't have to worry about it,'" Kirk says. "That isn't going to work, and hasn't worked in most cases."

Hauter, of Food and Water Watch, says private utilities use the public's crumbling infrastructure "to get a foot in the door." But deteriorating utilities, says a report from Food and Water Watch, "should not be used as a pretext to shift control of water resources and infrastructure from the public to private sector."

Instead, both Kirk and Hauter, along with the WIN coalition, are pushing for a federal trust fund dedicated to supporting clean and safe public water. The government already has similar trust funds that sustain that nation's highways and airways.

"If trust funds are good for highways and airports, than why not water?" Kirk says.

But as lawmakers consider legislation to adequately fund water infrastructure, private corporations are buying up public utilities. People need to be "engaged" and "watchdogging" at the community level to protect their water from corporate takeovers, says Hauter.

Above all, Lokyo says, the "minute" your community hears murmurs of privatization, "you have to start getting organized, and figure out if it's in your city's best interest. If it's not in your city's best interest, than you fight it. And you just keep fighting and fighting until you win."

Climate Change Gas Emissions Way Up Nationwide

A report released this week documents a dramatic increase in greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States since 1990.

The state-by-state analysis, published by the advocacy group Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center, looked at emissions of carbon dioxide -- one of the gases linked to rising global temperatures.

The report analyzed state-specific fossil-fuel data provided by the federal Energy Information Administration and found that carbon emissions from fossil fuels rose by 18 percent nationwide between 1990 and 2004.

The electric-power sector accounted for more than half of the increase, with coal-burning plants contributing most of the new carbon dioxide spewed from that sector.

For its part, the transportation sector accounted for 44 percent of the increase since 1990.

The report also discovered that carbon emissions increased the most in the Southeast, Great Lakes, Midwest and Gulf South regions. The states with the largest increases in emissions over the fifteen-year period were Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. Delaware and Massachusetts were the only two states where carbon emissions decreased.

The report comes just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the US Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions; the Bush administration has not been considering carbon dioxide a pollutant.

Jennifer Bronder, field organizer with Environment Maryland, said in a press statement that "leaders must take decisive action to cut global-warming pollution." She added, "This report is a wake-up call to cap pollution levels now before it is too late."

Public Pushes Back Against Planned Test on Old Nuke Site

Michelle Thomas's mother took great pains to protect her children from what she suspected was something unhealthy in the dust that settled on the lawns, the cars and the houses every time a mushroom cloud appeared over the Nevada desert. Such memories have been roused recently by fears that the military will stir that dust back up by bombing the area once again.

Born in 1952 in St. George, Utah, just a few hours' drive from the Nevada Test Site (NTS), nuclear explosions were routine for Thomas. She can recall her mother -- wrapped in overalls, boots, and gloves, and with a dishtowel covering her mouth -- pulling the laundry from the line when they heard or saw another bomb go off.

By 1962, the government would have conducted 100 atmospheric nuclear tests at NTS. And eventually, St. George would be dubbed the "Fallout City" for the amount of radioactive dust that had snowed down on the town.

Thomas's mother kept a chart on the wall by their dining room table, which tracked the sudden deaths and illnesses of their neighbors during the "testing years." A square box represented every house within a three-block radius.

When Thomas's aunt, who lived across the street, died of breast cancer during the early years of nuclear testing, Thomas said, her mother marked the chart with an "X."

"And when a little 12-year-old died of leukemia suddenly a few years after the testing," she recalled, "and a 5-year-old a few doors down got leukemia, and when someone got lymphoma, she would put an 'X' on their house."

And when Thomas herself was diagnosed with a debilitating muscle disease as a young woman, forcing her to give up a dancing scholarship, her mother put another 'X' on the chart to represent their own home.

So when the government recently proposed to detonate 700 tons of conventional explosives in the areas that had etched death and disease starkly across Thomas's neighborhood, she joined other "downwinders," environmentalists and a Native American tribe to oppose it.

Thomas and others fear the non-nuclear blast will stir up radioactive dust and send it once again drifting into their communities.

The anatomy of an experiment

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an arm of the Pentagon, wants to detonate a "single large-scale, open-air" explosion of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil in an area of the Nevada Test Site the government says never saw nuclear testing.

Just as the government launched wave after wave of bomb tests under the specter of lurking enemies during the Cold War, so, too, is the so-called "Divine Strake" test being touted as a necessary experiment to ward off "potential adversaries."

The explosion would take place above an existing tunnel complex, which DTRA says would allow it to test the United States's ability to destroy tunnels, underground bunkers and deeply buried targets.

But the exact purpose of Divine Strake is still unclear. DTRA director James Tegnelia acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Post that using a 700-ton bomb on a battlefield would be difficult. Cheri Abdelnour, a spokesperson for DTRA, told TNS that Divine Strake does not "support any specific existing or planned nuclear or conventional weapon."

Last April, Tegnelia told reporters that Divine Strake would simulate how a nuclear weapon would bust up an underground target, according to the Post. He later retracted that explanation and said the operation was for testing how much damage could be done using multiple conventional bombs against a buried target.

DTRA originally planned to conduct Divine Strake in June 2006. But the test was postponed indefinitely after Western Shoshones filed a lawsuit in April claiming the blast will take place on ancestral land and violate a historical land-use treaty.

Additionally, the suit says the Environmental Assessment is lacking, and the tribe calls on the government to conduct a full environmental-impact statement, which requires the agencies to further scrutinize the potential impact of the test.

Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, said in a press statement in April that the Council opposed military testing on Shoshone lands as a violation of international law and "an affront to [their] religious belief [that] Mother Earth is sacred and should not be harmed."

Prior to the lawsuit, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the test site, had determined the test would not "significantly affect the quality of the human environment" after conducting an initial environmental assessment.

But after the lawsuit was filed, the NNSA withdrew this statement along with its permission to conduct the experiment, saying it would revaluate its assessment.

The agency issued a new assessment in December that is open for public comment until February 7. Along with the new assessment, the DTRA and the NNSA, hoping to quell public fears, held "public information" meetings about the planned Divine Strake test in several Western towns this month.

Trusting the government

Kevin Rohrer, a spokesperson for NNSA, said the experiment will be nothing like the past tests that haunt downwinders. He said the explosion will only send a non-nuclear dirt cloud into the sky.

Rohrer insisted the planned test will not have the same effect as the old atmospheric nuclear tests that put radiation in the jet stream and are blamed for the worst fallout in the area.

But downwinders have heard such safety promises before, and they don't buy Rohrer's reasoning. Indeed, they note that the government itself has backtracked on the matter.

In May, the NNSA said the test "would not result in the suspension or dispersion of radioactive materials or human exposure to radioactive materials." Seven months later, under public pressure, the agency released a new report stating that radioactive materials could be transported off the site by wind after the detonation and "may contribute [a] radiological dose to the public."

But the NNSA goes on to say that because surrounding communities are far from the test site, if radioactive materials were dispersed, an individual would "receive only a minute fraction" of the maximum radiological dose allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. "The Agency also says re-suspension of radioactive materials is "extremely unlikely."

"We don't have any trust in the ability of the government to really know whether [radioactive particles] are going to be thrown up into the air as a result of this test," said Eileen McCabe, a member of the Stop the Divine Strake Coalition.

According to DTRA and NNSA, the test will be conducted in an area of the Nevada Test Site known as the Nuclear and High Explosive Test Zone. While the agencies say no atmospheric nuclear tests have ever been conducted in the planned testing area, six underground nuclear weapons were detonated about a mile away during the 1960s and '70s.

NNSA maintains that the explosion would take place in "virgin rock" untouched by radioactivity and predicts the blast crater will have a 98-foot radius, well short of the 1.1 mile distance to contaminated areas.

Rohrer of NNSA said it is impossible for the NNSA to prove "that there will never be [dispersal of radioactive materials] ever, never." But Rohrer said the agency was "99.9 percent sure" that radioactive materials won't disperse.

Rohrer said he understands the public's reservations, but is adamant that more safeguards are in place now than in the past.

"We don't follow the same processes, procedures and protocols that were in place when the [now-defunct] Atomic Energy Commission conducted atmospheric nuclear testing," he said. "The public was lied to then, and they think they are being lied to now. All I can say is, if this was 1950, we would have already done Divine Strake."

Refusing to be silenced

Peggy Maze Johnson, director of the Nevada watchdog group Citizen Alert, was impressed by a recent public-information meeting on Divine Strake in Las Vegas -- but only by the lengths DTRA and NNSA took to stifle actual public debate.

Attendees were not allowed to address officials during the information sessions. Rather, they had to fill out comment cards and hand them in.

"It was just a joke," she said.

She added that with no microphone for attendees, people had no opportunity to "hear all the sides of the story."

Rohrer defended the meetings -- held in Las Vegas, St. George and Salt Lake City -- saying the agencies were under no obligation to hold a two-sided session.

Following the St. George event, the city's mayor read a statement opposing Divine Strake at the beginning of a city council meeting.The Washington County Board of Commissioners in Utah also issued a statement opposing the experiment until a full environmental-impact statement is undertaken. Rohrer said it is premature to answer whether the NNSA and the DTRA will do so.

Downwinders like Thomas are refusing to be silenced, even as they continue to battle physical hardships.

In addition to suffering from the debilitating muscle disease Polymyositis, Thomas was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. "We are doing double-whammy," she said. "We're going to our chemotherapy and our surgeries and our funerals, and we're trying to inform the people about what happened to us in the past and light a fuse with them and help us fight this."

McCabe of Stop the Divine Strake Coalition also pointed to the larger implications of nuclear testing. "This needs to be not just a Western issue about fallout," she said. "We need to broaden our scope from our own backyards, and think, what does this test really mean? What are the ramifications if this weapon is developed? Who is it going to be used against?"

USDA Hides Another Biotech Disaster

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that U.S. commercial long-grain rice supplies are contaminated with "trace amounts" of genetically engineered rice unapproved for human consumption.

The genetically engineered (G.E.) rice is known as Liberty Link (LL) 601. Its genetic code has been modified to provide resistance to herbicides and is illegal for marketing to humans because it has not undergone environmental and health impact reviews by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). LL601 was field-tested from 1998 to 2001 under permits granted by the USDA, but Bayer Corp Science, the developer of the experimental rice, did not seek commercial approval for it.

The contamination was only disclosed after Bayer notified the USDA itself. Currently, the government relies on self-reporting from food companies to determine genetically engineered (G.E.) contamination, rather than a federal testing system. The USDA dismissed concerns that companies may not always "self-report" or even be aware of their mistakes, which would lead to further undetected contamination of unapproved G.E. food.

It appears a separate company first detected the contamination in January of this year and that Bayer may have known about the contamination since May. But the government was not notified until July 31. It took another 18 days for the USDA to tell the public.

At a press conference, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns would not divulge how the contamination had happened, or how far it had spread. It was unclear whether he even knew. Jim Rogers, a USDA spokesperson, told The NewStandard the contaminated rice was detected in barrels sent to Missouri and Arizona.

"But the rice could have come from anywhere [in the U.S.]," Rogers said.

Riceland, a farmer-owned cooperative that markets rice produced by Southern farmers, issued a press release on August 18, saying it first discovered the contamination in January. Riceland conducted its own tests from several grain-storage locations and found: "A significant number tested positive for the Bayer trait. The positive results were geographically dispersed and random throughout the rice-growing area."

Riceland notified Bayer of the contamination in May, but did not notify the public or the government.

Johanns indicated that an economic motive was behind the government’s delay of nearly three weeks before informing the public about the contamination, as the government anticipated foreign rice importers might reject the product. The Secretary said the USDA spent the time preparing tests for rice importers to check the product for contamination. The U.S. constitutes about 12 percent of the world’s rice trade.

There are currently no plans to destroy or recall the rice, and Rogers is unsure if Bayer will be fined. While the government "validates" its tests for the rice, Johanns directed people to Bayer’s website, saying the company "has made arrangements with private laboratories to run tests" on the rice.

Although the field tests for LL601 ended in 2001, the contamination appeared in a 2005 harvest, leaving some food-safety advocates to worry that the contamination has been present for several years and suggesting that genetically modified strains can persist in the environment well after they have been discontinued in experiments.

Two other varieties of rice with the same gene and from the same company have already been approved for human consumption, though never marketed. There is currently no known, intentional commercial U.S. production of genetically engineered rice.

Johanns said that based on "available scientific data" provided by Bayer, the USDA and the FDA have concluded "that there are no human-health, food-safety or environmental concerns associated with this G.E. rice."

When pressed about the health implications of the contaminated rice, Rogers noted that foods from pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops are already on the market. In fact, according to the USDA, 70 percent of processed foods on grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Rogers dismissed concern that, because the government relies on companies’ self-reporting, there could be widespread contamination of unapproved G.E. ingredients in the U.S. food supply. He said the government did not have plans to begin testing food itself.

But this is not the first time unapproved genetic material has escaped detection in the food supply. In 2004, the company Syngenta admitted that for four years, it had sold unapproved G.E. maize in the U.S..

In response to the Bayer revelation, Greenpeace has called for a worldwide ban on imports of U.S. rice. Already, Japan has suspended U.S. rice imports.

The Center for Food Safety, a public-interest organization, is also calling for a moratorium on all new permits for open-air field testing of G.E. crops. The Center is concerned that open-air testing allows G.E. crops to cross pollinate with neighboring non-GE crops.

"We see this as an opportunity to get out the message that this is a radically new technology," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center. "These foods have not been tested, and we don’t know if they’re safe."

Disabled People Left Behind in Emergencies

During Hurricane Katrina, Benilda Caixeta, a New Orleans resident with quadriplegia, tried for two days to seek refuge at the Superdome. Despite repeated phone calls to authorities, help never arrived for Caixeta. Days later, she was found dead in her apartment, floating next to her wheelchair.

"Benilda need not have drowned," testified Marcie Roth before the US House of Representatives Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus in November 2005. Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, had personally placed calls to prompt Caixeta's evacuation.

"People with disabilities are not in good hands," Roth said.

While there are no concrete estimates of how many people with disabilities died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, 71 percent of the 1,330 victims were older than 60, according to a 2006 report by the White House, suggesting people with special needs suffered disproportionately.

Disabled-rights activists have been calling for inclusive disaster-preparedness plans for years -- from wheelchair-accessible transportation to closed-caption emergency messages on television. But despite some progress on both the federal and state levels, and even a 2004 Executive Order to strengthen preparedness plans to serve people with disabilities, critics say recent disasters illustrate how disabled people are still being left out of evacuation plans.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that emergency preparedness and response programs be accessible to people with disabilities. But critics say there is currently no standardized federal preparedness plan for disabled people, and many state and local emergency management offices do not have appropriate plans in place to account for special needs.

"There isn't ownership clearly defined by the federal government as to who is responsible for disability planning," Hilary Styron, director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative for the National Organization on Disability, told The NewStandard.

While President Bush's executive order created the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities, the council is only instructed to "encourage" state and local jurisdictions to consider special needs in its planning.

The ADA defines a disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." There are an estimated 50 million people living with disabilities in the United States.

Disabled-rights advocates say traditional evacuation plans, which often rely on at least some walking, driving, seeing and hearing, are not appropriate for many people with disabilities. Activists have been pushing for more responsive plans, and for governments to include people with disabilities and their advocates in the planning process. Although some states have adopted measures that have begun to account for the needs of people with disabilities, such as a reverse 9-1-1 system and more accurate records on the locations of people with disabilities, gaps still exist.

Styron said emergency managers have difficulty planning for people with disabilities because there is no "one-size-fits-all approach."

She also said many states have seen emergency management funding cut in recent years. According to the National Emergency Management Association, a national nonprofit that produces the only report to examine state-level emergency management funding, there is currently a $246 million shortfall in the government's Emergency Management Performance Grant Program. The program is the primary federal funding source for states and local jurisdictions' emergency management programs.

A three-year study completed in 2006 by the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas investigated 30 randomly selected counties, cities or boroughs in the US that had recently experienced a natural or man-made disaster. Researchers found that only 20 percent of the emergency managers had specific guidelines to assist people with mobility impairments during emergencies.

Additionally, the study discovered that 57 percent of emergency managers did not know how many people with mobility impairments lived in their jurisdiction, and only 27 percent of managers reported completing a course offered by FEMA to help emergency responders understand the needs of people with disabilities. "People [with disabilities] are being left behind," said Cat Rooney, project coordinator for the study.

FEMA and emergency management offices in Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, California and Delaware that were part of the University study, did not return TNS interview requests.

Disability un-preparedness
Jeanne Abide, complaints specialist for the Advocacy Center, a disabled-rights organization in New Orleans, said there simply was not appropriate assistance for people with disabilities after the hurricane. According to the National Council on Disability, 155,000 residents living in the three cities hardest hit by Katrina -- Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans -- were disabled and over the age of five.

Abide told TNS that the preparedness problems specific to people with disabilities in New Orleans included a lack of appropriate transportation and emergency housing. In February, the Center filed a lawsuit against FEMA, alleging that five months after the hurricane, the agency was still not supplying accessible trailers to people with disabilities.

Disabled-rights advocates say that people with disabilities have a host of concerns that non-disabled people may not consider during emergencies. Groups say many people with disabilities in New Orleans were evacuated without their medicine, medical equipment, wheelchairs and even guide animals.

"What happens if you lose your wheelchair and then you're placed in a shelter?" said Rooney. "You can no longer get up to go to the bathroom by yourself. People lose their independence."

Dr. Glen White, the principal investigator for the University of Kansas study also stressed the needs of people with mental impairments. "If someone has schizophrenia and they're put in a great big shelter with all these other people around them, and they don't have medication, that can cause a lot of problems," White told TNS.

Other recent disasters have also put the shortfalls of emergency preparedness and response for those with disabilities in the public eye.

A 2004 report by the California State Independent Living Council (CALSIC) found that the emergency response plan for people with disabilities floundered during the 2003 wildfires, in which 730,000 acres of the state burned. The report said that many people with impairments were unable to see approaching danger, or hear announcements to evacuate, which police sometimes made over loudspeakers.

There was a lack of transportation for people who were unable to drive themselves, and power outages meant that emergency responders could not access computerized lists of disabled people. Finally, emergency telephones set up at evacuation sites were not equipped for people who were deaf, and were not within reach of people in wheelchairs.

"There's just so many tiny things that people don't think about," White said. "Are these all going to go away? No. But the more planning we can do, the better we can make it for people."

Filling the gaps
As local, state and federal planning fails, people with disabilities and their advocates are doing their best to compensate.

Susan Fitzmaurice, who uses a mobility scooter and has a child who is disabled, was concerned about the temporary housing being offered to Katrina victims, with no mention of the special needs of people with disabilities. Although she lives in Michigan, Fitzmaurice was determined to help. Within days of the hurricane, she set up a website,, to provide much-needed resources.

"With a typical able-bodied person, you could snatch them up out of their house, take them to a motel room and say, 'Here's $50 to get you through the next couple of days,'" Fitzmaurice told TNS. "But if you have a disability, you could be dependent on medical equipment. You could have a special diet. You could have medication that you have to take. You don't just need a house; you need an accessible house."

Fitzmaurice's site has now become a clearinghouse for disability-preparedness information, and includes links to local and national emergency response information for Louisiana. She has made similar sites for 30 other states. "It's wonderful, but then on the other hand," she said, "I'm like: 'I shouldn't be doing this. The federal government should be doing this.'"

Members of the Central Virginia Post-Polio support group are also taking matters into their own hands by inviting speakers to discuss disaster planning at their meetings. Dr. Henry Holland, a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair, and a member of the support group, told TNS that people with disabilities have to become self-reliant.

Holland said the threat of a disaster for someone with a disability is "scary." He said a good support network and generator at his home made him well-equipped if a disaster hit. "But what about people who can't afford that or don't have access to help?" he said.

Addressing the needs
As some people with disabilities and their advocates take matters into their own hands, Styron and others are still pushing federal and local governments to adopt adequate emergency preparedness measures.

Styron said she would like to see a disability coordinator at the federal level, a coordinator assigned to every FEMA region in the country, and a designated official within each state responsible for disability planning.

She is also advocating for state and local jurisdictions to integrate people with disabilities and their advocates into the emergency planning process. "If you don't even know the population that you're dealing with, you're never going to get there," she said.

IRS Schemes to Undermine Estate Tax

With a cut to the estate tax looking unlikely in Congress this year, the Bush administration is quietly planning to reduce the number of federal agents who enforce the tax. Critics are calling the move a "backdoor" repeal of the tax on extraordinary inheritances.

Through leaked internal agency documents, the New York Times discovered last week that the government plans to eliminate almost half of the Internal Revenue Service’s 345 lawyers who currently audit the tax returns of those subject to sharing a cut of their estate with the American public upon their deaths. The Times reported the staff reduction will be made within the next few months.

The estate tax is levied on the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to heirs upon death. It does not apply to portions of an estate transferred to a spouse or charitable organization.

Although some politicians and anti-estate-tax groups have launched aggressive campaigns to repeal the tariff, the Senate has so far refused to kill it. In June, the Senate voted 57-41 against repealing it. Last week, House Republicans attached the measure to a minimum wage hike bill in the hopes of winning over Democrats, but Senate Democratic leadership vowed to kill the measure again.

While unsuccessful at repealing or cutting the estate tax through legislation, critics say the Bush administration is effectively gutting the tax by eliminating enforcement staff, and offering a gift to America’s elite in the process.

"For the administration to turn around and say, ‘We’re going to get rid of the people tasked with enforcement of the estate tax,’ certainly looks like an effort at backdoor repeal," Lee Farris, senior organizer of estate-tax policy at progressive United for a Fair Economy, told TNS.

The IRS did not return interview requests made by TNS, but Kevin Brown, an IRS deputy commissioner, told the New York Times that he had ordered the cuts because "far fewer people were obliged to pay estate taxes under Bush's legislation."

The 2001 Bush tax cuts included gradual estate-tax exemptions for wealthy Americans until 2010, when the tax will be temporarily repealed for one year, before being fully reinstated in 2011. But while only around 6,300 people leave taxable estates each year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive fiscal policy organization, and the Joint Committee on Taxation, an government advisory committee charged with monitoring federal tax policy, estimate that repealing the estate tax would create a $369 billion loss in revenue between 2007 and 2016.

Farris pointed out the irony in how the IRS job cuts coincide with a nearly $100 million increase of tax-enforcement funding included in a newly approved Senate appropriations bill. Given the personnel cut, critics predict the IRS will use the enforcement increases to go after low- and middle-income taxpayers instead of investigating wealthy tax evaders.

A 2006 study already found this trend to be true: taxpayers reporting less than $25,000 in income were six times more likely to undergo IRS audits in 2005 than those reporting earnings of $200,000 or more, according to the public-interest group Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, affiliated with Syracuse University

At the same time, Brown of the IRS told the Times that estate-tax lawyers are the most productive tax-law enforcement staff at the IRS, finding an average of $2,200 of taxes owed but not paid to the government each hour that they work. The IRS says a significant amount of taxes are never collected from all taxpayers. The IRS reports that the gross tax gap -- the difference between what taxpayers are obligated to pay, and what they actually pay -- surpasses $300 billion every year.

"It’s just really shocking that the administration would be willing to cut off its nose to spite its face," Farris said. "It just seems crazy to cut the staff that are bringing in the most money at the IRS."

The enforcement division cuts directly contradict the IRS’s stated objective to go after the richest tax evaders. In a March 2005 statement, the agency wrote, "We are ramping up our audits on high-income taxpayers and corporations, focusing more attention on abusive shelters and launching more criminal investigations."

Farris said the determination of the Bush administration to squelch the estate tax is testament that Bush is "willing to go to any length to satisfy" his wealthiest supporters.

Banning the Vote

If only students would go out and vote.

Except their vote isn't welcome in Brunswick, Maine. Or in Prairie View, Texas. Or, as a matter of fact, in Utica, New York. All of these college towns -- and many others -- have local statutes that limit students from establishing residency and registering to vote.

Their vote is certainly not welcome in Williamsburg, Virginia, home to the College of William and Mary, where the city council has passed anti-student laws, blocked students from becoming residents, restricted students from registering to vote, and thwarted any effort made by students to change the discriminatory policies by running for office.

Among other things, the city council passed "owner occupancy" agreements on housing, making it increasingly difficult for students to find housing near campus, and evicted some students from their homes mid-semester for violating the archaic "three-to-a-house rule" -- no more than three unrelated people can live together in a house in Williamsburg.

So when three of the five seats on the city council were up for grabs in the spring of 2003, four students -- Serene Alami, Robert Forrest, Seth Saunders, and Luther Lowe, tired of not being able to voice their concerns in their town -- announced their candidacy. A week later, all four students received voter registration denials. The grounds? They didn't qualify as residents of Williamsburg.

Even though students used to be able to register to vote in Williamsburg using their dorm address, the registrar had begun to require students to fill out a tricky two-page questionnaire to determine residency, asking such questions as: Where is your car registered? Are you a dependent on your parent's tax return? What community activities are you involved in? (The questionnaire specified church.)

Using the results of the questionnaire, the Williamsburg registrar determined some students were ineligible to register to vote in Williamsburg, effectively banning them from participating in local politics.

Although the 26th Amendment guarantees students the right to vote and a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that students can vote where they attend school if they establish residency, it remains unclear what constitutes residency. Local election boards have been able to fill in the gaps, and under the Virginia Constitution, eligible voters must have a physical abode in a town with the intent to live there for an unlimited time.

"Because the law is so ambiguous, it leaves the decisions up to people who aren't legal experts about who has the right to vote," says Serene Alami, one of the four students who attempted to run for city council.

Both Lowe and Alami, with the help of the Virginia ACLU, challenged their denials, first in federal court, and then, when the case was sent back, in the circuit court. The judge overturned Lowe's denial because, although he is originally from Arkansas, he had committed to six years with the Virginia National Guard. Alami's registration denial, however, was upheld, with her in-state status and her attempt to run for a four-year seat on the city council not enough to prove she planned to live in Williamsburg for an "unlimited time."

"Students shouldn't have to join the National Guard to vote. It doesn't make sense for Serene to vote for the school board in Roanoke, where her parents live," Lowe says. "It makes sense for her to vote where the issues affect her most -- where we need crosswalks and get parking tickets. We should be able to vote where we have a direct stake in what's happening."

"Here I am trying to do what a good citizen should do -- voting and running for office to try to change things -- and somebody tells me I can't," Alami says.

vote buttonAlong with appealing her case, which is still pending, Alami put her energy into helping Lowe gain the 125 signatures needed to get him on the city council ballot. Only after she collected some of the signatures was she told by the city council that non-residents cannot collect signatures. The council only deemed 124 signatures "considerable," and Lowe was unable to get his name on the ballot.

"It just further illustrated how ludicrous this was and showed how they are actively working to ensure that students don't have a voice in the community," Lowe said.

Seth Saunders was also denied the right to run for city council in Williamsburg, and Rob Forrest quit school, moved off campus, sold his car, and got a local job in order to qualify for residency and run for a seat. He was not elected.

"It's frustrating to think that people habitually complain about youth being apathetic, but any effort made by youth to change that is shot down," Alami says. "And it's not just happening in Virginia."

Don't Rock the (V)Boat

It's happening all over the country. Despite the fact that students live in their college towns eight months of the year for four to five years and are counted by the U.S. census in their college towns, the practice of intimidating and harassing young voters is spreading to various college towns like a flu virus in a campus dorm -- from claiming voting will affect students' financial aid, to giving them lengthy questionnaires, to asking them to provide driver's licenses.

"If you have a university town that bars students from voting, you are effectively raising the voting age in that town," says Peter Maybarduk, cofounder of the voting rights organization Your Williamsburg.

Student disenfranchisement happened at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where the registrar turned students away after she asked misleading residency questions, and in other towns in Maine, including Bar Harbor, Gorham, Farmington and Standish.

Damien Cave's recent Rolling Stone article, "Mock the Vote," highlighted that it's also happened at Hamilton College in Utica, New York, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, in Arkansas at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, and at the University of New Hampshire.

It also happened at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where the district attorney intimidated students from voting by warning that a 10-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine would be issued to anyone caught "illegally voting." The students have since settled a lawsuit with Kitzman, who issued a public apology. Prairie View A&M was the site of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow students to vote where they attend school after black students were banned from voting 25 years ago.

"I don't know how this compares to women's suffrage or the Civil Rights movement," Alami says. "But I do know it's a systematic denial of a group of people their constitutional rights."

It isn't that students are being denied the right to vote outright -- they still have the option of voting by absentee ballot in their hometowns. But voting by absentee ballot isn't always a sufficient solution.

"It requires a lot of forethought, which many Americans, not just students, don't contemplate," Maybarduk says. "Beyond that, it still prevents them from voting on the issues that affect them where they live. It's much more difficult for students to stay up to speed on issues, and impossible to serve on commissions or introduce a ballot initiative. It goes against the meaning of teaching civic engagement in college."

A study titled "Democracy and College Student Voting," published by the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury College in 2001 and updated again this year, examines the effects of restrictive residency requirements for college students.

"The key question for both of these studies is, are there different residential barriers for students than other voters?" says Dr. Michael O'Loughlin, associate professor of Political Science at Salisbury and co-author of the study.

The study concluded that 21 states maintain unfair restrictive laws and practices with regard to college students, playing a detrimental role in youth voter turnout.

"If students have unusually high residential barriers to overcome, it's just one more added thing that will lower voter turnout," O'Loughlin says.

Taking Over the Town

Erecting these barriers to voting isn't always a conscious choice; some registrars simply don't know the law and are as confused as college students when it comes to residency regulations.

Others, however, are motivated to stop college students from voting because of a fear that they will "take over the town." In Williamsburg, for example, over half the population are college students, making the threat plausible.

"If you think about it, in a small town, a block of 300 or 400 voters could change the character of the city council or the mayor's office," O'Loughlin says.

That's what happened in New Paltz, New York, where 26-year-old Jason West was elected mayor and recently started marrying gay couples, causing some New Yorkers to shudder. West campaigned strongly on New Paltz's State University of New York campus, appealing to young voters who ousted the town's 16-year mayor.

Another argument used to justify banning students from voting in college towns is their transient lifestyle -- that they'll simply move away in four years, leaving behind the polices they help put in place. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46% of Americans moved between 1995 and 2000; in other words, nearly half of the American public are as transient as college students. What's more, many states allow homeless people to vote and Virginia allows the homeless to vote "wherever they lay their head at night."

These flimsy excuses only help to discourage political participation in a country where the youth vote is already alarmingly low.

"If voters get rebuffed the first time they go vote, they might just say, 'The heck with it,'" says Kent Willis, associate director of the Voting Rights Project of the ACLU. "When election officials tell a student who is claimed as a dependent on his dad's taxes but has never lived with his dad, to go vote where his dad lives, students know they are being jerked around."

Yet some people see this type of disenfranchisement doing just the opposite of discouraging voters.

"It sends a message that there are people who care enough about young people voting to prevent it from happening," says Hans Reimer, Washington director of Rock the Vote. "It has an empowering effect -- if you don't want me to vote, that's exactly what I'm going to do."

It isn't just local elections that are a concern. The 2004 presidential elections loom large in people's minds.

"This election is going to be so close," says Reimer. "Because of that, the pressure to disenfranchise voters will be heightened. We can see the scenarios happening where local election boards, often not operating in the best interest of democracy, decide for partisan reasons to block votes."

I Want My Democracy

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Building an Army on Wheels

oregon bus project
What started out as bar talk ended up becoming an organization with 4,000 volunteers.

As legend has it, five people sat at the Rogue Brewery in Portland, Oregon on an evening in 2001, trying to devise a plan to save their state. Drinks were had and ideas were proposed. They could start meeting every Wednesday night to watch the "West Wing...." nah, that would too passive. They could take over the Democratic Party... hmm, no, taking over a party is too risky. They could get a bus and start trekking across the state supporting progressive candidates... but buying a bus is too… too… wait a minute. They could get a bus.

The Oregon Bus Project is the free-wheeling, grassroots-shaking, democracy-flouting, politically-charged answer to what a small group of progressive activists saw as a crisis in their state. Among other problems, the state legislature had been dominated by right-wing conservatives for nearly a decade, rural and urban Oregon could not identify with each other, and important issues were batted back in forth among legislators -- a tennis-match of will that saw no winners. The group identified a need to bridge this urban/rural divide, engage young people in the political process, and create a grassroots progressive movement to take their state back.

To do this, they would buy a bus.

"Oregon's a big state," explains Caitlin Baggott, longtime Bus Project volunteer and founder and editor of the project's magazine, The Zephyr. "Especially for people in Portland, we just don't know what people are thinking outside the valley. So the conversation turned to, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could just take a busload of us over there to talk to them to figure out what's happening?' And then someone said, 'Maybe we could. Maybe we could get a bus.'"

If You Dream It, It Will Happen

Although Jefferson Smith, the initiator of the bus project, had originally approached other friends and even the governor to take the lead, he finally realized that he and a group of young activists would have to start the project. The plan was to get young people on the bus once it was purchased, drive them to campaigns across Oregon, and canvass for progressive candidates who needed help.

The group "begged and borrowed" money, spreading the news about the Oregon Bus Project by word of mouth and asking friends to donate as little as $5. Around 20 people involved with the project began meeting at the "Smith Compound," where they broke into groups and hashed out ideas for the project.

Finally in 2002, after much planning and fundraising, they had a kickoff ceremony, where Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon tried twice to break a champagne bottle against the newly acquired 1978 charter bus. The second time, he dented the metal, the bottle bouncing off the bus like a kickball on pavement. He eventually grasped the bottle and shattered the glass on a lug nut -- a tense but triumphant launch of the Oregon Bus Project.

oregon bus project

Nice Idea, Kids

After their champagne bottle kick-off, the Oregon Bus Project quickly got rolling on their mission to support progressive candidates -- much to the surprise of politicians.

"A well-known politician said to us, 'That's a nice idea kids. I'd love it if you could bring out 10 volunteers to work on my campaign. That would be huge,'" Baggott relates. "On our very first trip, we brought out 150 volunteers. It's not that people didn't support us. They were genuinely excited about the idea of us brining out 10 volunteers to help. So when we were able to bring out 10 times that many, I think it really startled people."

People quit their jobs to work on the Bus Project. In the beginning, they volunteered 60 to 80 hours a week, stealing time from sleep in the middle of the night. According to Baggot, "There were 20 or 30 of us committed at that level. It became a driving passion for us. It quickly took over our lives."

By the end of 2002, the Oregon Bus Project had engaged 4,000 people as volunteers and supporters, knocked on 70,000 doors, and helped get seven progressive candidates elected. Nice idea, kids.

But the project was seen as just that -- a project to complete -- and at the end of 2002, everyone expected to go back to work. Only, they couldn't let go of what they'd spent months building, couldn't see themselves returning to work, in some cases, for Red Bull or for corporate lawyers representing tobacco companies. They began to redefine their purpose, deciding that they wanted to do more than focus on candidates. They wanted to enrich people's understanding of the political process. The organization's motto, "Educate. Engage. Elect," began to take on new meaning.

"We were advised over and over and over again not to get too complicated," says Baggott. "Everybody said, 'Just do the bus project.' But we really resisted that message. We resisted the tried and true business model of, 'Do one thing, and do it well.' We want to do everything and do it well."

To the Oregon Bus Project, doing everything means: creating a quarterly online magazine of political commentary and analysis called The Zephyr; holding an "Engage Oregon" conference; starting Third Thursdays, a forum that combines cocktails and conversation about pressing issues; and throwing one crazy kick-off event called RISE, to be held May 22, complete with two bands, a deejay, a fashion show, and a political poster contest in the "revolutionary fashion."

Who said politics couldn't be, well, anything the Oregon Bus Project wants it to be?

This Ain't Your Momma's Volunteer Society

oregon bus projectToday, the Oregon Bus Project simply wants to reorganize government, enhance civic engagement, create a re-birth of the Progressive Era, and make the whole damn world a better place. Is that so much to ask?

For those still floundering, the project has already laid the groundwork, organizing around what they call the "Six E's": education, environment, equal rights, economic fairness, election reform, and 'ealth care. The project organizes events and designs media programs to raise awareness on political issues, teaches leadership skills to volunteers, links organizations and leaders who support progressive ideals, and has a savvy website that allows visitors to plug into their Engage Oregon network.

All the rest of us have to do is get on the bus.

The bus seats 47 people. It's a party on wheels, a moving classroom, a campaign strategy of steel. On the side of the bus is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: "A great democracy needs to be progressive or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy." People honk and wave when they see it drive by.

"It's ridiculously fun," Baggott laughs. "It isn't a time to fall asleep with your head against the window. We all remember those field trips."

They have a bullhorn. They tell jokes. There is witty political banter. They do not sing Kumbaya.

"We have elected officials on the bus to interact with," says Smith. "As a result, we keep a promise to young people that even though they can't afford a $1,000-a-plate dinner, they can have a chance to talk with elected officials about what's important to them."

Nice plug, but how do they actually get a busload of young people, drive them to a campaign event, and have them knocking on doors for free? Simple: They don't let people forget about them.

"It is a huge amount of work," explains Baggott. "The week before a bus trip, volunteers are calling people multiple times. We have volunteers say, 'Isn't this harassment? Is it okay to call people this much?' The over-all feeling is that the situation is so dire, that it is just fine to call people this much. And receiving a phone call is the least someone can do."

If Voting is Cool, Call Me Miles Davis

oregon bus projectWhen Urban Outfitters introduced a T-shirt that read, "Voting is for old people," the Oregon Bus Project was among the groups to protest. Not only have they been disproving this manufactured youth apathy on a daily basis, they've created their own screen printed message on a T-shirt: "Vote F*ckers."

"It's true that our T-shirt is absurd and inappropriate, but there's nothing more absurd than not being engaged in the political process," points out Smith. The T-shirt speaks, in the most blatant of ways, of the importance of youth engaging in the political process.

"There's been a depolitization of our society," he says. "That's a problem because the people with all the power and control are making decisions on their own behalf because the rest of us aren't paying attention."

The Oregon Bus Project decided that they needed to wake people up to the politics happening around them. "Where is the next generation of leaders going to come from?" asks Smith. "Well, they're alive right now, and if we give them the tools, relationships and set of values to lead, they will be able to when the time comes. It's important for young people because they're going to be alive when it really matters. Everyone is saying, 'Get Bush out of office.' But the world is not going to be won or lost, fixed or broken, at the end of the 2004 election. It's going to take 20 years to do this work. So who better than the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings to lead the way when they have already been talking about this for a very long time?"

The organization uses a unique strategy, called "reverse coattails," to mobilize their communities. In other words, they're keeping it local.

"If you go door-to-door for John Kerry, most people you will talk to will have already formed an opinion about that person before you get to their door," explains Smith. "If you go to the door to talk about a state legislator, what you say to that person might be their only encounter with an opinion of that person. Political participation at the local level is very important. If you can get people voting in local elections, it's very likely that they'll vote up the ticket."

While young people may not be able to fork over a large campaign contribution, the Oregon Bus Project shows that what they can donate is time. "We're not trying to build a war chest, we're trying to build an army," says Smith.

But building an army is no small task, especially when you're recruiting only volunteers.

"I'd say the most difficult struggle is, how do you organize and collect the resources to help do the work?" says Smith. "Whenever you're organizing young people, the same tools that you use to organize other organizations don't apply. Your membership base is people who have just graduated and people who are starting new jobs and starting new families. They are a very poor, imperfect donor base. And when you're working on a volunteer basis, each of us is spread out very thin."

If the Oregon Bus Project gets the financial support they need, Smith sees the organization enduring. Currently, Smith is working to create a bus project in Washington State.

"If this ends tomorrow, I will feel good about what we've done," says Smith. "But we'd like to get to the point where we're a sustainable organization. I hope our ideas get copied. I hope this becomes a legend, and that we will continue to motivate youth to have an impact on their communities and the world."

But Baggott has different plans for the organization.

"We should become a nationally syndicated grassroots project that everyone turns to for their social life. We want to be just like the Elks Club, only no funny hats, and we don't want to be 60."

For more information on the Oregon Bus Project, check out

Megan Tady is a 24-year-old freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.