The NewStandard

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."

Questioning the Economics of Logging Our Largest National Forest

Conservationists say the future the country's largest national forest could be undercut by flawed assumptions about the economics of turning trees into logwood.

As the US Forest Service makes court-ordered revisions to its development plans for the Tongass National Forest, the Wilderness Society has issued an analysis that counters the agency's rosier projections for the value of lumber culled from the 17-million acre expanse in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass harbors the world's largest temperate rainforest and 19 wilderness areas.

Assuming a growth in Asia's need to import lumber and expansions in Southeast Alaska's wood-processing industry, most of the Forest Service's projections anticipate a potential steep rise in timber demand over the next two decades. But economists working with the Wilderness Society say the government is ignoring negative realities facing Southeast Alaska's timber sector.

The alternative analysis argues that demand for timber from the Tongass is on the decline. According to records of federal timber sales from fiscal years 1996 to 2005, the volume of purchased timber that companies let idle uncut each year exceeded the amount they harvested. Overall demand has dwindled in recent years, the analysis states, due to global competition, weak commercial infrastructure and harsh terrain.

The ramifications of these challenges, the authors noted, are not explored in detail in the Forest Service's assessment. Economists working with conservationists say the government is ignoring evidence that the timber sector is on the decline in Southeast Alaska.

At a press conference presenting the Wilderness Society's findings this week, Spencer Phillips, a senior resource economist with the organization, said, "There is a huge overestimate of the need to harvest timber from the Tongass National Forest in order to meet demand." Meanwhile, he added, the Forest Service has "grossly underestimated" the value of more-holistic uses of forest resources, such as recreation or subsistence food harvesting.

Logging is a basic component of all seven of the Forest Service's long-term development options for the Tongass. The volume of timber that could be sold annually under the various land-use schemes ranges from about 50 million to over 420 million board-feet -- from a land-base of 430,000 acres to 1.15 million acres. Currently, maximum allowable sale volume from the forest is 267 million board-feet. Yet on average since fiscal year 1998, only 67 million board-feet of Tongass wood has been purchased annually through federal timber sales.

Though the Forest Service says it has not settled on a preferred option, the Southeast Conference, a regional business and development association, is pushing for an allowance of more than 400 million board-feet, arguing that historically, many timber sales were "uneconomic" because of conservation requirements that the industry deemed overly burdensome.

Environmentalists warn that overemphasizing the potential of the timber industry will spur further subsidization of logging and undermine the ecological integrity of the Tongass.

Dennis Neill, a spokesperson with the Forest Service, defended the agency's analysis as scientifically sound and peer-reviewed. But he noted that ultimately, "you can't know what's going to happen -- you can only make projections. And then as responsible land managers, it's our job to say, 'Okay, these are reasonable projections, what are potential consequences of making such a choice?'"

Citing a need for a diverse use of forest resources, Neill said: "For us to not use our own wood for our own benefit would be as silly as for us to not eat our fish. We have the opportunity, and frankly we have the right, for our citizens to rely on the resources that surround us."

The pending plan revises an earlier Forest Service assessment under the mandate of a 2005 federal court ruling. The Ninth Circuit found the original environmental analysis was based on highly inflated estimates for timber demand.

The Wilderness Society warns that overemphasizing the potential of the timber industry will spur further subsidization of logging through road-building and federal timber sales, which could impinge on sensitive old-growth tree habitats and undermine the ecological integrity of the Tongass.

The group urged the Forest Service to revise its projections and base its long-term plan on a more sustainable mix of economic activity, with a greater emphasis on tourism and recreation alongside limited timber production.

According to the Forest Service's own data, total employment related to tourism and recreation in Southeast Alaska provided about 6,900 jobs in 2004, while the wood-products industry generated about 941.

Deborah Perkins, Alaska Forest Program Manager with the Wilderness Society, said that while logging plays a part in local development, "The timber industry has had their fair share. Its time for looking at ways to chart a new course for a balanced economy that serves the interest of communities."

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?"

Protecting Penguins Could Force Bush to Move on Climate Change

Though there are no wild penguins in North America, an environmental group is asking the US government to consider several species endangered -- a move that could help activists compel the government to act against global warming.

On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify twelve kinds of penguins as "endangered" or "threatened." The Center says the change could create legal leverage against activities that contribute to climate change or otherwise threaten the birds.

"We… believe that if and when penguins are listed," said CBD staff attorney Kassie Siegel, "US entities that are responsible for large sources of greenhouse emissions will also be responsible for analyzing the impact of those emissions on listed species like penguins."

The classification would mean federal agencies are required to ensure that their actions will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of the birds. For example, the Department of Transportation might have to issue stronger fuel efficiency standards to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; the National Marine Fisheries Service might have to limit fishing of Antarctic krill, a major food source for penguins.

Classification would also permit activists to file lawsuits against corporations that jeopardize the species' survival.

Siegel said the Endangered Species Act has not been applied in this way before, but she added, "There's absolutely no reason why the law doesn't apply to greenhouse-gas emissions and shouldn't be enforced."

Only the Galápagos Penguin is currently protected by the US Endangered Species Act. The Center says the emperor, white-flippered, African and other penguins are also imperiled, their numbers declining due to habitat destruction, fisheries, oil spills and marine pollution, in addition to global warming. The petitioners point out that several of the penguin species they seek to have listed are already designated as threatened with extinction by the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International.

The Center also filed a petition in February 2005 to list polar bears, citing climate change as a major factor in diminishing their habitat and food sources. The organization had to sue US Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to complete its review, which is expected next month.

Siegel, who is also director of the Center's climate program, said a few other species affected by climate change have already been listed, including some butterflies and coral reefs.

"Our whole mission is the protection of imperiled species and biodiversity," said Siegel, "and we cannot fulfill that mission unless we do something about global warming, because global warming threatens virtually every eco-system on earth."

Legally, the Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition.

Students Seek Alternatives as Textbook Prices Mount

The report, released by the members of the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), a network of campus-based advocacy groups, said textbook companies are taking advantage of a skewed market in which students are forced to buy books assigned by professors.

Students spend an average of about $900 on textbooks every year, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO also found the price for books had tripled between 1986 and 2004, growing at twice the rate of inflation.

The Student PIRGs point out that "the party that orders textbooks -- faculty -- is not the same party that must purchase textbooks -- students -- removing price as a primary consideration in the ordering process." The group also notes that students have no way to "exert their own market power" by finding competitors with lower prices.

The Student PIRGs also criticized publishers for frequently releasing new editions -- often without adding significant educational value -- and thereby squelching a used-book market. Companies also add CD-ROMs and other supplementary "bells and whistles" that drive up costs.

Some companies offer low-cost alternatives to their texts such as softcover, spiral-bound books or online versions. But the Student PIRGs found that the 22 frequently assigned textbooks cost an average of $131.44. Less than half of these have less-expensive counterparts, and those ring up at an average of $65.32 apiece.

And two-thirds of the "low cost" textbooks reviewed by researchers were offered on websites separate from the company’s primary online catalog. The group also found that publishers often limit how students can use online texts. Some, for instance, restrict their ability to print out web pages, imposing challenges for students with infrequent Internet access or who have difficulty reading on a computer screen.

Publishers argue that textbooks are expensive to buy because they are expensive to produce. "Textbooks are a niche market, and the price to produce them is incredibly high, compared to, say, a novel, where thousands of copies are printed on cheaper paper and ink," Bruce Hildebrand of the Association of American Publishers told USA Today. "You don't realize how much it costs when you pay for rights for all the content, all the charts and art."

But some of the cost of the high-priced books is padding publishers’ profit. This July, McGraw-Hill, a major publisher, announced a profit of $121 million. The company Pearson reported profits of $802 million.

The Student PIRGs noted that a small-but-growing group of alternative publishers has sprung up, offering low-cost texts or free online educational materials. Professors who had used such materials in their classes responded positively overall to the quality and usefulness of the alternatives, according to PIRG.

For example, the student-run TextBookRevolution.org collects links to free online textbooks, many of which are first-year science or computer training texts.

While online textbooks are a new and growing development, they are "by no means the dominant force in the market," Dave Rosenfeld, a PIRG coordinator, told The NewStandard.

To expand the scope of services providing free online texts, the researchers encourage professors to use free materials found on sites such as Connexions to build their syllabi. Launched in 1999 by Rice University, Connexions allows academics to publish articles using the Creative Commons license, which is less restrictive than a traditional copyright, and use these materials as an alternative to assigning textbooks.

But with such reforms reliant on the goodwill of professors, many students have taken it upon themselves to minimize the financial drain of purchasing textbooks. Through websites such as WhyBuy.com, an "online bartering community" run by college students, users pay a $5 fee to swap textbooks rather than purchasing new or used ones at a bookstore. Other sites include BookSwap.com or TextSwap.com. Some universities and the website CraigsList.org also help students trade or sell books with each other rather than through a bookstore.

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, KatrinaDisability.info, 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.

Biowar Lab Alarms Residents

Anti-nuclear groups and residents in California and New Mexico are accusing the federal government of starting construction on a controversial biodefense lab without fully assessing and publicizing its projected environmental impact.

In a lawsuit brought to an appeals court in San Francisco last Tuesday, the groups are demanding the Department of Energy (DoE) expand its investigation into public-health threats they say the agency's project at the Livermore National National Laboratory poses.

The proposed lab, set to open in August, is a Biosafety Level 3 Facility, which is suited for working with airborne infectious agents that can cause lethal diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition. Activist groups Tri-Valley Cares and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, joined by California and New Mexico residents, argued in a previous court briefing that the laboratory's plans to "aerosolize" bioagents would leave nearby residents in the developed area vulnerable to exposure, especially in the event of an earthquake. The activists also argued that adding the presence of bioagents to a nuclear laboratory makes it more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder expressed concern about the laboratory at Tuesday's hearing. "What I find to be the most troublesome thing is this is being built in a very highly populated area," she said, according to the Contra Costa Times.

The groups' main legal linchpin is that the Department of Energy did not release an environmental-impact statement, which federal agencies must do before starting projects that could be harmful to the public health. Such statements can take months to complete. The Oakland office of the Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) filed its own environmental assessment report of the project in December 2002. The NNSA downplayed public-health risks in a statement released in conjunction with the study.

"Based on the analysis in the environmental assessment for the proposed project," NNSA manager Camille Yuan-Soo Hoo said in a statement, "NNSA has determined that no significant environmental impacts are expected and the potential consequences from routine operations would be minimal." The NNSA manages the nation's nuclear-weapons development programs on behalf of the DoE.

According to news reports, defense attorneys said the Department considered the impact of catastrophes and determined no significant dangers.

But opponents of the lab said that given the area's high population and proximity to two fault lines, the Department should have issued an environmental-impact statement. An EIS would detail all harmful effects, natural resources used and alternatives to the proposal, as well as require public hearings.

"As BSL-3 labs experimenting with aerosolized, highly contagious and potentially deadly pathogens and toxins proliferate, the risk of accidental releases of these poisons into the human environment grows," they argued in a brief.

One deadly pathogen that could be housed at the facility is anthrax, which thousands of people could be exposed to if five grams were accidentally released, according to Matthew McKinzie, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. McKinzie calculated potential anthrax plumes in the event of a catastrophe and provided written testimony during proceedings.

Using the computer model Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability, McKenzie said that depending on wind direction, the number of people exposed could be as low as 300 and as high as 128,000. McKinzie calculated that at a concentration in which a person has a 2 percent chance of dying from exposure, the dispersion could cause 6 to 2,500 deaths.

The advocacy groups first sued the Energy Department in August 2003, calling for a halt on the construction of the lab. The US District Court in Northern California sided with the DoE, allowing the agency to begin construction of the laboratory. Legal controversies have not discouraged the University of California, which operates the Livermore facility, from pursuing the development of more biodefense labs. The public university announced plans to bid on another "Bio Level 3-4 facility" that would test even deadlier pathogens, according to a meeting of the University Committee on Research Policy held in April.

FDA Plays Politics with Pot

Clashing with drug-policy reform groups and a growing body of scientific research, the federal government has stepped up its effort to invalidate marijuana as medicine.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement last Thursday asserting that smoked marijuana has no proven medical benefits. The assessment sparked criticism from both the scientific community and activists pushing for changes in drug laws, who say it exposes the White House's effort to spin science in order to push its agenda of criminalizing drug use.

The statement concluded that based on existing research, "no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States." The agency further argued that laws permitting marijuana use as a medical treatment "are inconsistent with efforts to ensure that medications undergo the rigorous scientific scrutiny of the FDA approval process."

Reform groups call the declaration a thinly veiled attempt to preempt both state and federal initiatives to de-criminalize the use of medical marijuana to relieve symptoms related to glaucoma, cancer and other illnesses.

Bruce Mirken, director of communications with the reform group Marijuana Policy Project, told The NewStandard that the FDA's position is "the final proof, if anybody still needed it, that the FDA has become completely politicized, that they're doing politics instead of science. And that, frankly, should frighten everybody, whatever your feelings about medical marijuana."

Organizations advocating for drug-policy reform have railed on the government for ignoring a wealth of clinical studies demonstrating the positive impacts of the drug. In a 1999 report, the federal Institute of Medicine recommended further research on risks and benefits of smoked marijuana, but concluded overall, "Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," particularly for AIDS and chemotherapy patients.

The FDA's opinion folds into an intensifying discussion in Congress over the potential benefits of medical marijuana and the costs of trying to control the drug.

Representative Mark Souder (R-Indiana) has led the push for tightening federal restrictions on medical marijuana through stringent FDA regulation. "Denying the federal government the power to set and enforce uniform standards would simply open up an alternative route for illegal drug trafficking and abuse," he said in a statement following a Supreme Court ruling last June that permitted federal crackdowns on medical marijuana.

But a spate of recent raids on medical-marijuana distribution centers has also sparked resistance from lawmakers and the public. In each legislative session since 1997, Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) has introduced the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, which would relax the ban on marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act and bar federal penalties on patients or medical professionals involved in the administration of medical marijuana.

Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) plans to reintroduce later this year an amendment to House appropriations legislation that would prevent the spending of federal dollars to prosecute medical-marijuana use.

Currently, state laws allow the cultivation and use of medical marijuana in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. In total, about 35 states have at some point enacted supportive legislation, including laws authorizing clinical research, or expressing support for medical marijuana without actually shielding patients from arrest.

In 2005, a two-fold Supreme Court ruling established states' prerogative to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, but also reaffirmed federal authority to prosecute sick people who use marijuana treatment in states that allow it.

In recent years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has led over 20 raids of medical-marijuana distribution centers in California and other states, according to a December 2005 Congressional Research Service report.

Critics say that in its efforts to criminalize marijuana despite evidence of its therapeutic benefits, the government has even resorted to stonewalling further scientific investigation of the drug's safety and effectiveness.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization that supports research on marijuana and similar drugs used for medical or spiritual purposes, has spent several years in a bureaucratic battle -- and now a lawsuit -- over the licensing of a proposed growing facility at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The organization argues that federal regulators have since 2001 "unreasonably delayed" the review procedure for the project, which is intended to supply researchers with high-potency marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement on Friday, "It is shameful to see the FDA talking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue by declaring there is no sound research on the medical benefits of medical marijuana, but at the same time, denying researchers the opportunity to study the efficacy of cannabis."

Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project commented that in the broader debate over drug-policy reform, the FDA's statement strikes at a particularly vulnerable population swept up in the drug war. "From our point of view," he said, "as long as we have a 'war on drugs,' can we please at least remove the sick and wounded from the battlefield?"

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