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?"

Fighting Back Against GE Crops

Farmers and environmentalists are suing federal agencies for allowing a bio-technology giant to market genetically modified alfalfa, allegedly without fully considering potential harm to the American food supply and environment.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court against the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, argues that federal regulators illegally approved Monsanto's application for commercial sale of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.

"Our belief is that there seems to be an increasingly frequent systemic lack of objectivity in a lot of the regulatory decisions that are flowing from USDA," said co-plaintiff Pat Trask, whose family has run an alfalfa-seed business in South Dakota for nearly a century.

Plaintiffs say approval by the USDA of Monsanto's request to market genetically modified alfalfa without regulation will eventually destroy farmers' ability to grow alfalfa free of engineered genes and will lead to increased use of harmful herbicides. Filed in the Northern District of California federal court, the lawsuit charges that regulators violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Plant Protection Act.

Experiments with nature

One of the most widely grown crops in the U.S., alfalfa generates an estimated $11.7 billion dollars yearly, according to the USDA. Though mostly grown for animal feed, the protein- and vitamin-rich purple-flowered legume is also sold for direct human consumption.

In 1998, Monsanto began developing a genetically modified strain called Roundup Ready Alfalfa. Like Monsanto's Roundup Ready Corn and Roundup Ready Soy, the GE alfalfa is designed to resist to the company's flagship herbicide product Roundup -- one of the most widely used industrial weed-killers in the world.

The USDA approved Roundup Ready Alfalfa for commercial sale last fall, making it the first large-scale perennial food crop approved and deregulated by the U.S. government. To date, GE alfalfa is grown on 50,000 acres across the country.

Some question the need to create an herbicide-resistant strain in the first place. According to the Center for Food Safety, a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, more than 80 percent of alfalfa grown in the United States is raised without any herbicides.

"Alfalfa is not something that has a big need of weed control," said Trusk, whose family has been growing traditional strains of alfalfa on the edge of the Black Hills for four generations. The crop's natural growth pattern shades the ground, discouraging most weeds, Trusk noted.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are concerned that the increased planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will similarly expand the use of toxic chemicals on farms. Scientific studies conducted by the British government and by academic researchers at Ohio State University have documented the evolution of "superweeds" -- nuisance plants ironically resistant to Roundup itself. Conservationists and public health advocates fear that farmers would then turn to even more toxic chemicals to kill the emboldened intruders.

"That creates a cycle of poisoning and dependency in agriculture which escalates over time, often referred to as a pesticide treadmill," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a D.C.-based environmental group and co-plaintiff in the suit. "[This cycle] belies the stated intent of those promoting the technology as one that would reduce pesticide dependence."

The groups are also concerned that bees, which help pollinate alfalfa, will carry pollen from genetically altered Monsanto crops to their conventional cousin, contaminating heirloom crops and destroying farmers' ability to grow plants free from bioengineering. They argue that the USDA should devise regulations to force GE alfalfa farmers to create "buffer zones" between themselves and traditional growers to help prevent irreparable harm to the traditional alfalfa gene pool.

Documentation of this cross pollination has uncovered instances in which farmers were growing food containing Monsanto-patented genes without even knowing it because of contamination from nearby farms. One such case was Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who spent six years and $400,000 fighting Monsanto's claims of patent infringement after Roundup Ready canola was found in his fields.

Schmeiser, who had planted natural breeds of canola for 50 years, argued that his farm was contaminated with Monsanto's plants by wind, passing trucks, water runoff or insect pollination. Ultimately a Canadian Supreme Court judge ruled that regardless of how Monsanto's seeds reached Schmeiser's farm, Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto's patent. In that case, the judge spared Schmeiser from paying any damages.

A lack of oversight

The 37-year old National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies prepare detailed analyses of any federal actions that could significantly affect the environment. But Will Rostov, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the USDA did not perform an environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa. In fact, he told TNS, the agency has not conducted one for any GE crops before giving them the green light.

In the case of GE alfalfa, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) - established in 1987 to oversee the safety of biotech products - conducted a preliminary environmental assessment and found "no significant impact on the environment" from Roundup Ready Alfalfa. The agency then decided no further analysis was needed.

However, the 42-page report acknowledges public concerns about the crop's potential impact, including increased use of herbicides, cross-contamination, harm to other organisms, and adverse affects on human health. The report also noted concerns that the crop could benefit large agribusinesses at the expense of family farms, and lead to loss of exports to countries that have expressed concerns about GE foods, such as Japan and South Korea, the two biggest customers for U.S. alfalfa exports.

APHIS dismissed all concerns but one: the potential growth of herbicide-resistant weeds as a result of releasing Roundup Ready Alfalfa to the industry. But the agency concluded that the problem could best be remedied if growers are careful to prevent their crops from maturing enough to reproduce.

Although the government's assessment also states that the majority of alfalfa growers and others tied to the alfalfa industry support the commercialization of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, the report also shows that out of 663 public comments submitted to APHIS, nearly 80 percent were opposed to the deregulation of Monsanto's GE alfalfa.

Many of those comments came from organic farmers who are concerned that GE alfalfa will compromise the integrity of their crops, leading to economic loss and liability issues. Wisconsin organic beef farmer Jim Munsch, who stays clear of consuming GE corn and soy products himself, said his customers come to him because they trust the purity of the food.

"You have to understand that the philosophy of an organic farmer starts out with a premise that we don't understand nature, that there are biological processes going on that people do not understand," Munsch told TNS. "When you start tinkering when any little piece of [nature], you have a tremendous risk of upsetting the whole process."

Additionally, doubts have emerged within the USDA itself about the agency's ability to monitor the safety of GE crops. In a report issued last December, the agency's inspector general wrote, "As the number of approved applications to field test new GE plants continues to rise, we are concerned that the Department's efforts to regulate those crops have not kept pace."

The USDA did not respond to repeated interview requests from TNS. The lawsuit also charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with failing to assess the impact of increased Roundup use on endangered and threatened species. The EPA deferred all comment to the USDA.

Monsanto spokesperson Mica DeLong defended the company's testing of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, telling TNS that the company fulfilled all of the USDA requirements to bring the product to market.

DeLong added that farmers' concerns about cross-contamination are unfounded because the only way alfalfa can go to seed is if farmers let it, and farmers using Monsanto's Roundup Ready products sign a licensing agreement precluding them from saving and replanting the seeds.

Delong said that since the majority of growers produce Roundup Ready Alfalfa only for hay, animal feed or exports, growers would not allow their crops to go to seed because that would reduce the quality of the forage.

But the plaintiffs' concerns center on contamination from pollen, not seeds. And according to the Madison, Wisconsin-based group Family Farm Defenders, most alfalfa is cut after some of blossoms have already produced pollen.

Rostov of the Center for Food Safety said he hopes the lawsuit against the USDA will return some control to the public by encouraging better federal oversight of genetically modified crops. The suit asks the court to force the re-regulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa and requests a full environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa from the USDA.

The agencies have until mid-April to respond to the lawsuit.

"There's a pattern that is noxious and toxic to the traditional American way of life," said Trask, the alfalfa-seed farmer. "This is not good for American people. You're losing food safety and property rights simultaneously. And the beneficiaries of this are not human beings with a conscious. They're corporate boardroom financial reports."

Barriers for Disability at Work

Impressing a potential employer during an interview and getting a good job offer is difficult for many. But for those with disabilities -- who must prove they are as qualified as non-disabled candidates -- finding any job has its own challenges.

When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 15 years ago, supporters hoped the equity legislation would increase disabled peoples' opportunities for employment. But, according to researchers at Cornell University, the employment rate for people with disabilities peaked around 25 percent in the 1990s before dropping below 20 percent by 2004.

The Department of Labor attributes this low employment rate, in part, to the misconception that accommodating people with disabilities in the workplace is prohibitively costly. In fact, research indicates that the opposite is true. The Labor Department's Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which helps employers hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities, has found that most workplace accommodations can be implemented at little or no cost. Since cost is not the main barrier, say disability advocates, more needs to change than simply architecture and ergonomics.

"Most disabled people would tell you that the bigger concerns they have around the workplace are not around physical accessibility," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "They're more around attitudes. I think it's easier to legislate and see change around bricks and mortar than it is around attitudes."

Low-cost, high-impact

The JAN survey, which will continue through September 2007, released preliminary findings last month based on feedback from 778 employers that had contacted the agency for information about employing people with disabilities.

The vast majority of the employers surveyed had called because they were interested in learning how to retain their employees, who on average had been employed for seven years and were paid about $13 per hour.

About half reported that implementing workplace adjustments came at no expense, and about 43 percent reported a one-time cost that averaged around $600.

"Many employers tell us it's as simple as making a flexible schedule [for an employee]," said Anne Hirsch, director of services for JAN and co-author of the study. She told The NewStandard that many accommodations are similar to those commonly purchased to make it easier for non-disabled employees to do their jobs, like telephone headsets or specialized computer software that can aid people with vision or range of motion impairments.

Cassie James, self-services coordinator at Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for people with disabilities, said many employers wrongly assume that adaptive improvements will be pricey. James, who uses a wheelchair comfortably at her office, said there are many obstacles that need simple fixes rather than state-of-the art solutions.

She gave the scenario of needing to adjust desk height for someone in a taller wheelchair. "If I went out and thought about how can we make this, I might be able to get one of those long working tables and put it on a couple of bricks and it's just as good," James said.

The law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman is one company that found cost-effective ways to create a better work environment for disabled employees. The internationally-based firm, which employs over 1,000 people, discovered that minor adjustments -- like using instant messaging for some office communications and moving desks so that employees' backs were not facing the door - could help accommodate two employees with hearing loss.

"With the deaf employees, that was something new for us, and we actually went to them and asked, 'What can we do to make life easier and help you communicate with us and help us communicate with you?'" explained Britta Stromeyer, human-resources manager at the firm.

Pillsbury law has joined other large companies, including Cingular, Embassy Suites Hotels and IBM, in working with the Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network (EARN), a federally funded accessible-technology company that helps connect businesses to people with disabilities who are looking for work. Stromeyer said she initially used EARN's services because of problems finding quality candidates through traditional labor recruiting sources, but discovered added benefits beyond simply attracting qualified employees. "It makes a difference in teamwork in general when you really have a diverse pool of opinions and ideas," Stromeyer told TNS.

The JAN report found that of the employers surveyed, nearly 9 in 10 reported retaining a valued employee through better workplace accommodations. In addition, three-quarters cited increased productivity, and over half said they eliminated the costs of hiring and training a new employee.

Employers also reported indirect benefits like improved interactions with co-workers and customers, increased company morale and improved workplace safety. Report co-author Hirsch said that all of these results are nothing more than the product of good management skills. "Employers who are proactive look at [workplace accommodations] as how can we use this to improve work for everyone," she said.

Attitudes must follow

While the results of JAN's survey indicated that many employers of people with disabilities found little cost and great benefit, survey respondents were limited to companies that had sought out the agency to help them accommodate employees.

Advocates for people with disabilities interviewed by TNS shared a common concern that in the larger market, stereotypes and discrimination present greater hurdles.

"The biggest barriers are still attitudinal," said Linda Richman, deputy executive director of Liberty Resources. In her view, many employers mistakenly believe that hiring a person with a disability means that "you're automatically compromising somehow on the quality or volume of work."

"That means that workers that really want to work [might not] have the right exposure to the business world," she explained, "and it also means employers... are still carrying around a lot of misconceptions about what it would really be like to work with a person with a disability every day."

Richman, who runs an intensive 18-month job-training course for people with disabilities, added that in today's economic climate, they are lucky if one student per month is hired. "We really have the decks stacked against us a lot of the time," Richman said. "[The economy] makes it hard because our folks are all entry level, and most companies these days have a glut of really experienced people that are taking entry level jobs because they don't have anything else."

In addition to a tight job market and employer misconceptions, people with disabilities are sometimes hindered by their own apprehensions about the employment process, according to Kristen Stern, an employment consultant at the Milwaukee-based education, advocacy and independent-living-services organization Independence First.

"A lot people that have disabilities may be afraid to go back to work. If it's a [newly acquired] disability, they might not know if they can do the job, or they might not have the confidence needed to do the job," Stern told TNS.

Imparato, of the American Association for People with Disabilities, stressed the need for more fundamental change to increase employment rates and financial independence for people with disabilities.

"The ADA is an equal-opportunity law," Imparato said, "so it works well for people with disabilities who have skills and who are qualified for jobs that are open." But, he added, "we still have a lot of barriers in terms of our education system, our rehabilitation system, where there are a lot of people with disabilities who are not competitive in the modern labor market, and the ADA is not going to change that."

The possibility of losing Social Security benefits and access to reliable transportation has also prevented some from venturing into the job market, Imparto noted.

Imparato is currently serving on a federal advisory panel to develop recommendations to reform Social Security benefits that would permit people with disabilities to both work and receive federal assistance for medical bills and other supportive needs.

"I believe we've defined eligibility for that program based on outdated attitudes about what people with significant disabilities are capable of doing in the workplace," said Imparato. He advocated revising eligibility requirements to give more weight to the degree of functional impairment, which would allow more opportunities for people to both work and receive benefits.

For Babs Johnson, national spokesperson for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT), one of the organizations that pushed for passage of the ADA, the issue of employment rates among people with disabilities relates directly to the organization's mission of fighting against the institutionalization of people with disabilities and enabling them to attain greater independence.

"I believe that it's healthy for everybody to [work]," said Johnson. "We all need to feel like we are contributing to society, and employment is one of the main ways that people do that."

Taxing the Poor

Federal program cuts, tax breaks for the wealthy and state budget crises are not the only forces squeezing the working poor. According to a study by a progressive think tank, low-income households are getting pinched yet again by state income-tax policies that turn what little they have into even less.

Of the 42 states levying income taxes in 2005, nineteen taxed two-parent families of four living in poverty, and sixteen taxed impoverished single-parent families of three, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which has tracked state income-tax data since the early 1990s.

Antipoverty groups say such tax policies add a perverse twist to an already tattered social safety net, and are demanding tax relief for the poor through redistributive fiscal policies.

"This is an especially harsh time to be taxing families deeper into poverty," said Kimble Forrister, executive director of the low-income advocacy coalition Alabama Arise, noting that families in his state are still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina and skyrocketing fuel costs.

According to the CBPP, while some states have recently reformed their tax codes to relieve the lower income brackets, others have simply let their income-tax thresholds stagnate. This has allowed inflation to drive the tax floor below the federal poverty line -- about $16,600 for a family of three in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia. The study also found that 31 states taxed families with incomes just above the official poverty line, pulling them back toward financial insecurity.

In Alabama, the basic tax exemptions are essentially held over from Depression-era statutes. In 2005, the state culled income taxes from families of four earning as little as $4,600. A single-parent family of three making the minimum wage -- that's under $11,000 per year -- paid nearly $220. The state charged four-person families with two parents living at the poverty line, which hovers just below $20,000, about $540.

Angela, a 30-year-old single mother in Auburn County, sees income taxes are just one more hurdle in her struggle to keep her two children, ages 9 and 12, housed and fed.

"It's just hard from day to day," she said. In her view, the government seems to be discouraging her efforts toward economic self-sufficiency. The more she works -stringing together low-skill, temporary jobs paying as little as $6.10 an hour -- the less she receives in food-stamps assistance, and the closer she moves toward the income threshold at which the government saps her earnings.

"It's just kinda messed up," she said. "If you go out and get a job, you're still hurting yourself, 'cause now, I gotta worry about feeding my family out of my pocket."

Nonetheless, driven to push past the rim of poverty, Angela is starting a new job at a local low-income childcare center, Auburn Daycare. Joining the staff as an entry-level assistant, she said that she had been unable to afford daycare there for her own children.

That irony is not lost on Ethel White, director of Auburn Daycare. Due to state and federal budget shortfalls, she said, childcare subsidies for working-poor families have evaporated, showing that poor people's tax dollars have not circulated back into their communities. And since many parents cannot afford to pay thousands for daycare out of pocket, she added, they are ensnared by another paradox: the lack of affordable, reliable childcare during the workday is often what stands between parents and long-term employment.

The layering of heavy taxes over poverty, White said, "certainly contributes to joblessness in our community. It certainly contributes to hunger. It contributes to an unfair burden on those families…. So we're taxing people who are least able to afford a tax system of this nature."

Presenting the CBPP's findings at a news conference, analyst Nicholas Johnson remarked that state taxes, including sales and property taxes, generally tend to hit poor consumers harder than they hit the well off. As Washington foists its fiscal problems onto state budgets, he projected, "that also shifts the burden of paying for government services from higher-income families to lower-income families."

This pattern of making the poor pay more for less is felt acutely in Arkansas, where two-parent families of four at the poverty line paid about $410 in state income taxes last year.

Rich Huddleston, executive director of the public-interest group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said that the state's main release valve for fiscal pressures is regressive taxation. He predicted that to deal with federal Medicaid cuts, the state could hurt the poor either by scaling back healthcare programs, or by raising inequitable taxes to cover the costs.

"From our view," said Huddleston, "it doesn't make much sense to raise money… to try and help families and then at the same time, punish them economically through the tax system."

Though states' tax codes vary widely, a state-by-state analysis of 2002 non-elderly household tax data by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, revealed that overall, combined state and local tax systems heavily favor the wealthy.

In Alabama, for example, the richest one percent of the tax base paid only 3.8 percent of their income in sales tax, property tax and state-income tax, compared to 10.6 percent for the poorest fifth.

Nationwide, the state and local tax burdens of the poorest 20 percent and the richest one percent are similarly divided. Those in the poorest fifth pay 11.4 percent of their income while the wealthiest percentile coughs up just 5.2 percent.

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Hiding Behind Pollution and Paperwork

The government has plans to wipe out thousands of pounds of industrial pollution -- on paper, anyway.

The Environmental Protection Agency is advancing substantial rule changes aimed at freeing corporations from the "burden" of reporting toxic emissions. But environmentalists fear the new rules would saddle communities with more industrial waste by shielding polluters from public scrutiny.

The proposal, now up for public comment, would shrink the main government pollution database, known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), by enabling companies to report less information, less frequently.

Officials have promoted the reforms as a type of "relief" for small businesses that handle toxic materials. But according to the opposition, the proposed rules would undermine a major public resource for holding polluters accountable and safeguarding public health.

For instance, the TRI has helped activists mobilize communities downwind from Mittal Steel Company in Cleveland, Ohio. From 2003 to 2004, the factory tripled its reported air emissions of toxic chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and various metals -- substances that neighbors link to foul odors and health problems. Armed with the company's own data, residents have tested neighborhoods for contaminants that match the plant's pollution record and pushed Mittal to follow other Ohio facilities in implementing pollution-reduction technology.

"We do direct pressure on polluters to make changes in their operation and to generally go beyond what the laws would require them to do in pollution prevention," said Sandy Buchannan, executive director of the grassroots group Ohio Citizen Action, "so the TRI is a really critical tool."

Established two decades ago under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the TRI tracks about 650 chemicals and more than 20,000 facilities, from chemical manufacturers to food processors. Information about the amount, type, storage and disposal of toxic waste has enabled communities to investigate local facilities and shaped legislation and advocacy campaigns. Since the current system was finalized in 1998, toxic releases and disposals have dropped by nearly 3 billion pounds, or over 40 percent.

The rule changes would let more companies take advantage of a simplified reporting form, which documents only the name -- not quantity -- of a toxin. Current rules generally mandate more detailed reporting for a TRI chemical if total annual emissions exceed 500 pounds. The proposed rules would bump that threshold to 5,000 pounds. For an especially hazardous category of chemicals, including mercury, the proposal would eliminate detailed reporting requirements for facilities that handle 500 pounds or less of these substances and do not release them directly into the environment.

The EPA estimates that the relaxed requirements would affect about one-third of reporting facilities, but maintain information on 99 percent of pollution- all while saving companies from paperwork. In a related initiative, the EPA has announced plans to reduce the reporting schedule from yearly to every other year.

The industry association American Chemistry Council endorses the proposed reforms as a way to increase efficiency. Spokesperson Tiffany Harrington said the chemical industry is already "one of the most regulated industries in the world," and the changes would result in "minimal impact to public information."

Advocacy groups counter that the real cost of industry's "savings" would weigh heavily on communities.

"If any kind of industrial company is putting out chemicals, the public has a right to know what those are, especially when the effects can be so local," said Moira Chapin, a field organizer for the public interest group Environment California, which stands to lose data for nearly 300 facilities across the state under the EPA proposal.

According to an analysis released last week by the advocacy organization National Environmental Trust (NET), more than 920 communities would lose all numerical data on local pollution under the proposed rule. More than 1,600 communities would lose at least half of the amount of data currently available.

NET also found that the companies standing to benefit from reporting reductions tend to release more of their waste directly into the environment, as opposed to using waste-management or pollution-reduction methods.

"By providing less information," NET Director of Research Thomas Natan told The NewStandard, "EPA is telling people that its concerns, or the concerns of the business community, are more important than theirs."

Community groups like Ohio Citizen Action warn that the rule changes would weaken grassroots campaigns.

With a two-year gap between reports, Buchannan said, "neighbors are not going to be able to tell whether the company is making a change that they promised to make."

Dismissing the EPA's notion of "small" polluters, Buchannan argued, "Chemicals don't get on a TRI for reporting unless they're dangerous to public health.... And if you live next door to it, it doesn't matter whether it's, you know, a giant chemical company or a smaller company."

Besides providing activists with statistical muscle, the TRI also affects environmental policy decisions. Washington State's Department of Ecology has applied TRI data in designing plans to reduce pollution, which, since 1995, have helped cut toxic releases and disposals by roughly 50 percent.

Idell Hansen, director of the state's Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program, noted that the proposed reporting threshold does not distinguish between various types of toxins. She pointed out that new guidelines ignore, for example, that "500 pounds of one chemical might have the same toxicity as 500,000 pounds of another chemical." Hansen predicted that if ranked according to toxicity, several of the state's most hazardous facilities "would be kicked out [of TRI] completely."

The integrity of pollution data is also a health and safety issue for workers. Mechanic and union activist Richard Prete used TRI data during the 1990s to investigate a link between health problems among workers and chlorine emissions at his plant, Kaiser Aluminum in Washington. The management eventually agreed to revamp the facility's technology and nearly eliminated chlorine exposure hazards within a few years.

Prete said the TRI provided employees information that is "not normally available to workers on the floor at any company."

In occupational medicine, the TRI fuels the research of physicians like Michael Harbut of Michigan's Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, who studies how toxic exposures influence workers' risks for disease. "We should be getting more information about these things, rather than getting less," Dr. Harbut told TNS.

Activists say that weakening the TRI would punctuate the Bush administration's broader effort to block regulatory bodies from interfering with business interests.

Critics suspect that government calculations of the "regulatory burden" are more a function of politics than hard data. For instance, while the White House Office of Management and Budget estimates that the most extensive TRI form requires 47.1 hours to complete, the EPA projects the form takes 6.7 hours.

According to Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst with the government accountability group OMB Watch, responsibility -- rather than bureaucracy -- is the burden borne by polluters. "There seems to be very little corroborating data that the burden is an actual problem," Moulton said, "and a lot of evidence that demonstrates that the public accountability created by the TRI program is a problem for them."

Moulton remarked that the irony of the proposed rollbacks is that, while it may be the target of an anti-regulatory political climate, the TRI does not actually regulate industry; instead, it encourages self-regulation to avoid embarrassment.

Once companies are forced to come clean about their pollution, he said, "there's not even a requirement to do anything. There's just a public pressure that comes to bear when you're among the worst facilities in the country."

New Orleans Neighborhoods Struggling to Rebuild

While some parts of New Orleans begin to come back to life, large swaths of the city sit largely empty still, a full two-and-a-half months after Hurricane Katrina. With water-damaged houses, spotty or no electricity, closed schools and few services, the areas are only livable for a few pioneers willing to brave the destruction and government neglect to come back home.

As New Orleanians figure out how to repopulate their deserted neighborhoods, many say trailer homes are crucial to their efforts.

"Why couldn't they put some mobile trailers right there where people could live at?" asked Alvin Cambric, an Upper Ninth Ward resident, pointing across to the street to an empty area. Cambric is living in the front room of his heavily-damaged house, without electricity, eating canned food donated by way of a grassroots relief organization. "We could wash and cook... [have] somewhere [we] could go into and turn the light on."

Beneath the facade of a city crawling slowly to its feet, long-existing fractures between low-income residents and developers are widening. Even before the storm, people in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods like the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards, where home ownership rates are high and social ties are strong, felt pressure from the city to move over for corporate development projects.

Now, with most of the residents of those areas scattered across the country, fear is rising that the government and corporate interests will take advantage of their absence to gain an upper hand. Meanwhile, the limbo status of evacuation feeds the demand for a solution that puts people back in their own neighborhoods as quickly as possible.

"Why are you paying all this money for [evacuees] to live out of town?" said Veronica Robinson, who is living in one of her sister's buildings in the Bywater neighborhood. "Pay some money to help them fix their places in town... Let people come back, let them gut their houses."

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson James McIntyre told The NewStandard that the number of requests for trailers is not publicly available right now because the agency is sorting through and eliminating duplicate applications. He did say that FEMA has provided about 8,780 trailers and mobile homes to hurricane survivors in Louisiana.

In interviews with TNS, several residents living in New Orleans said FEMA has been unresponsive to their requests of trailers.

McIntyre said the Agency is filling the requests as fast as possible and is doing so in a specific order: special needs, senior citizens, single parents with school-aged children, dual-parent households with school kids, and then all others.

He also said that FEMA could not put trailers in places where essential services like electricity, sewage and water are not up and running yet. But it is in those areas where residents say they are most in need of the trailers, since their houses are not yet livable.

For instance, in much of the Upper Ninth Ward, water and sewage are working and the electrical infrastructure is coming back on line, but people whose houses are significantly flood-damaged are not able to receive power yet. In those cases, McIntyre said, FEMA would not put a trailer on the property because workers must connect the trailer's electricity through the house.

Nicole Chandler, another Upper Ninth Ward resident said she filled out an application for a trailer about seven or eight weeks ago at the FEMA relief station in Algiers. She said that on the application, she indicated that her house is able to receive utilities. At the time, she said they told her she would hear back from them in two weeks, but she has yet to receive notice. She said that when she called FEMA's toll free number to check on the status of her application, she was told that FEMA did not have a public number to give out for people to check on their requests.

McIntyre also said that FEMA was following the mayor's list of approved locations for trailers and that the Agency cannot install trailers in areas where the mayor has not given the go-ahead.

However, Mayor Ray Nagin's office released a statement yesterday denying that claim.

"We have discussed the statements made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency today in regard to needing written permission from this [mayor's] administration in order to place trailers on private property in the city," reads the statement. "FEMA's statements come as a total surprise, especially since we have two daily meetings with FEMA representatives and this issue has never been brought to our attention."

Resisting Mountaintop Removal in Tennessee

Appalachian Tennessee, Nov 15 -- Paloma Galindo's chihuahua skittered ahead of her, jumping back in surprise when a small cascade of loose rocks and dirt at the Egan Mountain mine in Tennessee tumbled down a jagged cliff created by the type of mountaintop removal mining that has left the mountains of Appalachia increasingly scarred, pocked and leveled.

Galindo, an environmental activist with the group United Mountain Defense who has come to know the mines of Tennessee like the back of her hand, gestured toward a scrub-covered hillock at the end of a gently sloping meadow, a "reclaimed" strip mine that was once home to lush forest.

"It looks like it's back to its original shape, but it acts like a big sponge," she said of the hillside, which was reconstructed out of rubble after part of the mountain was blasted away to get at coal seams. "It's all broken rock slapped on there and compacted with no hydrological system, so it will soak up water, and five years down the line you'll get massive landslides. Then the mining company will have already bonded out so the cost will fall on the taxpayers."

During a flyover of Egan and other mines in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky the next day, landslides of the type Galindo was describing were visible: gashes of jumbled gray boulders, upended trees and debris cutting through the autumn colors.

From the air, the North Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee look like the coat of a once-beautiful animal with a debilitating case of mange. Mountaintops are laced with strangely shaped bald spots, where trees give way to brushy undergrowth. Giant hunks have been bitten out of the mountainsides, revealing sores of crumbling sand, broken rock and black tar. Once-neat layers of sediment are visibly torn asunder, cascading down hillsides. Strange top-hat-shaped protrusions of land rise up sharply. For miles and miles, it looks as if someone took a giant potato peeler to the side of the range.

And six days a week, fleets of enormous dump trucks and bulldozers crawl along the open wounds of the earth, drilling, blasting and extracting truckloads of shiny black coal.

Even after decades of drilling, digging and blasting, Appalachia is still rich in coal -- 28.5 billion tons of it according to a 1998 US Department of Energy. And coal, in the eyes of the Bush administration, is the energy source of the future. The White House's energy plan designates the black rock as one of the country's main sources of fuel, and calls for 1,300 new coal-burning power plants by 2020. The relative efficiency of strip mining versus the more traditional "deep" mining means that coal companies can harvest more coal faster and with fewer workers.

Setting Up the Battleground

Activists view Tennessee as an important proving ground in the fight against mountaintop removal since the pace of destruction is accelerating rapidly and there are still more state environmental protections in place in Tennessee than in neighboring states. But activists in Appalachia say the environmental and cultural price of powering the country with coal -- especially when it is mined through techniques like mountaintop removal -- is too high.

The harshest effects of mountaintop removal can be viewed in West Virginia, where mining companies have decapitated roughly 300,000 acres of mountains and filled in about 1,000 miles of streams with rubble. Mountaintop removal is also practiced in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

This fall the US Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies released an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the effects of mountaintop removal mining. The statement, part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed in West Virginia in 1998, catalogued sundry negative effects of the practice but concluded that better cooperation between federal agencies and a better permitting process could lessen the harm. Environmentalists called the EIS a green light for coal companies to proceed with mountaintop removal.

In Tennessee, the process is officially called "contour mining," when the sides of a mountain are excavated, or "cross-ridge mining," when the peak is shaved right off. They do not call it "mountaintop removal" because Tennessee law mandates the mountain must be "reclaimed" and rubble cleared from the streambeds. However, environmentalists say the process and effects are virtually the same.

In order to reach coal seams in the mountains, mining companies literally blast off their tops. The debris is pushed down the mountainside, creating a "valley fill" at the base, or stored in large piles where it can deposit minerals and ooze toxic metals and compounds into rivers and groundwater.

The EPA website dispassionately describes the hazards of this process: "The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns."

In Tennessee, strip mining became common in the 1970s but tapered off in the 1980s due to dropping coal prices. However, in the last few years, mountaintop removal mining has quietly resumed with vigor in Tennessee, mainly in the eastern part of the state near the Kentucky border.

Tennessee has always been a relatively minor player on the national coal scene; the US Office of Surface Mining (OSM) reports that in 1997, the most recent published numbers, it produced less than a third of a percent of the nation's coal, with 5,021 acres of active surface mining and 58 acres of underground mining. Though coal extraction has picked up considerably since then, the state still lags far behind nearby West Virginia and Kentucky in production.

Unless enough local residents demand a public hearing, new mine proposals go through rapidly without any public notification or comment.

However, activists view Tennessee as an important proving ground in the fight against mountaintop removal since the pace of destruction is accelerating rapidly and there are still more state environmental protections in place in Tennessee than in neighboring states.

As Dangerous as it is Destructive

In 1977 President Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA), which mandated that mine sites be restored and remediated. States have implemented the law in different ways, and it allows for exemptions, which are frequently granted.

In West Virginia, little is done to restore sites. In Tennessee, companies are supposed to restore the site to their original form, a task critics say is unachievable. Instead of restoring the mountains to their prior, tree-covered lushness, they leave gently sloped, grassy hillsides and golf-course-like plateaus. The rubble from blasting is packed back onto the mountain, compacted to the point that it is hard for trees to take root, and sprayed with "hydro-seed," a chalky, green mixture of seeds producing hardy but not necessarily native grasses and shrubs that quickly sprout on the reformed land.

Because of the heavy compaction and the destruction of topsoil, trees and diverse forest systems are unlikely to regenerate on the patches for a long time. Instead of rain filtering naturally through the mountain sediment, it sheets off the compacted hillsides causing flooding and landslides.

Mountaintop removal mining is also dangerous both for workers in the blast areas and for surrounding communities. In August 2004 in Wise County, Virginia, a three-year-old named Jeremy Davidson was crushed to death when a half-ton boulder dislodged from a strip mine, tumbled down a hillside and crashed into his family's home in the middle of the night. A&G Coal Company, which argued the accident was an "act of God," was fined only $15,000 by the state mining agency.

In Tennessee, workers at a Perkins restaurant along I-75 still remember the accident in 1993 when "flyrock" -- the debris flung by the blasting process -- shot out 225 feet from the interstate and killed sixteen-year-old Brian Agujar, a tourist from Louisiana.

Responsibility for that incident was borne by Sugar Ridge Coal Co. Already about $8 million in debt, Sugar Ridge was found in violation of its permit for simultaneously blasting two rounds of explosives in one hole, instead of separately in two holes as required. A special permit restriction had been placed on the company by OSM the previous year because of earlier flyrock violations. The worker detonating the blast was later sentenced to five months in prison and the company fined $550,000, but since it went bankrupt after the accident, the family was never able to collect.

Several groups of residents here, shocked to realize the extent of the strip mining going on in their area, have been working doggedly to stop the mines wherever possible and slow down the process.

One front in that battle has opened around water pollution. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), charged with regulating the state's water quality, must issue permits for mining operations that could affect state waterways. Activists are pressuring the TDEC to impose stricter water protections.

Currently if a mine is polluting the water, TDEC can fine them and demand a remediation process, according to a TDEC spokesperson, but it cannot actually issue a stop-work order. State legislation (SB 0142, HB 1328) that could be voted on next year would empower the Tennessee government to put stop-work orders on polluting operations.

Meanwhile, opponents are pressing TDEC and Governor Phil Bredesen to ban mountaintop removal altogether on the grounds that it violates the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act of 1977.

A Long, Uphill Struggle

Acknowledging the economic realities of the area, the groups trying to stop mountaintop removal generally say they are not opposed to deep mining, which has its own drawbacks but makes much less of an environmental impact and also creates more jobs than mountaintop removal.

Unless enough local residents demand a public hearing, new mine proposals go through rapidly without any public notification or comment. So local activists -- every one a volunteer -- regularly visit the OSM office to find out what permit applications are on the table, write lengthy comments and demand public hearings.

The activists say that by challenging permits, they have slowed down the mining process considerably and caused the size of several mines to be reduced.

But companies have found ways to circumvent regulation. They construct mines consecutively, creating huge projects that are treated legally as a series of small efforts and thereby subject to less scrutiny. This is the modern-day version of an infamous Tennessee practice banned in 1987 known as the "string of pearls," in which mining companies develop a long string of strip mines of only a few acres each to avoid needing a permit.

The modern practice, now called "segmentation," has essentially the same effect on an even larger scale. For example, from the air, Galindo pointed out the Cooper Ridge mine, run by Apollo Fuels Ltd., a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips. The Cooper Ridge project stretches for miles, snaking around the sides and tops of many peaks. Even though there are no breaks in the slice taken out of the range, it is legally multiple mines. ConocoPhillips did not return a request for comment on this story.

"If you look at it on a permit-by-permit basis, it's all mines less than 5,000 acres," said Galindo. "But they're all connected to each other, so it's really one massive mine. And each additional mine makes it easier to get more permits, because they say it isn't a pristine mountain; it's already impacted, so what's one more mine?"

Last summer, United Mountain Defense held a month-long program called Mountain Justice Summer to give activists from around the country a crash course in the politics and effects of mountaintop removal. They toured mine sites, attended public hearings about proposed permits and engaged in direct action. Some protesters used locking devices to create a barricade at the entrance to Zeb Mountain, where National Coal Corporation, founded in 2003, is now mining up to 2,000 acres. Authorities arrested eleven protesters.

The company's website says National Coal "easily identified and quickly capitalized on opportunities within the South Appalachian region," so "the company is riding high on new demand for coal." National Coal spokesman Charles Kite declined to comment in detail, saying only that the company has received "a lot of harassment" over Zeb Mountain.

Mountain Justice Summer participants also conducted "listening projects," visiting the homes of community members around Zeb Mountain to hear their thoughts on the situation. They said most were hesitant to speak about mining, and attributed the silence to the long history of violence and intimidation against people who challenge coal companies in Appalachia. Activists also said there is a long-standing acceptance of and pride in mining work.

"When we were doing the listening projects, the older people had all these stories about how life was shaped by the coal mining companies," Galindo said. "If a company would stop mining for a while, whole towns that had been thriving with theaters and everything would become ghost towns in a matter of months. Then a new company would open up, and people would move to that spot. There's a long history of being impacted by coal; this isn't new for them."

Straight to the Top

While President Bush's initial nominee for director of the Homeland Security Department, Bernard Kerik, withdrew himself from consideration amidst questions over numerous scandals, civil libertarians say the administration's new pick to head the department raises other serious concerns.

Michael Chertoff, Bush's new nominee to replace outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge, faced a congressional hearing today, as lawmakers questioned him on plans for security budget priorities, labor relations within the department, and other issues surrounding protection of national security. Senators also asked Chertoff about his commitment to balancing national security concerns with protecting civil liberties and about his prior involvement in designing post-Sept. 11 detention and interrogation policies.

It is Chertoff's previous role in the Justice Department as assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division and his reported involvement in many of that agency's most controversial policies that has rights groups questioning his fitness to serve as head of what the American Civil Liberties Union dubbed "a new and untested agency with great influence on civil liberties."

A long-time lawyer, Harvard graduate and past editor of the Harvard Law Review, Chertoff earned a rating of "well qualified" from the American Bar Association, and few doubt his talents as an attorney or thinker. Chertoff most recently served as a federal judge, a post he resigned for the opportunity to head the Department of Homeland Security. But human and civil rights groups are raising serious questions about Chertoff's respect for constitutional rights and his role in the domestic "war on terror."

If his nomination is approved, Chertoff will be charged with overseeing everything from legal immigration and the granting of foreign workers' visas to guarding the country against terrorism.

At the top of the list of his critics' concerns is that Chertoff is credited as the architect of a post-9/11 government policy to hold hundreds of people indefinitely for minor visa violation or under the premise that they were "material witnesses" in terrorism investigations, without having to provide evidence they were involved in any criminal activity.

This controversial policy was the subject of a harsh Department of Justice Inspector General report, which found that shortly after 9/11, the government cast a very wide net in its investigation into the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, detaining hundreds of immigrants, most of whom had virtually no connection to people involved in the attacks. The inspector general further found that many of the individuals were held for weeks and even months without access to legal counsel or information about the charges against them. Many of the detainees suffered brutality at the hands of guards while in detention, as evidenced by videotape.

A few senators brought up Chertoff's involvement in crafting the Justice Department's investigation and subsequent detentions and asked him if he believed the policies carried out by the Department as detailed in the inspector general's report were appropriate.

Chertoff responded that the abuse was illegal and that he hopes in the future prison authorities will be better trained in dealing with detainees. He also expressed hope that improvements in information gathering and sharing will enable the FBI to more quickly clear and release people detained under suspicion of involvement in terrorism.

He did not, however, eschew the policy of detaining people who are merely suspected of being involved in terrorism, but against whom there is no evidence.

Civil liberties advocates also criticize Chertoff for his key role in developing the USA Patriot Act and other laws giving the FBI increased powers of secret domestic surveillance; his direction of the widely criticized systematic interviews of Middle Eastern men after 9/11; his participation in revising the internal Attorney Guidelines to allow the FBI to infiltrate religious and other gatherings with undercover agents; and his co-authorship of a brief in the Supreme Court case, Chavez v. Martinez, in which Chertoff argued that there is no constitutional right to be free from coercive police questioning as long as the resulting statements are not intended for use in a criminal trial.


"We are troubled that [Chertoff's] public record suggests he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security, rather than a guidebook for how to do security properly," the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office associate director Gregory T. Nojeim, said in a press statement.

The Patriot Act has been at the center of a heated struggle between civil libertarians and the Executive Branch. Passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Act is a sweeping set of laws providing unprecedented power to law enforcement to conduct investigations. Widespread grassroots organizing has sprung up in communities throughout the nation as people have realized that some of the provisions give authorities increased surveillance and search abilities and inflated powers to obtain personal information.

To date, four states and 365 cities and counties have passed resolutions condemning various aspects of the Patriot Act and reaffirming their commitment to protecting civil liberties.

When asked by Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) if there are aspects of the Patriot Act that should be changed, Chertoff responded, "I don't know as I sit here that I am aware of any particular systemic criticism of that Act that comes to mind."

Kareem Shora, director of legal policy for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said their members are worried about Chertoff. "Definitely we have concerns given his history with the Department of Justice," Shora told The NewStandard. "We certainly hope the Senate exercises its powers to review his record in protecting the Constitution."

Though Chertoff is reported to have been one of the architects behind the campaign of "voluntary" interviews held between federal agents and thousands of Muslim and Arab immigrants, which led to several hundred deportations but netted no viable terrorism suspects, no senator asked him about that policy during the hearing.

Along with his investigations of Middle Easterners and people suspected by the government of involvement in terrorism, Chertoff is known for having prosecuted high profile mob and white collar criminal cases in his previous role as federal prosecutor.

Additionally, civil rights groups have praised Chertoff for the key role he played in shaking up a campaign of racial profiling among New Jersey's state police force in 2000, though they note the apparent transition from condemnation of such practices to the aggressive application of them on a nationwide basis.

Chertoff has earned the respect of many Democrats by declining to align himself with the far right of the Republican Party, especially on charged issues like school prayer and abortion. But the Alliance for Justice, a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations, notes that from 1994 to 1996, Chertoff served as special counsel in the Whitewater investigation, which yielded no charges and which many Clinton supporters saw as a politically motivated campaign.

"[He] has had a long career in Republican legal circles," wrote the Alliance in a report on Chertoff. "His behavior in the Whitewater investigation and his current role in the War Against Terrorism raise questions about his partisanship and his belief in the civil liberties of all people."

"It's quite obvious [Chertoff] is completely willing to take any part of American due process and throw it out the window if it suits our security needs," Leonard Cavise, a professor of criminal law and evidence at Chicago's DePaul University law school, told The NewStandard.

During the confirmation hearings, there also took place a series of questions from senators about a recent New York Times article that anonymously quotes "current and two former senior officials with firsthand knowledge of the interaction between the CIA and the Justice Department," who claim that the Central Intelligence Agency consulted Chertoff on the legality of various interrogation techniques. According to the Times' sources, Chertoff, then head of the FBI's criminal division, told the CIA that some techniques were legal under some circumstances. One such technique is known as "water-boarding," a procedure in which a detainee is strapped down and made to feel as if he is drowning. Others, including injecting detainees with mind-altering drugs and threatening subjects' families were deemed not acceptable, the Times article said.

When asked about that piece, Chertoff denied under oath that he had ever endorsed specific techniques and insisted that he did not think it was his institutional role to condone certain actions ahead of time. Instead, insisted Chertoff, he told lawyers for the intelligence community that they should study the law carefully and make sure to act well within it.

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