Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why a Tiny Alabama Town Wants a $375 Million Chunk of the Stimulus

By Amanda Ruggeri

At first glance, the town of Edwardsville, Ala., with a population of 194 people, might raise a few eyebrows with its bid to receive $375 million from the economic stimulus package being assembled by Barack Obama and lawmakers in Congress.

The tiny town, located near the Georgia border and 26 miles from the nearest "big city" of Anniston (population: 24,276), added 33 proposals—about two thirds of them related to "green" energy—to the list of "ready- to- go" projects assembled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Total sum: $375,076,200.

That comes out to nearly $2 million per Edwardsville resident, although E. D. Phillips, the town's representative to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says the projects would affect a wider region that comprises about 80,000 people. That number includes residents of nearby rural areas that aren't already incorporated into towns, along with the residents of Talladega Springs (population: 124), which partnered with Edwardsville and local municipal utilities on the projects.

There's certainly no denying that Edwardsville has big ambitions. Through the various proposals, which include a renewable energy museum, scenic railroad, and vineyards, these small Alabama communities envision themselves becoming a cutting-edge demonstration project for energy sustainability and a hub for tourism.

"I know we look like some little Podunk town, and by the census, we are," Phillips says. "But we really think we've done some amazingly progressive things in the past two years."

The town's proposals began to develop more than two years ago, when Phillips and another town official became intrigued by the argument that renewable energy could create a rural renaissance. If any community needed economic revival, it was Edwardsville—even before the recession. At 28.7 percent, the town's poverty level was nearly equal to that of Nepal and more than twice the national average, according to the 2000 census.

Along with the more traditional proposals to replace streetlights with solar-powered lights (cost: $3,479,200), to install solar panels on the town hall (cost: $77,000), and to build solar-powered recharging stations for electric golf carts and vehicles (cost: $620,000), Edwardsville and Talladega Springs have assembled a set of even more far-reaching projects.

An outlay of $50.4 million, for example, would go toward installing water pipelines beneath roads to soak up the sun's rays, transferring heat. That technology is currently being used in the Netherlands, which found that while the cost of installation was double that of normal gas heating, the system halved the amount of energy required.

With big dreams, however, come big price tags.

"Do you know how hard it is to fund some of these projects when your tax base is so low?" Phillips says. "So we just breathed this sigh of relief when we found out about the stimulus package . . . especially when it had a focus on renewable energy."

Not everyone shares the sentiment.

"This really exemplifies the problem. Why are we buying light bulbs for a local community?" asks Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "If a municipality wants to save money, [it can] go out and buy the light bulbs. There is no reason the federal government should buy them."

One of Edwardsville's biggest proposed expenditures is for a "renewable energy museum and information dissemination center." Phillips envisions exhibits, audio tours, seminars, a research center, and a satellite lab run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

To fund the museum, Edwardsville is requesting $32.1 million. That makes the facility the fourth most expensive museum proposed on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list—following facilities planned by Miami, Las Vegas, and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Some of those facilities have drawn their own controversy: Las Vegas's proposal for a $55 million "mob museum," for example, was used by Sen. Mitch McConnell this week as a prime example of pork spending.)

Some might wonder how many people a renewable energy museum in rural Alabama could attract. And there are other routes for museum funding, like the Institute of Museum and Library Services. If a project can't get funding through competitive grants, Schatz says, perhaps it shouldn't get funding at all.

"Clearly, no one else has been interested in funding this, so why should we be doing it now?" he asks, referring to all the projects on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list that are using the stimulus as a last-ditch funding effort. "Why should the federal government be doing something now that you couldn't do yourself?"

But with city and state budgets tight, says Ford Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, it's small wonder that many are turning elsewhere. And, he adds, just because a museum is rural doesn't mean it's doomed to fail, noting the success of a living history museum in Fishers, Ind.

The energy museum speaks to Edwardsville's larger hope: becoming a tourist destination. The town has requested $37 million for a solar energy-enhanced "scenic railroad line." It's also asking for $9 million to go toward establishing an eventual 640 acres of vineyards, 160 acres of which would be launched first. Each of the four vineyards would be designed around the theme of a different European country and, in a bid for weddings, dotted with gazebos and chapels.

To some, the vineyards, in particular, seem dubious. The Southeast is subject to a disease that puts traditional European grape varieties out of reach, usually limiting vineyards to the muscadine grape. Partly as a result, vineyards haven't exactly been the region's strong suit. Georgia has just 1,100 acres of vineyards, while Mississippi has 400. (Compare that with California's 800,000 or even Pennsylvania's 12,000.) The 640 acres for vineyards that Edwardsville ultimately wants to establish would nearly double the vineyard acreage of the entire state of Alabama, which is currently at 650.

Funding more than "a fraction of the scope" of neighboring states' vineyards with public money, therefore, would distort the market, says Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries.

It's not yet known whether Edwardsville will get any money from the stimulus package at all. There's no guarantee as to how many projects, if any, on the mayors list will get federal funding. And although $375 million may seem like a lot of money, it's also a fraction of the $96,638,419,313 requested by all the towns on the list.

But for Edwardsville, that money—whether seen as "pork" or not—would make a fantasy come true.

"We would love to be the poster child for rural America, for attempting to change through concern for the environment and clean energy," says Phillips. "We think if anyone can do it, we can."

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Canada’s jobless rate jumps to 6.6 per cent

By Julian Beltrame, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA — Canadians should expected more “substantial job losses” this year, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Friday after Statistics Canada reported the economy shed 34,400 in December.

Last month’s employment contraction pushed the country’s unemployment rate up three-tenths of a point to 6.6 per cent, and was larger than the consensus forecast of 20,000 losses.

The losses included a 70,700 drop in full-time employment, about the same number who lost their jobs — part time and full time — in November. Only a gain of 36,200 part-time jobs kept December from replicating the previous month’s losses, which were the deepest since 1982.

“We’re in for a difficult year,” Flaherty said at a press conference in Thornhill, north of Toronto.

“We regrettably are going to have to expect continuing job losses in Canada. We are going to have substantial job losses (this year).”

Flaherty said the government will need to respond to the needs of people who are laid off in the upcoming Jan. 27 “to help Canadians get through a difficult year,” and suggested Ottawa is likely to expand job training and work sharing measures.

The minister, who was in Thornhill for a pre-budget consultation, said he has been listening to Canadians about what the budget should include, naming infrastructure spending and tax cuts as the two most often-heard recommendations he has received.

But he pointed out that Canada was better positioned to respond to the recession that many others, including the U.S., given Ottawa’s sound fiscal position and the relative strength of the economy.

Canada’s job losses pale in comparison to the carnage in the U.S., which lost another 524,000 jobs in December for a total of 2.6 million for the year.

But given that Canada’s labour contraction has come in the past two months, the time for boasting is over, said Derek Holt, vice-president of economics at Scotia Capital.

“One hundred thousand jobs have been lost in only two months, which now almost fully reverses the large late summer employment gains, and puts Canadian job losses proportionately more in line with the U.S. experience,” he noted.

“The hit to pay will be worse than the body count, since 71,000 full-time jobs were lost while reduced hours drove a 36,000 gain in lower paying part-time employment.”

As worrying for Canadians was that the private sector shed 59,400 jobs, partially offset by an additional 20,500 in government hiring.

For the year, Statistics Canada said the country managed to eke out a gain of 98,000 jobs, far fewer than the 358,000 gained in 2007 and all in part-time work.

Statistics Canada said manufacturing, forestry, building, information, culture and recreation, agriculture, fishing, mining, oil and gas and trade were net employment losers in 2008.

Hourly wages remained relatively robust last month, showing a 4.3 per cent year-to-year increase, double the current inflation rate.

But actual hours worked are declining, down four per cent for the last three months of 2008.

The December report presents a picture of an economy that hit the wall in the latter part of the year, with manufacturing, sales and construction activity taking a plunge in the face of the spiralling financial crisis.

“From the record low 5.8 per cent in early 2008, the unemployment rate climbed 0.8 percentage points by the end of the year, with most of the increase occurring in the last quarter,” Statistics Canada noted.

CIBC economist Krishen Rangasamy agreed with Flaherty that the beginning of 2009 looks as weak as the end of 2008.

“With economic contractions in the cards over the first half of 2009, expect the unemployment rate to head towards eight per cent before coming back down as the economy stages a recovery in the latter part of the year,” he said.

The latest sector to be hit by the economic tsunami was construction, which had previously seemed impervious to the recession.

In December, however, the construction industry lost 44,000 jobs as housing starts dipped to the lowest level in seven years the previous month.

“The sharp decline in construction employment reinforces the need for more public infrastructure investment,” said labour economist Erin Weir of the United Steelworkers.

Also, with private capital drying up, Weir said the federal government should drop its requirement that projects receiving federal funds be organized as public-private partnerships.

Offsetting the losses were gains in transportation and warehousing, up 23,000, education services, public administration, and manufacturing, although the latter industry remains down for the year and has now lost 380,000 jobs since over the past seven years.

With the price of oil tumbling, Alberta’s economy also showed signs of slowing and actually recorded the sharpest employment decline of any province last month with 16,000 fewer jobs, all full-time. That pushed the jobless rate in the province up 0.7 percentage points to 4.1 per cent.

Quebec also shed a large number of jobs in December, losing 9,400 overall with gains in part time employment offset by the loss of 48,700 full-time jobs.

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Colleges Profit as Banks Market Credit Cards to Students

Fabrizio Constantini for The New York Times

Bank of America employees on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., offered give-aways like water bottles, backpacks, games and other items, trying to persuade students to sign up for credit cards and other banking services.


EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Ryan T. Muneio was tailgating with his parents at a Michigan State football game this fall, he noticed a big tent emblazoned with a Bank of America logo. Inside, bank representatives were offering free T-shirts and other merchandise to those who applied for credit cards and other banking products.

“They did a good job,” Mr. Muneio, 21 and a junior at Michigan State, said of the tactic. “It was good advertising.”

Bank of America’s relationship with the university extends well beyond marketing at sports events. The bank has an $8.4 million, seven-year contract with Michigan State giving it access to students’ names and addresses and use of the university’s logo. The more students who take the banks’ credit cards, the more money the university gets. Under certain circumstances, Michigan State even stands to receive more money if students carry a balance on these cards.

Hundreds of colleges have contracts with lenders. But at a time of rising concern about student debt — and overall consumer debt — the arrangements have sounded alarm bells, and some student groups are starting to push back.

The relationships are reminiscent of those uncovered two years ago between student loan companies and universities. In those, some lenders offered universities an incentive to steer potential borrowers their way.

Here at Michigan State, the editors of the student newspaper wrote this fall that “it doesn’t take a giant leap for someone to ask why the university should encourage responsible spending when it receives a cut of every purchase.”

At Arizona State University, students set up a table on campus last spring to warn of the danger of debt and urge students to support limits on on-campus marketing.

The contracts, whose terms vary but usually involve payments to colleges or alumni associations that agree to provide lists of students’ names, have come under harsh criticism in Washington.

“That is absolutely outrageous, the sharing of students’ information with the banks,” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, who oversaw a June hearing on campus credit card marketing, said in a recent interview. “That should be outlawed.”

College campuses are one place that young Americans are introduced to credit and the possibility of spending beyond their means, a problem now confronting the nation as a whole. For banks, the relationships are a golden marketing opportunity. For colleges, they are a revenue source at a time of declining public funding. And for students, they help pay the bills and allow more shopping.

But debt incurred in college becomes a serious burden at graduation, especially in a recession in which jobs are scarce. A survey of more than 1,500 college students by US PIRG in Washington found that two-thirds had at least one credit card. Seniors with balances had an average debt of $2,623 on their cards.

University officials say that their agreements with card issuers comply with the law and bring in valuable revenue.

“It provides money for scholarships and other programs,” said Terry R. Livermore, manager of licensing programs at Michigan State. He said that the program was aimed primarily at alumni and the university would not include sharing student information in future credit card contracts. “The students are such a minuscule portion of this program.”

Jennifer Holsman, executive director of the alumni association at Arizona State, said the association tried to teach students about responsible uses of credit. “We work closely with Bank of America to provide educational seminars to students in terms of being able to get information about how to pay off credit cards, how not to keep balances,” she said.

Credit card issuers say that they try to educate students to use cards responsibly and that the cards they offer on campus have more restrictive terms than cards offered to alumni.

“The available credit for undergraduates is capped at $2,500,” said Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America. “We want to take a fair and responsible approach to lending because we want to build the foundation for a longer-term banking relationship.”

Ms. Riess said the bank had agreements with about 700 colleges and alumni associations, making it one of the biggest, if not the biggest, card issuer on campuses. She said that only 2 percent of the open accounts under those agreements belonged to students, but also said it was not possible to determine what percentage of program revenue resulted from fees and charges on those student cards.

Stephanie Jacobson, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, wrote in an e-mail message that the bank had fewer than 25 contracts with colleges or alumni associations and that while some of the contracts gave it the right to ask for and use lists of student names and addresses, the bank had not done so since 2007.

That may be because football games present a marketing opportunity that requires no address information. Abigail D. Molina, a second-year law student at the University of Oregon, applied in 2007 for a Chase Visa offered at a tent outside a football game. In exchange, she received a blanket.

“I mostly wanted the blanket,” Ms. Molina said. She added that this was her second university credit card. In 1994, when she was an undergraduate at the university, she applied for a card at a booth on campus and then accumulated about $30,000 in debt, almost all of it on the card. In 2001 she filed for bankruptcy. Looking back, she said it was “shockingly easy” to get the card, even as a first-year student.

Mr. Muneio, the Michigan State student, said he did not apply for a Bank of America card because he already had two Visa cards. “The last thing I need is another account to keep track of.”

Many students are unaware of the contracts that universities have with credit card issuers and do not question the presence of marketers on campus or applications in their mailboxes, despite recent protests on a few campuses.

Sometimes, the contracts have confidentiality provisions. Universities may try to distance themselves, stating that the contracts are only between alumni associations and banks. But the universities provide alumni groups with lists of current students’ names, addresses and telephone numbers, which the groups pass on to banks.

The New York Times obtained information about and, in some cases, copies of contracts between lenders, public colleges and their alumni associations using open records requests. Because private colleges are not subject to open records laws, they are not included.

While most universities contacted for this article did not provide detailed financial information on the contracts — the University of Pittsburgh, for example, confirmed only that it had an agreement — two did share numbers.

The alumni association of the University of Michigan is guaranteed $25.5 million over the term of its 11-year agreement with Bank of America. Under the agreement, the association agreed to provide lists of names and addresses of students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors and holders of season tickets to athletic events.

Much of the money goes toward scholarships, said Jerry Sigler, vice president and chief financial officer of the alumni association. He was unsure what students were told about the program.

“Students are generally told how they can opt out of having their information publicly displayed in directories or provided in response to requests like this,” Mr. Sigler added. “But it’s not to my knowledge specific to the credit card program.”

Michigan State University gets $1.2 million a year but is guaranteed at least $8.4 million over seven years, according to its agreement. The contract calls for a $1 royalty to the university for every new card account that remains open for at least 90 days, $3 for every card whose holder pays an annual fee, and a payment of a half percent of the amount of all retail purchases using the cards.

For cards that do not have an annual fee, the bank pays $3 if the holder has a balance at the end of the 12th month after opening an account, a provision that appears to give the university an incentive to get cardholders into debt.

A few schools have adopted policies that prohibit sharing student contact information.

Ball State University’s alumni association, which has a contract with JPMorgan Chase, does not provide information on students, said Ed Shipley, executive director of the association. “Who we market to is our alumni because that’s our purpose,” he said. However, the bank is permitted to set up marketing tables at athletic events.

The University of Oregon, whose alumni association also has a marketing agreement with Chase, stopped providing student addresses as concern grew about student debt, according to Julie Brown, a university spokeswoman. The university still permits marketing booths at athletic events.

Some research suggests that students may be using credit cards less frequently, in favor of debit cards linked to their bank accounts. A survey last spring by Student Monitor, a Ridgewood, N.J., company that tracks trends on campus, found that 59 percent of undergraduate students had debit cards, up from 51 percent in 2000.

But universities have arrangements with banks that offer debit cards too, perhaps raising some of the same issues that the credit card deals do.

At New Mexico State University, for example, students are given the option of opening a bank account with Wells Fargo if they want to convert their campus identification into a debit card.

The accounts are not mandatory, said Angela Throneberry, assistant vice president for auxiliary services at the university. But, she said, “There’s some revenue sharing that happens as part of this.”

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Saudi tanker crew 'safe and well'

A ransom is apparently dropped onto the Sirius Star by parachute 9 Jan 2008 (US Navy)
A negotiator for the pirates said a $3m (£1.95m) ransom was paid.

The crew of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star will soon be on their way home after Somali pirates freed the hijacked vessel, the ship's owners say.

The statement comes a day after a negotiator for the pirates said a $3m (£1.95m) ransom had been paid.

A plane was seen apparently dropping money by parachute onto the ship, which is carrying two million barrels of oil.

The owners expressed relief that the 25-strong crew, including two Britons, was safe after their two-month ordeal.

"We are very relieved to know that all the crew members are safe and I am glad to say that they are all in good health and high spirits," said a statement released by Saleh K'aki, president of Vela International Marine.

"This has been a very trying time for them and certainly for their families. We are very happy to report to their families that they will be on their way home soon."

The UK Foreign Office said it was ready to assist the two Britons on board when they reach land - chief engineer Peter French, from County Durham, and James Grady, from Renfrewshire.

Drowned pirates

The Sirius Star was carrying two million barrels of oil - a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output - when it was seized 450 nautical miles south-east of Kenya in November.

The current location of the tanker is unclear.

Five of the pirates reportedly drowned while making off with their share of the ransom money after their skiff was hit by high seas.

Somali pirates have also released an Iranian-chartered vessel seized off the coast of Yemen in November, Iranian media reported.

The Delight, which was seized on its way to Iran from Germany carrying 36,000 tonnes of wheat, was freed on Friday night, reports said.

A surge in piracy in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes has sent insurance prices soaring, made some owners choose to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and brought an unprecedented deployment of warships to the region.

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Alan Dershowitz: The CNN strategy

Alan M. Dershowitz, National Post

A wounded Palestinian child is carried into the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Monday.

Abid Katib, Getty ImagesA wounded Palestinian child is carried into the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Monday.

As Israel persists in its military efforts -- by ground, air and sea -- to protect its citizens from deadly Hamas rockets, and as protests against Israel increase around the world, the success of the abominable Hamas double war crime strategy becomes evident. The strategy is as simple as it is cynical: Provoke Israel by playing Russian roulette with its children, firing rockets at kindergartens, playgrounds and hospitals; hide behind its own civilians when firing at Israeli civilians; refuse to build bunkers for its own civilians; have TV cameras ready to transmit every image of dead Palestinians, especially children; exaggerate the number of civilians killed by including as "children" Hamas fighters who are 16 or 17 years old and as "women," female terrorists.

Hamas itself has a name for this. They call it "the CNN strategy" (this is not to criticize CNN or any other objective news source for doing its job; it is to criticize Hamas for exploiting the freedom of press which it forbids in Gaza). The CNN strategy is working because decent people all over the world are naturally sickened by images of dead and injured children. When they see such images repeatedly flashed across TV screens, they tend to react emotionally. Rather than asking why these children are dying and who is to blame for putting them in harm's way, average viewers, regardless of their political or ideological perspective, want to see the killing stopped. They blame those whose weapons directly caused the deaths, rather than those who provoked the violence by deliberately targeting civilians.

They forget the usual rules of morality and law. For example, when a murderer takes a hostage and fires from behind his human shield, and a policeman, in an effort to stop the shooting accidentally kills the hostage, the law of every country holds the hostage taker guilty of murder even though the policeman fired the fatal shot.

The same is true of the law of war. The use of human shields, in the way Hamas uses the civilian population of Gaza, is a war crime -- as is its firing of rockets at Israeli civilians. Every human shield that is killed by Israeli self-defence measures is the responsibility of Hamas, but you wouldn't know that from watching the media coverage.

The CNN strategy seems to work better, at least in some parts of the world, against Israel that it would against other nations. There is much more protest -- and fury -- directed against Israel when it inadvertently kills approximately 100 civilians in a just war of self-defence, than against Arab and Muslim nations and groups that deliberately kill far more civilians for no legitimate reason.

It isn't the nature of the victims, since more Arabs and Muslim civilians are killed every day in Africa and the Middle East by Arab and Muslim governments and groups with little or no protests. (For example, on the first day of Israel's ground attack, approximately 30 Palestinians,

almost all Hamas combatants, were killed. On the same day an Islamic suicide bomber blew herself up in a mosque in Iraq, killing 40 innocent Muslims. No protests. Little media coverage.) It isn't the nature of the killings, since Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid killing civilians -- if for no other reason than that it hurts its cause -- while Hamas does everything in its power to force Israel to kill Palestinian civilians by firing its missiles from densely populated civilian areas and refusing to build shelters for its civilians.

It isn't the nature of the conflict, either, because Israel is fighting a limited war of self-defence designed to protect its own civilians from rocket attacks, while most of those killed by Arabs and Muslims are killed in genocidal and tribal warfare with no legitimate aim.

The world simply doesn't seem to care when Arabs and Muslims kill large numbers of other Arabs and Muslims, but a qualitatively different standard applies when the Jewish state kills even a relatively small number of Muslims and Arabs in a war of self-defence.

The international community doesn't even seem to care when Palestinian children are killed by rocket fire -- unless it is from Israeli rockets. The day before the recent outbreak, Hamas fired an anti-personnel rocket at Israeli civilians, but the rocket fell short of its target and killed two Palestinian girls. Yet there was virtually no coverage and absolutely no protests against these "collateral" civilian deaths. Hamas refused to allow TV cameras to show these dead Palestinian children.

Nor have there been protests against the cold-blooded murders by Hamas and its supporters of dozens of Palestinian civilians who allegedly "collaborated" with Israel. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah have killed far more Palestinian civilians over the past several

years than have the Israelis, but you wouldn't know that from the media, the United Nations or protesters who focus selectively on only those deaths caused by Israeli military actions.

The protesters who filled the streets of London, Paris and San Francisco were nowhere to be seen when hundreds of Jewish children were murdered by Palestinian terrorists over the years.

Moreover, the number of civilians killed by Israel is almost always exaggerated. First, it is widely assumed that if a victim is a "child" or a "woman," he or she is necessarily a civilian. Consider the following report in Thursday's New York Times: "Hospital officials in Gaza said that of the more than 390 people killed by Israeli fighter planes since Saturday, 38 were children and 25 women." Some of these children and women were certainly civilians, but others were equally certainly combatants:

Hamas often uses 14-, 15-, 16-and 17-year-olds, as well as women, as terrorists. Israel is entitled under international law to treat these children and women as the combatants they have become. Hamas cannot, out of one side of its mouth, boast that it recruits children and women to become terrorists, and then, out of the other side of its mouth, complain when Israel takes it at its word. The media should look closely and critically at the number of claimed civilian victims before accepting self-serving and self-contradictory exaggerations.

By any objective count, the number of genuinely innocent civilians killed by the Israeli Air Force in Gaza is lower than the collateral deaths caused by any nation in a comparable situation. Hamas does everything in its power to provoke Israel into killing as many Palestinian civilians as possible, in order to generate condemnation against the Jewish state. It has gone so far as firing rockets from Palestinian schoolyards and hiding its terrorists in Palestinian maternity wards.

Lest there be any doubt about the willingness of Hamas officials to expose their families to martyrdom, remember that the Hamas terrorist leader recently killed in an Israeli air attack sent his own son to be a suicide bomber. He also refused to allow his family to leave the house, even after learning that he and his house has been placed on the a of Israeli military targets.

The reality is that the elected and de facto government of Gaza has declared war against Israel. Under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, it has committed an "armed attack" against the Jewish state. The Hamas charter calls for Israel's total destruction. Under international law, Israel is entitled to take whatever military action is necessary to repel that attack and stop the rockets.

It must seek to minimize civilian deaths consistent with the legitimate military goal, and it is doing precisely that, despite Hamas's efforts to maximize civilian deaths on both sides.

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N. Orleans cops shoot man 12 times in the back

Andrew McLemore

A young, black man in New Orleans is dead, slain by police officers on New Year's Day, in an incident that has outraged a community and triggered protests over what family members are calling a "murder."

The New Orleans man, 22-year-old Adolph Grimes III, traveled to his grandmother's home near the French Quarter in order to celebrate New Year's Eve with his fiance and their 17-month-old son. Three hours after arrival, around 3 a.m., he was found dead a block from the front door.

The Orleans Parish coroner said Grimes was shot 14 times, including 12 times in the back.

"This violence has to stop. My child's death will not be meaningless. He did not die in vain," said Grimes' mother, Patricia Grimes.

An editorial in The Times-Picayune said the shooting "demands answers."

Despite the fact that the seven officers involved in the incident have been reassigned, Superintendent Warren Riley has refused to answer "fundamental questions" about the shooting and maintains that Grimes fired upon his men first.

Several dozen people protested the New Orleans Police Department on Thursday morning to demand justice for Grimes' death.

A mix of people walked paced in front of a police station carrying signs with slogans like "Down with the government" and shouting to passers-by "You could be next!"

A group of black ministers and advocates has called for the department to be purged of "trigger-happy" officers and the Grimes family's attorney, Richard Jenkins is certain an investigation will show rogue cops and sloppy police work.

"I just think it was some bad officers who were out there and imposing their will on the community," Jenkins said.

The shooting of Grimes by the NOPD marks the third high media incident of an officer or officers shooting a seemingly innocent black male thus far in 2009.

In Oakland, Calif, a BART officer shot a 22-year-old black male in the back on New Year's Eve. The slaying was caught on multiple videos, all of which showed the man unarmed, subdued and helpless. The city is still struggling to contain the public's reaction to what appears to be an execution.

Also, in Houston, a 23-year-old black male was shot in his own home's driveway by a white police officer during the early hours of New Year's Eve. According to published reports, the officer thought the man's vehicle was stolen. An internal investigation is underway. While the department has denied allegations of racial profiling related to the shooting, no effort to explain why the officer suspected the vehicle to be stolen has been offered.

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Toxic coal ash piling up in ponds in 32 states

By DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writer

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows the aftermath of a AP – In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows the aftermath of a retention pond wall collapse …

WASHINGTON – Millions of tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states, a situation the government has long recognized as a risk to human health and the environment but has done nothing about.

An Associated Press analysis of the most recent Energy Department data found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured last month in Tennessee. On Friday, a pond at a northeastern Alabama power plant spilled a different material.

Records indicate that states storing the most coal ash in ponds are Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama.

The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants.

Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity increased and the federal government clamped down on emissions from power plants.

The AP's analysis found that in 2005, the most recent year data is available, 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash. About 20 percent — or nearly 20 million tons — ended up in surface ponds. The remainder ends up in landfills, or is sold for use in concrete, among other uses.

The Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.

The agency has yet to act.

As a result, coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, even though the industry's own estimates show that ash ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals. The EPA estimates that about 300 ponds for coal ash exist nationwide.

Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash ponds vary by state. Most lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don't seep into underground aquifers.

"There has been zero done by the EPA," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rahall pushed through legislation in 1980 directing the EPA to study how wastes generated at the nation's coal-fired power plants should be treated under federal law.

In both 1988 and 1993, the EPA decided that coal ash should not be regulated as a hazardous waste. The agency has also failed to take other steps to control how the waste is stored.

"Coal ash impoundments like the one in Tennessee have to be subject to federal regulations to ensure a basic level of safety for communities," Rahall said.

The Tennessee spill was at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant covered 300 acres in a slurry of coal ash and water, destroying homes and tainting waterways and soil with high levels of arsenic.

The utility reported a second leak Friday at a pond at a northeast Alabama power plant that was storing gypsum, a material trapped in air pollution control devices that is different from the sludge that spilled in Tennessee. Some of the gypsum reached a nearby creek before the leak was stopped.

The spills have renewed a 20-year-old debate about whether stricter regulations are needed to govern them.

Rahall and Democrats in the Senate are also calling for tighter controls, including a requirement for ash ponds to be lined.

"The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs Senate committee that oversees the EPA.

In March 2000, the agency highlighted the risks posed by wastes in landfills and ponds. In an early draft of its proposal for a national standard, the EPA concluded that the wastes "have the potential to present danger to human health and the environment."

It also warned that the number of cases of contamination nationwide was likely to be underestimated because of poor state records and the lack of groundwater monitoring.

At the time, the agency said storage ponds posed an even greater risk than landfills when it came to leaks and spills.

"Surface impoundment controls occur at a significantly lower rate," the EPA concluded. And the pressure exerted by water "increases the likelihood of releases."

In 2006, the EPA once again found that disposal of coal waste in ponds elevates cancer risk when metals leach into drinking water sources.

The agency, which had set 2006 as a target for issuing a proposed regulation, says it is still working toward a national standard. A top EPA official also said there has been no "conscious or clear slowdown" by Bush administration officials who have run the agency since 2001 and often sided with the energy industry on environmental controls.

"It has been an issue of resources and a range of pressing things we are working on," said Matthew Hale, who heads the agency's Office of Solid Waste.

Over the years, the government has found increasing evidence that coal ash ponds and landfills taint the environment and pose risks to humans and wildlife. In 2000, when the EPA first floated the idea of a national standard, the agency knew of 11 cases of water pollution linked to ash ponds or landfills. In 2007, that list grew to 24 cases in 13 states with another 43 cases where coal ash was the likely cause of pollution.

The leaks and spills are blamed for abnormalities in tadpoles. The heads and fins of certain fish species were deformed after exposure to the chemicals.

Hale said the national standard would require monitoring for leaks at older, unlined sites and require the company to respond when they occur.

The industry already runs a voluntary program encouraging energy companies to install groundwater monitors. Industry officials argue that a federal regulation will do little to prevent pollution at older dump sites.

"Having federal regulations isn't going to solve those problems," said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activity Group, a consortium of electricity producers. "What you have to look at is what the current state regulatory programs are. The state programs continue to evolve."

Despite improvements in state programs, many states have little regulation other than requiring permits for discharging into waterways — as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

In North Carolina, where 14 power plants disposed of 1.3 million tons in ponds in 2005, state officials do not require operators to line their ponds or monitor groundwater, safety measures that help protect water supplies from contamination.

Similar safety measures are not required in Kentucky, Alabama, and Indiana.

And while other states like Ohio have regulations to protect groundwater, those often don't apply to many of the older dumps built before the state rules were imposed.

"The solution is readily available to the EPA," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. "We wouldn't like it, but they could say that municipal solid waste rules apply to coal ash. They could have done that, but instead they chose to do absolutely nothing."

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United Nations halts relief work in Gaza

By Joshua Mitnick | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The United Nations suspended all activities in the Gaza Strip Thursday, accusing Israeli soldiers of firing on a marked UN vehicle during a three-hour humanitarian cease-fire initiated by Israel.

The international Red Cross also complained that Israel was imposing "unacceptable" delays on its workers and said it was restricting its movement inside Gaza during Israel's ongoing offensive against Hamas.

Just two days after a tank shell killed about 40 Palestinians, mostly civilians, taking refugee in a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a spokesman for the UN in Gaza accused the Israeli army of ignoring efforts to coordinate movement amid the fighting.

The Red Cross complained that Israel is hindering access to civilians.

Because the UN is one of the biggest providers of food and medical relief, halting shipments to Gaza will accelerate the worsening conditions in the besieged coastal enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel is facing growing criticism due to the poor humanitarian conditions inside Gaza, and a burgeoning crisis would likely lead to more international pressure for a withdrawal of its forces.

"The IDF knows all of our movements, and coordinates. Despite that we are still coming under attack," says Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "Until the [Israeli Defense Forces] can guarantee the safety and security of our staff, everything is suspended."

Palestinians and human rights groups say that international aid is the only bulwark preventing a full-blown humanitarian crisis in Gaza. About half of the population receives food aid, according to the Associated Press. UNRWA supplies account for about half of the daily truck containers of relief supplies crossing from Israel into Gaza.

Israel's military said that it was investigating the allegations made by the UN and the Red Cross. The UN also demanded an investigation into Tuesday's shelling near the UN school.

Israel says that militants fired rockets from the area of the school and then ran into the crowd of civilians to take cover.

An official for the Israeli military's civilian liaison says that the army hopes to renew cooperation with the UN.

"We work closely with these organizations," says Peter Lerner. "We view their operations as necessary at all times."

International efforts toward a cease-fire continued to make progress Thursday. Diplomats meeting at the UN in New York are reportedly nearing a decision on a UN Security Council resolution that calls for an end to the Israel-Hamas fighting. The United States, Britain, and France dropped their opposition to language calling for an immediate cease-fire, the AP reported.

More than 700 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded in nearly two weeks of fighting. Four Israelis have been killed by cross-border rockets attack and another seven soldiers have died in the fighting, four of whom were killed by friendly fire.

The UN vehicle that was struck by Israeli gunfire Thursday came under small-arms fire from two directions in the northern Gaza Strip, despite having coordinated with the Israeli army.

Mr. Gunness says that UN personnel, institutions, and convoys have come under fire repeatedly throughout the 13-day conflict.

With a staff of about 9,000, UNRWA operates food distribution centers, medical facilities, and a network of schools in Gaza. The food shipments accounted for roughly half of the total supply entering Gaza this week.

Other relief groups have complained of bureaucratic delays in sending supplies to Gaza.

If the food contributions from relief groups were cut off, the real situation imposed by Israel would be revealed, says Miri Weingarten, a spokeswoman for Physicians for Human Rights.

"The enormous amounts of international aid shipped in is holding up the line of subsistence," she says. "Basically the only one capable of preventing disaster is the government of Israel if the shipments don't resume again."

Original here

Oakland protests turn violent as victim's mother pleads for peace

Diane Sweet

Angry protests turned to rioting Wednesday night in response to the January 1 shooting of an unarmed man at a subway station in California's Bay Area.

Police made at least 105 arrests after cars -- including one police vehicle -- were vandalized, store windows were smashed, and fires blazed out of control on the streets. Approximately 300 stores were damaged in the fray, according to published reports.

In response to the violence, "State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, today announced their intent, with the support of San Francisco supervisor and former police commissioner David Campos, to author legislation requiring greater accountability and public oversight of BART police," reported CBS 5 in California.

"Clorox Corp and other businesses in Oakland, California, were sending employees home early on Thursday due to fears of more violence," said Reuters.

RAW STORY first reported the shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, who was killed by a single gun shot to the back after being pulled from a train along with some friends amid reports of an altercation on Monday, Jan. 5. Johannes Mehserle, identified as the officer who is alleged to have fired the fatal shot, has resigned amid alleged death threats.

The attorney for Grant's family, John Burris, said the timing of the officer's resignation didn't surprise him.

"He doesn't want to give a statement because BART could've ordered him to do so, and if he didn't, he could be terminated."

Wednesday night, the streets turned into 1980s West Beirut after protesters left the station area. Thursday, Grant's mother pleaded with Oaklanders for peace.

"I am begging the citizens not to use violent tactics, not to be angry," said Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, at a press conference. "You're hurting people who have nothing to do with the situation. You're vandalizing their property, hurting their cars and breaking their windows. Please just stop it, please."

NBC's Bay Area News reports, "The protest Wednesday began peacefully at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station, but forced the closure of that station from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. before protesters moved through the city. At one point, reporter George Kiriyama was hit in the arm by a tear gas can. He explained live on television, 'I've been hit. I've been hit.' Kiriyama suffered a bruise to his arm."

One of the protest's organizers, Evan Shamar, blamed others for stirring things up.

"He said a group of anarchists, who were not part of the organizations hosting the rally, smashed a police vehicle before setting a garbage can on fire," the NBC affiliate reported.

The following YouTube video was filmed January 7, 2009 (this clip contains strong language):

The following video is a CBS5 news clip uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 7, 2009:

The following footage of protests at the BART station where Grant's slaying took place was uploaded to YouTube by a protester on Jan. 7, 2009:

Part one (this clip contains strong language):

Part two (this clip contains strong language):

Original here

U.S. Plans Border ‘Surge’ Against Any Drug Wars

Guillermo Arias/Associated Press

Mexican soldiers patrolling after a shootout in Tijuana.


The soaring level of violence in Mexico resulting from the drug wars there has led the United States to develop plans for a “surge” of civilian and perhaps even military law enforcement should the bloodshed spread across the border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.

Mr. Chertoff said the criminal activity in Mexico, which has caused more than 5,300 deaths in the last year, had long troubled American authorities. But it reached a point last summer, he said, where he ordered specific plans to confront in this country the kind of shootouts and other mayhem that in Mexico have killed members of warring drug cartels, law enforcement officials and bystanders, often not far from the border.

“We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge — if I may use that word — capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with” the Defense Department, Mr. Chertoff said in a telephone interview.

Officials of the Homeland Security Department said the plan called for aircraft, armored vehicles and special teams to converge on border trouble spots, with the size of the force depending on the scale of the problem. Military forces would be called upon if civilian agencies like the Border Patrol and local law enforcement were overwhelmed, but the officials said military involvement was considered unlikely.

Mr. Chertoff has expressed concern in recent months about the violence in Mexico, but the contingency plan has not been publicly debated, and the department has made no announcement of it. Department officials said Mr. Chertoff had mentioned it only in passing.

Aides to members of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the department and has often clashed with Mr. Chertoff over his border policies, said Wednesday that they had heard little about the plan, though they welcomed it.

“We support almost anything to secure our border,” said Dena Graziano, a spokeswoman for the committee.

Mr. Chertoff said that he had advised Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to succeed him as homeland security secretary, that “I put helping Mexico get control of its borders and its organized crime problems” at the very top of the list of national security concerns.

Ms. Napolitano’s confirmation hearing begins next week. Her office denied requests for an interview.

In the wide-ranging interview with Mr. Chertoff, two weeks before he leaves office, he suggested that his controversial efforts to rapidly build a fence along nearly 700 miles of the Mexican border, as well as his bolstering the size of the Border Patrol, were part of the push to defend against drug violence, not just to control illegal immigration.

“That’s another reason, frankly, why I have been insistent on putting in the infrastructure and fencing and stuff like that,” he said. “Because I don’t want, God forbid, if there is ever a spillover of significance, to have denied the Border Patrol anything they need to protect the lives and safety of American citizens.”

He said the Border Patrol had reached a target of more than 18,000 agents by December, though some are still in training and not yet patrolling. Officials of the agents’ union contend that the rapid buildup, to a size double that of less than a decade ago, and the agency’s turnover have resulted in a largely inexperienced corps.

Fencing has gone up on 580 miles of the 2,000-mile border, short of the planned 661 miles, but Mr. Chertoff said he expected it to reach the final mark sometime in the coming months.

And though he said he regretted not seeking more advice initially from the Border Patrol on developing the “virtual fence,” the much-publicized and much-delayed system of cameras and sensors to supplement border personnel, Mr. Chertoff predicted that it would gain widespread use in the coming years.

Mr. Chertoff said the department’s efforts to increase enforcement at the border and conduct immigration raids at workplaces had led to the lowest level of illegal immigration in decades, though he acknowledged that the recession had also had an impact on the number of illegal border crossings.

He expressed no regret over the department’s tactics, often criticized by immigrants’ advocates as draconian and a cause of family separation, and disputed critics who suggest that the department is sprawling and in need of “reform.”

Mr. Obama used that word in introducing Ms. Napolitano and describing what she would bring to the job of overseeing a department created in 2003 out of 22 agencies and now employing more than 200,000 people, making it the third-largest cabinet-level department.

There has been speculation in Washington that the Obama administration will reinstate the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an independent body outside of the department. But Mr. Chertoff said that as part of the Homeland Security apparatus, FEMA had redeemed itself after an admittedly poor response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He pointed to more recent disaster responses, including the generally praised federal reaction to Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast last summer.

“What I would not do,” he said, “is start to monkey around with the major working parts, because that is only going to set us back.”

Original here

Customer Bills Phone Company For Time Wasted, Gets Paid

By Meg Marco

It's the dream of every angry customer — sending a bill to the company that wasted your time. Well, it's finally happened.

Howard Schaffer was having such an awful time with his phone company that he alerted the local media — who ran a column about the debacle. That happens all the time, but what makes this case interesting is that Howard was keeping a record of the time he spent dealing with the phone company (One Communications of Rochester, NY) as well as the expenses that he was racking up while the phone company apologized over and over, but didn't fix the problem.

“I’ve received nine apologies,” Schaffer, whose phone bill is usually around $500 a month, told the Times-Union. As time dragged on, he was forced to have employees use cellphones and to borrow a phone from his landlord. The phone company promised at least $2,000 in credits, but no phone service.

After the column ran and his problem was resolved — Howard tallied up the expenses and sent One Communications a bill. For $5,481.16. And the company agreed to pay it.

You can learn a few things from Mr. Shaffer, who is a PR professional by trade. Follow his example by taking detailed notes of all the time and money you spend dealing with an issue. You might not be able to get a check for your expenses, (unless, perhaps, your story gets published in the newspaper like Mr. Shaffer's did) but it certainly can't hurt.

Hold My Calls. All of them. [Times-Union]
$5,481 check is in the mail after phone snarl [Times-Union] (Thanks, Laura!)
(Photo: nfarley )

Original here

Prosecutors Point to Signed Checks in Opposing Bail for Madoff


Pressing the case that Bernard L. Madoff should have his $10 million bail revoked, federal prosecutors said in court documents on Thursday that investigators found 100 signed checks worth $173 million in Mr. Madoff’s desk on the day of his arrest.

The checks, which were to be distributed to family members, employees and friends, are another indication that Mr. Madoff, the financier accused of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, has tried to hide assets from his investors, prosecutors wrote in a brief to Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis of United States District Court in Manhattan.

On Monday, prosecutors asked Judge Ellis to revoke Mr. Madoff’s bail, contending that Mr. Madoff and his wife, Ruth, had violated his bail conditions by mailing more than $1 million in valuables to family members in late December. By mailing the valuables, Mr. Madoff showed that he may be a flight risk, prosecutors said.

“When the defendant’s office desk was searched, investigators found approximately 100 signed checks totaling more than approximately $173 million, ready to be sent out,” two assistant United States attorneys, Marc O. Litt and Lisa A. Baroni, wrote in a letter to the judge. “The only thing that prevented the defendant from executing the plan to dissipate those assets was his arrest by the F.B.I. on Dec. 11.”

The prosecutors also criticized Mr. Madoff for referring to the jewelry and watches that he mailed to his sons in late December as personal items. “What may be merely sentimental baubles to the defendant are, in the posture of this case, valuable assets that may comprise a meaningful part of the assets available to be forfeited,” they wrote.

They also called Mr. Madoff’s explanation that he had mailed the jewelry and watches in an effort to reach out to friends and family “preposterous,” adding, “That’s what telephones, e-mails and personal letters are for.”

Lawyers for Mr. Madoff have said he should not have his bond revoked but should instead remain under 24-hour house arrest at his luxury Manhattan apartment. Mr. Madoff has surrendered his passport, is wearing an electronic ankle bracelet and is under guard, so he does not represent a flight risk and should not be jailed, they said.

Judge Ellis may rule on the government’s request as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, in London, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation on Thursday into Mr. Madoff’s business operations to unearth possible criminal offenses.

The British agency called on investors, clients, former employees and other stakeholders to step forward and help with the investigation, which intends to “discover the truth behind the collapse of these huge financial structures,” its director, Richard Alderman, said in a statement. The agency said it had set up a special hot line and calls had already started to come in Thursday afternoon.

The investigation was prompted by an interim report about the British businesses by Grant Thornton, which is acting as the provisional liquidator of Mr. Madoff’s operations in London, and followed talks with government authorities. The agency will work closely with the F.B.I. and other organizations in the United States.

The London businesses of Mr. Madoff were managed through Madoff Securities International, based in the wealthy Mayfair neighborhood that is home to many London hedge funds. The business is incorporated in Britain and documents filed with a British registry show that the unit had about $170 million in assets when Mr. Madoff’s firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities L.L.C., collapsed last month.

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