Emissions from the Eagle Ford Shale are thought to be adversely affecting San Antonio's air quality. Photo: William Luther / San Antonio Express-News

By Jie Jenny Zou
14 December 2017

(The Guardian) – On sunny days, when his classmates run out to play, Gabriel Rosales heads to the school nurse for a dose of Albuterol.

The fine mist opens his airways, relaxing the muscles in his chest. Without it, recess could leave the nine-year-old gasping for breath. He gets a second dose at the end of the day before heading home from St John Bosco Elementary School, in San Antonio, Texas.

Over the past year, Gabriel’s asthma has worsened. Visits to the emergency room, shortened trips to the park and reliance on inhalers have become his new norm. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even leave him with anybody,” said his father, Gabe, who works as a consultant to the National Association of Public Employees, a workers’ advocacy group, and a seasonal field director of the Bexar County Democratic Party. “One time he almost looked blue.”

Gabriel’s health is deteriorating alongside air quality in San Antonio, where oil and gas development, a hotter climate and a growing population have combined to spell misery for a city that once boasted clean air compared to other Texas metropolitan areas. Part of the problem lies southeast of the city in the Eagle Ford Shale, a 400-mile-long hub of hydraulic fracturing that unleashes microscopic particles and smog-causing, ground-level ozone.

The state’s environmental regulator – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – has been criticized for not making things better. In fact, it’s followed in the footsteps of Big Oil’s biggest lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, which has forestalled progress on ozone for decades. Using consultants also hired by API, the commission has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to question scientific evidence linking particulate matter and ozone with bronchitis, asthma and premature death. [more]

Fueling dissent: how the oil industry set out to undercut clean air

By Lin-Manuel Miranda
13 December 2017

(The Washington Post) – Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico 84 days ago, my Uncle Elvin hasn’t had electricity. You read that right. Eighty-four days without being able to turn on a light, or stock a refrigerator, or take a hot shower. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans on the island cannot do the simple things we all take for granted. Add to this lack of power the destruction of thousands of homes, rural areas still isolated, small businesses not operating and an ever-increasing migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland. It will take a long time for Puerto Rico to be totally functional again under the best of circumstances.

The federal government’s response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been painfully slow and not commensurate with the hurricane response in Texas and Florida. It reminds me of Ricky Martin’s 1995 song “María.” He sang, “un pasito pa’lante María, un dos tres, un pasito pa’tras.” That’s the reality in Puerto Rico — one step forward, one step backward. We rejoiced when the first package of $5 billion in aid was approved by Congress. But then the House included a 20 percent import tax on products manufactured in foreign jurisdictions in the tax-reform bill it passed in November. Because Puerto Rico would be considered a “foreign jurisdiction” under the bill, this tax would deal a mortal blow to the island’s fragile economy, costing up to 250,000 jobs. […]

Puerto Rico needs a lifeline that only Congress and the Trump administration can provide. The list of needed actions is short, straightforward and agreed upon by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes. First, drop the crippling 20 percent excise tax on Puerto Rican products. This is an easy one given that the tax doesn’t exist yet. It can simply be removed from the tax-reform bill right now being finalized in House-Senate conference negotiations.

A hand-lettered sign on the road to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico reads, 'HELP. We need food, water, love,' 17 December 2017. Photo: Josh Einiger / The Washington Post

Then, let’s take care of the health of 3.4 million Americans on the island. Puerto Rico receives only a small portion of the Medicaid funding that it would qualify for as a state. The island’s hospitals and health centers are struggling in the wake of the storm. We all have watched in horror how the death toll has been undercounted — by perhaps 1,000 people, according to credible estimates. With the health of so many at risk, let’s provide Medicaid parity while streamlining enrollment to many who are not working and need health care.

Next, move quickly on the $94 billion aid package requested by the Puerto Rican government. I was last in Puerto Rico in November; the massive need is not an invention. Alongside the Hispanic Federation, we’ve worked to raise money to purchase and distribute millions of pounds of food and millions of gallons of water. We have made water-filtration systems available to schools as part of the American Federation of Teachers’ Operation Agua. These partnerships, made possible by the generosity of everyday Americans, have been incredible. But they’re not enough. [more]

This is what Puerto Ricans need from the government. Right now.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone tapes his mouth in a protest over his jailed colleagues on 12 December 2017 in Myanmar. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing / EPA

15 December 2017 (Los Angeles Times) – This last year has been a dangerous one for journalists around the globe — a record 262 men and women are imprisoned because of the nature of the work they do, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s part of a disturbing trend of attacking and undermining institutions that exist to hold public officials accountable and to bring light into some of the darkest corners of the world.

Turkey and Egypt — two U.S. allies — and China account for about half of the detained journalists, but the problem extends widely. Here’s what happened just this week: Two Reuters staffers who had been working on stories about the Myanmar government’s violent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Rakhine State were arrested under that country’s Official Secrets Act; a journalist writing about corruption was jailed in Tajikistan; and a French documentary filmmaker was detained in Kashmir by Indian authorities.

Most appalling is that the list of 262 includes some journalists who were nabbed a decade ago or longer by governments that have refused to divulge their whereabouts or even whether they are alive; some are likely dead. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 37 journalists were killed this year; 13 of them were murdered and the rest were killed covering combat or working in other risky conditions.

President Trump doesn’t bear the responsibility for these deaths and internments, of course. Over the last decade, the annual number of jailed journalists averaged 183, with a low of 125 in 2008. But Trump’s rhetoric has given cover to regimes that not only have oppressed journalists, but seek to discredit their work.

Trump has spent more than a year attacking critical coverage as “fake news”; taking his cue, authoritarian regimes have used similar language to dismiss coverage that exposes scandals, highlights egregious behavior or simply displeases them. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, ran an op-ed recently citing Trump’s “fake news” screeds as cause to distrust all U.S. coverage of China and its policies. […] Syrian President Bashar Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro similarly dismissed negative coverage of their repressive regimes’ actions as “fake news.” [more]

A record number of journalists worldwide are behind bars for doing their jobs

Sebastian Kurz of Austria's conservative People's party listens during a joint press conference with the far-right Freedom party’s Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo: AFP

By Ralph Atkins and Mehreen Khan
17 December 2017

ZURICH (Financial Times) – Austria’s far-right nationalist Freedom party will control several powerful ministries when the country’s new government is sworn in on Monday, after it struck a coalition deal that will significantly toughen Vienna’s stance on immigration and asylum seekers.

In a breakthrough for the Eurosceptic Freedom party, it will govern together with the centre-right People’s party of 31-year-old chancellor-elect Sebastian Kurz. The Freedom party will take control of the defence, interior and foreign ministries while its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has warned of Austria’s “Islamification”, will become vice-chancellor.The progress and policies of Mr Kurz’s government will be closely watched around the EU, where mainstream politicians have grown increasingly concerned about the rise of nationalist and populist political forces.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s centre-left commissioner for economics, warned that the Freedom party’s presence should “arouse the vigilance” of democrats who supported European values. “The presence of the extreme right in power is never trivial,” he said.Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front who failed in her presidential bid in May, said Freedom’s government role in Austria was “excellent news for Europe”. [more]

Far-right Freedom party enters Austrian government

Maria Ortiz Viruet's son, Jesús, works on a gas-powered generator, the only electricity supply for his home in Puerto Rico. Nearly every day, the generator needs some kind of fix. When it breaks down, out come the candles and flashlights. Photo: The Washington Post

By Arelis R. Hernández, Whitney Leaming, and Zoeann Murphy
15 December 2017

(The Washington Post) – Puerto Rico’s apagón, or “super blackout,” is the longest and largest major power outage in modern U.S. history. Without electricity, there is no reliable source of clean water. School is out, indefinitely. Health care is fraught. Small businesses are faltering. The tasks of daily life are both exhausting and dangerous. There is nothing to do but wait, and no one can say when the lights will come back on.

Two powerful hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico in September. They created a humanitarian crisis for the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens that has persisted for three months. Power restoration is at a crawl because the grid collapsed, the utility is bankrupt and the logistics are daunting: Crews and supplies have to come from the mainland, then make their way into rugged interior areas like Utuado. Many roads remain impassable, and hundreds are still isolated. […]

No power and no water means no school for many of the territory’s more than 1,000 schools.

That’s brought total disruption to the lives of tens of thousands of children. They have lost their daily routine of classes, friends and meals. Most have not been to school at all this fall. Maria can’t get used to the emptiness.

On the mainland, school districts in Florida, Texas, New York and New England have absorbed thousands of students who don’t want to fall behind.

But those who remain — including Maria’s son, Jesús, who is 18 — don’t know what will happen next.

What he does know: Nearly every day, the generator needs some kind of fix. When it breaks down, out come the candles and flashlights.

The buzzing of fuel-powered generators is inescapable. Expensive to buy and fill, smelly and dangerous, the machines were never intended to be a substitute for public electricity.

A household can limp along on a generator, but it has been perilous for Puerto Rico’s elderly and infirm to rely on the machines for months on end.

Many of them need power just to breathe. Since the storm, there has been a surge of deaths from pneumonia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and breathing disorders compared with the same period in 2016. The toll could rise over 1,000, some estimate.

All the advances of modern medicine are useless without electricity. [more]

Life without power in Puerto Rico — and no end in sight

Residents react as they watch the Thomas Fire burn in the hills above La Conchita at 5 am Thursday morning, 14 December 2017. Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

By Melissa Etehad and Ben Poston
17 December 2017

(Los Angeles Times) – The massive Thomas Fire continued to grow Sunday morning even after an epic battle to protect homes along the Santa Barbara County coast Saturday proved successful despite intense winds.

The third-largest fire in California history was burning a massive swath from Santa Barbara to Ventura, was being fueled by intense Santa Ana winds. On Sunday morning, the San Fernando Valley was being hit by wind gusts topping 70 mph in some mountain areas. The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for canyon and mountain areas.

As of Sunday morning, the fire was at 269,000 acres and 40% contained. CalFire said 18,000 structures were threatened. […]

On Sunday morning, wind gusts topped 70 mph in mountain areas in the fire zone and 50 mph on the coast in Ventura County, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Winds are expected to calm down Monday and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph, which will “look tranquil” compared with the weekend gusts, Hoxsie said.

Those calmer conditions should allow firefighters to focus on more defensive work like bulldozing fire lines and dropping fire retardant. The humidity levels should also increase during the early part of the week — another help for fire crews, Hoxsie said.

But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return on Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said. […]

“This is the worst fire condition I’ve seen in the last 32 years,” said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “It could have been a lot worse. We could have easily lost firefighters or had more homes destroyed. It was a great effort by firefighters.” [more]

Thomas Fire continues to grow as strong, shifting winds bring new dangers

Total acres burned in U.S. wildfires, 1960-2017. Data: NIFC. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

17 December 2017 (Desdemona Despair) – The year 2017 is on track to be the third worst year on record for wildfires in the United States.

Driven by California’s deadliest wildfire season on record, including the third-largest wildfire in state history, 2017 is making a run at the Number Two spot, as California’s wildfire season stretches to the very end of the year.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) keeps track of the annual size and number of wildfires, and its latest report shows 2017 in third place, with more than 9.4 million acres burned. The all-time record for most area burned was set in 2015, at more than 10 million acres.

Year  Number of fires  Total acres burned
2006 96,385 9,873,745
2007 85,705 9,328,045
2011 74,126 8,711,367
2004 65,461 8,097,880
2002 73,457 7,184,712

2017 adds to the list of recent record-breaking years – all of the Top Ten wildfire seasons have occurred since 2000.

The U.S. wasn’t alone. In Canada, British Columbia suffered through its worst wildfire season on record, when 19 fires merged to create the largest wildfire ever recorded in B.C. A state of emergency was declared across the entire province. Along the West Coast of North America, air pollution from wildfire smoke spiked to dangerous levels, from San Francisco to Vancouver, and over Canada’s Northwest Territories and Yukon and Nunavut provinces. A new term for the region’s unprecedented levels of air pollution entered the lexicon: the “Smoke Belt”.

In B.C. and California, fire risk increased because of a very wet spring that encouraged growth of fuels, followed by record-breaking heat later in the season, which dried them out. As the world warms, we can expect this cycle to intensify. In a decade or two, we may yearn for the time when the largest forest fires burned “only” nine million acres.

The headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Photo: CDC

By Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin
15 December 2017

(The Washington Post) – The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

The question of how to address such issues as sexual orientation, gender identity and abortion rights — all of which received significant visibility under the Obama administration — has surfaced repeatedly in federal agencies since President Trump took office. Several key departments — including Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, as well as Justice, Education, and Housing and Urban Development — have changed some federal policies and how they collect government information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

In March, for example, HHS dropped questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in two surveys of elderly people. […]

The longtime CDC analyst, whose job includes writing descriptions of the CDC’s work for the administration’s annual spending blueprint, could not recall a previous time when words were banned from budget documents because they were considered controversial.

The reaction of people in the meeting was “incredulous,” the analyst said. “It was very much, ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding?’ ”

“In my experience, we’ve never had any pushback from an ideological standpoint,” the analyst said. [more]

CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity

Uranium development potential in Utah, with the original boundary of the Bears Ears National Monument indicated, before Trump reduced its size to accomodate Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc. Graphic: The Washington Post

By Juliet Eilperin
8 December 2017

(The Washington Post) – A uranium company launched a concerted lobbying campaign to scale back Bears Ears National Monument, saying such action would give it easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and top Utah Republicans have said repeatedly that questions of mining or drilling played no role in President Trump’s announcement Monday that he was cutting the site by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent. Trump also signed a proclamation nearly halving the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is also in southern Utah and has significant coal deposits.

“This is not about energy,” Zinke told reporters Tuesday. “There is no mine within Bears Ears.”

But the nation’s sole uranium processing mill sits directly next to the boundaries that President Barack Obama designated a year ago when he established Bears Ears. The documents show that Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, urged the Trump administration to limit the monument to the smallest size needed to protect key objects and areas, such as archeological sites, to make it easier to access the radioactive ore.

In a May 25 letter to the Interior Department, Chief Operating Officer Mark Chalmers wrote that the 1.35 million-acre expanse Obama created “could affect existing and future mill operations.” He later noted, “There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the [original boundaries] that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”

Trump instructed Zinke in April to assess 27 monuments designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives presidents wide latitude to protect federal lands and waters under threat. Conservationists, tribal officials, ranching groups and other interests sought to influence the review’s outcome, unsuccessfully in the case of the two Utah sites.

Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R-Utah) addressed the energy considerations in an interview Monday. “The only thing that smacks of energy is the uranium,” he said. “The uranium deposits are outside the monument now.”

Energy Fuels Resources did not just weigh in on national monuments through public-comment letters. It hired a team of lobbyists at Faegre Baker Daniels — led by Andrew Wheeler, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy secretary — to work on the matter and other federal policies affecting the company. It paid the firm $30,000 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, according to federal lobbying records, for work on this and other priorities. […]

Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation and advocacy group, said the Energy Fuels Resources effort shows the extent to which industry interests influenced the monuments review.

“You listen to the rhetoric about how this was all really about taking special interests out of the equation,” Zimmerman said. “They’re doing this on behalf of special interests. When you look in terms of public access to recreation areas, there’s not a hunter or angler or outdoor recreationist who wants to be out and around an uranium mine.” [more]

Uranium firm urged Trump officials to shrink Bears Ears National Monument


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