About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Pennsylvania’s Politics of Virtue



by Walter Brasch

      The Pennsylvania Senate, possibly for the first time in its history, stood up against the NRA leadership and extreme gun-rights groups, and voted to ban pigeon shoots. The senators correctly called the ban a matter not of gun rights but of eliminating animal cruelty.
      The International Olympic Committee in 1900 banned pigeon shoots because of their cruelty and never again listed it as a sport. Most hunters and the state’s Fish and Game Commission says that pigeon shoots are not “fair chase hunting.” Pennsylvania is the only state where there are active pigeon shoots.
      The vote in the Senate was 36–12. Voting for the bill were 21 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Before the Senate could vote on the bill, it had to vote down two NRA-sponsored “compromise” amendments to legislate pigeon shoots and place them under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
      The bill had originated in the House, sponsored by John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair), where it had unanimous approval as a ban upon slaughtering, selling, and eating cat and dog meat. Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Chambersburg), an avid hunter, amended the bill in the Senate to include pigeon shoots, and received the backing of Sens. Stuart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove), chair of the judiciary committee; and Dominic Pileggi (R-Glen Mills), the majority leader.
      That bill, with the amendment, was approved in the Judiciary Committee, 10–4, on June 26. In the next two days, it passed two of the required three readings in the full Senate, but was tabled, July 8, when the Senate recessed for more than two months. The bill was finally placed on the calendar for a third vote, which occurred late at night, Oct. 15, the day before the Senate would again recess until a week after the November election. 
      The Senate passed the bill only after an intense lobbying effort by the Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm, which sent several “alerts” to its members. Allied with the ILA-NRA is the Pennsylvania Flyers Association (PAFA), a political gun-rights group, which, like the ILA-NRA, has a PAC that contributes campaign funds to members of the state legislature. PAFA had boasted it was responsible for keeping the bill off the Senate calendar. Both groups argue banning pigeon shoots is the first step to a “slippery slope” to banning guns, both have threatened members of the legislature with retribution if they voted to ban the bill, both claim support for banning pigeon shoots comes from radical “outside activists.”
      Those radical “outside activists” are the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies, the ASCPA, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
      SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), which has video-documented the brutality of the pigeon shoots, often in secret, for several years, blanketed major market TV the past month with commercials featuring narration by Bob Barker and video of animal cruelty. The HSUS has maintained a 25-year activist campaign, which included intensive discussions with members of the legislature, numerous information packets, a strong social media campaign that organized supporters, and thousands Pennsylvanians calling their representatives and senators.
      The last free-standing vote in the House to ban pigeon shoots occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties, most of them afraid of the suspected wrath of the NRA.
      Four years after the House failed to pass legislation to ban pigeon shoots, the state Supreme Court ruled the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, the most notorious of the shoots, and one which drew national attention to the state, was not only cruel “but moronic.” The organizers grudgingly disbanded the annual Labor Day event, held from 1934 to 1998. The Hegins shoot was held on public land; the Court’s opinion did not extend to shoots at private clubs, all of which draw many of the participants and spectators from New Jersey, and are held in secret. The passage of HB 1750 will end pigeon shoots at private clubs.
       The House reconvenes for one day, Monday, Oct. 20, before it again recesses, its members returning for only one day, Nov. 12, before the session ends.  
      Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, spent many years on the shooting fields rescuing wounded birds, while leading protests and education campaigns. Exhausted from consecutive 15-hour days of intense discussions with legislators—and more than two decades of hope and disappointment—she mixes the joy of the present with tears of remembrance when she recalls why she first committed to eliminating what has become known as “Pennsylvania’s Disgrace”: “This is a day I personally looked forward to for many years, from the day I first held an injured pigeon in my hands and watched her die—all for no reason other than someone wanted to use her for target practice.”
      If the House passes the bill, and Gov. Tom Corbett signs it, Prescott, who was born in Pennsylvania and received her B.A. and MFA from the state-owned Edinboro University, will no longer have to drive a four-hour round trip almost every Tuesday when the Legislature is in session from her office in Maryland to explain to legislators why animal cruelty never was and never will be protected by the Second Amendment, and why the courage to stand up for what is right may be the greatest virtue.

      [Dr. Brasch has been covering pigeon shoots and state legislation for more than two decades. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the health, environmental, and economic effects, and the fusion of corporate greed and politics in the state.]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Swift Boat Load of Lies




by Walter Brasch

      “Gov. Tom Corbett, who claims he opposes legalization of marijuana, was seen behind a barn smoking weed. Just a-puffin’ and a-grinnin’.”
      “Tom Wolfe was speeding and driving drunk through the streets of York. If he can’t obey traffic laws, why would we think he’d obey the Constitution if elected Pennsylvania governor?”
      “That commie socialist fascist Kenyan Muslim in the White House brought Ebola into the country to get rid of White opposition.”
      The first two campaign ads are completely false. No one—yet—has sent out those messages. The third one, also false, in various forms is now circulating on the Internet and in bars.
      It really makes no difference if it’s true or false. It’s on the Internet, where lies, half-truths, and hyperbole compete with bloviating pundits on radio and TV pretend-news shows.
      But now, paid ads—in every medium—may also be completely false, and protected by the Constitution.
      The Supreme Court, in a 9–0 decision, extremely unusual for this Court that often decides cases by a 5–4 margin, determined that political ads are protected by the First Amendment.
      The case began in Ohio in 2010, when the Susan B. Anthony List, a right-wing anti-abortion group, planned to rent a billboard and place a sign on it falsely proclaiming that Rep. Steve Driehaus, an anti-abortion Democrat, supported taxpayer-funded abortion because he had supported the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The ACA doesn’t allow taxpayer-funded abortion, except for cases of rape, incest, or medical emergencies. The billboard company refused to place the ad, fearing it was violating Ohio law against false political speech.
       Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission to protest the SBA List intent, but withdrew his complaint after losing re-election. The SBA List, however, didn’t celebrate; it demanded court rulings.
      Both district and appeals courts ruled the issue moot because Driehaus had lost the election and, therefore, was not facing imminent injury. The List pushed forward, claiming the issue was a First Amendment matter.
      The Supreme Court remanded the case to the District Court, citing the List had the right to challenge the Ohio law’s constitutionality. In his ruling supporting the List, District Judge Timothy Black this past month, reiterated a philosophy advanced by John Milton in the 17th century that became a basis for the First Amendment. Judge Black determined, “The answer to false statements in politics is not to force silence [of lies] but to encourage truthful speech in response, and to let the voters, not the Government, decide what the political truth is.” The fear is that government would intercede and ban ads, stifling free speech; this would be prior restraint, a definite First Amendment violation.
      Pleased with the ruling, but still loosely playing with the facts, List president Marjorie Dannenfelser issued a statement that any member of Congress who voted for the ACA had voted for taxpayer-funded abortion. The List now plans to pay for a billboard condemning Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a liberal anti-abortion Democrat, who voted for the ACA and is running for a 17th term. 
      Citizens of many countries don’t have the protections of our First Amendment—free speech, free press, free religion and the separation of church and state, and the rights of peaceful assembly, and to petition government for a redress of grievances. Some countries allow certain freedoms, as long as no one attacks the state or its head of state, even if the accusations are true; this was how it was in Colonial America. And some countries have severe restrictions upon false statements in political ads.
      Most European countries severely restrict the use ads on radio and TV, correctly arguing that the wealthy and their even wealthier donors would dominate public discussion, thus not allowing a level playing field for all candidates. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Switzerland ban candidates and their organizations from placing political ads on the broadcast media.
      In the United States, a few rules apply to political ads. Among those rules are that candidates not in office must use the word “for,” as in “Vote for John Jones for State Senator,” as opposed to “John Jones, State Senator.” Another regulation is that all ads, print or broadcast, must include a disclosure statement, something to identify who pays for the ad, even if it’s a front group for an anonymous “benefactor.”
      But, unlike a labyrinth of rules established by the Federal Trade Commission that regulate product advertising—“Our shining silver gadget, when applied correctly, can cure skin cancer”—political advertising is given a wide range, with minimal oversight.
      With state-wide and federal candidates spending most of their media budgets on television advertising, and less on grassroots campaigning, the primary beneficiary of the money appears to be television stations.
      With three weeks left before the biennial midterm elections, Americans can expect to continue to be carpet-bombed by print and electronic advertising, much of it deceptive or outright lies, all of it protected by the First Amendment.
      [Dr. Brasch, a First Amendment scholar and award-winning journalist, is the author of 20 books. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster, an overview of the economic, environmental, agricultural, and health effects of fracking; his book also looks at the influence of corporate lobbying upon the political process.]



Friday, October 3, 2014

A Fracking Good Letter



by Walter Brasch

    The oil and gas industry has retreated from its entrenched position to have the public delete the “k” in “fracking,” and write it as “frac’ing” or “fracing.” Those who have been the strongest advocates for fracking scorned and mocked those who place the “k” in the word. The problem is that without the “k,” the word sounds like “frasing.” However, the first use of the word “fracking” can be traced to an oil and gas journal article in 1953.
    As hydraulic horizontal fracturing became a standard to extract gas and oil about 2008, anti-fracking activists began using the word—with the “k”—in advertising, social media, and public protest campaigns that slyly bordered on the obscene—“Frack off!” and “No Fracking Way!”
    The oil and gas industry, faced with being the brunt of a series of near-obscene jokes, dug in and demanded that “unconventional drilling” or just “horizontal fracturing” were the “proper” terms. But, if “fracking” had to be used in print, the preference was for “frac’ing” or “fracing.” Most dictionaries—including the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster—use the word “fracking”–with the “k”—as the preferred and acceptable term.
    In September, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), a front group for the oil and gas industry became proactive with a series of newspaper, radio, TV, and YouTube ads. The ads, scheduled to run through the beginning of 2015, were revealed at the annual Shale Insight conference, sponsored by the MSC in Pittsburgh.
    The fractivists “tried to hijack that word and paint it as something negative,” David J. Spigelmyer, MSC president, said, pointing out it was the industry’s intention “to take that word back.” Randy Cleveland, XTO Energy president, told the conference where people said “frac’ing,” the industry thrived, but where they said “ ‘fracking,’ we have difficulty.” The PR and advertising campaign, said Cleveland, is “to regain the high ground.”
    Stephen Moore, chief economist for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the conference, “The disinformation and propaganda machine against what you do is frightening,” adding that the campaign against fracking “may have been instigated by outside agitators.” It was a claim echoed by thousands in the industry.
    With absolutely no proof, Moore was referring to the possibility that Russia and the oil-rich oil countries, and not millions of Americans, were behind the anti-fracking campaign. Russia’s Gazprom is the world’s largest natural gas distribution company, and many in the U.S. oil/gas industry believe Gazprom or Vladimir Putin wanted to increase Russia’s share and domination of the natural gas industry by closing down American natural gas production. The same gaseous windbags blamed the Arab countries for being anti-fracking because they were making money off oil and didn’t want competition. None acknowledged that the Arab countries have been far ahead of the United States in the development of renewable energy, knowing that fossil fuel contributes to global warming, is not infinite, and there are no more dinosaurs willing to die to allow greedy corporations to make outrageous profits.
    Nevertheless, the industry is digging in and defending not only its destruction of the environment and public health—which it doesn’t acknowledge, even though dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies indicate otherwise—but to recapture “fracking”— with a “k”—as good and pure.
    In the newspaper ad, the word “fracking” is used five times; the largest word in the ad is “JOBS”—the ad emphasized job creation, using the inflated and discredited number of 240,000. (The Pennsylvania Fiscal Office reports only about 17,500 new jobs were created since 2007. Dr. Tim Kelsey, Penn State professor of agricultural economics, reports that at most there were fewer than 35,000 jobs, only about half in the core industry. No matter what the critical number is, Pennsylvania was 49th in the nation in jobs creation in 2012, two years after it was ranked seventh in the nation.)
    Anchoring the ad is a new aphorism: “FRACKING: ROCK SOLID FOR PA.” In radio and TV ads, a girl says, “Fracking rocks! My dad does it.” At the conclusion of a three-minute YouTube video, in which a series of rumors was replaced by a series of half-truth “facts,” one of the narrators tells the audience, “Fracking, a good word,” and concludes with the newly-created motto. One of those many half-truths is that fracking has been around for more than six decades and has been proven to be safe. That part is relatively accurate—but it is “vertical” fracking, an entire different process than the recently-developed “horizontal” fracking, that has been around since shortly after World War II. Horizontal fracking uses significantly more water, sand, and toxic chemicals, and has significantly more methane leaks than vertical fracking.
    No matter how well the industry tries to shine up its 120-foot phallic-like rigs and spew prattling absurdity, the reality is that fracking has not added much to the economy or many new jobs. As in every other energy development, when mining the gas becomes unprofitable, possibly within five years in the Marcellus Shale, the industry will move elsewhere and continue the “boom and bust” economy. What it has done is to cause additional problems leading to increases in air, water, and ground pollution. It has caused documented health problems. And, it has, despite all the PR about “clean energy,” contributed to global warming.
    [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and former reporter and editor, is the author of 20 books. The most recent book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster, an overall look at the health, environmental, agricultural, and economic effects of fracking, combined with an investigation into the connections between politics and the oil/gas industry.]
   
   


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pennsylvania's Politics of Animal Cruelty



by Walter Brasch

      Pennsylvanians can still butcher, braise, and broil their pet cats and dogs because a murky mixture of politics has left a critical bill on the table in the state senate.
      Residents may also continue to use cats, dogs, and other animals as targets for what some erroneously call “sporting events.”
      Although there are no documented cases of cats and dogs being thrown into the air at these shoots, there is a long history in Pennsylvania of pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the only state where such shoots occur legally. The remaining shoots are in the southeastern part of the state, in Berks and Bucks counties near Philadelphia. However, this past week, an undercover investigator for SHARK, an animal rights group, documented a pigeon shoot in Oklahoma to provide campaign funds for Sen. James Inhofe (R). About 1,000 pigeons, according to SHARK, were thrown into the air a few yards from the shooters.
In Pennsylvania, scared and undernourished birds are placed into cages, and then launched about 30 yards in front of people with 12-gauge shotguns. Most birds, as many as 5,000 at an all-day shoot, are hit standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from the people who pretend to be sportsmen. About 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who for 25 years has been documenting and leading the effort to pass legislation to end pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania. If the birds are wounded on the killing fields, trapper boys and girls, most in their early teens, some of them younger, grab the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, or throw them live into barrels to suffocate. Birds that fall outside the shooting club’s property are left to die long and horrible deaths. There is no food or commercial value of a pigeon killed at one of the shoots.
      The Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission says pigeon shoots are not “fair chase hunting.” The International Olympic Committee declared pigeon shoots aren’t a sport, and banned it after the 1900 Olympics because of its cruelty to animals.
But, the Pennsylvania Senate still hasn’t taken HB1750 off the table for discussion. Any senator may request the Senate to suspend the rules to allow a bill come off the table; none have.
      The House passed the original bill, sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R), 201–0, in November 2013.
      It was amended in the Senate, with Maher’s approval, to ban pigeon shoots under Title 18, which includes animal cruelty statutes.  Although butchering and selling cats and dogs would be a first degree misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $1,000–$10,000 and a maximum prison term of five years, pigeon shoot violations would be only a summary offense, carrying a maximum $300 fine and/or three months jail sentence, and only for those operating the shoot. That bill was approved in the Republican-led Judiciary Committee, 10–4, on June 26. In the next two days, it passed two of the required three readings in the full Senate, but was tabled, July 8, when the Senate recessed for more than two months. The bill was not placed on the voting calendar when the Senate reconvened for five days between Sept. 15 and Sept. 24. The Senate is again in recess and will reconvene for two to four days, beginning Oct. 6 before going on recess until after the Nov. 4 election.
      One of the four who voted against the bill in the judiciary committee was Joseph B. Scarnati III (R), the Senate president pro tempore. In his past two elections, Scranati received $5,275 from the NRA PAC, and $1,000 from the Flyers Victory Fund; the Victory Fund was established to support pigeon shoots. However, Scarnati didn’t influence if the bill was to be voted upon by the full Senate, says Kate Eckhart, Scarnati’s communications and legislative affairs assistant. The senator who does influence what bills go on the calendar is Dominic Pileggi (R), the majority leader. Pileggi had voted for the bill when it was in Judiciary Committee. However, Pileggi doesn’t put a bill on the calendar until the Republican caucus discusses it.
      Republican caucus leader is Sen. John Gordner (R), who also voted against the bill in committee. However, Gorder says he voted against the bill on procedural grounds. The amendment, says Todd Roup, Gordner’s chief of staff, “was slipped onto the committee’s calendar at the last minute without required notice.”
      Gregg Warner, the Judiciary Committee’s legal counsel, disagrees. “We notify members of the committee what bills will be on the agenda on Thursdays or Fridays the week before [a Tuesday meeting],” says Warner, “and then distribute summaries of the bills a day before.” Amendments are often distributed on Mondays before scheduled Tuesday meetings.
      “Once there is enough support in the caucus,” says Roup, the bill will go back to Pileggi. The person responsible for counting votes is Sen. Patrick Browne, Republican minority whip. Because caucus discussions are secret, neither Browne nor Gordner will reveal if the bill was discussed. Gordner, however, will vote for the bill if it gets to the floor for a third reading, says Roup.
      Josh Funk, deputy general counsel of the Senate Republican caucus, says there are two tests as to whether a bill is placed onto the calendar to be voted upon by the full Senate. The first test is if a majority in the caucus wants it. The second test, says Funk, is that, “It is not Sen. Pileggi’s policy to put bills up for a vote if the end result will be that they fail to receive 26 votes,” a Senate majority.” However, in the final two days before the Senate recessed this past week, Pileggi did place two bills onto the calendar that failed, by wide margins, to get 26 votes. Nevertheless, a policy that severely restricts open debate, with most discussions and decisions made in secret, significantly reduces the rights of the public to learn how their elected representatives think about a particular issue; the policy could violate Section 702 of the state’s Sunshine Act that declares, “The General Assembly finds that the right  of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.
      Although there may not be enough votes in the Republican caucus, there are more than enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate. In addition to 24 co-sponsors, an informal tally shows at least a half-dozen other senators will support the bill.
This is also bill the public supports. A statewide survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research a year ago revealed not only do more than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see legislation to ban live pigeon shoots, only 16 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose such a ban. More than four-fifths of all Pennsylvanians say live pigeon shoots are animal cruelty. The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA, and the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies. Most Pennsylvania newspapers have editorialized against pigeon shoots.
      So, why wasn’t the bill brought up for a third reading before the Senate adjourned in July? And why is it still on the table?
      The answer is enmeshed in a web of politics. Fearing an NRA backlash, and perhaps not wishing to alienate any voters less than six weeks before an election, the Senate may have stalled the vote because of an intense lobbying effort by the NRA. On the day before the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hear the bill for the first time, the Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm, sent urgent alerts to Pennsylvania members and the legislature. The NRA leadership opposes bans on pigeon shoots, believing that to ban animal cruelty is the “slippery slope” to banning guns.
      “That’s completely nonsense,” says Roy Afflerbach, a lifelong hunter, and former state senator and Allentown mayor.
      Many in the Legislature cower in fear at receiving less than an “A+” rating from the NRA. In the Senate Judiciary committee, Sen. Richard Alloway (R), a long-time hunter and a vigorous gun-rights advocate, called pigeon shooting a “blood sport.” After an attack by the NRA, he said, “I find it laughable that my friends [at the NRA] would somehow label me anti-Second Amendment.” Sen. Daylin Leach (D), vice-chair of the judiciary committee, doesn’t worry about the NRA rating. “Pigeon shoots, says Leach, “are a barbaric relic of a long-ago past. Hunters are ashamed of it, and it’s time to stop the gratuitous cruelty that pigeon shoots represent.”
      The NRA alert called pigeon shooters “law-abiding, ethical shooting enthusiasts.” However, undercover investigators have observed a large part of the lure of pigeon shoots is illegal gambling on how many birds each shooter will wound or kill. The alert also told legislators that opposition “does not come from within the Commonwealth, but from the outside,” targeting the Humane Society of the United States as the leader of the “animal ‘rights’ extremist groups.” However, the NRA is as much an “outside organization as HSUS; its headquarters is in Fairfax, Va.. Both NRA and HSUS have Pennsylvania field offices. All Pennsylvania humane organizations support HB1750. Humane PA PAC, which opposes the pigeon shoot, has 32,000 members, most of them Pennsylvanians.
      There is another political land mine for the bill. Even if the Senate passes the bill, the House of Representatives, which had passed the bill without the pigeon shoot amendment, is a far more conservative body, and could likely hold up passage of the bill.
      The last free-standing vote in the House occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties.
      Four years after the House failed to pass legislation to ban pigeon shoots, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, held on public property, was not only cruel “but moronic.” The organizers grudgingly disbanded the annual Labor Day event, held from 1934 to 1998. The Court’s opinion did not extend to shoots at private clubs, all of which draw many of the participants and spectators from New Jersey, and are held in secret.
      “The tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have contacted their legislators, year after year, for decades, deserve a vote,” says Heidi Prescott. If the bill is brought to a vote, “it will pass,” she says.
      [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has been covering Pennsylvania pigeon shoots for more than 20 years. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and the author of 20 books. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the politics and economics behind fracking, and its impact on health, agriculture, and the environment. The book also investigates fracking’s effects upon animals.]



Friday, September 19, 2014

Arsenic-Laced Coffee Good for You



by Walter Brasch

      You’re sitting in your favorite restaurant one balmy September morning.
      Your waitress brings a pot of coffee and a standard 5-ounce cup.
      “Would you like cream and sugar with it?” she asks.
      You drink your coffee black. And hot. You decline her offer.
      “Would you like arsenic with it?” she asks.
      Arsenic? You’re baffled. And more than a little suspicious.
      “It enhances the flavor,” says your waitress.
      “I really don’t think I want arsenic,” you say, now wondering why she’s so cheerful.
      “It really does enhance the flavor—and there’s absolutely no harm in it,” she says.
      “But it’s arsenic!” you reply. “That’s rat poison. It can kill you.”
      “Only in large doses,” she says. “I’ll add just 150 drops to your coffee. It tastes good and won’t harm you,” she says, still as cheery as ever.
      “But 150 drops is deadly!” you reply, looking around to see if you’re on “Candid Camera.” You’re not, and she’s serious.
      “It’s really nothing,” she says, explaining that 150 drops, when mixed with five ounces of coffee is only 0.5 percent of the total. She explains that 99.5 percent of the coffee—about 2,800 drops—is still freshly-brewed coffee.
     
      Ridiculous?
      Of course it’s ridiculous.
      But the oil and gas industry want you to believe that 99.5 percent of all the fluids they shove into the earth to do horizontal fracturing, also known as fracking, is harmless. Just fresh river water. Move along. Nothing to see here.
      As to the other half of one-percent? They tell you it’s just food products. Table salt. Guar gum (used in ice cream and baked goods). Lemon juice. Nothing to worry about, they assure you.
      The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, identified about 1,000 chemicals that the oil and gas industry uses in fracking operations, most of them carcinogens at the strengths they shove into the earth. Depending upon the geology of the area and other factors, the driller uses a combination of fluids—perhaps a couple of dozen at one well, a different couple of dozen at another well. But, because state legislatures have allowed the companies to invoke “trade secrets” protection, they don’t have to identify which chemicals and in what strengths they use at each well. Even health professionals and those in emergency management aren’t allowed to know the composition of the fluids—unless they sign non-disclosure statements. Patients and the public are still kept from the information.
      What is known is that among the most common chemicals in fracking fluids, in addition to arsenic, are benzene, which can lead to leukemia and several cancers, reduce white blood cell production in bones, and cause genetic mutation; formaldehyde, which can cause leukemia and genetic and birth defects; hydrofluoric acid, which can cause genetic mutation and chronic lung disease, cause third degree burns, affect bone structure, the central nervous system, and cause cardiac arrest; nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which can cause pulmonary edema and heart disease; radon, which has strong links to lung cancer; and toluene, which in higher doses can produce nausea, muscle weakness, and memory and hearing loss.
        Each well requires an average of three to eight million gallons of water for the first frack, depending upon the geology of the area. Energy companies drilling in the Pennsylvania part of the Marcellus Shale, the most productive of the nation’s shales, use an average of 4.0–5.6 million gallons of water per frack. That’s only an average. Seneca Resources needed almost 19 million gallons of water to frack a well in northeastern Pennsylvania in 2012; Encana Oil & Gas USA used more than 21 million gallons of water to frack one well in Michigan the following year. A well may be fracked several times (known as “restimulation”), but most fracking after the first one is usually not economical.
    After the water, chemicals, and proppants (usually about 10,000 tons of silica sand) are shoved deep into the earth, most have to be brought back up. Flowback water, also known as wastewater, contains not just chemicals and elements that went into the earth, but elements that were undisturbed in the earth until the fracking process had begun. Among the elements that are often present in the flowback water are Uranium-238, Thorium-232, and Radium, which decays into Radon, one of the most radioactive and toxic of all gases.
    Wastewater is often stored in plastic-lined pits, some as large as an acre. These pits can leak, spilling the wastewater onto the ground and into streams. The waste water can also evaporate, eventually causing health problems of those living near the pits who can be exposed by inhaling the invisible toxic clouds or from absorbing it through their skin. In the eight years since drilling began in the Marcellus Shale, about 6.5 billion gallons of wastewater have been produced.
    Many of the pits are now closed systems. But that doesn’t prevent health problems. Trucks pick up the wastewater and transport it to injection wells that can be several hundred miles away. At any point in that journey, there can be leaks, especially if the truck is involved in a highway accident.
    Assuming there are no accidents or spills, the trucks will unload flowback water into injection pits, shoving the toxic waste back into the ground, disturbing the earth and leading to what geologists now identify as human-induced earthquakes.
    Now, let’s go back to the industry’s claim of innocence—that 99.5 percent of all fluids shoved into the earth are completely harmless. Assuming only five million gallons of pure river water are necessary for one frack at one well, that means at least 25,000 gallons are toxic.
    Would you like cream and sugar with that?
    [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning social-issues journalist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster, an overall look at the economics, politics, health, and environmental effects of fracking.]

   


Thursday, September 11, 2014

No Safe Haven for Obstructionists




By Walter Brasch

      Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, is not a happy man.
      He didn’t like it when Barack Obama was elected president. Just about the first thing McConnell said was that his main responsibility was to make sure Mr. Obama was a one-term president.
      That vow drove McConnell’s and the Tea Party’s politics. They didn’t worry about the nation or the people. They worried about how to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
      They failed.
      But, in the past six years, McConnell managed to block almost all constructive legislation in the Senate.  And it’s not even a fair fight. McConnell manipulated and wheeled and dealed so that the majority no longer can do anything. It now takes 60 votes to pass almost anything in the Senate. That’s because the Republican obstructionists have threatened to filibuster anything of substance.  Important bipartisan legislation that would normally pass with a majority of 51 to 59 votes out of the 100 possible are now scuttled by backroom politics and the blind hatreds that some have for this nation’s president who was elected by the people and by the Electoral College—twice.
      And now comes Mitch McConnell to again obstruct the people and the government. He vows if the Republicans win the Senate in November, he will shut down the government if President Obama doesn’t agree with the Republicans.
      McConnell told the alternative media site, Politico, if he becomes majority leader, he plans to attach riders or block legislation from coming to the floor on critical legislation that protects the environment—unlike almost every scientist, he denies the existence of climate change and opposes broader regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.  He says he will bring riders or block legislation on health care improvements if any are proposed by the President. He will add riders or block legislation to bills improving the nation’s infrastructure, housing, unemployment. Name a bill, and if McConnell and his Tea Party faithful don’t support it, they will, if they are in the majority, continue to obstruct moving the nation forward. If they are in the minority, they will continue to threaten to filibuster any bill they don’t like, disregarding the will of the majority.
      Either the President goes along with McConnell or he’ll shut down government. Take the game ball and leave. Kick some dirt on the way out. Maybe curse the Democrats.
      Remember last October? The House Republicans didn’t get their way, so they shut down government.  Closed the national parks and forests.  Stopped assistance to families on military bases. The action blocked imports of steel and lumber, and slowed construction. It caused layoffs of more than two million federal workers, including those who provide needed social services to everyone from infants to the elderly. Not laid off were members of Congress who continued to draw their salaries and benefits.
       The two week shutdown cost American taxpayers more than $20 billion. Apparently, those who screeched the loudest about reducing the deficit—President Obama’s policies, not those of the Tea Party, led to a reduction of the deficit from $1.5 trillion to about $500 billion—had no problem charging that $20 billion expense because it was done to make a political statement.
      On their report cards, the American people gave the Tea Party wing that caused the shutdown a terse statement—“does not play well with others,” and gave Congress an overall 15 percent approval rating, lower than any previous Congress. With only slightly more than 100 bills passed into law, this is the least productive Congress in history. The House Republicans have blocked meaningful legislation. The Senate Republicans have consistently blocked the majority will.
      During the summer, Congress, by its own inaction, essentially told President Obama to deal with ISIS, that he has the authority to send American forces against the terrorist threat. It was a marked contrast to previous claims that Congress needed to have a say if the President used military forces anywhere. But this is an election year, and members of Congress didn’t want to lose any votes. They put their fingers in the wind, saw that anything they did could have consequences, and punted to the President. The President, within his Constitutional authority, launched air strikes against ISIS.
      This week, McConnell demanded that President Obama develop a plan to deal with ISIS—of course, he and much of Congress didn’t have any plans, and almost anything the President proposed would be met with whiny objections. One of those objections came from McConnell who declared the President had to get Congressional approval to go to war against ISIS.
      President Obama, after meeting with his advisors and Congressional leaders, developed a four-point strategy. McConnell, in a close race for re-election, now realized his Kentucky constituents, by a large majority, support aggressive actions against ISIS and the President’s strategy. His response was now to say he would support the President.
      The President has requested Congress to come back into session to discuss the strategy and, if necessary, vote for increased military action. This would be a major discomfort to Congress; it was scheduled to be in session only 12 days between Aug. 1 and the Nov. 4 election.
      With the election of Barack Obama, the reactionary right wing of the Republican party has driven the clown car, and made a mockery of everything this nation was, is, and should be. They may not be the terrorists that the President was referring to when he told the nation, Sept. 10, “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” But in their own way, the obstructions, by threatening to shut down government, threaten America.
      One of the best ways to stop the nation from descending into further stagnation would be for the people of Kentucky in November to deny Mitch McConnell a sixth term as senator and the possibility he will become majority leader.
     [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has covered social issues and politics, from city halls to the White House and Capitol, for more than four decades. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, a broad look at the economics, politics, and environmental and health impacts of fracking throughout the country.]




Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Quacked-Up Strategy to Stop Terrorism




by Walter Brasch

      Just about everyone has an opinion of what President Obama should do about the ISIS threat in Iraq. Many of the suggestions have come from the architects of America’s latest invasion of Iraq who claimed the nine year war that led to more than 25,000 deaths and 110,000 injuries among American and coalition troops would last not more than six months.
      Whatever the President does or doesn’t do, a rabid minority will attack him and stuff their suggestions with the vileness of hate and politics. Most suggestions are based on ignorance and are easily dismissed.
      But, there is one possible suggestion that may have merit.
      On Sean Hannity’s Fox TV show, Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty patriarch and one of the world’s greatest military and diplomatic strategists, suggested that America tell ISIS fighters either to convert or be killed.
      Millions of Americans—who called radical Muslims who preached such a doctrine, “barbarians” or “terrorists”—don’t seem to have a problem with converting Muslims to Christianity, the one true religion.
      While Robertson had a good idea, he didn’t explain any way to implement it.
      I do.
      First, take a couple of Marine infantry regiments. Place them into Iraq. Make sure each soldier has an M-16, which in fully automatic mode can fire 800 rounds a minute and is one of the weapons the NRA believes all Americans should have a right to possess but only, they caution, as an AR-15 in semi-automatic mode. After all, those deer can be quite elusive.
      Next, make sure every soldier also has a duck call. I recommend Duck Commander’s Homeland Security duck call. It’s only about $150 each, or about $1.5 million retail if both regiments are at full strength. This sale will help spur the American war economy. The soldiers will use the quackers to lure and mesmerize the ISIS fighters.
      The Robertson clan needs to be on the front lines as decoys. Because the clan looks like terrorists, the ISIS terrorists will think long-haired, bearded scarf-wearing camouflaged Robertsons are kin-folk.
      When the terrorists are rounded up, bring out the support troops—a company of white Southern Baptist preachers. The terrorists will be given a choice. Allow the preachers to dunk them into the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, the source of what we believe is civilization, or face hell-fire-and-brimstone from M-16s.
      Some may suggest that Islam, primarily a peace-loving religion whose Koran shares much of the Old and New Testaments, is tainted by a minority of radical terrorists. They may claim that to even suggest a convert-or-be-killed philosophy is in itself not just the reflection of bigotry and hatred but can be seen as little more than a terrorist threat. Nonsense. Isn’t it no less than treason to doubt the wisdom of a millionaire duck call manufacturer and his legions of followers who drool over Reality TV and the “fair and balanced” network that gave air time to present the best suggestion that Fox News ever transmitted?
      History suggests the convert-or-be-killed strategy that the Chief Duck Caller proposed should be effective. After all, Roman Catholics during the Inquisition converted about 100,000 Jews, most of whom took Christian names. The ones who weren’t “convinced” that Christianity was the one true religion were burned at the stake or exiled.  Of course, most of the converts also practiced Judaism secretly, but as long as they pretended to be Christians, that’s all that matters. Naturally, the Jews weren’t alone—there were and still are many pretend Christians.
      Certainly, Jesus, who was born, lived, and died a Jew, would want everyone to be killed who doesn’t believe in the religion that others founded in his name. Disregard the fact that the Koran and the Bible share much of the same wisdom and history embodied within the Jewish Torah. Disregard the reality that that Islam and Christianity are brother religions, descendants of Judaism. This is 2014, and Christianity is the one true religion.
      The convert-or-kill philosophy, espoused by the duck callers and millions of others, is just what the American democracy needs to wipe out terrorists, Muslims, and all non-believers.
      Quack. Quack.
      [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning columnist and satirist, is author of 20 books that combine history and contemporary social issues. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day Assignment: Educating the Uninformed




      It’s Labor Day weekend, the schools have been in session about a week, and the disgruntled voices of a minority drone on. Their screeching refrain, often in letters to the editor and talk show call-ins, is familiar:
      --Teachers only work half a year.
      --Teachers are overpaid.
      --Local school districts and their taxpayers shouldn’t have to hold the burden of teacher salaries.
      Often, those who complain the most are those who were average or below-average students who blame teachers, not themselves, for their mediocrity. Although most claim to be strong free-market capitalists, they believe teachers should not have much higher wages and benefits than they do, a philosophy bordering on socialism.
      Let’s look at each of the claims.
      First, the work year. Public school teachers generally work a 180-day school year. Each day is about six hours. That leads the uninformed to believe teachers only work half a year. But, let’s do the math. There are 365 days in a year. Subtract two days a week, which the average worker does not work, and that leaves 261 days. Next, remove 10 days of vacation; some get as many as 20 days a year, but 10 days is the usual vacation time. That leaves 251 days. Next, there are state and federal holidays, bracketed by New Year’s Day and Christmas. Generally, most businesses accept the 10 federal holidays. That leaves 241 days.
      The critics may claim that teachers still work 61 days less than the average worker. But let’s look at the hours. Most public school teachers may be in class only six hours a day, but they have to be at work before classes, most stay after classes to assist in extracurricular activities and then, at home in evenings and weekends, grade papers, read current information about teaching practices and their own academic specialties, and prepare lesson plans for five to seven classes. With schools shoving more students into each class, teachers don’t have the option of working less—they still have to grade papers, talk with individual students and their parents about performance.
      Most teachers don’t spend the summers lying around beach houses. Summer is when most develop lesson plans for the coming academic year, attend professional conferences, and take additional college classes to keep their certification and improve their knowledge of teaching methods and their own academic disciplines. Now, let’s look at those “overpriced” teachers. The average wage of a teacher—who must have at least a college degree, and additional coursework, often a graduate degree—is about $56,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The range is about $40,000 (South Dakota) to about $75,000 (New York). While this may seem generous to an overburdened taxpayer earning only $35,000 a year, it isn’t a wage that is comparable to those with similar education and work experience. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute says public school teachers are paid about 19 percent less than professionals with similar education and experience. Some, especially in the sciences and math, may be paid less than half of what others with their backgrounds are paid.
      Finally, taxpayers do have a valid point about the burden on local school districts. Most school funding comes from local taxpayers. When the federal stimulus funds were eliminated, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett chose not to replace it. Corbett also cut about $500 million that was not federal stimulus money. Corbett did restore federal stimulus funds for corrections and certain areas of health care, but not to education. Further, while cutting education budgets and putting greater burdens on local districts, he generously gave out more than $3 billion in corporate tax breaks. Many politicians may say they believe in education, that the future of America is in the students of today, but the reality is their words are little more vacuous babbling.
      Because of Corbett’s low priority for education, about $350 million has not been restored, leading to about 30,000 layoffs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He is not unique. Other conservative administrations have also chosen not to increase educational funding. The layoffs have led to larger class sizes, significant cuts in arts and music programs (while not cutting athletics), and fewer critical programs, including those that target at-risk students from dropping out of school. Layoffs also mean that taxpayers are burdened with helping pay unemployment benefits and some welfare benefits. It also means that teachers, teaching assistants, and others who directly work with student are less able to financially contribute to local business and the economy or to pay the higher level of local, state, and federal taxes they contributed when fully employed.
      Inner city and rural areas do not have the property tax base as the affluent suburbs, but there are numerous costs that are fixed, including buses, and the physical plant. Thus, the burden on individuals is greater in the inner city and rural areas. Some of this is political—the impoverished don’t contribute as much to political campaigns as do the affluent. Because of the failure by the state to provide adequate assistance to local districts, in Pennsylvania the 50 poorest districts have seen a $475 per pupil cut this past year, while the 50 most affluent districts have seen only a $95 cut per pupil, according to data compiled by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) from state documents. This disparity strongly affects the quality of education in the rural and inner city schools.
      The concept of school taxes based upon value of property is archaic and needs to be modified to allow students from the least affluent districts to have the same quality of education as those in the most affluent districts.
      Critics of teachers also wail about the high cost of pensions. In Pennsylvania, the problem is not the teachers, but the failure of the Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, and Tom Corbett administrations to make the minimum payments to the pension system. Wythe Keever of the PSEA suggests that what the three administrations did was similar to consumers who max out their credit cards and refuse to make even the minimum payments.
      There are slackers in the education profession, those who do the minimum work, give high grades, and just shove students along. There are also incompetent teachers who can, and should, be terminated. Contrary to what many believe, tenured teachers can be fired for just cause, as long as their rights are protected. There are slackers and incompetents in every profession. Education isn’t unique.
And, there are some parents who do little to help their children learn as much as possible, who instill a hatred of teachers and education by constantly complaining about overpaid and underworked teachers.
      Starting this Labor Day, it would be nice if those who run a constant criticism would look at the facts—including facts that could suggest better ways to teach our children and to pay for their education. When they do, they will realize that teachers are not overpaid relative to others with the same education and experience, that they work more than the average workers—and only because of unions do teachers have the support to keep education from disintegrating into mediocrity.
     [In a 31-year career as a university professor, Dr. Brasch usually worked about 60 hours a week, as documented by reports mandated by the Pennsylvania legislature. He wasn’t unique. He is the author of 20 books, the most recent of which is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Railroad ‘Bomb Trains’: Speeding to Disaster



by Walter Brasch

      It’s 3 p.m., and you’re cruising down a rural road, doing about 50.
      A quarter mile away is a sign, with flashing yellow lights, alerting you to slow down to 15. It’s a school zone.
      But, you don’t see any children. Besides, you’re going to be late to your racquetball match. So, you just slide on past.
      You’re an independent long-haul trucker. You get paid by the number of miles you drive. If you work just a couple of hours longer every day than the limits set by the federal government—and if you can drive 75 or 80 instead of 65, you can earn more income. You have your uppers and energy drinks, so you believe you should be able to work a couple of hours a day more than the regulations, and drive faster than established speed limits.     Now, let’s pretend you’re the CEO of a railroad. Your trains have been hauling 100 tanker cars of crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in Philadelphia and the Gulf Coast. That’s 100 tankers on each train. A mile long.
    About 90 percent of the 106,000 tanker cars currently in service were built before 2011 when stricter regulations mandated a new design. The older cars are susceptible to leaks, explosions, and fires in derailments. But, because of intense lobbying by the railroads, they are still carrying oil.
      Railroad derailments in the United States last year accounted for more than one million gallons of spilled oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data. The oil pollutes the ground and streams; the fires and explosions pollute the air.
    Most of the derailments threatened public safety and led to evacuation of residential areas. One derailment led to the deaths of 47 persons, the destruction of a business district, and an estimated $2 billion for long-term pollution clean-up and rebuilding of homes and businesses. Three derailments, including one in a residential area of Philadelphia, occurred this past year in Pennsylvania.
      The derailment and explosions of “bomb trains” became so severe that in May the Department of Transportation declared the movement by trains of crude oil  from North Dakota derived by the process known as fracking posed an “imminent hazard.”
      The federal government wants to reduce the speed limit for those trains carrying highly toxic and explosive crude oil.
      If you’re Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific (CP), you say you “don’t know of any incidents with crude that’s being caused by speed,” and then tell your investors, “We don’t get better with speed [reduction]. We get worse.”
      If you’re Charles Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern, you agree completely with your colleague from CN, and say that a higher speed limit is safe.
      If you’re Michael Ward, CEO of freight giant CSX, you say that lower speed limits “severely limit our ability to provide reliable freight service to our customers.”
      You and your fellow CEOs have even had one dozen meetings with White House officials to explain why slower speeds are not in the nation’s best interest. You explain that your railroad should be allowed to determine the best speed for your trains.
      Driving a car through a school zone, you don’t have the right to determine your best speed.
      Driving a truck on interstate highways, you don’t have the right to determine your maximum speed.
      But, if you’re a multi-billion dollar railroad industry, you think you have the right to set the rules.

      [Dr. Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor. He is the author of 20 books, most fusing historical and contemporary social issues. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]