Truthout Stories Fri, 06 Mar 2015 15:12:15 -0500 en-gb Revolutionary Extractivism in Bolivia?

Across Latin America, the boom in oil, gas, and mineral extraction and export—extractivism—has intensified debate about the trade-off between social redistribution and socio-environmental impacts.  In neoliberal countries where violent dispossession is intensified, extractivism is easier to critique. Yet in Bolivia, where recently re-elected President Evo Morales speaks of deepening a socialist project through what we might call 'social' extractivism, the ecological left is often at odds.  Social extractivism uses money (rents) from natural gas and mineral exports to improve public infrastructures and alleviate poverty through redistributive policies. This positions the state in a key economic role and reverses, in some ways, two decades of free-market neoliberalism.  If a lower poverty rate and 61% of the country voting for Evo is any indication, extractivism with a redistributive side has broad popular support. 

So what is to critique?  Critics have argued that extractivism, even with 'social' redistribution, destroys nature, deepens authoritarian politics, and furthers dependence on global capitalist markets. Critics charge that the apparent boom in the present masks the absence of a real economic vision for the future.  In the name of Mother Earth, it follows, extractivism contributes to inalterable ecosystemic ruptures such as global warming. In contrast, those defending social extractivism argue that it is merely an instrument of economic transformation, necessary to address poverty in the present and lay the foundations for a new economy and society in the future. Compared to neoliberal regimes, it follows, Bolivia (and Ecuador) are socially and environmentally progressive, with the state using gas and mineral rents to promote economic diversification through industrialization, new local economies, and education for a post-extractive technology economy. Despite ongoing dependence on global capital, it is argued, this is the path toward twenty-first century socialism. 

The debate has tended to stagnate around this well trodden back-and-forth, but we seek to further the conversation by returning our attention to social movement struggles—key spaces through which creative transformation emerges.  Acknowledging the revolutionary opening created by the MAS, we consider the complicated new terrain of gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic inequities under MAS and "progressive extractivism," question uneven land redistribution and access to resources in rural economies, and explore extractivism's impact on the national labor scenario. Lastly, we conclude by considering the dilemma of North-South engagement and solidarity.

After Revolution, Patriarchy?

The MAS government has opened space for women even as the Morales administration has been criticized for reproducing patriarchal politics.  Morales himself sometimes slips into the machista mode of speech – joking, for instance, about conquering opponents by seducing 'their' women.  Yet the paradoxes of gender and sexuality in the context of extractivism go beyond ways of speaking or the formal inclusion of women.  Certainly on the social and redistributive side, the widespread installation of natural gas lines in urban homes eases the domestic labor of women.  Cash transfers for infant and maternal health, support of the elderly, and grants to schoolchildren have all contributed to women's well-being.

Yet, in structural terms, extractive economies exacerbate gendered inequalities. Extractive regimes, compared to manufacturing and other economic activities, produce relatively few jobs.  Most are semi- and high-skilled jobs that generally go to men.  This repositions women as dependent on male earnings, much like the cash transfers reach women as mothers and wives.  And as redistribution, transfers are significant but small compared to expenditures on the military, universities, regional governments, and municipal governments.  As these more significant expenditures invariably move through masculine circuits of rent circulation the machista world of back-room, alcohol fueled patronage politics – men talking about conquering other men by way of their women – comes full circle.  Thus, even after neoliberalism, natural gas fuels an economic structure and a patriarchal politics that work against gender equity.   

Government policy can exert a counterweight to these structural forces, if there is a real commitment to 'depatriarchalization'.  And, to be sure, coinciding with the structural effects of extractivism, an ideological struggle continues around the politics of liberatory sexuality.  Consider the recent abortion debate sparked by a court challenge from Patricia Mancilla, a MAS legislator.  Reading the new constitution's passage on women's sexual freedom, Mancilla sued for the decriminalization of abortion. Two years of public debate followed, pitting this liberatory challenge against an alliance of evangelicals, the Catholic Church, right-wing parties, and self-proclaimed male revolutionaries of the MAS.  In the end, the court ruled against women.  Against this backdrop, feminist movements have renewed their struggles, even as some maintain critical support for the MAS.  The issues extend into LGBTQ rights, domestic violence, and femicide.  In a recent debate with Vice-President Alvaro García Linera, María Galindo of Mujeres Creando pointed out the ideological poverty of many MAS representatives, such as one who equated homosexuals to "enfermos mentales." As it were, the revolutionary project relies on less-than-revolutionary alliances.  Movements like Mujeres Creando are spreading into youth consciousness through bawdy public irreverence, street theater, graffiti, and media.  Other women-led Indigenous movements like the Bartolina Sisas of the national peasant organization are also organizing around gender, the impacts of extraction, and small-scale agriculture. Women leaders associated with CONAMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) have been active in conflicts over mining and the TIPNIS highway, as well as broader issues like climate justice.  These gendered articulations of cultural struggle and political-economic transformation are a critical point of solidarity and creativity for the ongoing change.

Race and ethnicity are also sites of struggle. The much-heralded embrace of indigenous rights by Evo Morales and the passage of anti-racism laws are a step in the right direction.  In education, the MAS has taken steps that are an affirmative action of sorts.  Yet institutional racism and the daily realities of racist micro-aggressions persist.  In the cities, the anti-racist struggle has expanded through the efforts of young people and intellectuals, including those affiliated with the Observatorio del Racismo. In the rural regions, Indigenous organizations, with some exceptions, broadly support the MAS, but also continue to struggle for territorial rights, autonomy, and full participation as citizens.  Again, the often dismissive attitude toward Indigenous demands displayed by the national oil and gas company and some representatives of the MAS itself, reflects a troubling and familiar coloniality that is still embedded in the extractive project. 


In the formal economy, the position of working people has clearly improved with social extractivism:  The MAS government has increased the minimum wage, decreed double year-end bonuses, and increased public sector wages. Yet things are not all rosy.  Continued talk of the natural gas boom and the nation's robust economic situation tend to heighten expectations and inflationary pressures that fuel demands for wage increases, especially for public sector workers, the most significant segment of the 'formal' economy.  Yearly wage disputes and strikes –by teachers, doctors, police, and army officers – continue.   Although nationalization restored national miners and oil workers unions, outsourcing and subcontracting still characterize the extractive regime's production chains. Conflicts persist between state and non-state mine workers.  The COB (Bolivian Labor Confederation) is – depending on political winds – a sometime ally of the MAS.  Yet the COB remains focused on wage and pension issues in the formal sector, even though most Bolivians—several million in fact—live without access to a formal income.

The government speaks of industrialization and new jobs.  Economic growth and rent circulation have generated much-heralded stories, such as the nouveau riche Aymara bourgeoisie.  Nonetheless, extractivism-fueled growth – 80% of the country's exports – is low-labor growth.  The job-producing non-extractive segments of the economy grow more slowly.  Thus, the percentage of labor in the 'informal' sector has remained stable, at about 65%, for the past decade, leaving people, especially the young, to struggle largely as precarious workers–receiving less than a living wage, no pensions, long hours, and unstable employment. While the increased circulation of cash undoubtedly means that the 'informal' economy may also perceive a boost, young women in particular face a more difficult scenario.  Organized labor is thus a core area of struggle that must incorporate and mobilize young people—especially those on the urban margins—as key agents of transformative thought and action.  Otherwise, amid social extractivism, young people will face more of the future imagined for them by neoliberalism: as pools of cheap exploitable labor, political subjects useful for reactionary mobilization, or surplus bodies to be targeted for criminalization.

Land, Water, and the Future of the Countryside

The dilemma of urban labor is compounded by the expansion of rural agro-industry.  The extractivism debate tends to gloss over how rural social movements continue struggles for land and sustainable economies and communities. Globally, the Via Campesina (global peasant organization) and Landless Peasant Movement (MST-Brazil) have militantly resisted biofuel crop expansion (soy, sugar), arguing that it leads to further environmental degradation and displacement of small-scale farmers.  Even so, soy and sugar are expanding across Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Bolivia has taken steps toward assuring food sovereignty, but movements call for land reform and new models of agriculture, such as smaller scale organic farming. Movements are imagining an alternative socio-economic and political order through "embodied resistance."  Prior to the MAS consolidation of power, this involved occupations of under-productive latifundio (large expanses of land). Self-education, consciousness-raising, and self-organization all contribute to the pursuit of alternative agro-ecological farming settlements.

The landless movement in Bolivia has adopted the Brazilian model and occupied lands in eastern Bolivia.  Here some mobilize the idea of the Andean ayllu – collective landholding patterns and kin relations – to bolster unity.  Against agroindustry's tactics for concentrating power and wealth, rural activists hope that land occupations give rise to alternative economies to reterritorialize the nation, similar to the Zapatistas. Many of MST's ideas have made their way into the new Bolivian constitution. Yet the Bolivian landless must navigate a complex dynamic with the MAS as well as internal tensions between individual and collective property. Movements want to remain independent yet rely on the state for access to seeds and technology. And, as with other political alliances, the MAS has reached a kind of detente with the agro-industrial elite.  This suggests continued soy expansion and the solidification of the agro-industrial model—all of which undermine radical land reform efforts, an ongoing terrain of struggle.

Extractivism on the Ground: Socialism of the State, Neoliberalism at the Well-head?

From Mexico to Chile the extractivism debate has focused most on movements mobilized against or for specific projects.  For instance, in Peru protestors in Cajamarca have challenged the expansion of the open-pit gold mine through demonstrations, road blocks, and strikes and have suffered from much police repression. In contrast, other communities support extractive industries, but demand more social and environmental regulation, mitigation, and compensation.  Yet whether for or against, grassroots mobilization is exploding.  Unsurprisingly, countries like Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, and Paraguay have moved toward the militarization of extractivism and the criminalization of resistance.  Yet even in Bolivia and Ecuador some grassroots activism has been met with violence and a discourse of criminalization.  These struggles will continue, however mitigated they might be by redistributive policies.  Yet more importantly, movements are expanding into issues such as water, food sovereignty, and climate justice.  New articulations – like Bolivia's embryonic Green Party – are emerging.  On questions of water scarcity, Bolivian grassroots organizers in both La Paz and El Alto are leading the way in questioning top-down international solutions and connecting to movements in other countries.

The Alternatives: Returning to the North/South Debate

Can we, as activists, deepen the debate on these issues by exchanging political knowledge and experience across the South and the North?  Is there room for an older model of North-South solidarity?  Or is the struggle and the path to follow now flowing in the other direction?  Movements of the South need support as they experience the impact of global warming on a daily basis.  More than continuing to critique Bolivians' clamor for the benefits of gas, the struggle against the extractive industries in the North, in particular fossil fuels, is the key place to begin. Here, our on-going challenge is also to reinforce the connections between racial and gender inequalities, the gutting of democracy and public space, and militarized extractivism that degrades environments and criminalizes struggle. As the #BlackLivesMatter and #Ayotzinapa movements expand, there are embers of articulation coming from the global climate marches last September.  Movement work to bridge these issues – as is ongoing in Bolivia and elsewhere in the Global South – is crucial. COP 20 of December 2014 in Lima has led to non-action.  The challenge will be to sustain and articulate disruptive and creative grassroots movements across contradictory political scenarios.  In the case of Bolivia, paradoxical as it may seem, fighting fossil fuels in the North while engaging the progressive potential of a sort-of-socialist natural gas-exporting regime in the South – and acting to deepen transformation – seems to define our own less-than-straightforward political path.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 12:44:52 -0500
Highway Agency Sacrifices Safety and the Environment for Cronyism

The wheels have come off the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To fix the agency responsible for making sure cars and trucks are safe and operate cleanly, its new administrator, Mark Rosekind, must begin by closing its revolving door.

From 1984 to 2010, by the Department of Transportation inspector general's count, 40 officials left the safety agency for jobs with automakers, their law firms or auto industry consultants. The group included four administrators, two deputy administrators, seven associate administrators and two chief counsels. In addition, 23 auto industry executives moved into top agency jobs from 1999 to 2010.

Just last year, the head of NHTSA, David Strickland, a key author of strong auto-mileage and emission standards, left the agency to join a law firm representing the auto makers' trade group as NHTSA completed a settlement with one of its members. Rosekind, an expert on human fatigue, replaced him in December.

Faux Vigilance

NHTSA's revolving door creates an unholy alliance between a shut-eyed sentry and the industry from which it is supposed to protect us that raises crucial questions: Are officials less than vigilant so they can land lucrative private positions? Are these ties compromising safety and the fight against global warming?

The results over the past decade make answers to those questions more urgent: at least 265 deaths from General Motors' defective ignitions, faulty air bags in multiple companies' models, sudden acceleration in Toyotas, and Jeep's fuel-system defects. And for nearly 18 years, NHTSA failed to significantly and thus lower tailpipe emissions. Its dereliction of duty spewed carbon into the atmosphere and fed our oil addiction.

Current rules prohibit ex-federal officials from seeking to influence their former agency for two years. But NHTSA's history is so egregious that the federal government should impose a longer cooling-off period to allow connections and competitive information — built on friendships or privileged knowledge — to grow stale. To chill any corporate bias, we propose a prohibition of at least five years.

For at least 30 years beginning in 1979, the auto industry monitor ordered no recalls, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, with which our Safe Climate Campaign is affiliated. Until 2004, NHTSA's fines never reached $1 million — paltry for a multibillion dollar industry.

The sudden spate of 50 million recalls last year and tougher fines, including a record $70 million penalty against Honda for failing to report fatal accidents, only spotlights the long-term failure.

Reluctant Regulator

The agency improved gas mileage standards only when forced to by Congress in 2007 and President Obama in 2009. Now, rules it administers with the Environmental Protection Agency will dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions, the chief climate change pollutant. The administration's auto emissions program, which will deliver a new-car fleet in 2025 that averages 54.5 miles per gallon, is the biggest single step any nation has taken to fight global warming.

But NHTSA staff could have a hard time fighting efforts to weaken those rules when the only machinery that has been well-greased is its revolving door:

It will take a major effort to reform the safety agency, given its industry ties. The new administrator took over with a warning to automakers to do their job on safety and a renewed commitment to improve gas mileage. But he has an equally difficult challenge to ensure that his agency does its job, too.

Opinion Fri, 06 Mar 2015 12:28:52 -0500
Make the Stop Overdose Stat Act a Priority for 2015

It's time for Congress to take an evidence-based and public health focused approach to the epidemic of opioid overdoses.

Opioid overdose is an epidemic in the United States. Drug overdose death rates have more than tripled since 1990, with the vast majority of these deaths attributable to an increase in the prescription and sale of opioid medications. The death rate from heroin overdose doubled between 2010 and 2012, and young people are now more likely to die from drug overdose than from motor vehicle crashes.

These statistics may be surprising, but their causes are familiar – commonly abused prescription opioid medications include names such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, or codeine, as well as the illicit drug heroin, which creates similar pain-relieving effects. Prescription drugs are often considered a "gateway" to heroin use as heroin addiction often begins as a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers.

In March 2014, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) introduced the Stop Overdose Stat (SOS) Act to create a federal plan for preventing fatal drug overdoses and prioritizing community- and state-based efforts for the development of best practices. The SOS Act would provide federal support for overdose prevention programs, which can include training bystanders, law enforcement, and first responders in recognizing signs of overdose, seeking medical assistance, or administering naloxone. Naloxone is a life-saving medication that reverses the effects of heroin or opioid prescription overdose. As of December 2014, twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have removed legal barriers to provider prescription and layperson administration of naloxone. Additionally, 20 states and the District of Columbia have established Good Samaritan protection, which grants immunity from arrest for calling 911 to seek medical assistance in the event of overdose.

The SOS Act, cosponsored by 39 legislators, approaches opioid prevention and treatment through a public health and health equity lens. While no socioeconomic or demographic group is immune to the abuse of prescription drugs or heroin (the most dramatic increases have occurred among white, middle-aged women in rural areas), urban areas with large African American populations are still where the majority of overdoses are happening. The SOS Act would create a grant program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gives priority to community organizations working to prevent overdose in high-risk populations.

The SOS Act would also create a mechanism for detailed reporting of overdose data for the development of best practices for preventing overdose deaths. It would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national plan to be submitted to Congress within 180 days of enactment that incudes a public health campaign, recommendations for expanding overdose prevention programming, and recommendations for legislative action.

The bill was closed out of the 113th Congress, but should be reconsidered in the current session as the issue builds momentum in both Democratic- and Republican-led states. The re-introduction of the SOS Act is an opportunity for Congress to take immediate action in responding to a significant public health issue with a bipartisan solution. States are implementing evidence-based laws to address the worsening overdose epidemic. It is time for the federal government to follow suit.

Opinion Fri, 06 Mar 2015 12:20:59 -0500
So Close and Yet So Far: Exploring the "Real Cuba"
"I know that the vision of Cuba in the United States is of a diabolical country. They portray us as being a country with many difficulties, many problems. However, if you come to Cuba you realize that the world press doesn't tell the whole story. If it did, I would believe that everyone in the States wears a cowboy hat and carries a pistol. But there's more to the story." – Alex Castro (Fidel's son)

Life under blockade is at once both more elemental and more complicated than the frame of reference of the average American. I discovered this firsthand when I lived in Gaza, and again when I traveled to Cuba severalweeks ago with a delegation from CODEPINK.

The two situations are so very different, of course, and yet I found myself repeatedly "connecting the dots": Two territories squeezed for decades by powerful Western/Western-backed countries, resulting in a myriad of hardships that aren't truly understood until you immerse in them yourself.

A few cases in point:

1) One of the comments I heard from a number of people before I left for Cuba was that the U.S. embargo couldn't be that much of a burden, because it only affects American trade. What they do not realize, and that I did not fully understand myself before my visit, is that any product shipped from anywhere that contains at least 10 percent of U.S.-made components – like, say a circuit board or bolts – are banned as well.  Think about it. Not only does that prohibit import of a huge variety of goods and equipment, but how many businesses or governments are even willing to go to that much work to track down the origin of every ingredient? In addition, if a cargo ship visits Cuba, it isn't allowed visit any U.S. port for the following six months. That's a prohibition that makes trade with Cuba far from cost-efficient for most businesses. 

2) Another fact about Cuba that many Americans know, but don't fully understand, is its relative digital isolation. In 2011, roughly 25 percent of Cubans had Internet access, according to the country's National Statistics Office and the International Telecommunication Union. But that number is misleading; it includes people who can only log into government-controlled websites. In that same year, only 5 percent of Cubans actually had open access to the Internet, according to Internet freedom watchdog Freedom House

Home connections are practically nonexistent, and only government officials, academics, doctors, engineers and approved journalists have Internet access at work. For everyone else, there are expensive government-run Internet cafes where an hour of connection can cost US$6-10, a prohibitive amount of money in a country where the average weekly salary is around $20. (Note: In my Havana hotel, by no means ritzy but also not frequented by many Cubans, the cost was "just" $5 an hour.) Why is this the case? Conan O'Brien generated a lot of publicity for becoming the first U.S. late-night talk show host to shoot an episode from Cuba since the embargo began The episode will air on TBS March 4. (The last late-night show to travel to Cuba was "The Tonight Show" in 1959. Host Jack Paar was sharply criticized at the time for interviewing Fidel Castro. Though the embargo hadn't yet begun, U.S.-Cuba relations were extremely shaky. )

O'Brien talked about his experience on "The Daily Show" a couple of nights ago, and he stated that there is NO internet in Cuba because "they" don't want people to have access to information. Obviously, it's not true that Internet is nonexistent. It also is not true that the only reason for the limited connectivity is government censorship. Yes, the latter is true, in part due to paranoia stoked by repeated U.S. attempts at regime change. (The United States has spent $264 million in the last 18 years trying to instigate "democratic reforms" on the island.) However, the low connectivity also can be laid at the feet of the American embargo and its devastating effect on the Cuban economy. Ricardo Alarcon, former head of the Cuban parliament and lead negotiator for the release of the Cuban 5, told us that the Helms-Burton Act, passed in 1996 to impose sanctions on the island nation, prohibits connection to the U.S. undersea fiber optic cable. Cubans thus had to rely on satellite connections that are too slow to be of practical use. It was not until 2010 that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez came to Cuba's rescue and facilitated the construction of a cable between the two countries. It finally came on line in 2013. 

Nonetheless, computers, routers and other equipment continue to be expensive and difficult to obtain. "We have to ration (Internet connections); it is too expensive otherwise," explained Alarcon. "We prioritize businesses and social enterprises. Meanwhile, USAID (U.S. Aid and International Development) spends $20 million on propaganda media (Radio/TV Marti and its own version of Twitter). Why don't they spend it instead on wifi for the people instead?!" 

3) Credit cards cannot be used in Cuba (necessitating the possession of large amounts of cash; one of my fellow travellers left a backpack carrying $2,000 on a sofa overnight and of course it "disappeared") and U.S. telephone services will not work there. That I knew in advance. Bad enough. But I had no idea of the ridiculous extent to which U.S. businesses are forced to take those restrictions. While in Cuba, I went online to check my bank balance; however, I could not even look at my account. When I tried to sign in, I received a notice saying I was barred due to my presence in Cuba and that I should call a toll-free number. But…U.S. phone services don't work in Cuba! Not only was I shut out from my account, but my credit/debit card was disabled. Two payments I had tied to my account "bounced," and I received somewhat threatening phone calls from a company that now considered me a "scofflaw." Yet I can travel to Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan without so much as a blink.

With hardships such as these, it's not surprising that many youth in Cuba, like those in Gaza, look for opportunity abroad. The GDP of the country is on par with Botswana and monthly salaries averaged US$20 a month. Queues to receive bread rations are common. (It used to be a lot worse, though. Many of the people we met spoke of the "Special Period" — more like "The Illness," as one individual called it — when the Soviet Union collapsed and left Cuba without its patron. It was a period of "nothingness," said one of our guides – a time when cupboards were bare, the average Cuban lost 10 pounds and transportation was difficult if not impossible. That's one reason why Cuba is known for its vintage old cars; parts were and still are simply unavailable, so they make "old" last. 

It wasn't until Hugo Chavez of Venezuela stepped in with aid that Cuba truly began to recover. (However, several officials told us, Cuba has learned an important lesson: never rely too much on one country.)  

Soon, hopefully, many of the worst aspects of the U.S. embargo will end. Negotiations have begun between delegations from the two countries, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the process of evaluating whether Cuba should be removed from the American list of states that sponsor terrorism has begun. But don't be deceived. As Kenia Serrano Puig, spokesperson for the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, told us, "The U.S. still seems intent on achieving the same goals by other methods." 

It's easy to understand why. A small group from CODEPINK met with U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Conrad Tribble. Among the points he made: 1) The return of Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base-turned-torture-center on Cuban property, is not important and is "off the table." (Yet, he could not cite a legal basis for continuing  U.S. control.) 2) Only products and services from the Cuban private sector – which account for 18 percent of the country's GDP – will be permissible imports. And on top of that, there are many other restrictions.

"So, the State Department will let Cuba export to the U.S. anything made without any input from the Cuban government, except anything that's animal, vegetable, mineral or constituted by other materials found on the planet earth," wrote David Swanson, one of my fellow travelers, sarcastically.

In other words, through our economic policy for trade (instead of our previous attempts at "regime change"), we hope to bring about a conversion to a more capitalist, privatized, U.S.-market-friendly state.

"Normalized relations are better than being on the verge of war," noted Serrano Puig. "But no one has the right to tell us what to do. We are 11 million Cubans with our own brains. We have the right to think for ourselves, including the right to be wrong."

Alarcon echoed her. "Cuba is not open for sale. When we resume relations, it will be on terms we accept."

They have a right to be proud. Yes, in many ways the Cuban revolution has not lived up to its stated goals and the people's hopes. (Very few do.) Inefficient bureaucracy abounds. Censorship and suppression of political dissent is real, although it waxes, wanes and evolves. Inequality and racism persist.  But there are many other characteristics from which we could learn and benefit. For example:

Women have achieved a greater degree of equality than in many areas of the rest of the world – including the United States. Forty-eight percent of the members of the Cuban parliament are women. In the U.S. Congress, there are not yet even 20. The same representation of women is found at the provincial and municipal levels. Equal pay for equal work is mandated and all women receive one year of paid maternity leave. (Since 2003, men have been offered the same benefit if it makes more sense for them to stay at home.) 

Arts and culture are highly valued, and thus lessons in everything from ballet to guitar are offered free or at nominal charge. Likewise, performances and exhibits are priced to be accessible to the masses, with admission free or as low as $2. 

Education is equally prioritized. Cuba's highly successful literacy campaign is well known. In 1959, Cuba's literacy rate was 60-76 percent, largely because of lack of educational access in rural areas and a shortage of instructors. At the behest of Che Guevara, the government of Fidel Castro named1961 the "year of education" and sent literacy brigades into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators and teach the predominately illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write. By the completion of the campaign, 707,212 adults were taught to read and write, raising the national literacy rate to 96 percent. That tradition continues today, with the Cuban government heavily subsidizing the price of books to make them affordable to all. (That is possible through state-sponsorship of publishers, which does mean a certain amount of control over the titles available.)

While we were in Cuba, its international book was held across the country. The fair travels to every province, attracting an estimated 1 million people of all ages and authors of more than 1,000 books from 35 countries. There were literally long lines of people waiting to buy books – a rare sight in the United States.

"The book is one of the most important symbols of our revolution," said Zuleika Roman, president of the Cuban Book Institute and a member of the parliament. "Families may be poor, but they are admired because of their knowledge and how they make use of it."

Cuba is renowned for its free, widely available health care. People there live as long as their counterparts in much richer countries. According to data from the World Bank, life expectancy for someone born in Cuba in 2011 was 79 years, just a little longer than that of an infant born in the United States the same year. But the U.S. economy is more than eight times larger, per person, than Cuba's. Cuba also stands out in other measures of healthiness. The low percentage of children who die before the age of 5 is similarly unusual, especially in the Americas.

The country's success, and its good relations in the region, is in part due to its decision to make medical education and care widely accessible. We visited its Latin American School of Medicine, for example, which is possibly the largest medical school in the world (enrollment was approximately 19,550 students from 110 countries in 2013).

All those enrolled are international students from outside Cuba, including Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia – and the United States. And guess what? Tuition, accommodation and board are free, and a small living stipend is paid to students.

Cuban politicians (at least the ones who addressed us) are amazingly candid and straightforward – a brazenness perhaps born of the country's long rejection by a superpower in its own backyard. For example, Mariela Castro, daughter of current president Raul and a member of the parliament, spoke to our group about her National Sex Education Center, for which she serves as director.  She talked freely (in Spanish, through an interpreter) about her fight against the "macho" culture (referring bluntly to "men and their penises") and her discussions with adolescents about experiencing joy through creative sex rather than turning to pornography. If an American politician was anywhere near that honest and uninhibited, he or she would be front-page news and out of a job.

Cuba certainly faces new challenges as it increases space for private business and thus more opportunities for jobs and individual initiative, as well as opens up to American trade. The current government knows this, and is intent on continuing to evolve while retaining its socialist identity. And it will continue to need "tourists with consciences" like the CODEPINK group.

"We still need as much solidarity as possible," said Serrano Puig, who credits the 152 solidarity movements around the world with helping the Cuba revolution survive. "Please don't give up!"

Opinion Fri, 06 Mar 2015 12:13:39 -0500
"Missing Plastic" in the Oceans Can Be Found Below the Surface

The world's ocean contains trillions of plastic fragments coming from packaging, fishing gear and other synthetic objects that break down at sea over time.

Most of what is known about these ocean plastics comes from surface net sampling, where the top 15cm of water is filtered to collect particles larger than 0.3mm.

Now we have published the first ever high-resolution depth profiles of ocean plastics in the journal Biogeosciences and data repository Figshare.

Most of the submerged plastics were very small – less than 1 mm across. Previous studies had noticed that tiny plastics were missing from the oceans.

We show that at least a fraction of this missing plastic is still adrift at sea, but at depths greater than the surface layer that is usually sampled by scientists.

A better characterisation of the vertical distribution of marine plastic pollution will improve predictions of plastic loads, particle sizes, and ecological impacts in the world's oceans.

Vertical Distribution of Buoyant Plastics

Buoyant plastics can be pushed underwater by the turbulence created by wind and waves. Models predict that the number of plastic particles decreases abruptly over the first few meters of the water column. However, until now, no subsurface measurements existed to test this prediction.

We developed a new device that collects samples from the sea surface at 50cm intervals, down to a depth of 5 meters. This device was used to sample one of the world's major plastic pollution hotspots: the North Atlantic "garbage patch".

Buoyant plastics were concentrated at the sea surface, with both numerical and mass concentrations decreasing exponentially with water depth. Nevertheless, under stronger winds this decrease was less abrupt. Our results match relatively well with those predicted by scientific models.

Look Below the Sea Surface

The speed in which buoyant plastics return to the sea surface after being pushed into deeper waters by turbulence is an important parameter for predicting the depth profiles of marine plastic pollution. We found that smaller plastics present lower rising speeds, being therefore more susceptible to transport into deeper layers.

Even under light wind conditions, many of the tiniest plastics were still hidden underwater. This indicates that previous studies using surface-only samples are biased towards larger plastic pieces.

Two major studies last year headed by ocean scientists Andres Cózar and Marcus Eriksen both concluded that there are major losses of small plastics from oceans. We show that at least a fraction of this "missing" plastic is just under the sea surface.

More at-sea and experimental work is required to further quantify this effect and develop models capable of estimating depth-integrated size distribution of buoyant plastics drifting at sea.

What's Next?

Samples of ocean plastics from below the surface are still very scarce. Further multi-level sampling is extremely important to help us estimate how much plastic is actually in our oceans, and understand its ecological impacts.

Knowing how deep plastics go will help determine the chance of animals inhabiting different depths to encounter and interact with plastic items. For instance, sea birds, turtles, and mammals, which breathe air and use the sea surface for daily activities, present high rates of plastic ingestion and entanglement.

Ocean plastics are also enhancing ocean drift opportunities and causing damage to biota and habitats. Plastic items harbour organisms such as microbes, invertebrates and fish, which can disperse across oceans and potentially invade non-native habitats.

We emphasise that estimates on the amounts and impacts of plastic pollution across the oceans, both in coastal and oceanic environments, are urgently required. Such research is crucial to better inform those aiming to reduce the flow of plastics entering this environment, and develop mitigation strategies for this worldwide problem.

Disclosure Statement: Julia Reisser received funding and support from the University of Western Australia and CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship. The data reported here was collected aboard sailing vessel Sea Dragon, from Pangaea Exploration. She is now working as an oceanographer at The Ocean Cleanup Foundation. Charitha Pattiaratchi receives funding from the Intergrated Marine Observing System and Bushfire Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Maira Proietti received funding from The Rufford Foundation.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:59:31 -0500
February's Strongest Wage Growth in Lowest Paying Sectors

The labor market had another strong month in February, with employers adding 295,000 jobs in the month. While there were small downward revisions to the January numbers, this still left the three month average at 288,000 jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.5 percent, its lowest level since May of 2008, the early days of the recession. The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) remained at 59.3 percent, more than 3.0 percentage points below its pre-recession level.

The February performance is especially impressive given that an unusually severe winter might have been expected to dampen job growth, especially in sectors like construction and restaurants. Construction added 29,000 jobs and restaurants added an extraordinary 58,700 jobs. Of course, some of the weather effect may show up in the March data, since the worst weather came towards the end of the month, after the reference week for the survey.

The gain in construction brings the average over the last four months to 38,000 jobs. This comes to a 7.5 percent annual growth rate in a context where reported construction spending has been relatively flat. This suggests that there could be some serious measurement issues in the data. Manufacturing employment growth slowed to 8,000 after averaging 28,000 the prior three months. Retail continues to show strong growth, adding 32,000 jobs, bringing its average since August to 29,900. The professional and technical services category, which tends to be higher paying, again showed strong growth, adding 31,800. This is roughly even with its 30,800 average over the last four months.

There were some anomalies in the data that are likely to be reversed. The courier sector added 12,300 jobs, while education services reportedly added 21,300 jobs. Data in both sectors are highly erratic and almost certain to be largely reversed in future months. The temp sector lost 7,800 jobs in February, its second consecutive decline. Health care job growth fell back to 23,800, compared to an average of 39,250 over the prior four months. The 58,700 jobs added in the restaurant sector was the largest monthly gain since November of 2000.

The data in the household survey was mostly positive. Involuntary part-time employment fell by another 175,000 in February and is now 570,000 below its year-ago level. There was a small rise in the number of people who have voluntarily chosen to work part-time. It is now 750,000 above its year-ago level and almost 900,000 higher than in February of 2013, before the exchanges from the Affordable Care Act came into existence.

The percentage of people unemployed because they voluntarily quit their job rose from 9.5 percent to 10.2 percent, its highest level since May of 2008. This is still close to 2.0 percentage points below the pre-recession levels.

The recovery continues to disproportionately benefit less educated workers. The unemployment rate for workers without a high school degree edged down by 0.1 percentage point to 8.4 percent, 1.4 percentage points below its year-ago level.  The current unemployment rate for this least educated group of workers is roughly a percentage point above its pre-recession level, while the unemployment rate for college grads is 0.7 percentage points higher at 2.7 percent. However, the contrast in EPOP is striking. The EPOP for workers without high school degrees is down by roughly a percentage point from its pre-recession level, while the EPOP for college grads is down by close to four percentage points.


Reported wage growth for the month was weak, as expected, following a large reported gain in January. Taking the average for the last three months compared to the prior three months, the annual rate of growth was just 1.8 percent, down from 2.0 percent over the last year. The data on wage growth continue to indicate there is still a large amount of slack in the labor market. There is some evidence of more rapid wage growth in the lowest paying sectors, which is to be expected as workers can increasingly find better jobs elsewhere, but higher-paying sectors continue to show very weak wage growth.

If the economy can sustain job growth in the neighborhood of 300,000 per month, by the end of the year we may start seeing substantial wage gains.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:41:11 -0500
Jihadi John Unmasked: Did UK Security Agencies Play a Role in ISIS Militant's Radicalization?

We look at the strange case of the man nicknamed Jihadi John, the Islamic State militant seen in the beheading videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Last week, press accounts identified him as a Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi who was originally from Kuwait. Emwazi moved to Britain as a child and studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The story has touched off a debate in Britain over policing and monitoring of potential threats. How did Emwazi go from being a university student in Britain to being the face of the Islamic State? Did British security services play a role in his radicalization? We are joined by Asim Qureshi of the British prisoner group CAGE, who knew Emwazi until he left Britain for good in 2012.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the case of the Islamist militant nicknamed "Jihadi John." He first came to prominence in beheading videos released by the Islamic State. We'll have that clip for you in a moment. Last week, press accounts identified the man known as Jihadi John as a Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi who was originally from Kuwait. Emwazi moved to Britain as a child and studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The story has touched off a debate in Britain over policing and monitoring of potential threats. A big question remains over when and how Emwazi became radicalized. According to British government accounts, Emwazi was a member of a network in contact with one of the men convicted of trying to bomb the London Underground in 2005. He was also believed to be part of a group involved in procuring funds and equipment "for terrorism-related purposes" in Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: But the prisoner advocacy group, CAGE, has presented a different side of the story. They say Emwazi became radicalized after years of harassment by British security agencies who attempted to recruit him as a spy. In 2009, Emwazi approached CAGE after he was detained and interrogated by the British intelligence agency, MI5, on what he called a safari vacation in Tanzania. In 2010, after Emwazi was barred from returning to Kuwait, he wrote, quote, "I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London," he wrote. CAGE posted audio of Emwazi recounting an interrogation by a British agent in 2009. In the recording, Emwazi describes how he condemned 9/11 and the deadly July 7, 2005, attacks on the London subway.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: I looked at him face to face now, and then he looked at me, and he said, "Mohammed?" I said, "Yes?" He goes, "What do you think of 7/7?" I said, "Man, innocent people have died, man. What do you think? I think this is extremism." He said, "OK, what do you think of the war in Afghanistan?" I said, "What do I think? You know, we see the news. Innocent people are getting killed." Then he started telling me, "What do you think of 9/11?" I told him, "This is a wrong thing. What happened was wrong. You know, what do you want me to say? If I had the opportunity for those lives to come back, then I would make those lives come back. You know, I don't think there's—I think what happened is wrong."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mohammed Emwazi, speaking to CAGE. And this is a video of him last year in a beheading video released by the Islamic State.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings in Amerli, Zumar and the Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. You, Obama, have yet again, through your actions, killed yet another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about Mohammed Emwazi, we go to London to speak with Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE. He had been in regular contact with Emwazi 'til he left Britain in 2012.

Asim, welcome to Democracy Now! When you heard that video, you know, well before he was identified by security, did you wonder if it was Emwazi, since you knew him?

ASIM QURESHI: No, I didn't have any idea it was him until the reporter from The Washington Post suggested to me that the two men might be the same and then played me the video. Then, I felt that there was some striking similarities between. But even then, I couldn't be certain.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us who Mohammed Emwazi was, when you came to know him, and tell us the story that he told you of what was happening to him over the years.

ASIM QURESHI: Sure, absolutely. Look, what we have to remember is that when Ethiopia invaded Somalia at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, what happened was that the U.K. security agencies made some assumptions about the threats that might be posed to the U.K., so they started becoming worried about those people who hailed from the Horn of Africa region, but also those who were traveling to that region, as well. So what you saw was a large number of men, who were traveling to, for example, Kenya or Tanzania or other countries nearby, being stopped. For those Somalis who were even traveling to Somalia, young men, they were also getting stopped, as well, and questioned a great deal. What was happening on the streets of London was that MI5 and other kind of members of the security apparatus were going—combing through these communities, suggesting to these individuals that they thought they were extremists or that they thought that they had acquaintances that were problematic, but also trying to recruit them to spy, to turn—to become spies within their communities. So this was the environment that had been created post-2007.

Now, when Mohammed Emwazi and his two friends went to Tanzania, they went very much in that environment, as well. And while they were there in Tanzania, they're detained by the Tanzanian authorities, who tell them that "We were told to stop you by the British and send you back." They're then deported back to Holland, where they had a transit, and then subsequently on to the U.K. But both in the Netherlands, where they were stopped, and in the U.K., they were questioned by British security officials from MI5. And, you know, a lot of those conversations were quite strange for these young men. So, in the case of Mohammed Emwazi, they were obviously trying to suggest that he was trying to go to al-Shabab in Somalia. Mohammed's response was: "There's an entire country, Kenya, that's between Tanzania and Somalia. You know, like, how could you be suggesting such a thing about me?" I mean, this is obviously from what he was telling me.

But then, what I think really convinced Mohammed that this was some kind of fishing expedition and a way of trying to turn him as an individual, they said, "Look, Mohammed, we've spoken to your fiancée in Kuwait. We've spoken to her family. You know, we've met them, and, you know, they know about the fact that you're on our radar," and whatever else. So, MI5's questioning resulted in his engagement having been broken off. But, I mean, specifically what it told Mohammed was that, well, actually, they knew all along that I had no intention to go to al-Shabab, because they knew that I was trying to build a future for myself, a life for myself in Kuwait.

And then, after this whole period where he comes back to the U.K., then what happens is that, you know, first, he tells me the story of what happened there with the deportation from Tanzania, but then he gets in contact because whatever efforts he's making to build a life for himself in Kuwait are being stopped, you know, on the face of it, by the Kuwaiti authorities, but from information he received from Kuwait, it was at the behest of the British. At no point was he ever arrested or charged with any crimes. And, you know, at the moment, we still haven't seen any actual evidence to suggest he had ever been involved in any wrongdoing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Asim, when did he, Mohammed Emwazi, first get in touch with you? It was in 2009? And you maintained a correspondence with him 'til 2012, is that right?

ASIM QURESHI: That's correct, yes. You know, and once again, that correspondence, you know, we published it online on the CAGE website. You can see that he's trying to use all the mechanisms of state in order to change the situation that he has. He was—he did work out in Kuwait for about an eight-month period. But when his father requested he come back to the U.K. for a week in order to help him with some family matters, when he tried to return to Kuwait, that's when this block happened. So we put him in touch with lawyers. We put him in touch with politicians, to his embassy, you know, tried to encourage him to use diplomatic means to get this resolved. We even introduced him to a journalist in order to publicly raise awareness about, you know, the difficulties he was having. And what's really, really interesting about all of that communication is how willing he is, in order to try and use the mechanisms of state, to bring about a change in his situation. You know, I think—and that's something that hasn't been really focused on here in the U.K., at least within the media. But this is a young man who didn't just let it go. He was trying very, very hard to bring about a change in his situation within the confines of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's return to the words of Mohammed Emwazi, or Jihadi John. In this section of the audio that your group released, CAGE, he recounts what he said when he—when asked his opinion about—his opinion about Jews, as well as Islam. He also explains how the agent responded at the end of the interrogation.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: And then he's asking me, "What do you think of the Jews?" just like [inaudible]. I told him, "Look, they're a religion. Everyone has got his right to his own belief. I can't—I don't force no one." So he's just trying to—he wants to know about my background, about my Aqidah, my creed, in Islam. So, I told him, "This is how Islam is. We don't force anyone to come into religion. You know, everyone's got their own right." And I don't think—I don't believe—and I told him everything that's been happening is extreme. And anything that bombs they're all from extremists. And then—and then, so after all of this, he came back, and he looked at me, and he said, "I still believe that you're going to Somalia to train." I said, "After what I just told you, after, you know, I told you that what's happening is extremism, this and that, and you're still suggesting that I'm an extremist?" And he said, "Yeah," and he just started, you know, going on, forcing—trying to put words into my mouth, saying, "No, you're doing this, this, this and this, and we're going to keep a close eye on you, Mohammed. We already have been. We're going to keep a close eye on you," threatening me. And, you know, I just went out.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was a recording that CAGE made with Mohammed Emwazi when you were first talking to him. If you could comment on that? And then, what happened in 2012? You said you were in, you know, email contact with him. You were corresponding with him. Did he just abruptly stop? And was this was the point where he went on to the—to ISIS?

ASIM QURESHI: Well, the reason why Mohammed and his friends first came to me was because they had seen our involvement in raising the profiles of other individuals within his community that had been harassed, for the reasons that I set out already. You know, so they came to us. And at that time, you know, speaking to them, meeting them, I found that these young men seemed to be very, very genuine about their indignation about the way that they had been treated. They genuinely were giving me the impression, at least, that a wrongdoing had happened against them. You know, it didn't seem contrived at all, in any way. So this was, I think, quite important—for me, at least, anyway—that I felt like these were young men who needed help, they needed assistance, and who also wanted to register and log their story, because they had seen what was happening with others in their community, as well. So that was, you know, quite important.

And, you know, key to that was this idea that I never actually felt any kind of—them expressing any opinions or any beliefs that I thought, well, you know, that's a bit controversial, or that's unlawful in some way, or that might speak to a certain mindset, especially a mindset that would, you know, further down the line, potentially, go and join the Islamic State. I didn't see any of those markers. And I'm somebody who's dealing with the Muslim community all the time. People are very honest with me about their opinions, about what they believe in, even those who are sympathetic to ISIS and who are critical against the approaches that I take, which is to kind of work within the law and work within the system. They don't have any difficulty in expressing their views and beliefs to me. So, you know, I don't think that these young men were being contrived in any way.

But, I mean, going forward, that email communication happens for quite some time, until January 2012, which is the last time I met him. But, you know, I'm not sure why it is that he didn't come back to me again after that, because it's not until August 2013 that he actually leaves the U.K. But even in that one-and-a-half-year period, he's still trying to make efforts behind the scenes, which I was to find out later from the family.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I'd like to ask about your exchange earlier this week with London Mayor Boris Johnson on his LBC phone-in show. The mayor criticized your position on Mohammed Emwazi. This is part of what he said.

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: I really—I really, really think that the focus of your indignation and your outrage should be on people who go out to join groups that throw gays off cliffs, that behead people who don't subscribe to their version of Islam, that glorify in the execution of innocent journalists and aid workers. They should be the object of your wrath, not the security services, who are trying to keep us safe.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was London's mayor, Boris Johnson, speaking earlier this week to you. So, could you respond to what he said? And also, you say that when you spoke to and you were in touch with Mohammed Emwazi, you saw no indications, no markers of a potential radicalization. So, in your view, what happened in that period of time? Because it's quite a dramatic shift then from 2009 to 2014 and where we ended up seeing him go.

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, to deal with the statement by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, first, you know, we feel that our position hasn't been understood. We have a great deal of indignation for anybody who has carried out acts of arbitrary detention, torture, rendition, extrajudicial killings, you know, wherever they—if that includes ISIS, then, yes, for them. If that includes Jihadi John, then, yes, you know, that is our position. But that includes everybody. Our work started with the orange jumpsuits in Guantánamo Bay and our desire to see an end to—you know, to see an end of the Geneva Conventions being flaunted by the U.S. government. So when we saw those same orange jumpsuits being used by ISIS in Iraq, we felt like we had a responsibility, as a consequence of the war on terror, to speak out where we felt that there were wrongdoings taking place. So I think that the London mayor has really tried to fudge the issue.

What we want to know about the security agencies is there is a period that Mohammed Emwazi is in the U.K. where he feels like he is constantly under threat, that he is constantly being harassed. And his communications, not only with me, but also with the reporter who he was having other email exchanges with, you know, they really show and speak to a certain mindset that, you know, increasingly, he was of the opinion that he had no place to belong in this society. And that's the question that we at CAGE are asking, you know, that in this period, what is it about his interactions with the security agencies that made him feel like he did not belong? And the reason why we want to ask that question is because if that contributed to him leaving the U.K. and then trying to find a sense of belonging elsewhere—say, for example, with the Islamic State—then we want to learn lessons from that, so our youth here in the U.K. don't repeat that process if they're going through similar forms of harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you something. It's not only the London mayor who has attacked CAGE, as you raise these questions, but Amnesty International said earlier this week it's considering severing links with CAGE. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, put out a statement saying, "We are currently undergoing a review of our policy regarding any future association with the group Cage." In 2010, Gita Sahgal left a senior position at Amnesty over the group's association with your group, with CAGE. Following this controversy over Jihadi John, Sahgal said, quote, "This is active promotion of a certain form of jihadism. There was an atmosphere where you were basically bound to see these not simply as people who were facing human rights violations, but people who should be listened to and followed. That's very disturbing." Can you respond to what she said?

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, you know, that's completely incorrect and, you know, trying to mischaracterize what we're trying to do here and the very important points that we're trying to raise. Gita Sahgal has always tried to attack the personalities rather than taking on the issues that we're raising and the very important points that we're trying to make.

I mean, in terms of Amnesty International, of course, you know, Amnesty is an organization that we've worked with closely in the past. We've worked with them on a number of different projects. But it's up to them whether or not they wish to continue working with us. As for us, we're going to just carry on doing our work, working with our communities that do feel that they are being placed under undue suspicion, that are being abused by many different apparatus of the state. And so, we have a responsibility to them to keep on working. If others wish to work cooperatively with us, then, you know, we welcome them, whoever they are, you know, whichever part of society they come from.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Asim, were you surprised that Mohammed Emwazi is Jihadi John?

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, at the moment, it's still an allegation, and I really hope it turns out to be untrue. But if it is, then, yeah, I'm not just surprised. It, you know, really saddens me, and I'm quite, quite disgusted by that.

AMY GOODMAN: Asim Qureshi, I want to thank you for being with us, research director at the London-based prisoner advocacy group, CAGE, joining us from London.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go back 40 years, 1971, more than 40 years, to the uprising at Attica, but we also look at what is happening at that prison today—the beating of a young prisoner, who was almost beaten the death in 2011. Today, just before the prison guards' trial, they pleaded guilty. They will not serve time in jail. Stay with us.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:31:53 -0500
Attica's Ghosts: New Calls to Close Site of Prison Revolt After Guards Avoid Jail for Brutal Abuse

Over four decades after the infamous Attica prison uprising, we look at the savage conditions inside the New York facility where three guards nearly beat a prisoner to death in 2011. The guards were charged for the attack, but just before the trial was to begin, they all have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and will not serve jail time. This marks the first time a prison guard in New York has been criminally charged with a nonsexual assault of a prisoner, and it's also the first time in state history a guard has pleaded guilty to committing an unauthorized violent act against a prisoner while on duty. More than 2,200 men are walled inside Attica, and reports of guards using force against them are up 25 percent in the last four years. The maximum security prison has few security cameras, and prosecutors in the case say this has let guards and prisoners get away with violence. Critics have called for the prison's closure. We speak to reporter Tom Robbins of The Marshall Project, whose investigation of the guards' case was published in collaboration with The New York Times; and former Attica prisoner Antonio Yarbough, who served 20 years for a triple murder but was exonerated last year.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: More than four decades after the notorious 1971 prison uprising, the upstate New York prison, Attica, is back in the news this week. Three guards at Attica prison have pleaded guilty to brutally beating an inmate, but they themselves will not spend time behind bars. Sergeant Sean Warner, Officer Keith Swack and Officer Matthew Rademacher are accused of breaking both legs of George Williams, as well as his shoulder, his eye socket and his ribs. The beating took place three years ago in front of other prisoners, but it only came to light when Williams had to be taken to a hospital outside Attica to treat his injuries. On Monday, each guard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misconduct. In exchange for quitting their jobs, they were spared any jail time. They will also be allowed to keep their pensions. This marks the first time a prison guard in New York has been criminally charged with a nonsexual assault of a prisoner. It's also the first time in state history a guard has pleaded guilty to committing an unauthorized violent act against a prisoner while on duty.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 2,200 men are walled inside Attica, and reports of guards using force against them are up 25 percent in the last four years. The maximum security prison has few security cameras. Prosecutors in the case say this has let guards and prisoners get away with violence. This is First Assistant District Attorney Vincent Hemming of Wyoming County in New York.

VINCENT HEMMING: I do not fathom why we don't have cameras in the hallways of Attica, in blocks of Attica. Cameras in Attica will protect both Attica inmates, and it will protect corrections officers. But it will protect the truth more than anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, others have called for Attica prison to be shut down. This comes as a fourth officer who beat Williams saw his charges dropped after he testified before a grand jury, and is now back to work at his old job.

All of this is detailed in an explosive new investigation headlined "A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica's Ghosts: A Prison, Infamous for Bloodshed, Faces a Reckoning as Guards Go on Trial." It was reported by our guest, Tom Robbins, with The Marshall Project, published in collaboration with The New York Times, a big front-page spread on Sunday. The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news outlet focused on criminal justice issues, named after the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

We're also joined by Antonio Yarbough, who served 20 years at Attica prison. He was convicted for a triple murder he did not commit, was released last year after he was fully exonerated.

We welcome both of you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Tom, let's begin with you on the Williams case. Just lay it out for us.

TOM ROBBINS: This was an incident in the summer of 2011 that took place on C Block, which, Antonio will tell you, is one of the toughest places in Attica, an already very tough maximum security prison. And guards went to the cell of George Williams, 29-year-old from New Jersey, who was serving a two-to-four-year sentence for robbing a couple of jewelry stores, and took him down the hall to a day room and told him that they were bringing him there for a drug test. And as he was walking into the room, all of a sudden he felt someone clobber him on the ribs on the right side, knocked him to the ground, and then he was all of a sudden assaulted by and pummeled by kicks and batons. And he said somebody jumped on his ankle. He said he opened his eyes at one point and saw an officer taking a step back, aiming a kick at his face, like—he said it was like getting a football punter. I mean, an incredibly brutal beating, that his screams pleading for his life were so loud that inmates two floors below heard him. People I talked to at Attica said, "Yeah, we heard him that night." About a day later, after he was—he was taken to the solitary, initially, and then he was told—

AMY GOODMAN: Didn't the guard there say—

TOM ROBBINS: Guard there said, you know, "We're not going to take him in here like that. We're going to send you to the infirmary." And at the infirmary, a nurse said, "We can't handle him here. You've got to go to an outside hospital." And at the hospital, doctors had to use a plate and six screws to reset one of his legs. He was operated on.

And the thing that happened that was different with this case was that an investigation began. And the investigation was began by the Department of Corrections inspector general, but then state police joined it. And it led, ultimately, to criminal charges filed by the district attorney in Wyoming County, where Attica is located, this small rural community up there near Buffalo. And they charged three—four officers, initially, with gang assault, which is a statute that's normally used against gangs inside a prison—Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings, whatnot. And they faced up to 25 years on that. There were also charged with felony counts of evidence tampering and misfilings. And the case lingered for about three years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the officers claimed the justification for the beating was what? The suspicion that he had weapons on him?

TOM ROBBINS: Yes, that was the officers' account.

AMY GOODMAN: But what did prisoners see? I mean, they did this right in front of a number of prisoners, right? Who were—

TOM ROBBINS: There were prisoners located across the hall from the day room, that they were able to see what was going on. And the prisoners described that they jumped on him as soon as he came into the day room. One of them said that he counted as many as 50 kicks and a dozen thwacks from these long batons that the officers carry. And another one said that when he was—George Williams was picked up because he couldn't walk, he thought he was wearing a red shirt and then realized that he was just drenched in blood. They also saw him brought to the stairs. And when Williams said, "I can't walk down the stairs, my ankles are broken," he was shoved from behind. And he was handcuffed at the time, so he fell down.

And at the bottom of the stairs—I'm sorry, this story gets worse. At the bottom of the stairs, someone grabbed his head and smashed it against the wall, and they left him standing there for quite a long time, until—one of the rules in Attica when you're taken to solitary, which was where they were going to take him next, is that there's supposed to be a camera crew that records it. It's supposed to be a separate detail of guards. And he heard them shout, "The cameras are coming." And then one of the guards picked up what George Williams said was a dirty, wet mop and wiped his face to wipe the blood off it before he was taken to the solitary.

I mean, it's just—it's such a gruesome story. And yet, what really struck me in the time that I spent in Attica getting this story was that it's not surprising to the inmates there. They said it happens all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain how it went from charges, felony charges of this gang assault, to they won't be serving any time in jail, just this week, this plea bargain.

TOM ROBBINS: There were innumerable hearings and changes in the case over the last three years. Initially, it was thrown out on a technicality. It was re-presented to a new grand jury by the district attorney up there. Finally, ready for trial this past week, and at the last minute, the defendants decided that they would take a deal, that had been on the table, actually, for more than two years, that provided, as you said, for them no jail time in exchange for pleading guilty and quitting their jobs. Essentially, the criminal sanction is very little. When I jumped a turnstile when I was a kid, I got a conditional discharge, as long as I stayed out of trouble for a year. I didn't lose my job. But the district attorney in Wyoming County was the first one to ever bring this case. It's not popular amongst the constituents who elect him, so it definitely took some nerve for him to do it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was George Williams's reaction to the settlement, so far as you know?

TOM ROBBINS: He's clearly disappointed that there was no jail time, but I think he's relieved to put this behind him at this point. I don't think he was looking forward to being on the stand and being grilled by top defense attorneys, which the union had helped these guards raise funds for them, who were all set to grill George and other inmate witnesses.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to the history of Attica, Antonio Yarbough, you're quoted in Tom's piece. You were at Attica for how long?


AMY GOODMAN: The full two decades.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Two decades, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Convicted of a triple murder, then fully exonerated and released.


AMY GOODMAN: The C Block that Tom's describing—


AMY GOODMAN: —you lived on.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: No, actually, I lived in D Block, but I also spent time in C Block, A Block. But it depends the type of program that you want to select while you're there, puts you whatever block that they put you in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what was the D Block that you were in?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: D Block, I worked in a metal shop. You could work as a porter, or you could work as school porter or something like that. C Block, you know, is more notorious, so nobody really wants to go there. It's the laundry and the hospital that, you know, you go there and work there, if you want to be in C Block, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you describe what the conditions were in Attica for those 20 years?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Oh, my goodness. It's like he—like Tom was saying. It's a horrifying situation, because you wake up not knowing what today is going to bring you. And when I mean "what today is going to bring you," not what the person that you're locked next door to, but what the officers, because they have this culture there that, you know, there's this attitude that everybody that comes from the city—I come from the city, the five boroughs, you know what I'm saying—either they're slicksters or they're gang members or, you know, they're there for what the paper says that they're there for. And the majority of the time, none of it is true, or half of it is true.

And, you know, so from straight out the gate, they let you know what type of situation that you're coming into. And they let you know you're coming into a vile situation, whereas that if you come in there—one of the first speeches I ever got was: "If you eff up,"—excuse me, I don't want to curse, but—"If you eff up, you're going to get effed up." You know, they tell you that right out the gate, you know what I'm saying? You do what our officers tell you to do, you don't question them, and none of that. You know, and so, you know what you're getting into, or you know where you're going into, the moment that you arrive there. You know, they'll take you, they'll pull you to the side, outside the presence of other inmates or prisoners, and they surround you with four or five guards, you know what I'm saying? And they give you the threat speech, right out the gate. So, you already know what you're entering, the moment that you get there.

And so, that's what happened with me. When I first arrived there, I was 145 pounds, soaking wet. I had never been in trouble, so all this stuff was extremely new to me. But you know the history of Attica from watching, you know, the story about Attica, the riot. So, going there, you're already afraid. Then, when you get in there, you know, they lay a hammer down, let you know this is what it is, you know what I'm saying? So—

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tom, this history of Attica, that people all over the country might not know, what happened at another September 11th, between September 9th and 13th, 1971?

TOM ROBBINS: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I'm glad about this story is that it's familiarized a new generation with what was one of the most hideous incidents, I think, in American history, certainly in the last century—an inmate rebellion that took place amid a very restless, political summer in Attica, inmates who were trying to petition the governor at the time for better conditions. They wanted more than one shower a week. They wanted more than one roll of toilet paper a month. They wanted the right to get letters that were sent to them by family members that were written in some language other than English, because the guards were throwing them all away. They wanted better education programs. They were asking for just sort of basic human rights.

And tensions within the prison that summer around those issues, because the governor and his corrections commissioner, Russell Oswald, didn't respond, eventually spiked. And one small incident, as these things sometimes do, set off a riot on September 9th, that led eventually to—there's a nexus of the—Antonio could describe it—these four tunnels, as they call it, that crisscross in the middle of this huge institution. They call it Times Square. And inmates who were being brought back from breakfast that morning rioted, and they assaulted a guard who was in charge of the bubble, they call it, right there, controlling the gates, and assaulted him. He was fatally beaten. He died a couple days later. His name was William Quinn. He was the father of three little girls. They then rampaged throughout the rest of the prison, took it over, took some 40 hostages initially. Some were released because of their injuries. But the standoff with the state police went on for the next four days, until Governor Rockefeller decided to send in the troops. And—

AMY GOODMAN: They were negotiating, actually.

TOM ROBBINS: There was a long negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: And they were asking Governor Rockefeller to come.

TOM ROBBINS: Yes, that was the big demand, was we want Rockefeller to come here. One of the former hostages that I interviewed, a guy named Mike Smith, who still lives just a few miles away from Attica, who had been a guard there, a young first-year guard, talked about how he had been a hostage at the time. And there was a camera crew that was allowed into the yard on Sunday night, before the Monday retaking. And Mike Smith was put in front of the cameras, and he said, "Governor, you need to get your ass here now." Everyone could tell, apparently—I mean, if you read any of the accounts—Tom Wicker wrote a marvelous book called A Time to Die, that I commend to everyone. Everyone knew that this was going to end terribly unless someone intervened. And sure enough, there had been virtually no planning as to how to do it, we later learned. And—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the clip—


AMY GOODMAN: —of a film called Ghosts of Attica, that—a Lumiere production, which was made for Court TV. This is a story of the man you're talking about, known as "Big Black," Frank Smith. He has died since, a prisoner who played a prominent role in the rebellion, and Liz Fink, who served as the lead counsel for the former Attica prisoners.

ATTICA PRISONER 1: Well, just, you know, everywhere you looked around, all you're seeing was killing and shooting everything they came across.

FRANK "BIG BLACK" SMITH: People laying all over, and they're all bleeding and bloody and stuff. You know, so everybody know now that it's real, that this is it. You know, they're here now. They're in the yard now. They got control.

ELIZABETH FINK: State troopers just took their clubs and beat them down the stairs, broke people's legs, hit them on the tibia and broke tibias. On their back, on their head, in their genitals, on their front, you know, wherever they could hit them, that's where they beat them.

FRANK "BIG BLACK" SMITH: I'm telling you, my name is being called: "Where is Big Black? Where is Big Black? Get up, Black! Get up!" And he's busting me with a [N-word] stick, pickaxe, and got a .38 in his hand. And I gets up. And he—bam! In my side, in my back. And made me run with my hand on my head over to the side. And before I got over there, two, three more correction officers with him now, and everybody's hitting me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former Attica prisoner Frank "Big Black" Smith, not to be confused with Mike Smith, who was a guard. Tom Robbins and Antonio Yarbough, I want to thank you for being with us. Should Attica be closed?

TOM ROBBINS: I think there's such festering fear at that place, that it needs something very radical. Closure would certainly be a good response.


ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Yes, it should be closed, should be turned into a museum.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to do part two of this discussion after the show and post it at, and we're going to link to the major New York Times piece Tom Robbins has written. He works now with The Marshall Project.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:22:42 -0500
"I Thought I Saw Death": John Lewis Remembers Police Attack on Bloody Sunday in Selma 50 Years Ago

Thousands of people are expected to travel to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the protesters beaten on Bloody Sunday was Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, then a 25-year-old organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge," Lewis said. "My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Thousands of people are expected to travel to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery. The date was March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the protesters beaten on Bloody Sunday was Congressman John Lewis, then a 25-year-old organizer with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

JOHN LEWIS: I was beaten by state troopers, knocked to the ground. And I was in the hospital [inaudible] until about an hour ago.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2012, I had a chance to sit down with Congressmember John Lewis, now an esteemed member of Congress, who will lead a congressional delegation to Selma this weekend. I asked him to talk about that day in Selma, Bloody Sunday.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: On March 7, 1965, a group of us attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize to the nation that people wanted to register to vote. One young African-American man had been shot and killed a few days earlier, in an adjoining county called Perry County—this is in the Black Belt of Alabama—the home county of Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., the home county of Mrs. Ralph Abernathy, the home county of Mrs. Andrew Young. And because of what happened to him, we made a decision to march.

In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. The only place you could attempt to register was to go down to the courthouse. You had to pass a so-called literacy test. And they would tell people over and over again that they didn't or couldn't pass the literacy test. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. On another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jellybeans in a jar. There were African-American lawyers, doctors, teachers, housewives, college professors flunking this so-called literacy test. And we had to change that, so we sought to march.

And we got to the top of the bridge. We saw a sea of blue—Alabama state troopers—and we continued to walk. We came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, "I'm Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church." And one of the young people walking with me, leading the march, a man by the name of Hosea Williams, who was on the staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, "Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray." And the major said, "Troopers, advance!" And you saw these guys putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses.

I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church. But after I got back to the church, the church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside trying to get in to protest what had happened on the bridge. And someone asked me to say something to the audience. And I stood up and said something like: "I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote." The next thing I knew, I had been admitted to the local hospital in Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that moment where you decided to move forward, because I don't think the history we learn records those small acts that are actually gargantuan acts of bravery. Talk about—I mean, you saw the weapons the police arrayed against you. What propelled you forward, Congressmember Lewis?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, my mother, my father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, and people all around me had never registered to vote. I had been working all across the South. The state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000, and only about 16,000 were registered to vote. On that day, we didn't have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history, and we couldn't—we couldn't turn back. We had to go forward. We became like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. And I thought we would die. I first thought we would be arrested and go to jail, but I thought it was a real possibility that some of us would die on that bridge that day, after the confrontation occurred. I thought it was the last protest for me. But somehow and someway, you have to keep going. You go to a hospital, you go to a doctor's office, you get mended, and you get up and try it again.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was the next act you engaged in?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, we continued to organize, continued to try to get people registered. We went to federal court, testified, to get an injunction against Governor George Wallace and the Alabama state troopers. And the federal court said that we had a right to march from Selma to Montgomery. President Johnson spoke to the nation and condemned the violence in Selma, introduced the Voting Rights Act. And that night, he made one of the most meaningful speeches that any American president had made in modern times on the whole question of civil rights and voting rights. He condemned the violence over and over again, and near the end of the speech he said, "And we shall overcome. We shall overcome." We call it the "We Shall Overcome" speech.

I was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we listened to President Johnson. I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. He started crying. And we all cried a little when we heard the president saying, "We shall overcome." And Dr. King said, "We will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed." Two weeks later, more than 10,000 of us, people from all over America, started walking from Selma to Montgomery. And by the time we made it to Montgomery five days later, there were almost 30,000 black and white citizens—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, men, women, young people. It was like a holy march. And the Congress debated the act, passed it, and on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember John Lewis, remembering 50 years ago tomorrow. He was one of the leaders of the march, had his head bashed in by Alabama state troopers, among with scores of other people who were wounded. He will lead a pilgrimage to Selma tomorrow. Democracy Now! will be there and broadcast from Alabama on Monday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named for a Confederate general who escaped three times from capture. He was also grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, as well as a U.S. senator. The group Students Unite have launched a petition to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Chicago to speak with the challenger of the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Chuy García. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Again, we'll be broadcasting from Alabama on Monday, from Montgomery, Alabama, so tune in then. And a shout-out to the students who have come to visit us today from Democracy Prep High School in Harlem, New York. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:12:37 -0500
Union, Environmental Group Say Nuclear Workers Suffering From Toxic Exposure

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Photo via Shutterstock; Edited LW / TO))The Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Image: Hanford Nuclear Reservation via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Since March 2014, nearly 60 workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state have sought medical attention for on-the-job exposure to chemical vapors released by highly toxic waste stored at the site, some as recently as August. At a public meeting held Wednesday in Pasco, Washington, Hanford workers described symptoms that include chronic headaches, respiratory problems, nerve damage and bloody urine.

The meeting, hosted by the United Association (U.A.) of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598 and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based environmental watchdog group, was convened following the February 10 release by Department of Energy contractor Washington River Protection Services (WRPS) of a "corrective action implementation plan." This plan was developed in response to recommendations in a report from the Savannah River National Laboratory released in October 2014.

Commissioned in response to worker exposures at Hanford's tank farms, the Savannah River report found ongoing emissions of toxic chemical vapors from waste tanks, inadequate worker health and safety procedures and evidence that "strongly suggests a causal link between chemical vapor releases and subsequent health effects."

The underground storage tanks—known as "tank farms"—at the U.S. Department of Energy's (D.O.E.) 586-acre Hanford site contain more than 50 million gallons of concentrated radioactive and chemical waste left from processing nuclear materials, including uranium and plutonium, for the U.S. weapons programs between 1943 and 1987.

Located adjacent to the Columbia River, the underground tanks hold highly radioactive sludge, mixtures of radioactive materials, heavy metals (including mercury, chromium and cadmium), volatile organic compounds and other toxic chemicals (among them ammonia, beryllium, formaldehyde, hydrofluoric acid and N-nitrosodimethylamine). For years, work has been underway to transfer this waste from degrading single-walled tanks to sturdier double-shelled tanks and also to empty and close out these tanks. There is also ongoing venting through evaporators to reduce the volume of stored liquids.

Speaking in the union hall Wednesday evening, U.S. Local 598 business manager Pete Nicacio said, "We're here to make sure the contractor and D.O.E. do the right thing and follow up out there."

To that end, in November of last year Local 598, Hanford Challenge and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility filed a 90-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. D.O.E. and WRPS, which manages work at the Hanford tank farms for the D.O.E., over violations of the Federal Resources and Recovery Act that endanger workers' health.

"Workers are not being taken care of," said Nicacio. "Workers are having health issues and D.O.E. does not want to acknowledge those issues," he said. "We're here to make sure we do our part to ensure that they're going to take some action."

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a similar notice, also in November, seeking to protect Hanford workers from hazardous chemical exposures. "Hanford workers face a real and immediate health risk," said Ferguson on filing the notice. "I intend to hold the federal government accountable to their responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for Washingtonians," he said on February 10, responding to the release of the WRPS implementation plan.

Pipefitter Michael Cain, who has worked at Hanford since the 1980s and reports being exposed last year, described how tank farm work involves removing tank seals and lids and working on pipes that connect and vent the tanks. "I had no concern when I started working at the tank farms two years ago, until I started listening to older workers – guys who were working while being sick," said Cain's coworker John Wright.

"This is not a new issue," says Hanford Challenge executive director Tom Carpenter, pointing out that Hanford worker chemical and vapor exposure issues date back decades and have been documented in numerous reports. A 1992 DOE report outlined the problems identical to those described in the October 2014 report, describing the condition of the tank farm as "poor" and deteriorating, ongoing vapor exposure incidents dating back to 1957 and inadequate toxics monitoring and worker-protection systems. Insufficient industrial hygiene measures, lack of information about chemicals being released and inadequate communication about these hazards are among the problems cited.

At the February 18 meeting, numerous workers, including Ron Johnson, Jr., described how the choice of on-the-job respiratory protection has been left up to the workers. They reported having the option to use supplied air tanks while working at tank farms, but this, they said, supervisors discouraged because it could slow down the job.

"I have constant migraines," said 36-year old Johnson.

"There is not adequate industrial hygiene on site to determine when respiratory protection is needed," said United Steelworkers assistant director of health and safety, Jim Frederick whose union also represents Hanford workers. "It's like "whack-a-mole," he said. "They've been chasing this stuff around for 20, 30 years, throwing SCBAs [self-contained breathing apparatus] on people after the fact, when the exposures took place yesterday." The number of contractors and subcontractors at Hanford exacerbated these issues of oversight and enforcement, said Frederick.

Current and former workers who spoke at the meeting reported ongoing difficulty with medical diagnoses following exposure and with obtaining compensation for medical claims. "Your livelihood is in pieces," said John Swain, currently off work due to illness.

In addition to the legal notices filed by the Washington Attorney General, labor and watchdog groups, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) has been pressing the Department of Energy on this issue. Last week, she called on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to ensure adequate funding for Hanford Cleanup and worker protection programs.

The Department of Energy, which is ultimately responsible for Hanford workers' health and safety, said in a statement that it "remains committed to protecting workers, the public and the environment. Minimizing risks to workers, including chemical vapors in the tank farms, is something the department and its contractors strive for each day at Hanford." Further, said the D.O.E., the department "recognizes that reducing the potential for exposures to vapors will require sustained action, continuous improvement and institutionalization of lessons learned."

The just-released implementation plan "looks good on paper, but "we're gong to make sure they take some action," said Nicacio. "We're going to continue to put pressure on to make sure corrective action is done."

Both 90-day notices against the DOE were filed in November 2014. Those 90 days are now concluding, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:08:01 -0500